By Andrew Sharp
Without that fire, I never would have won that award for my arson coverage.
I would still be stuck in Wootensburg, Ohio, covering city council meetings about which street to pave next, and fire company parades with Little Miss Fire Queen and other mind-numbing junk.
It was a beauty. I couldn’t have asked for better. I just happened to be driving by on my way to press-release editing duty (I hate to think about it even now). There on Center Street, just before the turn onto East Vine, a townhouse had turned into a torch, the roof crumbling down in and a vast orange fireball rushing upward past it, eating it as it fell. It wasn’t much of a house, but the people standing on the lawn were screaming and crying like it was some huge loss.
As my shutter clicked over and over, I couldn’t help thinking how perfect it was. The grief. The energy of the fire. The fire company actually doing something besides a parade.
The editor had never let me cover any real news, not that there was much in a railroad town of 15,000 people in the rolling farm country in the foothills of the Appalachians. She was making me earn my stripes. Well, this should speed up that process, I thought.
She was very impressed with the photos. So was the town, judging by the fact there were no papers on the racks by 10 a.m. the next morning. Our website hits exploded. The Midwest Rural Newspaper Association was also impressed, and awarded me top prize in the “Best Breaking News Coverage” category at the annual banquet.
“I just did my best in the circumstances I found myself in,” I wrote in my new column the next day. “I’m honored, but also humbled as I think of the pain of this family who lost two children in a fire. That is nothing to celebrate. It’s the dilemma of newspapers — our service to the community is telling the bad news along with the good, the tragic with the heartwarming. We only want to do our best in all cases.”
Not a bad tone to strike. People ate it up. I threw myself into the coverage of the investigation into the arson, and people started to talk about my work. I managed to hit just the right homespun wisdom tone with my weekly column. I had a real knack for crime coverage, I discovered. I have to admit that much of it was luck, being in the right place at the right time, but when I got there I made the most of it. Fires, vandalism, a terrible wreck at a light that had stopped working. They all made it onto my resume and that helped me get out of that little dead-end, stuck-in-the-Great-Depression village.
Indianapolis isn’t the top of the ladder. Oh, no. Even this place is sort of a cow town. This isn’t my last stop. With a little luck, I’ll be moving on soon.
They never did catch that arsonist.