by Ken Rager
Back in the days when I was a young boy, growing up in that little town in southern Kentucky, I was what some of you may call a "menace". But shoot, I thought I was just having fun.
I can remember one time in particular when me and my
best friend Billy Joe nearly burnt down the entire town square.
Town square was a little parcel of ground right smack in the middle of the downtown area.
Actually, it weren't really square, it was more shaped
like a egg. I never could figure out why they called it a square, but then
again I really didn't give it a whole lot of thought.
There was a street making a circle around the square, and all the streets coming into downtown joined with this circle, so all the cars had to go around the square.
Now on the other side of the street, stores lined side
by side, all facing towards the square, more or less.
Above each store was a living quarters for the stores owners. I figured it was because they wanted to keep an eye on their stores, cause momma said it wasn't cause they was poor, what with the prices they charged.
In the square was a iron statue of a man. Somebody
once told me it was the mighty General Lee. I knew the man was indeed great,
because his name was even sewed onto a patch on the back of my Sunday going
to church blue jeans. I always figured he was some kind of army man, but
I guess he could have invented blue jeans, I don't know.
Anyway, I never gave that a whole lot of thought either.
Now also in that square was an old cannon. The cannon was pointing directly at the mighty General. I never could figure out why they did that neither, unless it was maybe to discourage anyone from stealing the general. Kinda like the scarecrow in old man Shoulders' corn field.
There was also a pretty fountain that squirted water up in the air. The fountain was inside a wading pool that once had a bunch of goldfish in it. But somebody poured some Tide washing powders in the pool. They never did figure out who done that, and I'm sorta glad about that.
And lastly, there was the oldest oak tree in town directly behind the old general.
You see back in the mid 60's something mysterious happened and somehow all the paint got burnt off of the statue of General Lee, and directly caused the old oak tree to die a slow death.
Everybody in the whole town thought lightning struck
the statue. But really me and Billy Joe did it.
Billy Joe had the best plan I had ever heard of.
One day Billy Joe had stole some lighter fluid from his old man's smoking supplies. He had the brilliant idea that we could wrap toilet paper around the statue, soak it down with the lighter fluid and set it on fire. Then we was gonna run over behind the dime store and watch as the whole town come running out, thinking the devil had done set foot in the square. We were gonna laugh so hard!
But as it is usually the case, things didn't go as
we had planned.
We got the toilet paper wrapped around ole General Lee, and that was no easy feat in itself. You see, the statue was about 10 feet tall, and sitting up on a concrete pedestal about another 5 feet high. I almost fell 2 times climbing to the top of the General, and once deputy Smith drove by shining his flashlight. That nearly scared me so bad I almost fell off backwards. Lucky for us though that old deputy Smith was blind as a bat. We could see him squinching his eyes and trying to adjust his glasses that was as thick as the bottom of a Dr Pepper bottle. Pretty soon he just turned off his flashlight and drove on over to the police station.
Me and Billy Joe went back to our job. Billy Joe wrapped the paper around general Lee's feet and legs, and I covered his top part. He looked like a mummy when we got done with him.
Well, since Billy Joe took the risk of stealing the
lighter fluid, he reserved the right to apply it.
And apply it is what he did. He soaked the old general down good! I thought the toilet paper was gonna melt right into the metal.
When he got done, he took the can, which was pretty well soaked with lighter fluid all over it, and threw it into the old cannon that was in the square.
Then something caught Billy Joe's eye when he threw the can into the mouth of the old cannon.
It was dark so he lit a match from the box that he
also stole from his old man.
I ran over there to see what he was looking at. We looked down into the cannon and saw what appeared to be a whole bunch of cherry bombs.
Then Billy Joe remembered last fourth of July when he had "acquired" a whole box of cherry bombs from a fireworks stand.
When the man at the fireworks stand saw Billy Joe run away, he chased him. Billy Joe ditched the box of cherry bombs in the old cannon figuring he would come back later to claim them. But he guessed that he forgot about them.
As we stared into the deep tunnel with the flickering
match for light, we thought of a million possibilities for the cherry bombs.
Then Billy Joe let out a scream. If he wasn't so much bigger and braver than me, I would have told him it sounded like a girl's scream.
The match had burnt down to Billy Joe's fingers. He threw the match over his shoulder and it flew into the toilet paper wrapped around the general.
The general suddenly exploded with fire! The whole town square lit up. Me and Billy Joe looked at each other, then we ran with all our might to our hiding place behind the dime store.
Lights started popping on in all the windows and people
come running out in the streets to see what was going on.
The old General Lee was now blazing real good, and flames were about 20 feet above the good old general. Deputy Smith came running out of the police station, carrying a rifle and screaming that he was the police and everybody else should freeze. Everybody paid no attention to him, they just ran back and forth screaming something about calling out the volunteer fire department.
Old man Genry, the owner of the pawn shop screamed it was the communist that was attacking us. I didn't know who the communists was, unless it was the ones that made my daddy's corn crop do so bad a couple years back, at least that's who he blamed it on. Cept daddy blamed that on one communist in particular, named Dam.
Other people started screaming for God to help em and
some men brought out their shotguns.
But old deputy Smith exercised his authority (whatever that is), and told everyone to settle down, that there had to be a reasonable explanation.
In the meantime the old general had started to burn down a little, as the toilet paper was about to be gone.
Then something amazing happened. A small gust of wind came by and blew a piece of the paper off the general. The paper was still burning as it fell down and went directly into the mouth of the cannon.
Now deputy Smith had just about settled everyone down when me and Billy Joe, who was still hiding behind the dime store, noticed that there was a strange glow coming from the cannon.
All of a sudden there was this big explosion. All them
cherry bombs must've went off at the same time, cause it sounded like a
stick of dynamite.
There was a brilliant flash of light and a fireball came flying out of the cannon and directly hit the old general. It made a loud clanking noise and kinda was deflected up into the air. I knew right away that it was the lighter fluid can, burning up as it was shot from the cannon.
Everyone screamed and fell to the ground.
Somebody hollered that it was the communists attacking.
Somebody else said it was world war three.
A lady said it was Armageddon, I think it was the preacher's
wife, but I couldn't tell cause she had on a night gown, with sponges in
her hair and some kind of cream all over her face, but it sounded like
I aint sure who Armageddon is, but at the time I figured he was one of them communists, maybe Dam's older brother.
The fireball caught the wind and came back down on the old oak tree. It got stuck in the top of the tree and set the tree on fire.
The men jumped up and started shooting their shotguns in the direction of the tree. The women folk stayed on the ground screaming and praying for God to save em.
Finally they shot up their shells and everyone got quite. There was burning toilet paper falling everywhere around them, blowed off the general by the cannon.
Somebody said it was nuclear fallout and we was all gonna die a terrible death.
Then I heard a siren as the firetruck pulled up. The
old oak tree was blazing pretty good by now.
After a few minutes of the firetruck spraying water on everything from the tree to the cannon, the fire was out and it was mighty dark.
There was steam and smoke everywhere, and the general looked like he had just stepped out of a forest fire. People were standing around in their pajamas and night gowns, covered with soot and black smoke.
Somebody said it must have been one of them nuclear bombs, or maybe a new secret weapon that the communists was working on.
Then a state trooper pulled up with his blue light
flashing. He pulled deputy Smith over away from everybody else cause he
wanted to interview him. I couldn't hear what they was saying, but that
interview must have been really painful, cause old deputy Smith was flapping
his arms, pointing this way then that way.
Afterwards, the state trooper had one of them interviews with each person there, and they started flapping their arms just like deputy Smith did. Im sure glad we was hid, cause Id rather not have to go through such a ordeal as that interview.
Finally the state trooper told everybody to go to bed,
that there would be an official investigation in the morning.
Everybody did just that, and me and Billy Joe went back home too.
I don't know about Billy Joe, but I didn't sleep a
wink. Come dawn, I got up and ran down to the square. I didn't know what
a official investigation was, but I was still kinda scared that they might
find out what really happened.
I guess Billy Joe had the same idea, cause I met him at the square.
Well the state trooper and deputy Smith was walking around holding clipboards, pointing here and there, talking amongst each other, sometimes writing stuff on the clipboard.
The owner of the hardware store, Mr. Wright, came out and walked with them. We kinda tagged along behind, acting like we didn't know what was going on. They acted like they never noticed us.
There was quite a bit of damage. Everything was covered
in a black soot. The statue had lost all of its paint, as so did the end
of the cannon.
The tree was almost chopped in two by the shotgun shots, and the top of it was completely burned out.
Mr. Wright said he had a theory. Mr. Wright was always using big words like that. Daddy always said that Mr. Wright was a smart alec caused he went to one of them big colleges for a year and a half. Everyone in town considered him to be some kind of scientist. Mr. Wright never disagreed with that notion.
Anyway, Mr. Wright said that lightning must have struck the statue, bouncing off it and hitting the cannon and the old oak tree. When he was asked about the falling fires (which we knew was the burning toilet paper), he said it was simply that stuff called saint Elmo's fire. I still to this day don't know who saint Elmo is, or why he would want to throw fire around.
The police seemed to buy that idea and I guess the case was closed.
In a couple of days they had the mess cleaned up.
The town newspaper said it was a freak thunder storm, and that all the people acted bravely and should be commemorated. Especially deputy Smith, who acted with the courage of a fine police officer. (He was later made sheriff, mainly because the sheriff then didn't show up at the square that night, but he was known to drink a little, so we figured he was too plastered.)
The story covered the whole front page of the paper
and even Mr. Wright wrote a big article about how lightning acts and even
drew a sketch of the lightning hitting the statue, bouncing off and hitting
the cannon and the tree.
No one mentioned the fact that there wasn't a cloud in the sky that night.
We had 3 extended prayer meetings that week at the Baptist church, and 5 people who witnessed the fire got saved. The preacher said it was a divine act of God, then spent a whole hour preaching about them evil communists.
A year later the old tree died out completely and had to be cut down. There was a big ceremony for that.
The General got a new coat of paint a year after that
and the cannon was refurbished by the local boy scouts.
It was real good for shooting off fireworks after that, but that's a different story.
All in all, it was a pretty good night for me and Billy Joe. No one ever found out it was really us, and not lightning or communists attacking.
Looks to me like they would've run them communists
out of the county, if they are so afraid of them causing trouble.
But Billy Joe always said that thinking like that was the reason I would never amount to a whole lot.
(This story is fiction. Names are not to be associated
with anyone real, living or dead.)
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