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Off the beaten path

Discussion in 'Writers' Workshop' started by J.C. Wolf, Apr 17, 2007.

  1. J.C. Wolf

    J.C. Wolf Member

    Just a short distance away from Valley Forge and home to a good deal of both Civil and Revolutionary War happenings, the town of Phoenixville possesses a rich history, athletic and otherwise. When a man began firing a cannon at the high school’s home football games this season, it piqued my interest. This off-the-beaten-path story explains how a particular piece of artillery connects the town’s present to its past, and just in time for homecoming. As always, constructive criticism is greatly appreciated.

    * * *

    PHOENIXVILLE - It was crafted over 150 years ago with intentions of victory, for the purpose of firing into a crowded battlefield.

    But by the grace of time this device has transformed from a machine for decimating into a means of celebrating. While the winning intention remains, the purpose has changed, morphing into a way to fire up a crowd at a football field.

    "There's not too many places where you can get 'em," said Don Roy, who with his 2-foot-long Civil War-era miniature cannon has been helping fans have a blast at Phoenixville High home games this season. "This one's been in the family for many years."

    An academic affiliation has found the veteran cannoneer behind the Phantoms' far end zone on Fridays this fall, where today's homecoming game with Lansdale Catholic will effectuate the return, of sorts, of a faux Phoenixville relic. Roy vows to break out his "big gun" for the occasion - a working replica of the 5-foot war machines forged right here in Phoenixville in the mid-1800s for the Union Army - the very same weapon that's been fired to celebrate West Chester University touchdowns for years.

    "At West Chester I make it louder, add more gunpowder," Roy said, after flame thundered from the barrel of his smaller artillery. "This is a local hometown, man."

    Phoenixville High athletic director Ray Jenkins, a West Chester alumnus, fondly remembers the heavy ordnance from his days as a Golden Ram, and hoped to duplicate the experience at the high school level.

    "Dr. Sturzebecker was the gentleman who shot the cannon down in West Chester," Jenkins said, mentioning that the longtime professor had recently passed away.

    Dr. Russell L. Sturzebecker, a West Chester alumnus, author, World War II veteran and the namesake for the university's health science center, was, according to his obituary, also a great collector of military memorabilia. Among his most prized acquisitions was a replica Civil War cannon - affectionately nicknamed the "Sturtz Cannon" - that he and his friends, at home games, would fire after each Rams' score.

    The duplicate 1861 John Griffen 6-pounder is a cousin of the much larger "Griffen Gun," also called the 3-inch Ordnance Rifle. It was the world's first cannon rolled from wrought iron, and was exclusively produced during the American Civil War by the internationally renowned Phoenix Iron Works.

    Extremely durable and resistant to bursting, the "Griffen Guns" were a staple of the Union Army and are largely credited for helping turn back the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg, where many of them remain. They are clearly distinguished from other artillery pieces by the inscription "PIC" found stamped on the muzzles - which stands for the defunct Phoenix Iron Company.

    Sturzebecker, 89, is also no longer with us. He passed away, fatefully, on the homecoming of his beloved West Chester University. Today marks the one-year anniversary of his funeral, and the "Sturtz Cannon" will ring out at a quasi-homecoming of its own.

    After the late colonel's death, the gun was passed down to Roy, a friend who had been helping fire it for nearly a decade. Roy continues the tradition at West Chester University, and is available this afternoon only because the Rams are on the road.

    "I was able to get in touch with him through mutual friends," Jenkins said, "and he was able to come down. He brought (the little cannon) up here the one day and we did some practice shots. It was pretty cool."

    There's no projectile actually being "shot," however, just some wadded newspaper that burns up pretty quickly. The cannon fires at the pull of a cord, which forces a small hammer to strike a percussion cap, sparking the gunpowder.

    In the small cannon, Roy uses about an ounce of gunpowder per shot, which he stores in a pop-up tent nearby to keep dry. To get any good sound out of the larger cannon, Roy said, he pours in at least half a pound.

    And just like at West Chester, he'll fire only when the home team scores.

    "I'm not wasting my gunpowder on the opposing team," Roy said. "And Phoenixville does have a good team. When these guys get the ball - they go down the field.

    "You always have to pay attention to the game."

    Well ... there is one other time that he'll pull the trigger.

    "I fire it off for the last second of the game," he said, "because you can't carry a loaded weapon."


    On the Net:

    Phoenixville Historical Society: www.phoenixvillehistoricalsociety.org

    Gettysburg National Military Park: www.nps.gov/gett/

    Civil War Artillery Page: www.cwartillery.org/artillery.html



    Sturzebecker, Russell L.; The Roarin' 20's: A History of the 312th Bombardment Group. R.L. Sturzebecker, 1986. ISBN: 0960046615.
  2. I liked it.

    Few small things:

    1) Is it a sports piece? It might be better suited for a Life/Weekend section.
    2) Overall I like your use of language, but there might be a couple places where you were guilty of a bit of overwriting. This line, in particular, caught my attention:

    3) I admit it… “helping fans have a blast” made me laugh out loud.
    4) I would have pulled the “how does the canon work” stuff out and put it in a sidebar. Doing so may have allowed you to explain the workings of the canon with a bit more detail than you did in the story.
    5) Just to reiterate, I liked it. It’s cliché, but true. Stories are everywhere. A lot of reporters fail to find them, but, I suspect, you do. Good on ya…
  3. J.C. Wolf

    J.C. Wolf Member

    Thanks for the kind words, NoTalent!

    A sports editor at one of my former papers also mentioned the "academic affiliation" line as maybe being a bit too much.

    And just to share some fun background ... through my reporting of this story I actually got to fire the cannon. It was awesome! I kept the percussion cap. How many of you have ever gotten to fire a freakin' cannon!?! :D 8) ;)
  4. Money007

    Money007 Guest

    Great story idea JC. These things always catch my eye because gamers and player profiles are all over the place.
    Agreed with NoTalent. That whole "academic affiliation" graph tripped me up.

    Also, you say you got to fire the cannon. I might have tried to fit what it feels like/sounds like to be next to it when it goes off (That's what she said). Otherwise, great piece.

    Again - that's what she said.
  5. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

  6. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    JC -

    Thanks for posting.

    First thing I want you to do is Google "football cannon accident." Does it change at all your thinking about this piece?

    I think this is a sound idea for a story, but it wanders. Is it about the cannon? The old geezer who found it? The men who shoot it now? You have to narrow the focus a little and decide what's really at the heart of a feature like this.

    I've written in the workshop about the necessity of a central theme. For a piece like this it might be "honoring tradition"; or "plowshares out of swords (or cannon)". Without a deeper idea, it's just a thumbnail sketch with too many characters about the mechanical workings of an obsolete weapon.

    The overwriting referred to earlier isn't a big deal, but it's apparent. Don't reach for words like "eventuate."

    As an architectural matter, go back and reread the piece, and rethink how you might want to end it. Right now the piece doesn't end - it just stops. Try to think of some graceful way, in a sentence or two, to pull together the various thoughts that lead the reader to the finish. As a suggestion, a more natural place to end the piece is "I'm not wasting gunpowder on the opposing team." Or the 'blast' pun from the top. I'd prefer, though, at least as an exercise, that you go back and try to figure out what the central theme of the piece should really be. Having done that, it will lead you unavoidably to a stronger ending.

    As always, thanks for sharing your work with us.
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