Investigating the Cunningham Fire: Part 1 of ??

Note: this is satire (or is it??)

On Saturday, September 21, in a campus-wide text message alert, Public Safety warned Swarthmore students of a fire raging on the grassy plain known as Cunningham Field. Pub Safe could not identify the source of the impending flames, and what appeared to be the remains of a student trapped in the fire turned out to be what remained of several rats who had burned to death after emerging from their lair to dance in the night.

The fire quickly spread from the Cunningham to the nearby parking lot, and the night’s gentle breeze blew ash onto cars in the nearby parking lot of the same name. While no cars were outright destroyed, several were marred with external damages. Thankfully, it seems that our leafy and barky friends remain intact — none of Swarthmore’s coveted Scott Arboretum trees were significantly harmed.

The fire was ruthless. Swarthmore students had not seen such a devastating blaze since the Great Fire consumed Parrish back in 1881. Or maybe since that other time that Parrish caught on fire, or since the Willets Basement Bread Fire last semester. It actually doesn’t really matter which fire’s devastation it resembled the most closely. The point is that there have been a lot of fires at Swarthmore, and all of them were bad, like this one.

I, for one, didn’t buy Pub Safe’s explanation of the fire as “uncertain.” I’ve seen enough college archives to know that the college has faced adversity from some dedicated arsonists in its time, and I decided that it was time for me, a lowly reporter who has written exactly one news article about the new housing portal, to investigate the heinous deed.

Naturally, I first decided to snoop around the frisbee team, the so-called cult of the intramural athletics world. I didn’t actually do any research before I dove headfirst into my investigation, but I do know that cults generally share an association with pyromaniacs, and that I’ve heard the frisbee team referenced as a cult more than a few times during my Swat career. Based on those two inklings, the team seemed a good fit for my first suspect. I also knew that they regularly practiced on Cunningham Field where the fire took place, and frankly, I didn’t trust them. No honest person could, in good faith, take such pride in throwing around a plastic disc for a few hours per week.

I wanted answers, and I wanted them now. I wanted candor, not poise, so I Cygnetted a few well-known members of the frisbee team, went to their rooms at 3:00 a.m. I knocked on their doors and asked them if it was true that the frisbee team is a cult.

Shelley McKinley ’21, a veteran Warmother on her second year with the team, squinted at me as I stood outside of her single in Worth and asked her the vital question.

“What? No!” she exclaimed, clearly upset that I had disturbed her slumber. She then slammed the door in my face. Honestly, I won’t hold it against her. I kinda get it.

I then walked to Wharton to ask Akash Patel ’20, a fourth-year Earthworm, the same question. Similarly, no luck. Instead of valuable information, all I received was frustration and confusion.

“Who are you? Wait, aren’t you the one who’s always posting those Willets memes? Did you walk all the way over here from the other side of campus just to ask me this?”

Evidently, my ambush-interview tactic wasn’t getting anywhere. It turns out that when you wake up complete strangers at ungodly hours and ask them random questions, they aren’t willing to share their secrets. They just get mad at you. And for what? For trying to produce some honest investigative journalism? I had spent a whole fifteen minutes trying to find some evidence to incorporate into my absolutely necessary and important news piece, and I already felt like giving up. I’ve always heard that producing hard-hitting investigative journalism is a thankless job, but I never internalized the sentiment until it happened to me.

As I walked back to my dorm with my head down, I saw a rat scurry across Magill Walk back to Willets Basement, and suddenly, my fight returned to me. After all, without journalistic investigations that must have oftentimes seemed thankless, how would we know about the Panama Papers? Or the level of surveillance that the NSA has on this country? Or that Big Chair isn’t actually big, but just close? I couldn’t give up yet.

Over the course of the next couple of days, I hounded the frisbee team for information. In fact, if a couple of them give me restraining orders within the next few weeks, I won’t be surprised. I wanted to learn all I could, but everywhere I went, people looked at me funny and gave me answers that belittled my serious line of work.

Still, my resolve miraculously stayed with me. The more frisbee team members asked me if I was being serious and doubted my sincerity, the more I became convinced that this skepticism wasn’t the simple skepticism of people who thought my investigation was a silly waste of time. It was the skepticism of people who had something to hide, and something big at that.

And I wouldn’t rest until the mystery of the now-infamous Cunningham Fire was solved.


Anatole Shukla '22 is a senior from Fort Wayne, IN. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of The Phoenix.

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