It was a night just like this. Only it was later in the year. And somewhat warmer. And I think I was wearing a goatee then, not all smooth-shaven like now.
All across Androscoggin County, men and women were rattled from late-night television or from their beds. Little kids came out of their rooms, rubbing their eyes and blinking into the adult portion of night.
What was it, mommy? What was that boom like thunder and the blaze of light that came with it?
No idea, Jimmy. Go back to bed and forget about the strange movie you caught me watching on the television. It was all just a dream.
Only it wasn’t. Hundreds — nay, many hundreds — called police to report something loud, bright and unexplained in the skies over their homes. They called the newspapers. They called their friends. Did you see it? Did you see that massive thing blazing through the sky on wings made of light?
The story was big. An almost painfully handsome Sun Journal reporter wrote the first story on it with a headline that went something like “Unexplained lights, sounds over Maine” or possibly “Reporter bound to overreact to reports of UFO!”
Everybody heard, saw and felt the clamor. Little old ladies in bed since 6 p.m. suddenly jerked awake and fumbled for their glasses. Lovers ended their long embrace, drunks roused from stupors, crack addicts paused in mid-toke to cock an ear to the sky.
A mystery was afoot and it was witnessed by all.
All, that is, except the night-beat reporter who is paid to roam the streets and to notice things. I saw nothing, felt nothing, heard nothing. And yet, there it was, the crackling of the police scanner as dispatchers tried to keep up with the volume of calls. The newspaper switchboard lighting up with calls from people eager to share what they had experienced or to ask that one question over and over. What was it? Does anybody know?
Nobody (almost nobody) knew a thing. Police were dumbfounded. Weather officials shrugged and mumbled about cumulus clouds. The airports had nothing to share and the military denied everything. Jets? What jets? All of our jets are in the shop. I’ve said too much already.
And so, the front page headline on August something of 2001 declared this: “Poland taxes on the rise.”
But an even bigger headline on the other side of the page screamed the more exciting news. Or, if it didn’t quite scream, it at least spoke in an outdoor voice. “Officials stumped by report of rumbling!”
Theories were kicked about like tin cans on the sidewalk. Maybe it was fireworks. Maybe it was a meteor. Maybe, just maybe, God really was bowling. But since nobody could offer proof of any of these ideas, my conclusion was simple: All signs pointed to alien invasion. And frankly, it was about time.
I wasn’t the only one. Around Lewiston and Auburn, small groups of people would gather in fields after dark to await the return of Mork and his fellow Orkians. I went out with them a few times. We’d all stand around in the dark, twitchy and goggle-eyed, getting excited over anything that moved above us, including fireflies.
“There it is!” somebody would invariably scream, before discovering that the object in question was the glowing end of his cigarette.
ET never came, but strange lights were seen moving across the sky, prompting another news story. My suspicions were bolstered when a strange and sallow woman came to see me in the newsroom. She claimed she was an aide to a very important scientist who was studying sky phenomenon. The scientist was from some European country — one that ends in “ania,” I recall — and she was eager to learn more about what had occurred.
“You vill tell me what you know, yes?” said the gaunt woman.
I had to tell her that I, personally, had not seen or heard anything. It wasn’t a proud moment.
“You!” she spat. “Stupid American!”
And she disappeared into the subway tunnel. Which is really strange because we don’t have subways here.
Over the next few years, I got a lot of interesting calls. Every contact was of the cloak-and-dagger variety.
“You don’t need to know my name” a scratchy voice would say, speaking through a cheesecloth, or whatever those paranoid types do. “I have information. About your … situation?”
Hold the phone, Mr. Cheesecloth. How did this become my situation?
But in his oblique way, he was right. If you’re the reporter who broke the news about some grand mystery (for instance, a fanged creature is found by the roadside in Turner, like THAT would ever happen) you become, in an unspoken way, the custodian of that story. It becomes your duty to produce the answers. If you don’t provide those answers in a reasonable span of time, you’re a dim-witted, stinky monkey of a reporter. The pressure is enormous. This is why so many of us drink the way we do.
Unable to provide proof that extraterrestrials were responsible for the panic, all I could muster were a few theories gleaned from the cheesecloth crowd. I had nothing tangible to offer. I became like that tabloid guy — Jack McGee, was it? — who goes around telling everyone he sees that quiet, unassuming David Banner sometimes turns into Lou Ferrigno. When I’d walk by, people would make swirly motions around their temples and go “Cuckoo! Cuckoo!”
Of course, they were doing those things long before the UFOs came, but no matter! It ends now. Sweet vindication is at hand.
Her name is Lillian J. LeBlanc and she used to own, with her husband, Twin Cities Air Service. Mrs. LeBlanc has since moved to Florida; how convenient. In Florida, one can stay warm while waiting for the mothership — and she has written a book. It’s called “The Flight Level Chronicles,” and it’s a collection of short stories about her experiences as an air charter pilot in Maine. Flip to page 90 and behold Exhibit A.
“Our local newspaper once carried a story titled “Mystery Lights,” written by its night beat columnist. The story told of an eerie light, traversing back and forth across the night sky over Central Maine. Apparently, the light became a source of kinship for previously unacquainted local folks who gathered in a field to watch and wait for what might come … The columnist stated that a check with the U.S. military indicated no activity; he could only speculate that it might be alien visitors coming to this little corner of the northeastern United States.
“I remember reading the story and smiling,” LeBlanc wrote, openly taunting me. “I remember thinking, ‘I should call.’ But I never did. I never let on that I knew the source of the mystery light. It is not the headlights of a spaceship manned by little green beings. It is, in fact, a 400-watt spotlight, affixed to the belly of our King Air, manned by Roger and me. The spotlight is installed on the days that we fly missions for a military vendor, testing the armament of the latest, soon-to-be-launched destroyer.”
The book is filled with fun stories such as this one. You should go out and buy it, right after you buy all five of my novels.
But does this mean the mystery is solved? Or is it just another red herring designed to keep us from the truth?
I can’t tell you what to believe, my friend, but remember this: Nobody believed Jack McGee, either, and look what happened. Lou Ferrigno turned green and ripped his pants. Do you want that on your conscience?
Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. You can question his sanity at firstname.lastname@example.org.