As a newspaper reporter, sort of, I frequently get asked: What was your more thrilling moment? I answer the question in great detail, giving a moment-by-moment account of that exciting time. At which point, the person who asked the question gets red in the face and starts to look very uncomfortable.
Oh, you meant my most thrilling moment on the job. That's a different answer entirely.
It's an awkward moment, but we get through it.
The fact is, I don't have an easy answer. There was the time bullets ripped over the top of my car while I was driving down Lincoln Street to investigate — duh! — a report of shots being fired.
There was the time the 7-foot cop came into my bedroom and repeatedly kicked my bed while demanding to know what I had heard about a double murder in Lewiston. But was that thrilling? Or just annoying?
I twice accidentally parked my new wife in the line of fire at police standoffs. I once drove my car right through the center of a crime scene. There have been fires and explosions, threats and confessions, UFOs and a mutant creature at the side of the road.
Exciting stuff. But the most exciting? No clue.
Although ... my mind always goes back to a wet, wintry night on Park Street.
I had just returned from a raging fire that had destroyed a home on Summer Street in Auburn. I was soaked, having stood in the rain for an hour and also having fallen (or having been pushed, depending on whether you believe photographer Amber Waterman's story) into a slushy stream at the side of the road. Miserable night. Thankfully, it was almost over.
I stepped out of my car in front of the newspaper. I took one step toward the door and then it happened: a series of loud reports that to me sounded like someone beating a stop sign with an aluminum bat.
BAM, BAM! BAM, BAM, BAM!
I peered through the rain toward Kennedy Park. Nothing was moving there. Then a tinny voice was screaming over the police scanner attached to my belt.
"Shots fired! Shots fired in the compound!"
It's funny what happens to the body at moments like that. The part of my brain responsible for deductions was stroking its chin and taking its sweet time in putting the facts together.
Compound, you say. Are we talking chemical compound? Compound fractions? Funny word, compound. From the Latin, I think. If you repeat it more than two or three times it begins to sound like other words. Compton, for instance. Was there a shooting in Compton? Why on Earth would I care about that?
Fortunately, the part of my brain responsible for action wasn't waiting for its dimwitted counterpart to further mull the meaning of the word. My legs were moving and within seconds, I was at an all-out sprint toward the police station.
Ah, said my brain, right around the time I reached Simones' Hot Dog Stand. Police compound. Well-done, sir. Well-done, indeed.
When I reached the compound, I flung myself into it. A police lieutenant held out an arm to stop me before I could stumble into the fray in the middle of the yard.
The fray was ugly. There was a man in a puffy coat rolling around on the pavement, clutching his midsection and groaning. It didn't sound like a groan of pain, but one of bitter determination. He refused to believe that the game was over.
The game was over. Half a dozen cops approached him with guns drawn. One of them got out a set of handcuffs and secured the suspect. There was blood, but not a lot of it considering what had just gone down. The rain started to fall harder. In the distance, the wail of a siren was growing incrementally louder as the ambulance raced to the scene.
Meanwhile, the officers had become aware that there was a reporter among them. They can smell us, you know. Cops sniff out reporters the way dogs sniff out cats. I don't imagine we smell very nice.
I was about to get unceremoniously chucked out of the crime scene. But before that happened, someone came up behind me and tugged on my coat sleeve. I have no recollection of whether it was a man or a woman. Funny how you can remember the shape of a single spot of blood on the tar, but something like a person's gender is gone forever.
"There was a witness," he or she whispered to me. "He ran to the Social Club."
I abandoned the chaos of the police compound for the chaos of the hard-drinking Lisbon Street club. I found my witness just inside the door where he was telling his story to his glassy-eyed friends. When I whipped out my soggy notebook, the man turned his attention to me. He flung his hands in the air as he spoke. He stomped his feet. He poked me in the chest a few times. It didn't hurt because I was wearing a puffy coat.
What had happened was this: The suspect had gone to the police compound with a hammer and proceeded to go all Bob Villa on the cruisers. He hammered out windshields. He broke windows. When the officers came out to investigate, the man challenged them.
When you go to a police station looking for a fight, you just about always get one.
After rushing the cops with the hammer, the fellow was shot. BAM, BAM! BAM, BAM, BAM! He took a lot of slugs that night, but the man survived. Why? Because he was wearing a puffy coat.
Yeah; I don't get it, either.
So, the man with the hammer was shot, arrested, taken to the hospital. He went to court, served some time and went about his life. The officers involved in the shooting were cleared. It was worth half a dozen stories in the newspaper and that was that.
There have been countless things on the police beat that were far more exciting than that, and yet my mind always goes back to it. "Shots fired in the compound!"
I'm pretty sure there's a link between adrenaline and memory, and that night, my own adrenaline went from a flat line to a mountain-sized spike in roughly half a second. It sticks with me. I have a suspicion that it probably sticks with the cops who fired the shots, too, and the man who accepted them.
Next week, I'll tell you that other story of high thrills — the non-news one. It's a much better story and, eerily, also features a puffy coat.
Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. When he's not in a virtual phone booth changing into his puffy coat, he answers email at email@example.com.