Street Talk: OJ Simpson and the memory hole

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Late afternoon, June 17, 1994. I was just three months into my spanking new journalism career when I walked into the newsroom to an unsettling sight.

All of the editors, typically splayed out at manageable distances around the newsroom, were standing in one spot in the middle of the room. Managing editors, copy editors, daytime editors and evening editors, all jammed into one small space beneath the newsroom’s one and only television, which hung from a wall like an Orwellian eye.

All of the reporters were there, too. The police reporter shifting nervously from one foot to the other. The courts guy, the schools guy, the lady who covered city hall. Every single member of the SJ team, it seemed, had been drawn to that TV like obedient minions to a charismatic king.

To me, a lowly freelancer and as green as they come, the scene in the newsroom was far more interesting than anything happening on the Los Angeles freeways. For those first few troubling moments, I feared I had walked in on the Sun Journal leadership’s version of the Bohemian Grove.

I crept to them quietly, lest I violate some sacrosanct rule of the pagan ritual.

“What’s happening?” I whispered to the education reporter.

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“They’re chasing OJ.”

“What, here in Lewiston?”

What I can I tell you? I didn’t have cable at home.

There was a long span of absolute quiet as the entire Sun Journal team gawped at the TV, absorbed by one of the biggest news stories in decades as it unfolded 3,000 miles away.

Silence. And then the weird, organized chaos of a news team snapping into action.

“What do we have coming over the wire?”

“What about local reaction? Should we do a man on the street?”

“Someone should check in with the local cop shops.”

“What’s coming from sports?”

Editors scrambled one way, reporters the other. Keyboards started clacking, phones were yanked off their cradles. Across the newsroom, the buzz of reporting had begun again as OJ’s sad little Bronco wove its way up California’s State Route 91.

I think they sent me off to cover a spelling bee that day, but still — the sight of that galvanized news team gathered around the TV is one of the most vivid memories from my earliest days in journalism.

It’s a snapshot of a different time; a souvenir, if you will, of that age before the internet came along and changed everything.

It’s a beautiful thing, that memory. I cherish it.

The only problem is that it may not be real.

Waxing nostalgic about the OJ chase recently, I started asking some of the newspaper old-timers about the day a white Bronco on the West Coast caused time to stand still.

“To be honest,” said one former SJ editor, long since retired, “I remember next to nothing about the chase.”

“Nope,” said another. “None of that rings a bell.”

“Maybe I was on vacation that day,” offered a third.

“Who the hell are you?” hissed a fourth. “I’ve never worked at a newspaper in my life. Get off my porch.”

Seriously, bros? I felt like Dorothy, desperately trying to explain to everyone in the room the roles they had played on her sordid trip to Oz.

You were over there, cop reporter, with a battered notebook dangling from your back pocket. You stood right there, education beat guy, drumming your fingers together like a mad scientist. And you, executive editor, stood towering over everyone with your arms crossed, no doubt mulling how the crazy events in California might sell papers back here in Lewiston-Auburn.

I can still hear the buzz of the newscasters’ voices on the TV and the inexorable, throbbing hum of the fax machine delivering less pressing news.

I remember it all. Nobody else remembers a thing. Either the memory simply means more to me or it is a completely false memory to begin with: a mental image that started as a tiny pebble in 1994 and grew into a giant monument of fiction to be unveiled in 2018.

It freaks me out a little bit, if you want to know the truth. If such a grand memory can be so easily knocked down by a few simple inquiries, what other cherished recollections of mine might prove to be likewise flawed?

Was the 1998 ice storm really the 24-hour-a-day news event I recall, or was it just another weather nuisance that we barely covered?

What about the mad news scramble in the days following 9/11? What about the all-hands-on-deck coverage of the anti-immigration rally in 2003?

I suppose next somebody will tell me that the 2009 extraterrestrial invasion in Kennedy Park never happened, either.

Boy, I was heroic that day. In my memory, it’s one hell of a story.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. If you remember the time he sent those ant-sized aliens packing, email him at mlaflamme@sunjournal.com. 

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