It was late at night when the flames roared up and within minutes, they lit up Lewiston’s downtown.

A massive apartment house was on fire and everywhere you looked were half-dressed people with blackened faces and wide, frightened eyes. They wandered through the mayhem wrapped in blankets, searching frantically for sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers who had been asleep in their beds just moments ago.

Firefighters came from all over and they valiantly battled the flames from all sides. Police were everywhere, too, trying to keep the crowds back and making lists of who was alive and well, and who was among the missing.

It was chaos in downtown Lewiston. Our photographers shot from the street in the heat of the flames and from rooftops of nearby buildings. Back at the paper, editors gathered like battlefield generals, planning their headlines and front-page designs. Would it be ‘ALL TENANTS ACCOUNTED FOR’ or ‘SEVERAL STILL MISSING AFTER DOWNTOWN BLAZE’?

Pressmen awaited their orders, the usual print deadlines blown to smithereens by the late-breaking drama.

Within an hour or so, the newsroom would begin to smell like smoke as reporters and photographers swept in from the streets to write their stories and process their photos. Editors hovered like gulls, waiting for pictures to be developed and for the adrenaline-pumped reporter to write his final lines.

And then, finally, the newspaper’s front page could be assembled. When it was done, an editor would nod to a press operator and a short time later, the press would begin to rumble, a giant, humble beast cranking out news to inform the town folk of the day’s events.

What I remember most about those nights is the aftermath. I would stand there, reeking of smoke, shirt untucked and hair askew, watching the press chugging out our news. It was quitting time for some of us, but we’d hang around the newsroom anyway, waiting for that first edition to come rolling out. When it did, the newspaper would still be warm from the belts and cogs and rollers that had birthed it into being.

“Great lead art,” someone would remark. “The flames really jump off the page.”

“We’ve got to update the headline with the latest numbers, though.”

And so everyone would get back to work, including the mighty, uncomplaining press, which would continue to thump and chug and rumble into the morning. I often wondered if somewhere deep inside all those pulleys and wheels and gizmos, the press got as excited as the rest of us about big news.

On those nights of really big news, you waited around for the paper to come sliding off the press, and to hell with dinner or whatever you’d had planned that night. Typically, though, a newsman who wanted to see the results of his labor had to wait until morning and fetch the paper off his stoop like the rest of the world. Did they keep my suggested headline? Did that controversial quote make it through the gauntlet of editors? Did they run my story as the lead on the front page or did it get knocked down to the wasteland below the fold of the paper?

The day Lloyd Franklin Millett went on his crazy killing spree, I stayed awake all night so I could wait for the paperboy. But the paperboy didn’t come soon enough, so I walked to a corner store where I found a crowd of people gathered around the stack of freshly arrived newspapers where they read and discussed the atrocities out loud.

In those days, waiting was part of the fun. There were no instant headlines delivered right into your hand through Twitter or Facebook or fancy news alert apps. If you wanted the whole story, you waited for morning and you got that story through ink that would stain your hands and paper you could later use to house-train your dog.

Like most news people, I’ve always been crazy about the newspaper in physical form. The weight of it, the smell of it, the sexy, unabashed look of it when you’ve got it spread open to the jump page across the coffee table.

Which is why I am delighted when I hear from people who still prefer the newspaper to the online experience. They are mostly older folks, I’ll grant you, and their numbers are dropping by the day. Yet they’re still out there, paying for home delivery or grabbing the paper from those bright yellow street boxes. Breaking news alerts? They don’t need no stinking news alerts. They’ll wait until morning and read the news at the breakfast table, reading from cover to cover before settling in with the Jumble.

But those days are coming to an end, you just know it. Sooner or later, some fun-sucking heathen is going to decide that print newspapers aren’t cost-effective anymore and like that, they’ll be gone. When that happens, I think I’ll avoid the newsroom for a while, and I especially won’t go into the back of the building at all.

I just don’t want to ever find out what it sounds like when a faithful, long-serving printing press gets to weeping.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer who knows the texture of news. Email him at [email protected]

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