The other day, stud photographer Russ Dillingham and I went racing off, separately, to a reported building collapse in Auburn. 

Mark LaFlamme

“Building collapse!” went the advisory. “People trapped! The humanity!” 

Russ took one route to the action, I took another, creeping through commuter-hour traffic and swearing under my breath every inch of the way. 

Russ, who has been working this beat since around the time Moses parted the Red Sea (plus I think he cheats somehow), got to the scene first. 

“Nothing much to see,” he related. “Couple firefighters on the roof. No ambulances, so I doubt there’s anybody hurt. AFD clearing.” 

I came limping to the scene moments later and found pretty much the same. Nothing to see here, man, move it along, wouldya? 

The area was getting rocked by a thunderstorm at the time and I was on my motorcycle. I was back at home, about to get out of my sopping wet duds when another call came in. 

“Structure fire on Main Street in Lewiston!” went this one. “Chapter 11 is ablaze!” 

Off we went, wheeling toward Main Street through the creeping, crawling traffic that always seems to move a little slower when news goes hot. 

A lot slower, really. 

I was almost to the scene, breathless and all out of swear words, when the firefighters radioed to dispatch that there was no fire. Some smoke, sure, but it had nothing to do with Chapter 11. Wasn’t much of anything, when you got right down to it. All the firefighters were cleared except for a few who were left behind to sniff out the source of the smoke. 

Nothing to see here, in other words. Move along, wouldya? 

I was back at home, about to get out of my sopping wet duds — mushrooms were flourishing in my socks by that point — when a call came in. 

“House on fire in Auburn!” according to this one. “Man desperately trying to battle the flames with a pressure washer!” 

You know the drill. Off I dashed into the rainy afternoon, already composing what would surely be a Pulitzer winning story in my head about a man valiantly trying to war with the ancient power of fire using only equipment commonly found at Harbor Freight for about $400. 

It would be riveting. It would put on grand display the grim determination of one man standing up to the oldest force in the world. It would be powerful. Inspiring. 

And short. The story would be really, really short. 

“Fire is out,” reported a firefighter, before I’d even gotten out of my driveway. “We’re mopping up.” 

Don’t get me wrong, angry letter writer. When things like fires turn out to be not much at all, I’m happy about it. If no buildings burned for the rest of my life, I’d be as thrilled as anyone. 

It’s just that there are days where it’s one close call after another and if you happen to be a newsman, sort of, that means racing from one end of town to the other in frantic fits and starts. 

The adrenaline spikes are unreal. One moment it looks like the tallest peaks of the Himalayas all up in your adrenal system (wherever THAT is) and the next, your back down below emotional sea level again, sopping wet with nothing to show for it but mildew in your shorts. 

There are days when we do nothing but run from one potential disaster to the next, all day long from morning to night, and yet at the end of the day, our notebooks are bare and the newspaper looks skimpy. 

“Geesh,” some fool will relate as he thumbs through the paper the following morning (there are still people who do that, you know). “What’d you do, nap all day? Couldn’t find anything to write about, Johnny Layabout? Why, back in my day a reporter would pound the pavement until he had seven stories filed. Uphill, both ways!” 

On the day of that storm and into the night, it was one not-so-big thing after another crackling over the scanner — and that’s despite the fact that we can no longer hear police chatter. Car wrecks that sounded horrific during the initial reports but which turned out to be dented fenders and busted mirrors. Reported infernos that were actually burned pots of macaroni and cheese on the stove. An attack of extraterrestrial warships that turned out to be swamp gas. 

I may be taking liberties with that last one, but you get the idea. Some days on the news beat are all sizzle and no steak. Lime and salt but no tequila. All hat and no cattle. 

But then you have days when all the news is the real thing. The fires really get going and people are burned out of their homes — or worse. The car crashes are monstrously bad and victims have to be hauled out of the wreckage and rushed off to hospitals. Buildings collapse, people fall into rivers, bullets fly and it seems like whatever can go wrong out there on the beat is going wrong with abandon. 

On those days, you WISH you were back on the false alarms and grossly exaggerated reports. 

So when those days happen — when you run around like a fool for nothing while ‘shrooms grow in your foundation garments — you’ll grouse and complain about it, but in the end, you’ll consider it free adrenaline at no real cost. No blood shed, no bones broken, no burned ruins. 

It’s swell. And once you get used to it, those mushrooms feel kind of nice. 

But I fear I’ve said too much. 


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