Mark LaFlamme goes undercover in 2006 as Santa’s helper at the Auburn Mall. Amber Waterman/Sun Journal file

When a dashing young lad such as myself lands a reporter gig, as I did in 1994, there are certain visions that dance in his head. 

I’m going to change the world, he tells himself over his fourth mug of beer at the Blue Goose Tavern. I’m going to expose the black heart of corruption and drag it out into the light for all to see. I’m going to explore the criminal mind and enlighten my readers on the very nature of evil. I’m going to do real journalism, by God!” 

So, you can see why it’s a tad invalidating when that very same reporter finds himself dressed up as an elf at the mall, standing next to Santa while some snotty kid repeatedly punches him in the ribs. 

Somewhere around 2004, I volunteered to write for the Sun Journal’s B Section, the section of the Sunday paper devoted to hard-hitting journalism like recipes, horoscopes, crossword puzzles and quirky feature stories. I’m not really sure why I did it, considering that I’d never liked writing feature stories very much. Maybe I’d been to the Blue Goose Tavern that day, it’s all very hazy. 

Since the B Section steers away from hard news and generally offers fanciful stories instead, for one day a week I found myself about a billion miles away from the police beat where I’d grown roots. 

Dark heart of corruption? The very nature of evil? Nah, brah. When I went to work for the B Section, my editors had other things in mind for me. Here at last was their chance to punish me for all the misbehaving I’d done from my relatively safe perch on the police beat. 


Mind you, this is only a partial list.

Wearing bright orange Crocs in downtown Lewiston 

As far as I recall, this was one of the very first assignments I got bashed over the head with on the B Section. Crocs were all the rage, so my editors must have thought: Let’s get the loudest, ugliest pair we can find and send what’s-his-name on a stroll downtown so we can see how the public reacts. 

I’ll tell you how the public reacted. The public was mean. Vicious, even. I don’t think I had taken 10 steps down Park Street when the public descended on me like flies diving in on a dead possum. I swear, it was like they were WAITING for me. 

“Are you seriously wearing Crocs out here?” demanded a man hanging out at the corner of Pine and Park. “Bro, you’re going to get creamed.” 

“Ewwwww!” offered a pair of giggling young girls near Kennedy Park. 


Every step I took was a step into shame and humiliation. People honked as they drove by and made vivid suggestions about what I could do with those bright orange Crocs. Dogs growled at me and cats hissed. Crocs hadn’t yet become mainstream and the very sight of them upon my feet seemed to offend nature itself. 

I was insulted. Demeaned. Borderline threatened over my choice in audacious footwear. 

And you know what? I kind of dug it. Kind of dug the Crocs, too. In fact, I kept that pair for another 10 years and wore them until they basically rotted upon my feet. 

When I went out for that walk, Crocs were just some vague fad that weird people were talking about in other places. Shortly after I wrote my story about my Croc experience, the versatile shoes became ubiquitous. EVERYBODY was wearing Crocs, it seems like. They became the most popular shoes on the planet for a while. 

So, when you get right down to it, I’m kind of a trendsetter. 

A lady makeover at a local salon 


This one I didn’t dig so much. When a sadistic editor asked me if I’d be willing to go to a salon to get the works, I misheard and thought they were sending me to a saloon. I was picturing giant mugs of beer, rowdy card games and gunfights involving people in cowboy hats who entered the joint through swinging doors. 

Plus the bathhouses upstairs, you know. 

Instead, I found myself in a chair at some salon in Auburn where the staff plucked my eyebrows, waxed one of my legs, tried to manicure my hideous fingernails and slathered makeup all over my face. 

You talk about a jarring afternoon for a police beat reporter. One minute, I’m laying back on a salon chair with cucumber slices over my eyes (I still think this was probably a practical joke. How can you eat a cucumber slice when it’s sitting on your face?) and then next, I’m letting Sun Journal photographer Amber Waterman shave my other leg so we could see how it compared to waxing. 

The whole thing took hours and every second of it felt like a fraternity hazing. Or possibly a sorority hazing, I dunno. 

I sure did look pretty at the end of it, though. 


Dressed up as Uncle Sam on tax day 

This one didn’t sound so bad when it was presented to me. I mean, Uncle Sam is a beloved figure, right? Who could possibly have a problem with the very face of America’s fighting spirit? 

What the editors didn’t tell me, as they sent me over to talk to folks outside the Post Office, is that on tax day, people are in very bad moods and any representation of the government that’s currently robbing them is not going to be greeted fondly. 

I wasn’t greeted fondly. When the postal worker eventually shooed me away from the property, I was nothing but grateful. And moments later, a fire was reported off Webster Street in Lewiston and so I had to go bounding off in my red, white and blue costume to cover it. 

I left the hat behind, though. I didn’t want to look WEIRD out there, you know. 

Wear a Snuggie to a high school football game 


You know how they say that kids can be cruel? Yeah, well they don’t tell you about the parents. 

When I wore that leopard print Snuggie to a Lewiston High School football game, it was more or less a clinic in abuse. Teenage girls visibly cringed at my approach. Members of the ROTC shouted insults and nobody, but nobody wanted to sit next to me on the bleachers — I could see them out of the corners of my eyes, scooting away on their seats in fear that mere proximity to my hideous leisure accessory might mark their names forever. 

Even local politicians, who normally suck up to reporters just in case they’re being quoted, dumped heaps of scorn on me. It was brutal. The hate for the Snuggie was on full display. 

Which made it all that much more ironic when, a day later, a couple dozen people wrote me privately to ask if I was giving the Snuggie away. Everybody wanted that thing.  

Pity I burned it in the backyard. 

Take a jolt from a police taser 


Actually, the editors didn’t ask me to do this. The police themselves basically coerced me into taking their volts by questioning my manhood. It was essentially a double dog dare and who among us can refuse one of those? 

Getting zapped with a taser sucked as much as anything I’ve ever experienced, but it only sucked for five seconds and then it was over. Five seconds of paralyzed pain and then I was free to brag about the experience anywhere I could. 

My greatest fear when I agreed to ride the lightning was that I’d squeal like a child and wet myself during the jolt. I didn’t make a sound, though, and my pants stayed dry, so I considered it a victory. 

Wouldn’t do it again, though. Not voluntarily, anyway. 

A New Year’s Day dive into the ocean

I’ve always considered this one of the dumbest things I ever agreed to. Yes, I know that thousands of people take so-called polar dips every year, but those people are stark raving mad so that doesn’t count. I really only assented to this one because I was promised the rest of the day off after it was over. 


The worst thing about jumping into the ocean in freezing temperatures? The long ride home. I swear that though this happened nearly 20 years ago, there are parts of me that haven’t completely thawed out yet. 

Serving as Santa’s helper at the mall 

I really hated this one. HATED it. For one thing, the elf suit procured for me was way too small so that I ended up looking like a dandelion stem with funny shoes and big, pointy ears.  

Santa was a surly cuss who seemed to have an innate hatred for elves. The kids abused me all day, kicking my shins, flicking my ears and stomping on my curly-toed shoes.  

My only consolation after that wretched assignment was that none of those kids got good stuff for Christmas because I crossed all their names off Santa’s list. 

So take that, rug rats. 


Serving as a ghoul on a haunted hayride 

This assignment could have been great. The problem? I completely choked at it. When it was time to jump out of the woods and scare wagonloads of people, I completely forgot my lines. I knew I was supposed to scream something and be generally scary, but I ended up just some weirdo in a mask stammering incoherently and, at one point, tripping over my own cape.  

I couldn’t scare even the most timid youngster on that ride. I think a few of them actually felt sorry for me. 

My shame is great. 

Shoe shopping is hell 

First the editors made me go shopping for women’s shoes with a B Section colleague and then they demanded that I dress up as a Roman centurion for cover art to accompany my story about the experience. 


Dressing up as a Roman soldier wasn’t so bad because I got a fearsome plastic sword and sandals that laced all the way up to my knees. But shopping for shoes? I swear we were in the stores for six weeks and the experience made me go blind in one eye and probably shaved five years off my life. It was rough, bro. So many stores. So many shoes… 

And the winner is…

If you were to ask me (nobody ever does) what my biggest regret is, B Section-wise, my answer might surprise you.

Elf ears? The Snuggie? Crocs? Naw. My biggest B Section regret is that some years ago, I gave my DNA to 23andMe so I could get a breakdown of my lineage and write about it.

Handing over DNA to some faceless corporation was a very 2011 thing for me to do. These days? You couldn’t pay me enough to give up that spittle. But now that corporation has my DNA and there’s no putting that bullet back in the gun. I’m convinced that by now 23andMe has used my spit to create a clone of me and that clone is probably in an alternate universe being made to do even dumber, more shameful stuff than that listed above.

The horror.

The horror.

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