I’ve taken hundreds of photographs over the years. Many have been shared by people on Facebook and the internet, and one even found its way into the National Enquirer. You heard correctly, the National Enquirer, the same colorful tabloid with the eye-popping headlines you can’t help but notice while you’re waiting in the supermarket checkout line. It’s true.
The story behind the story prompting the celebrated picture took place in downtown Wiscasset 34 years ago on Jan. 16, 1987, a Friday afternoon. It was one of those bone-chilling days, the sky overcast with the threat of snow in the air. I was in my office on Water Street; I owned and published the Wiscasset Times, which was a weekly newspaper. I was just about to head down the street for a sandwich at the Tree House Tavern when a report of a car accident came across the police scanner. The dispatcher at the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office said it involved a single car behind Pendleton’s Village Market on Middle Street.
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have bothered, but it had been a pretty slow news week. I pulled on my heavy peacoat and grabbed my Nikon camera off the desk. I had just loaded it with a roll of film because later I had a basketball game to shoot at Wiscasset High School. It was a short walk up the alley behind the bank, Depositor’s Trust, to the parking area where Pendleton’s received its milk and grocery deliveries. I couldn’t believe my eyes because across the street was a car sitting vertically, on its front end leaning against a telephone pole. Unbelievable!
The late J. Gordon Merry, Wiscasset’s fire chief, was standing in the street staring up at the car with a radio in his hand. A street sign alongside the car said, “Two Hour Parking.” Before he moved away, I snapped his picture and several others of the car. Fortunately, the driver, an older gentleman from Alna, wasn’t seriously hurt although naturally was a bit shaken from the ordeal. He told police his wife had been driving, parked the car and gotten out to go shopping leaving the motor running. Instead of getting out of the car, the man said he’d tried to climb over the console and into the driver’s seat. His foot hit the accelerator by mistake and somehow he threw the gearshift into reverse. The car took off like a rocket, careening backwards down the street. It finally jumped the curbing, got caught on a guide wire that snapped, hauling it up the pole alongside the Marston House. After regaining his composure, the poor fellow who, by the way, was in his late 80s climbed down out of the car escaping with just a bump on his head.
The story of course was front-page news in the newspaper’s next edition. The headline was, “Car climbs utility pole.” The lead sentence read, “The term parallel parking took on a new meaning in Wiscasset, but the method employed Friday afternoon that left a car balanced on its front end against a telephone pole isn’t recommended.” One of my better leads if I say so myself.
The car by the way was a silver, 1983 Honda Accord hatchback. The caption under the picture read “CRASH LANDING?” because it really looked like it had fallen out of the sky. Chief Merry was quoted, too. “It isn’t something you see every day, that’s for sure,” he said.
About a month after that, a man called saying he was an editor of the National Enquirer. I thought it was a practical joke, but he convinced me he was legitimate and that he wanted to run the picture of Chief Merry looking up at the car. I remember after they reprinted it, I got letters from people as far away as Florida who had seen the picture. In April, the picture was reprinted again, this time in SonntagsBlick, a German newspaper. Why on Earth they wanted it I don’t know, but I mailed it to them and they sent me a copy of their newspaper.
Just one more thing, there were a lot of other newspapers covering the area back then but as luck would have it, I was the only reporter at the accident scene that afternoon. This was long before there was any digital photography, Instagram or anything like that; so, it was almost a week before it appeared in the newspaper. Times have sure changed.
Phil Di Vece earned a B.A. in journalism studies from Colorado State University and an M.A. in journalism at the University of South Florida. He is the author of three Wiscasset books and is a frequent news contributor to Wiscasset Newspaper and Boothbay Register. He resides in Wiscasset. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org