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Life on Matinicus Island

Life on Matinicus Island
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He seemed at a loss. It had all changed so fast. One day life was good: full, straight-ahead, uncomplicated. There was plenty of money, a close family, a lifetime of friendships, a job you were good at, the respect of almost everyone you knew. Things had been the same a long time. The next day, a day you couldn’t have seen coming, you back the wrong horse, play chicken with a couple of kids who aren’t 16 anymore, then pull a trigger in anger or fear. And now it’s all about “the old days” and “the way it used to be.”

“He had so much to lose,” an islander would say to me later. “He’s the last guy on the island I would have expected this from. But things were changing, and he couldn’t deal with that, I guess. I feel for him, I really do. But a bad hurt has happened. And he’s the one who brought the guns to the argument.”

Three summers ago, the summer before the shooting, the island got together and threw itself a high-school prom: men, women, and teens, many in 30-year-old tuxes or too-tight, floor-length dresses–one guy even in white tie–rocking out to “Boogie Fever” in the church basement under crepe paper and string lights, popping flashes, selling raffle tickets, drinking spiked punch from a bowl in a neighbor’s yard. You can watch it on YouTube: “Starry, Starry Night: Matinicus Prom 2008.”

Three months earlier, the island’s post office had burned down. It was the community’s heart; it had begun as a chandlery a hundred years before, and later was a general store. Every man and woman on the island showed up with an ax to clear a fire line, a shovel to dig trenches, or a box of sandwiches; old men too feeble to swing axes strapped packs on their backs and sprayed down nearby trees.

Then, in October of the same year, just two months after the prom, a young lobsterman, Chris Whitaker, went missing in the waters off Matinicus; only a boot, a lunch pail, and an oil can would ever be found. Every boat on the island, and Vance Bunker in his plane, worked the sea for days, while the island’s wives walked the shore in search of clues. (“He was no angel,” remembers Suzanne Rankin, who walked the western shore herself. “But he was one of us.”) The money raised from Prom Night would go to Whitaker’s family.

There are a thousand stories like this. Of fires, drownings, lost boats, sea rescues, church suppers, roof raisings, shared food, every neighborly act you could think of. But also of cut traps, knife fights, boat rammings, death threats, and ancient feuds.

They’re archetypes, all of them: Rugged Individualism, Frontier Justice, The Good Old Days. Just about any Matinicus story you read (and there have been dozens, especially since the shooting) is going to have you believe that it’s either a rogue outpost of inbred, gun-happy cowboys–”Pirate Island” is a common reference–or a quaint little throwback to some simpler time. “There’s a war going on in coastal Maine, where renegade crustacean gangs are forcing people to grope for their guns,” was how one national magazine painted the scene, ludicrously, late last year. And its antithesis: “An out-of-the-way summer idyll … a world apart from bustling Bar Harbor,” was a typical depiction several years ago.

There’s no war going on, and no one I met is “groping for their guns.” But other than that, there’s at least some truth to most of it. Matinicus is a remote, largely forgotten island community of defiantly independent souls. “We’ve got no use for police out here; we’re just fine policing ourselves,” one local told me. “A man drives too fast, we tell him to slow down. He don’t slow down, he wakes up one morning, looks out his window, and sees he’s got four flat tires. He drives slower after that.”

This isn’t a place that could exist on the mainland–or, probably, even 10 miles closer to it. Its remoteness accounts for much of what it is: its history, its preciousness, its peril. Probably also its future, whatever that may be.

“You have to want to be here, really want it,” Nat Hussey said to me early in my first visit. “You have to shovel the snow, sit on the school board, go to meetings, do the work–you have to share the load. There [on the mainland], when you want your car fixed, you go to the garage. Here you do it yourself, or you get a neighbor to help you. I’m forever getting helped, by this person or that. But you need to find ways to help back. If you can’t do that, or you won’t, then there’s no place for you. That’s the way we’re built here. And I’m a guy who wants to be here.”

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