In early October, the Second Maine Militia opened its meeting with the traditional shooting of the televisions. The 50 or so "members" (there are no rolls and no one pays dues) chatted quietly as the blasts rang out. A small cannon was fired into the woods, parting the trees and shaking the windows of the house nearby.
But no real televisions were harmed. The sets were just cardboard boxes painted with inane smiley faces and decorated with slogans like "Feel good!" "Proud to be USA!" "Safe in the homeland!" The aluminum-foil antennas, however, did collapse miserably from the real gunfire.
The purpose of the annual meeting, the same as it has been since the militia started in 1995, was to bring together the politics of left and right over speeches, food, live music, and, of course, live ammo. The attendees were a wildly diverse group: young activists and anarchists in black, old beat-up Maine woodsmen with beards to their bellies, retired white-haired college professors, Second Amendment zealots, conservatives, libertarians, Marxists. But they all shared the belief that the U.S. government has lost its moral authority, that both political parties had "degenerated," as one attendee put it, "into whores for wealth and arbiters of empire."
"From the beginning, we were the No-Wing Militia," said Michael Chute, 54, who served as range officer for the slaughter of the televisions. "We ain't right wing, we ain't left wing. We're trying to get the folks to see the problem ain't left versus right, it's up versus down." He uses a tool analogy. "A Republican is a standard screw," said Chute. "A Democrat is a Philips screws. So whichever way you vote you get the screw."
Michael Chute, the host of the event, which took place on the 17 acres of his property in North Parsonsfield, happens to be married to one of the better known writers of the last 20 years, Carolyn Chute, 62, author of five novels. Her first book, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, sold 350,000 copies and made her a darling of the literary establishment in the 1980s. The critics compared her to Faulkner and Steinbeck, because what she wrote about so well and so convincingly was the back-broken underclass in Maine, the people who work, like Carolyn once did, in shoe factories or scrubbing hospital floors or picking potatoes. Her characters watch helplessly, like Carolyn did, as children die from lack of healthcare. Indeed, Carolyn and Michael Chute lost a baby in 1982 after the local hospital refused to treat the complications from her pregnancy.
The couple live in a drafty unfinished house with no hot water. "I haven't had a hot water heater since 1970," she says. It also has no septic system (they use an outhouse, even in the bitter Maine winters) and has only a wood stove for heat. It goes without saying there is no television, and certainly not a computer. Chute writes her books on jangled old typewriters. Her husband sometimes hunts moose for their protein.
A best-selling author, broke and eating moose? They ran short on money years ago when Michael, due to illness, had to quit his job as the caretaker of the local cemetery. Carolyn had shared the cash from her book sales and big advances to help her daughter, mother, and several friends. After the books no longer sold, what they had left, mostly, were the family and the friends.
When the gunfire subsided at the October meeting, chili and cold beer and whiskey came out and someone offered the guests a tall can of marijuana cookies. For entertainment, Michael twanged his Jew's harp, the instrument disappearing in his foot-long beard, as a young couple strummed a song called "F--- You." The scene could have come from Carolyn's latest book, The School on Heart's Content Road, which features (among other things) a militia movement that brings conservatives and hippies together (and polygamists, secessionists, farmers, home-schoolers, intellectuals, vegans her vision is generously inclusive).
Earlier in the festivities, a few people had made speeches. One of the presenters, a retired professor of economics from Duke University named Thomas Naylor, 73, who heads up a secessionist movement in Vermont, suggested that Maine secede from the union. I asked Naylor, who doesn't own or particularly like guns, what he thought of the Second Maine Militia. "It's a variation on the Swiss shooting club, with social and political overlays," he explained. "It's a fairly benign way of confronting one's powerlessness."
Naylor's secession call an appeal for local control went over well. "F--- America," said Will Neils, 32, a Green Party activist from Lincolnville, Me. "What have they done for us lately? Bush f---ed us, Clinton f---ed us. Let's cut the United States loose and let it drift downstream." Maine should stand up for Mainers, said Neils. In his view, the common enemy uniting Mainers, especially in the impoverished communities Neils grew up in, is government "run by and for the rich and on the backs of the poor." "I live beside conservatives," said Neils, "and there's no reason I can't find intense political ground with them. When we get together, we talk about community, how to take care of our people, feed our people. There's no place in that community for the likes of J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs."
Michael Chute kindled a fire as night fell and the party was ending, and I sat down with his wife, who wore big boots and a blue bandanna that tied back long kinky hair. "We should secede," she said, almost to herself. Over her jungle-camo jacket she strung a bandolier that held what looked like the 7.62 mm rounds for her AK-47, the rifle she calls "my baby" because "it kicks just a little bit and has a deep sound." But there was nothing deadly about her ammo: the shell casings were affixed with pencil points. "The point being," the novelist explained, "that we should make our pencils our bullets."