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Rebuilding Iraq

Maine town feels tension of war

By Sarah Schweitzer, Globe Staff, 4/2/2003

    Rebuilding Iraq


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DAMARISCOTTA, Maine - It's a long way here from the die-ins and massive marches of urban centers. War is off-limits conversation, from the knickknack store to the community prayer service - insurance against neighbor-on-neighbor rifts in a small town. Yet protest on a modest scale has found its way to this coastal point, with demonstrators taking to the sidewalk of a two-lane bridge on recent Sundays to denounce the war. And now, so, too, has controversy - by way of an elected official and his sport utility vehicle.

Walter Hilton, 54, a selectman of 10 years, stands accused of reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon, his gray GMC Yukon, which law enforcement officials say he used to strike two war protesters demonstrating on the bridge spanning the Damariscotta River.

Hilton prefers the term "bumped." He says he did no bodily harm -- though protesters say otherwise -- and that he was merely trying to get away from demonstrators who surrounded his vehicle after he rolled down his window and shouted, "Go home and get a life!"

The incident is a rarity in a conflict that has mostly avoided the sort of vitriol between opinion camps that marked division over the Vietnam War. And the confrontation is perhaps unlikely in Damariscotta, population 2,300, a moderate-leaning town of affluent retirees, hospital workers, and onetime summer residents where controversy last sparked over whether to raze two historic buildings to make way for a new library.

But in small towns, rhetoric can easily turn into invective. There is little anonymity, no concealing a position staked. Protest the war, rally in support of the troops, and everyone knows the stance, remembers it, and feels free, by rules of familiarity, to take you down a peg if they disagree.

"It's a small town, and when you speak your mind, people are quicker to agree or disagree," said Courtney Baker, 29, a clerk at the Maine Coast Book Store cafe.

Her co-worker, Claire Iltis, 25, said customers who normally linger have fled the store when talk of war begins.

"If you have disagreements to begin with, these large events can inflame things," Iltis said.

Baker nodded and added, "Yup. That's why I keep my mouth shut."

At Brambles, the knickknack shop a few doors down, war talk has been muted, officially, with store employees silencing conversations about the subject.

"It just became too much," said store owner Lisa duHamel. "This shop is an escape for some people, and I noticed that people were being drawn into conversations they didn't want to be a part of. It seemed easier for us to be the ones to step in and say no more talk about war."

Of course, shushing discussions does not chase away thoughts about the war, which intrudes on life here -- not far from Bath Iron Works, maker of Navy destroyers -- as elsewhere.

At Candy's Kitchen, in the neighboring town of Newcastle, a sign expresses support for the troops, spurred by news that a clerk's soldier sister is headed to fight. Since war began, distress calls and attempted suicides have increased, according to Lieutenant Rand Maker of the Lincoln County sheriff's office, who cited "the added stress of what's going on in the world."

Yet, until Hilton's arrest a week ago, the bridge protests, fixtures since October, had been quiet affairs. So quiet, in fact, police hadn't seen a need to patrol them.

Hilton's arrest upended that approach. Selectmen took no official position on their colleague's arrest. However, the board strongly urged the police chief to use the town's antiloitering law, enacted to help disperse teens hanging around parking lots, as a way of containing demonstrations.

"We're not trying to cause any trouble," said Richard McLean, selectmen chairman. "It's a small town. We're all friends and neighbors here."

The board's directive didn't get very far. Police Chief Steven R. Drake declined to go along, saying such a move would violate the First Amendment.

As it turned out, the worrying has so far been for naught. Attendance at Sunday's protest was higher than usual, with about 100 antiwar demonstrators, along with about 25 pro-troops demonstrators. Both sides politely kept their distance, and no arrests were made.

Hilton stayed home. He will make a court appearance May 21 for the felony charge he faces, punishable by up to 5 years in prison. He plans to plead innocent.

"I am a Democrat. I didn't vote for George Bush. I'm not some kind of right-wing crazy guy," said Hilton, who works with developmentally disabled adults and noted his own ambivalence about the war before its start. "But my feeling is: Now you support whoever is president."

Antiwar demonstrators say Hilton went beyond expressing his views. "When you take 3,000 pounds of motor vehicle and put it in use against a human being, that has nothing to do with protest," said Jonathan Hull of Newcastle, whose wife organized the protest.

The two men struck by Hilton's SUV were not seriously injured, the sheriff's office said. Still, Hilton is the talk of town, even for those trying to avoid the vortex of war discussions.

"A selectman, no less!" Paula Hall said to a friend as they sipped a coffee at a cafe on Main Street.

Hall, who grew up in Florida and long summered here, said most everyone in Damariscotta knows their neighbors' political affiliations, making it easier to avoid topics likely to result in disagreement. But feelings about the war are not so easy to predict.

"You have to be careful what you say," she said.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 4/2/2003.
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