TOPSHAM – I am “from away.” Even worse, I am from Massachusetts. I am mindful of my status, and I am always careful not to claim too much about residence. I know that I can never overtake a birthright Mainer.

So what to do? Be slow to offer an opinion; don’t spell it “chowdah,” and look to understand Maine and Mainers as well as one can — not to assume a new identity, but to benefit from the lives and stories of those from “here” who stiffen the backbone of a challenged state.

I came back to Maine five years ago, as a native New Englander, but directly from 17 years in Indiana and Wisconsin — the Heartland. Comparison sharpens understanding, and there is much to celebrate in the Midwest. But the way that Mainers attend to the death of one of their soldiers, and the connections between folks on such occasions, offer a real sense of what it means to be from “here.”

I would never argue that a soldier’s loss is not profound wherever it occurs. The costs to family and community are not lessened by geography. Death in the service of one’s country, even when the reasons for war are not well-understood, is a national calculation, assembled from sacrifices measured by family and friends.

In Maine, however, there is a remarkable connectivity that makes the state special. Those who live in Maine, from birth or by migration, are part of something that connects them to other Mainers. They belong to something special that defines us.

It is exemplified in one simple act. At the loss of a man or woman in combat or its support, the governor orders that flags across the state be flown at half-staff on the day of the funeral. This, of course, happens in other circumstances, and is not exclusive to Maine, but limiting the salute to a single day and signaling the loss as one for the entire state offers an occasion for everyone to ask “who?” and, however briefly, to share a Maine tragedy.

Last Friday, the flag was at half-staff for Cpl. Andrew Hutchins, a military policeman in the 101st Airborne. Only 20, he was killed in combat in eastern Afghanistan near Pakistan. Hutchins was the second serviceman from New Portland (population 764) and the second from Carrabec High School (enrollment 300) to die in Afghanistan. More than fair shares, I fear.

Some Mainers knew Hutchins. Most did not, but seeing a flag at half-staff, they surely asked “who?” and “from where?” With the help of the media, they could think through the “degrees of separation” and connect to family and friends and share in the loss. Hutchins was born in Farmington. His father graduated from high school in Blue Hill and now lives in Leeds. His mother lives in Waltham. Expecting their first child, his widow, Heather, is with her mother in Solon. Other relatives reside throughout Maine.

Maine is a large state, although surprisingly close. Its interior is heavily forested, narrowing the rest considerably, and smart folks from “away” do not casually use terms like “unpopulated,” ideas like “the real Maine,” or distinctions between south and north, east and west, and urban and rural. Maine’s media, however, are centered in the larger cities, especially Portland and Bangor, and local news and state news mingle, reinforcing a sense of belonging to a whole state.

This is extended by athletics, both in support for the same professional teams and competition between schools. Sure, high school football in Texas and Florida or basketball in Indiana are “big time,” but what one knows in Maine about the next opponent and its players — and their relatives — is noteworthy. The recently arrived are quick to understand the meaning of a Portland-Deering game, or a Lewiston-Edward Little rivalry. This is connectivity.

There is much more to distinguish Maine’s commitment to its military. The Maine Troop Greeters at the Bangor airport, greeting returning troops at any time of the day or night; the Freeport Flag Ladies; and Wreaths Across America, starting off from Worcester, Maine to honor those at rest in Arlington and other military cemeteries, are each one of a kind. Defining Gettysburg through the actions of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry is another. These individuals quickly add up in a small state and move us closer to a celebration of character.

Maine is a special place. Everyone, especially real estate agents and turnpike officials, tells us so. For those of us from away, life here merits close attention, and a full salute. That is the best path to finding where and how we might belong.

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