“My wife’s the perfect woman,” Bill Darling bragged. “Already has kids and she’s fixed.”
Bill was reminiscing about the first time he met his in-laws. I forced a smile and realized no customers had stopped into Gulf of Maine Gunsmithing, his business here in Raymond, for the past two hours. It was just us. And a shitload of firepower. Bill was standing in front of a gun rack stocked with AR-15s, double-barreled shotguns, and rolls of toilet paper with Barack Obama’s face printed on the sheets.
Earlier, Bill’s wife Kathy had filled me in on her reproductive history. “I had two kids when I was in my early twenties and said, ‘That’s it, no more.’ But then I met Bill.” Kathy asked her doctor to “untie” her “tubes” so she and her new husband could have children, but the doctor refused.
“I’m diabetic, so it’s dangerous,” Kathy told me. “We decided to just get the dog, instead.” Kathy pointed at the half-blind Chihuahua prancing atop a glass display case loaded with handguns.
“That’s what happens with kids that age,” Bill added, referring to his wife and the father of her children. “They’re young, dumb and full of cum.”
Kathy handed Bill a McDonald’s cheeseburger and unwrapped her own. Bill wasn’t excited — he wondered aloud what “chemicals” it might contain — but he ate the burger anyway. The two tossed the wrappers into a box containing DVDs. I peered inside and spied a cover: The NeverEnding Story.
This was my first visit to the gun shop, back in mid June. I’d broken the ice with Bill by telling him I was “buying a handgun for my Texan girlfriend’s birthday.” He was excited about that.
“You can fit these right in your pocket if you want to carry ’em on your person,” Bill said, slipping a Smith & Wesson 9 mm into his cargo pants. “This here is good, too,” he continued, showing me another handgun, this one with a laser-pointer sight. “Tell her to aim it at the head, not the chest. It’s more intimidating. Most people don’t know that.”
Bill knows a lot about intimidation. Gulf of Maine Gunsmithing is on Route 302, also known as Roosevelt Trail, a heavily travelled road that links the Portland area to Maine’s Lakes Region. The business is notorious for its roadside sign. Using moveable black letters — and, occasionally, red letters and numbers — Bill spells out short screeds like, “ARE THE DEMARATS TAKING BRIBES FROM THE DRUG CARTELS FOR OPEN BORDERS?”
“SEND ALL LIBTARDS TO VENEZUELA FOR SOCIALISM ABC BERNIE STYLE,” read a recent one. “188 MILLION MURDERED BY SOCIALISTS,” another began, followed by the punchline: “IT IS FOR THE CHILDREN.”
The most common targets of Bill’s signage ire are the “demarats” and “libtards.” “Osama” Obama and Hillary “Hildabeast” Clinton have also been name-dropped a lot over the years. During the 2016 election, Darling got national attention for a message that read, “BEWARE THE BEAST, HILDABEAST CLINTON, AND ITS VAGENDA OF MANOCIDE.” “Vagenda of manocide” briefly trended on Twitter, and a website with that URL turned up to raise money for Clinton’s campaign.
In person, Darling’s an affable guy, so despite his politics and arsenal I felt comfortable showing him an article published last year by Rolling Stone, headlined: “Meet Nathan Bernard: The Man Trolling The Alt-Right On Twitter.”
Bill chuckled when I followed up by asking about the sign. “I keep each post up for a week, but if I hear it pisses people off, then I keep it up for a month,” he said. I asked why he was using the sign to provoke people instead of attracting customers of all political persuasions. Bill said he does it because it’s his “right” to do so, and if people don’t like it, they can “shove it.”
Darling doesn’t own a computer or a cell phone — “they steal your time and money,” he said. He has no access to the Internet, so he uses the sign the way others use Facebook or Twitter to troll political adversaries. “I get my info from these right here,” he said, showing me a tall stack of past issues of National Review and Washington Examiner. “Cable sometimes, too, when we had it.”
One Raymond resident, 31-year-old Davey Getchell, told me he’s been reading Darling’s messages his whole life. “His signs are filled with hate and vitriol, but it’s also so extreme that it can be kind of funny,” Davey said. “You just imagine an old man spitting out the lines and paint a picture in your mind of who he is. The people I know in town figure he’s trying to play for a reaction.”
I asked Bill if he’d ever been “silenced” for his rhetoric, and he delivered a tirade about multiple attempts to censor his sign and shut down his business. When I tried to verify his claims online, I found a post on an obscure right-wing blog called Urban Infidel. According to the blog’s author, Bill used to have two signs: the current one and a self-standing sign (the type sometimes called a “spider sign”) on the ground beside the road. Town officials in Raymond banned spider signs several years ago, ostensibly because they pose a “safety hazard.” The blogger doesn’t buy that, writing, “really it’s because there were some people in town who objected to his political messages.”
The locals I spoke with generally weren’t fans of Bill’s sign, but they didn’t think it should be censored or removed. “People realize it’s his right,” said Getchell. “It’s protected. He’s kind of made his bed, he’ll get the business he gets. There is a case to be made that it’s dangerous, because words matter. But it is his right, at the end of the day.”
“When you go in the store,” Davey added, “he’s a nice enough guy until you get him talking about politics. ‘Cognitive dissonance’ would be the best way to describe it.”
I stopped back in to chat with Bill several times in the following weeks. He often made the kind of conservative-Boomer-uncle comments you see on social media, carping about football players not standing for the Anthem and whatnot. When I asked him for his thoughts on the environment, Bill told me he burns plastics in his backyard because recycling is a government conspiracy. And, of course, because it’s his right to do it.
On immigration, Bill said he was “fine with legal immigration, just not illegals.” The “illegals” Bill was referring to were the few hundred asylum-seekers, most from war-torn African nations, who’d recently, and legally, arrived in Portland.
“Raymond is a small town,” said Janis “Jani” Cummings, a retired teacher and lifelong resident of Raymond who currently chairs its school board. “We still run things based on town meetings. … We’ve seen [Bill] show up to town meetings for years. Usually he wears full camo gear to meetings. There are ex-Navy Seals that come to these things and they wear polo shirts.” Jani let out a long sigh. “We’re just like, ‘OK, man.’”
Bill had recently arranged letters on his sign to read: “UNIVERSITIES ARE HOME TO MENTALLY BARREN PROFESSORS THAT INDOCTRINATE LIBTARDS.” In person, he remarked to me that “all college professors should have to wear 100-volt shock collars to keep them in line.”
“I used to get so mad at every sign he posted,” said Cummings. “But now I just ignore it. It’s just background noise.”