EN ROUTE My heart is pounding as I wait to get on my flight, and it's not because I'm afraid of flying. But it all gets to me now and then the boarding passes, inspections, proof of identity ("Your papers, please"), and so bureaucratically on.
I come by it naturally. My mother balked at ever leaving this country, for it had taken her so much struggle to get here. She never wanted to stray far from home except to visit family another kind of home. She was mystified when someone once suggested that she vacation in Europe. ("My dear, I vas born dere.") And she wasn't about to go back. She left the U.S.A. only once to see Israel. And that was it.
Whenever I would whine about some trifling thing, as adolescents will, she would just look at me pityingly and murmur, Ah, Amerikaner geboren! What would anyone born in this country know about real troubles?
Having finally gotten a precious visa amid the chaos following the First World War, then ridden the rails to what was then Danzig, my mother always stayed in touch with "the girls" who made the crossing with her aboard the S.S. Argentina in the winter of 1921. Her schiffschwestern,she called them, her ship sisters. She'd been all of 19 at the time.
When I was growing up, she always seemed to be looking over her shoulder, as if they'd come any day to take her back, and the dream would be over.
I've just renewed my own passport even though I have no plans to leave the country, and haven't used my old one in 10 years. But best to be prepared.
Now I was in a comfortable chair at the airport, having made it through the gate without a hitch, and here I was sweating a trip that was supposed to be a vacation. Memories linger, even from generation to generation.
TOPSAIL ISLAND, N.C. There is nothing like the first sight and sound of the ocean. Exultation is the going of an inland soul to sea.... Emily Dickinson.The endless waves stretch unbroken from the beach to the horizon. The white rockers on the balcony sway to their own rhythm, as if occupied by two ghosts taking in the view. Looking out at the Atlantic, I realize there's nothing between this spit of land just off the Carolina coast and ... Tangier.
You get to feeling proprietary about a place you keep coming back to. Each time I cross the drawbridge onto the island after a long absence, I don't know what to expect. What changes have been made in my absence? And they don't even ask my permission. The nerve.
At first relieved glance, all seems as it was on this slim little barrier island some 22 miles long and maybe a mile wide here and there. There's still only a single stoplight in the town, but on closer inspection Disneyfication has continued to make inroads: A few more mansions of tropical hue (pink and yellow) have popped up along the shore, and, behind the palmettos, over on the side of the island facing inland, planned developments lay in wait.
The houses that line the shore come in all sizes, shapes and styles. Great, towering mansions out of some designer's catalogue stand there as if inviting the next hurricane to demonstrate their hubris. Next door might be a classic beach house a small, unpainted box with a screen porch facing the ocean, crouching respectfully behind the dunes. There's hope yet: The little island has not yet been reduced to an artificial stage setting, though some of the signs are there.
Half a mile down the shore sits a small house, almost anonymous, wedged between condos and duplexes. The only thing that distinguishes it when seen from the beach is a small American flag fluttering in the evening breeze, its bold colors standing out against the sandy dunes and pale grass. Nothing is permanent in this world, that much I know and maybe only that much. But, please G-d, if anything lasts in this world, let it be that flag and the republic for which it stands, still offering hope and refuge.
High above, regular flights of pelicans and gulls make their sharp-eyed reconnaissance. And not just the birds. A friend of like political persuasion has driven over from Wilmington for dinner. He's retired now from a Washington, D.C., think tank and happy to be. We're talking old times out on the little balcony when the whirl of a helicopter out of nearby Camp Lejeune interrupts our reminiscing. We both look up and say the same thing: Ah, the sound of freedom!And drink a toast to liberty, another endangered species in this ever encroaching world.
A little island, too, requires constant defense against unceasing erosion. Much like liberty itself, it requires eternal vigilance.