Jewish World Review May 24, 2005 / 15 Iyar 5765

Paul Greenberg

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On the beach | Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea . . .

— Emily Dickinson

TOPSAIL ISLAND, N.C. — Early in the morning, looking out to sea with a storm threatening, the eye is drawn to a thin bright sunlit band in the distance, stretching out all along the horizon. It separates the low, threatening clouds above from the dark green waves below, the waters above from the waters below. Just as it says in the Book. So that's what the firmament looks like.

After the firmament has fallen and the storm is past, the shore is a beachcombers' heaven, littered with shells of all descriptions: Classic scallop and purple-limned oyster, whole and chipped and shattered — take your pick. Sharks' teeth are everywhere, if only small ones.

They say the now shiny teeth can be millions of years old by the time they're washed ashore on this continent. They arrive not just from distant waters but a distant time, like black light from distant stars, a reminder that nothing in the universe is ever entirely lost. Like the evidence of our deeds — great and small, good and evil — washing up generations later, smooth or jagged.

At low tide, each wave deposits another bed of detritus — shells, sharks' teeth, sea-changed rocks, who knows what. After a while, all a beachcomber can think of is the next wave, the next wave, the next wave . . . and what it might reveal.

But it's impossible to keep your head bent down for long. Looking along the shoreline, past all the houses that line the beach, the eye is drawn to a bright white, three-story cube maybe half a mile down the beach. Bleached by sun and time, it stands out like a searchlight peering through the pink morning.

It's one of the old concrete observation towers that still dot the island. They date back to the late '40s, when Topsail was a missile testing ground, and the idea of rocket propulsion was still new. The war that had spawned the Germans' V-2 rockets, the inspiration for these tests, is long past. Something to commemorate, no longer everyday news.

The old tower still rises up through the lavender mist — like a bright shell left behind by the tide. So must wars look after a half-century as the next generation, scarcely noticing, breathes in the peace bequeathed by an earlier one's tumult and pain.

On this island in time, there is only the sound of the surf, and above it the occasional caw of gulls and flap of terns. A squadron of pelicans comes gliding past in one smooth, silent swoop on its first pass of the day. Now and then there is a different, manmade sound. The whirr of a Marine helicopter out of Camp Lejeune turns eyes up. It's the sound of reality breaking through this dreamworld as fragile as the dunes.

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History is over, a stylish essayist assured us as the 20th century was mercifully ending. Everything had been settled. Democracy had won. But history refused to go away, as we discovered one terrible September morning. It had returned — with a vengeance, literally. History is always churning, like the sea, and only the unwary will be lulled by its surface calm. There's a reason they call it the cruel sea.

At the bookstore on the island, I picked up a seaman's manual with a water-resistant cover: "The Practical Mariner's Book of Knowledge" by John Vigor. I have no idea of how useful it would be at sea, being innocent of all nautical skills. But it makes an excellent guide to foreign policy. Especially what the author calls his Black Box Theory: "The basis of the theory is that there is no such thing as luck at sea. The reason why some boaters survive storms or have fewer accidents than others is that they earn their 'luck' by diligent and constant acts of seamanship. Aboard every boat there's an invisible black box. Every time a skipper takes the trouble to consult the chart, inspect the filters, go forward on a rainy night to check the running lights, or take any proper seamanlike precaution, he or she earns a point that goes into the black box. . . . Those skippers with no points in the box are the ones later described as 'unlucky.' Those with points to spend will survive — but they must start immediately to replenish their savings, for the sea offers no credit."

Neither does History.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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