I arrived late.
The rest of my group had made it to Caswell early in the afternoon. My summer class ran long and I wasn’t able to leave Raleigh until nearly 7 p.m. By the time I got to the western bank of the Waterway the sun was just slipping under the distant horizon, leaving a telltale stream of orange clouds in the evening sky. As my Jeep lurched to the top of the bridge, Oak Island light station let off four quick blasts of brilliant white light, like a battery of cannon fire hurled right at me. Coastal highways seem to give my iPhone a hard time with navigation, but as long as I could keep the lighthouse in sight, I would be fine.
I pulled past the guard house and made my way to the barracks. The sun was gone now; darkness had settled in for the night. I parked the Jeep, said a quick prayer and sat in silence for a moment, letting all the worries and unfinished tasks from the last few days drift out of my mind so that I might focus on the week ahead.
I climbed out of the Jeep.
My shoes nestled into the soft beach grass as my lungs began to soak up the warm, heavy coastal air. I glanced over at the ruined fort to find my path to Hatch Auditorium, where our youth group would be finishing up their first night of worship. I set off towards Hatch, pushing through the gentle sea breeze that flowed over the tops of the dunes — my path clearly marked in the darkness by the soft glow of a yellow moon.
I had seen Fort Caswell many times before, but this time was different. My first visit to Caswell was years ago with my dad; as a young boy, the concrete tunnels and musty storerooms buried under the dunes provided endless opportunities for adventure. When I returned as a 17-year-old on a summer youth retreat, the fort still held a certain level of intrigue, but my free time was taken up with finding a quiet moment alone on the beach with my love interest at the time.
Tonight is different. There are no sounds of gulls chirping or kids playing; the only noise that pierces the silence is the occasional rustling of sea oats, stirred to life by the soft breeze. As I stroll alongside the ruined fortress — concrete pillars laced with black streaks from centuries of abuse by wild weather, yet still doing their best to hold up the crumbling brick walls — the fort begins to speak to me with a new voice. It tells a story of great sadness, and great joy; a story too complex for me to listen to in my youth.
Tonight, as I stroll alongside this squat fortress from another time and era, I am swept away to Nuremberg. I see the grand parade grounds, the grassy plains surrounded by a stadium apparently built for giants, though no one seems to know where the giants have gone off to; their playground sits empty and neglected. I see the grand coliseum — a massive structure seemingly lifted straight out of ancient Rome and planted in the German country side, where it was nurtured and allowed to grow far beyond the vision of its original architects.
In the years following World War II, the German people had to make a tough decision about what to do with these grandiose building projects of the Third Reich. They were the work of a regime that stole its power from the souls of innocents; they were tools used to oppress the unwanted members of society and boost the already dangerously inflated egos of those in power. They were also public works projects that had cost a great deal of public resources. Should they be maintained and used by the new government, or should they be destroyed as a symbolic act of total rejection of the Nazi movement?
The solution to the dilemma was an ingenious compromise; Germany did both. These monuments, built to celebrate the “triumph of the will” that drove the National Socialists, were to be left standing, but they were not to be maintained or used in any official capacity. The coliseum was left intact, but unfinished. The parade grounds formerly used to organize and prepare the Third Reich’s elite fighting force were open to the public, now to be used for soccer matches, picnics and kite flying. The icons of the Nazi party were quickly destroyed. The core stone work endures, but it continues to take further abuse from vandals, edged on by the inevitable decay of time and nature. Nothing is done to preserve the sites, but neither are they officially condemned. Their foreboding presence is a haunting reminder of what has been; a constant admonition of the danger that always lurks in the shadows whenever men gather.
In much the same way, the gutted remains of Caswell stand as a physical reminder of our own dark history. This fortress from the American Civil War has it’s own story to tell, and it is largely a story of human tragedy — even if our war-infatuated culture doesn’t like to freely recognize the evil that drove that conflict.
Yet Caswell’s story doesn’t end in tragedy. As my walk draws to an end, I remember the wonderful vacation I shared here with my father — one of the few trips we took together that has only memories of laughter, joy and discovery attached to it. I think of the camp week I spent here as a high school student, of the friendships that were nurtured under ancient live oaks and on grassy dunes. I think of the love I share with Kristen, and how the time we spent together at Caswell laid the foundation for our relationship to take root and grow. I imagine the thousands of young people who have encountered the Living God of All Creation here for the first time, and the many more who allowed a few days of solitude at Caswell to loosen the chains that had been preventing their faith from taking root, from digging deeper into the life and mission God has called them to.
I stop when I get to Hatch. The sounds of worship leak out through the stone walls and fade away into the night. I take another deep breath of sea air, and I’m filled with one thought.
Isn’t it just like God to take something like Caswell — something scarred and broken by human hands — and do something wonderful?
I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do next.
For Easter, Kristen and I travelled to Elizabeth City, a small harbor town at the mouth of the Pasquotank River, near the northern end of the Outer Banks. Our goal was simply to get away from home and be someplace peaceful and quite, knowing this would likely be our last chance to travel together before Samuel is born next month. We stayed at the Culpepper Inn, a prominent local fixture that I had seen many times before but never really visited. We arrived earlier than expected and immediately took a walk through the historic downtown area and strolled the docks. We listened to a pretty good bluegrass duo from Chesapeake fighting for the crowd’s attention at a local eatery and then made our way back to the inn.
Saturday morning we decided to head out to the islands. We drove through Kitty Hawk, where the Wright brothers made their historic flight, stopped for a delicious order of fresh cut fries and chocolate custard in Kill Devil Hills and then pulled over at Jockey’s Ridge in Nag’s Head. Jockey’s Ridge is the largest active sand dune on the East Coast. The bulk of the dune is likely the same pile of sand the Wright brothers launched their airplane from a few miles up the road in Kitty Hawk, it has just steadily migrated south over the past century. The dune is absolutely huge. The main plateau is probably only about 35 feet high, but the giant table-top of sand literally stretchs on for acres. Hundreds of families with hundreds of kites were already fixed atop the dune when we arrived, along with a few hang gliders. Still, it was easy to find a quite place and settle down in the dry, powdery sand that felt so different from the wet, sticky course, beach sand just a few hundred yards away. We capped the day off with a quick visit to the Currituck light house on the northern end of the island.
Sunday afternoon we decided to visit the Great Dismal Swamp — a national wildlife refuge that spans the North Carolina-Virginia border. We saw turtles, frogs and a woodpecker during our stroll through the swamp, which isn’t really as dismal and swampy as the name implies. The huge swamp areas on the northern coast of the state are worlds apart from the stagnant, slime-coated, bacteria-laden waters found in the woods in the central part of North Carolina, or in my native South Carolina. The Dismal Swamp is full of clear, blue-hued water that lazily flows to and fro among the forest of cypress trees that engulfs it. Wildlife is abundant.
We had a good visit in Elizabeth City. It was Kristen’s first time seeing the town, and the first chance I have had to explore the streets and creeks that occupied most of my time as an adolescent. I had the joy of living in a variety of locals growing up. Each one had unique advantages and disadvantages. It’s hard to compare my experiences growing up in different places because the first 18 years of life are so full of constant changes in themselves. For the most part, the bulk of my time spent living in each different community also marked a different phase of life for me as a child, adolescent and teenager, so it’s not really fair, or easy, to compare them. Still, all things considered, I think Elizabeth City was by far the most interesting, and simply enjoyable, place that my family brought me to live in. I wouldn’t have a single qualm about moving back, if that is the direction my life ever moves to again.
Visiting the places I have lived before is always a little strange though. I can’t help but to recall the experiences I hold connected with each familiar landscape. I notice how so many things have changed in my absence, while other details seem fixed forever. I never really know how to react when I encounter my past. My life has changed so much over the past few years, when ever I visit a place from my past, I can’t help but to feel that I’m no longer the same person I was when I left. I don’t know whether I want to let myself go to reconnect with my past, or whether I should just explore the city anew, looking for new experiences and new details that I would easily miss if I were only looking for things connected with my earlier life. I always face this dilemma when I visit the places where I grew up; I don’t have the same problem when I visit Blowing Rock, where Kristen and I went to college, got married, began our careers and turned our first apartment into a home. I think the difference has something to do with the fact that the life I built in Blowing Rock was my own, while my life in Elizabeth City, and the many other places I lived growing up, was inseparable from the life my parents built for me — not a bad thing by any means, just the way life is. Moving to Blowing Rock was my choice; the things I did there, the job I had, the house I lived in, were all my choices as well; perhaps most importantly, leaving Blowing Rock was my choice. The fact that I wasn’t in control of most of my earlier life — my parents decided where I would live, what I could and couldn’t do with my time and when I would move again — greatly affects the lens through which I view my past.
At least that’s what I think today. Who knows.
So, now that you’ve made it through all of that, enjoy a sampling of my shots from our holiday weekend in and around Elizabeth City. I know this gallery is way too big. Click any image or thumbnail to pull up a full-size viewer that will let you click through the entire collection at your leisure.
*I (David Anderson, Jr.) am the original author of all of the images connected with this post except for the final picture, which was kindly taken by our waitress at the Marina Restaurant in Elizabeth City. Enjoy!