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.