A Watch Tower on a Beach, a Walk on the Moon
On the horizon, a clash of different futures
In South Bethany there is a World War II era watch tower that was used to spot Nazi submarines. It stands sentry beside the coastal highway over an empty stretch of beach that I’m surprised has not been filled by luxury condos. The fact that it’s unsafe to overdevelop what amounts to a sandbar hasn’t stopped people elsewhere.
During a long-ago summer, my siblings and I were fascinated by that watch tower when we weren’t gathering seashells or walking up the road to the Dairy Queen. Our father had fought in North Africa against the forces of Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox. Dad was captured in Tunisia in 1943 and spent the remainder of the war in Stalag 2B.
As a child, I had trouble imagining our peaceful coastline being threatened by Nazis. Scanning the water, other than sailboats all I saw was an occasional pod of dolphins at play. Sometimes I dug in the wet sand for the hermit crabs that burrowed there.
In a postwar horror movie, those harmless little crabs would have grown to monstrous size because of a nuclear accident. We were also told to worry about Soviet satellites overhead like Sputnik, which propelled the space race. I remember watching on a small black and white TV on a rainy night near the beach in 1969 as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. I was sure I would be there myself one day, admiring Earth from a spot on lunar sand with no creatures under it, but still imagining them.
Now my dreams of space are reduced to watching billionaire joyrides and episodes of Captain Pike and his multicultural crew in a Star Trek with far niftier sets and gadgets than the original. Back here on 21st century Earth, instead of threats from the sea we face domestic terrorists and environmental damage from microplastics. You could say we turned out to be the monsters.
On my roof in Washington on a balmy night, I sip iced tea and grab my glasses before they skitter off the table in the summer breeze. Sitting under the stars in the dark (as dark as it gets in a light-filled city), my older self yearns for that view of Earth from the moon I saw in pictures, as newer generations face the prospect of rule by an aggressive minority of homegrown fascists.
That is not the future we anticipated. But then I do not recall many black faces in the beach crowds of my childhood. It is easier to maintain an illusion of innocence when reminders of unfulfilled promises of equality are filtered out.
As I came of age, I increasingly asserted my strong impulse to think for myself. Now I live in a city that I helped change as a gay rights activist. I love this international capital where no racial or ethnic group has the majority, where our differences are an enhancement rather than a threat. Across the land, however, the fanning of old fears and hatreds into a new conflagration threatens to destroy the work of generations.
The seaside is a border land that inspires thoughts of distant times and places. A few miles out, beyond the lights of civilization, on a clear night you can see the cosmos all our ancestors saw before the invention of electric light bulbs. Two years ago, I saw the Milky Way for the first time in decades while sailing with friends off the Outer Banks. Despite knowing the constellations, the sight of thousands of stars instead of the usual handful was almost frightening, as if I were approaching a familiar city and an alien skyline appeared on the horizon.
The prospect of the destruction of democracy is like that. It is tempting to flick on the lights and dispel unsettling visions of what may come. Yet a new world approaches. Whether it will be “a more perfect union,” as the Constitution’s preamble says, or a nightmare of blood and fire, is up to all of us.
As I write, crowds are gathering on Pennsylvania Avenue to march for “the power of poor people to be agents of change,” and to end systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, war, and “the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.” If you watch for it, you can see a diverse people seeking to build a better society instead of ignorantly and spitefully tearing it down. However farfetched, and whether futuristic or very old, I think it worth a try here under the stars. ▼
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist at firstname.lastname@example.org.