THE VIEW FROM SOUTHAMPTON BEACH
BY AL BURRELLI
After an hour or so of playing every beach game I could think of, my five-year-old granddaughter (whom I had been asked to baby-sit) was still a bundle of energy, while I was actually getting a little winded! “Felicia, let’s take a break. Why don’t I just hold your hand, and we’ll walk awhile along the water’s edge?” We were on Southampton Beach, and it was a glorious day. This beach, with its open eastern horizon never failed to draw my attention. I’ve always been interested in history and politics, and I stopped for a second and looked out over the water towards the east. It was here in these northeast colonies that the American social and political experiment was essentially begun. Southampton was one of the first three settlements established on the east end of Long Island, ca. 1640. The other two were Southold and Easthampton. The northeastern horizon I was looking at was one of the corridors through which the colonizing ships from Europe sailed to enter the New World. I would have given anything to have actually seen those settlers’ ships sailing by offshore, and maybe even coming in close to drop anchor not very far from the very spot where Felicia and I were standing!
This beach has always been historically interesting to me, but this time, my granddaughter’s presence made the day singularly memorable. I reached down, picked her up, and held her in my arms. Because of her “too-young-to-understand” age, the family had not yet told her about her prestigious genealogy. My granddaughter is a direct descendant of the Hallocks, one of the first families to settle the east end of Long Island and play an influential role in setting up some of the new colonial governments. She would also be told that her Hallock ancestors had come from a country far beyond that horizon line out there where the ocean and the sky meet, and that they had sailed across this ocean to find a better life. She would also find out that the Hallocks were considered to be part of the builders and founders of the country she now calls home, her America. How, I wondered, would she handle such a weighty heritage? Then an idea took my attention. I had been holding my grandchild in my arms, and she had fallen asleep. I woke her gently, and lowering her carefully, placed her bare feet directly into the wet sand. “Felicia, it’s just possible that the footprints you made here might, in some sense, actually be touching a footprint made by one of your very own ancestors as they came ashore, or as they explored the surrounding area looking for a site to build a settlement.” Of course, she understood little of what I had said, but for me, this footprint gesture was a symbolic act that spanned and connected the centuries. It was an extremely inspiring moment, and I hoped that some day Felicia would experience it just as I had. As we headed home, I tried to find a thought that would sum up the day. The following came to mind: Stepping onto the beach in Southampton was like stepping into history.
2. The View Months later, I returned to the beach. That day with Felicia had the same effect as dropping a pebble into water and watching it send out concentric circles of meaning in all directions. Every one of those circles triggered new ideas and questions regarding the new American nation and every one of those concerns invited examination. I pursued answers to as many of them as interest and energy would allow. The beach had become my note-pad.
Over the years, there has always been an effort to give the American nation a metaphoric name that might, directly or indirectly, support the proud claim of American Exceptionalism: The New Jerusalem; The New Eden; The Shining City on a Hill; The Last Great Hope of Mankind. But this America, this political jewel, has a number of fracture lines running through its structure, fracture lines that if hit accidentally, or worse intentionally, will result in the shattering of this fragile political entity. Indeed, we have arrived at a point in our history when a number of social and economic blows are threatening to crack open the very unity of our people. I watch as more and more Americans become angry and divided over issues such as: the separation of church and state; economic inequality; racial tensions; abortion; gun control; gay rights; etc., etc., etc..How much more divisiveness can we tolerate before the fault lines of the nation finally give way?