Diana West

DUCK, North Carolina -- Everybody takes a break, practically. The concept of the "day off," the week off, the two weeks off (the six weeks off for heyday Euro-socialists), could well be one of the astonishing markers of our civilization, if we ever bothered to stop and be astonished by it. For the great mass of humanity, from the time of slavery to serfdom -- which takes in, what, the first 10,000 years -- a day without toil wasn't even a dream, let alone an expectation... let alone an employee "benefit." A holiday was a holy day, certainly not a "personal day." From the 19th century, when Dickens exposed workhouse conditions in "Oliver Twist," to the 20th, when P.L. Travers revealed in passing that Mary Poppins absolutely insisted on something like every second Thursday off, the development of vacation time as a social ideal was incremental. By now, of course, the arrangements and provisions of "time off" drive the engine of a mighty, if oxymoronically named, Leisure Industry. Vacation is practically a universal right; it is certainly an annual rite. Everybody takes a vacation break, practically.

Which is astonishing. I can't help thinking this, writing from accommodations at one of countless pressure-treated-wood resorts at "the beach" -- maybe the primary destination for modern-day leisure fulfillment. This beach happens to be on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, one of the Barrier Islands that were once known -- and not all that long ago -- for their inaccessible isolation. After a Civil War battle was fought in the region, Northern businessmen returned to develop the island chain's extensive fishing and hunting resources.

Still, the Barrier Islands remained, figuratively, off the charts for nearly another century, even after Wilbur and Orville Wright flew, in 1903, the first airplane over the shifting sand dunes (now stabilized and grass-covered) at Kill Devil Hills, near Kitty Hawk. If the Outer Banks were known to the outer world at all, they were known for the kind of work, the kind of duty, that allowed no real conception of a vacation break: lighthouse-keeping and shipwreck rescue.

The handful of men and their families who, from the second half of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th, labored in lighthouses to ward off disaster from the edge of this "Graveyard of the Atlantic" couldn't just turn off their lifesaving beacons and head for the mainland. Nor could the small crews of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, who would brave any storm to reach any wreck, simply dry-dock their launches and knock off. New technologies and the U.S. Coast Guard would render such vital toil obsolete; but that old life of service remains hard to forget.

Diana West

Diana West is the author of American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation's Character (St. Martin's Press, 2013), and The Death of the Grown-Up: How America's Arrested Development Is Bringing Down Western Civilization (St. Martin's Press, 2007).