Of labor and leisure

Posted: Sep 06, 2005 12:00 AM

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.

Particularly after a visit to a lighthouse. When the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, rising 158 feet, opened in 1875, it was the final beacon in the Barrier Island chain. Until its operation was mechanized in 1939, the lighthouse required a crew comprised from three families. These lighthouse keepers performed the manual labor of cleaning lenses, fueling lamps, trimming wicks and rotating lenses to guide ships anywhere within 18 nautical miles away from danger. They and their families made their lives inside a neat, grassy compound where a solidly attractive Victorian duplex rose across from the lighthouse. In 1900, a one-room schoolhouse opened nearby, its structure built from the timbers of wrecked ships. An additional, smaller lighthouse keeper's house was moved to the site in 1920. In their starched Victorian collars, the lighthouse families' black-and-white portraits offer a thought-provoking contrast to the knots of comfort-clad tourists who now pose on the same site for their own digital posterity. We were here, both sets of pictures prove; but to what avail?

There is a world of difference between a clockwork routine devised to save lives at a distance, and a holiday schedule that seeks diversion up close, but the intervening decades have brought these family portraits into unexpected juxtaposition. We tourists are amazed by evidence of the lighthouse families' lives in isolation; they, surely, would be shocked to find so many of us tromping through their front yard (not to mention buying made-in-China lighthouse knickknacks in the gift shop). The lighthouse itself rises in splendid obsolescence, a reminder of what no longer needs to be done. But does that mean it's time to relax? From point to pointlessness; from isolation to congestion; from natural wonder to developer's paradise; from urgent utility to frenzied leisure. It's enough to make you want to get back to work.