July 4 | Nantucket, MA
Nantucket Essays

At Our Best On the Beach

by Robert P. Barsanti

You know that the Fourth of July has arrived when someone declares her independence by driving her BMW the wrong way down Main Street, parking on a crosswalk, getting the Sunday New York Times and an Americano, then trying to drive the wrong way up Union. It’s okay, though, because her Dad is a lawyer.

Others mark the Fourth of July with the first dip. The dip deflates his tires, races out onto Nobadeer, then drives the Land Rover into the surf. He learns that privilege doesn’t float in the Atlantic nearly as well as it did in the Admission’s office.

It takes sharp eyes and a church tower to see America from Nantucket. The moat is thirty miles wide and costs $50+ dollars round-trip. Finding someplace to sleep will cost extra, whether it be for a bed, a room, or a house.

The great unwashed have to drop more than a few dead presidents to join our sandy and separate union. On Broad Street, Jackson and Franklin are a lot more welcome than Washington and Lincoln. Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness cost dear.

You can only celebrate the Fourth of July on Nantucket with a thorough drenching of irony. When the country first declared independence, most of Nantucket wanted nothing to do with it. Our best and richest customer was busy lighting her streets with our spermaceti oil. Our ships hosted the Boston Tea Party and were gleefully plundered by the Sons of Liberty. Our leading lady of commerce, Kezia Coffin, invited the blockading British soldiers on island for dinner. Independence for Nantucket meant starvation, lost ships, and empty bank accounts. Not many islanders wanted to ring the bells, read the document aloud, and call themselves “Patriots” in 1776. The modern Fourth of July boasts golf and tennis tournaments in some clubs, regattas in others, and a beach party for the kids.

Yet, Nantucket can yet serve to make America great again. Out here, a small island forces everyone to suspend their egos eventually, although it may take a few angry motorists and a rising tide to check the privilege. Main Street, on the Fourth of July, features the great triumph of equality.

The street closes to cars early in the day, then the crowds descend for decorated bicycles, baby carriages, and dressed up dogs. After some pie eating and dunking, the squirt guns come out. The Fire Department sets up their reservoir for refilling and the soaking begins. The forces of Capitalism arrive on a private antique fire engine only to be met by the mighty socialist fire hose of the town ladder trucks. The Commonwealth always wins and, no matter how heavy your wallet or how old your lightship basket, we all get wet. Liberty soaks all.

At our best, Nantucket embodies the Wharf Rats’ motto: “No seats reserved for the mighty.” In recent years, the private clubs have swung their elbows, but they have only carved out small areas for themselves. The moors and the hills remain open to everyone for walking, biking, or driving. The harbor hosts yachts, trawlers, and kayaks. The beaches don’t require stickers or fees. If you can get out to them, you can plant your towel and claim the same sand. You may have to spend hundreds of dollars to get out to the island, but once here, your pursuit of happiness doesn’t cost much.

On the last Sunday before July, the boys and I drove to one of the south shore beaches later in the afternoon. Perhaps twenty other cars were lined up near the shore. The usual island suspects were there: new white BMW All-Terrain beasts, Jeep Wagoneers with fifteen years of beach permits, and beat up Toyota Corollas. Four Jeeps lined up against the beach grass. None of them was the least bit protected; you could go from car to car picking up books, purses, CDs, and even one large brown wallet. Trust goes far at the beach.

I parceled out the chairs, bags, and towels to the young men and followed them out. A passing storm had whipped up the surf two days ago and it had begun to slowly subside. Great head-high waves broke on a sandbar one hundred yards out, then rebuilt into something much more manageable before they slammed into the sand. We eased out into the chilly water, bounced around on the waves, and then the young men returned to the warm sand. I stayed in the water for a few minutes more.

I recognized the man on the beach next to us. He was often on TV, the subject of envy and pride, and not entirely welcome in Seattle or Atlanta. I caught his eye, he caught mine, and we both looked away. The Great Man neither hid nor proclaimed himself. Instead, he dipped back into his book (Fearless if you must know.) Later, he lay face down on a towel and lightly held the hand of his companion.

Nobody bothered him. Nobody snapped his picture and put it on Twitter. Twenty yards to his east, two young men sat next to each other and also held hands. Further down a family of Guatemalans prepared a charcoal grill for their burgers. Their privacy also remained perfect. The only person who violated the Great Man’s trust did it at a computer keyboard later that night.

Nantucket, and America, is at its best on the beach. On the beach, we watch out for each other. On the beach, we leave each other alone. On the beach, we trust in our better natures. I would no more take a secret picture of the Great Man at the beach than I would take his wallet from his car. When we fail, it’s because we think we are better than our neighbors on the towels. Then we drive headlong into the surf.

E Pluribus unum is our myth and our truth. We are all equal before the sea.

Articles by Date from 2012