The outer banks of North Carolina contain stretches of beach that feel almost desolate, where visitors could pretend to be castaways on a deserted island. In certain spots, you might walk for miles and see no more people than you would pass in the aisle of a grocery store.
Certain spots are busier. On the island of Ocracoke, there is a single lifeguarded beach where families go to swim, and that's where the man was fishing.
He was casting his lines just outside the guarded area, although still well within the scattered patchwork of blankets and beach umbrellas. There was a strong lateral current, and everyone in the waves was being driven over his lines. I watched an older man go over to ask him to move. The fisherman paid no heed. So I decided to try. I waited until he was just about to cast a line and I came out of the water toward him.
"You're too close," I said. "I'm afraid one of these kids is going to get hooked."
"Is that my fault?" he asked. He had on gold mirror shades, so during our conversation, I was really talking to tiny, gilded versions of myself.
"I didn't say it was," I replied. "But someone could get hurt. It would be really nice if you could move just a couple hundred feet down the beach."
"These parents aren't watching their kids," he said. "It's not my fault. I'm not doing anything illegal."
He wasn't, that was true. By standing just outside the flags that marked the guarded area, he was within his rights. I said that it wasn't a matter of legality; I didn't want to see a kid get hooked, and the easiest solution was for him to walk a minute down the beach.
"That's what's wrong with America," he said. "I'm not doing anything wrong, but I'm the bad guy."
"These kids don't know any better," I pointed out. "Would you get one of them hurt just to make a point?"
"That's their parents' fault, not mine."
As we talked, the line still dangled between us, the hooks baited with slabs of sliced-up fish. He was too distracted to cast it back into the waves. That was something, I figured. Talking to him was keeping some sharp hardware out of the water. So we talked about America.
What was wrong with America, said the fisherman, was that people didn't take responsibility for themselves. They blamed other people when bad things happened. They would infringe on his rights rather than take care of their own children.
I kept talking. I cued the soundtrack. In a world where people didn't always do what was right, I said, sometimes it falls to one man to step up and fix what's gone wrong. Maybe it's not fair. But today, I said, you are that man.
It didn't sound quite that cheesy, because in truth, I kind of believed it myself. I still thought the guy was being an ass; in the time we'd spent in this conversation, he could have packed up his rods and been a speck on the horizon. And on the list of things wrong with America, the problem of parents allowing their kids to stray outside the guarded beach sits well behind a bunch of actual problems. But sometimes, one person does have to step up. That's true.
Eventually I gave up. "Look," I said, "I'm just some asshole on the beach. I can't tell you what to do."
"I'll pack it up," he said.
I rejoined my brother in law and nephew. My brother-in-law had planned an alternate strategy. "I was just going to tell him that if a kid got hooked on his line, I was going to beat the crap out of him."
It got me thinking about liberty. Is freedom really nothing more than the right to do what you want? Or is there a burden that accompanies liberty, a fearsome responsibility to protect others from the barbs of your desires?