Lived Through This

SEAL Team Six Were My Neighbors

Just down the road from where I grew up, they trained to kill Osama Bin Laden

Photo: Edwin Hooper/Unsplash

On the ambling coast of northeastern North Carolina lies an innocuous little town of 2.7 square miles and some 2,000 residents. Lore would have it that “Carolina Moon” was penned for its pleasantness, that lyricist Benny Davis even sat on its signature S-bridge as the melody came to him in half-notes and harmonies. On its outer bands lies a large retirement community of Yankees and old-timers, comforted by the serenity Connie Francis sang of. And yet — not far from the genteel and pastoral lure that makes it a sleeper hit for retirees — a secret lies in wait at the bottom of a nondescript road: Harvey Point Defense Testing Facility, aka where SEAL Team Six was trained to kill Osama Bin Laden.

This is my hometown of Hertford, North Carolina — 150 miles to Raleigh and an hour outside of Virginia. A picturesque interpretation of Bible Belt purity, you can blink and miss the humble beauty of Spanish moss and longleaf pines that sprout from the Perquimans River. The residents are shining examples of Southern hospitality, acknowledging the Sabbath and barbecue with equal zeal. And they also know that little secret down at the base of my childhood road. They’ve heard the stories, passed along the whispers, and learned to live with an elusive presence.

I can’t remember the first time it happened; I can only recall the summers after I had been fully acclimated to the foundation of our house shaking, the thunderous roar of a storm not expected that afternoon. None of my friends gave it much thought, so neither did I. But what we were all feeling and hearing were military-grade explosives.

We all knew about the unassuming roundabout, the barbed wire, the heavily armed security.

Everyone within a 10-mile radius could feel them. There was no rhyme or reason to their detonations, but you could almost always count on them in the summer. On occasion they would mix with a tropical storm or band of rain, blurring the line between tempest and explosion.

It was years before I saw Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s biopic about the events leading up to Bin Laden’s capture, and even longer before the truth was revealed in our benign weekly paper. But we all knew about the unassuming roundabout, the barbed wire, the heavily armed security, and the few townies who worked there but never spoke about it — ever.

It felt like living near Area 51 some days. Of course, we didn’t advertise it as a paranormal tourist attraction for would-be “investigators” and “truth seekers.” Something like that did not fit the Southern gothic charm we were known for. But the presence of the facility did create a nefarious undercurrent to the ostensible ease we all carried ourselves with. We were always aware it was there.

Red: My childhood home. Blue: The Bin Laden compound recreation.

Growing up, my dad was a commercial fisherman. He would net the waters of the river and sound, hauling thousands of pounds of flounder, blue crab, and perch. He knew the geographical layout of his profession perhaps better than any fisherman among him. Yet, one day — whether out of bad luck or morbid curiosity — he got too close to the peninsula shrouded in mystery, a “Department of Defense” sign staring him down like the faded eyes of God or Kissinger. Suddenly, he found himself surrounded by serious men with firm orders: Leave, and do not “accidentally” find yourself here again. He took a two-day siesta to gather his nerves.

A friend of the family had applied for a job there once, a mechanic’s position put out in the paper. He had a successful preliminary interview and wondered what all the hubbub had been about. During the second-round interview, they wired him up like a transformer and interrogated him about psychological obscurities even Freud hadn’t broached. He left traumatized and still refuses to talk about it when asked.

SEAL Team Six was likely training there in early 2011, meaning I was in the throes of freshman year and my parent’s messy divorce. Holed up in my childhood bedroom, I journaled the pitfalls of adolescence, and just a short distance away, a U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group was preparing to rain bloody justice on a compound in Pakistan.

Zero Dark Thirty, 2012. Featuring the to-scale Bin Laden compound, built and raided in Hertford, North Carolina.

I’m not sure when the bombs stopped; I only know that they did. No Easy Day, the bestselling book by one of the SEALS involved in the capture, seemed to usher in the end of that era. The 2012 book, which was published without prior U.S. Department of Defense approval, includes a detailed account of a “remote pine forest, jutted off a peninsula.”

In the den of ballistics, bombs, and custody battles, I came about and found my footing.

The quaking summers of my youth suddenly abated with little more than hushed gossip in grocery aisles and rumors of more declassified information on the horizon. Forever we waited for those follow-ups in the papers, us little people with big questions.

If you asked a Hertfordtonian what they thought of Harvey Point, they’d likely come alive with pride and procure a U.S. flag from thin air. There is some collective hidden insignia they all wear now. When asked, “Where are you from?” no longer do they explain in piecemeal the geographic convolution of North Carolina counties. No longer do they hope the asker is a baseball fan, name dropping Jim “Catfish” Hunter and sulking when they reply “Huh?” Hertfordtonians beam, straighten their shoulders, and say “Remember Osama Bin Laden?” But the conversations usually stop there.

Sometimes I wonder what life would have been like if I hadn’t shared a cul-de-sac with Homeland Security and top-of-the-line explosives. The sensation of watching the windows shake and the carpet sway like TV static, as a floor below, my parents tore into each other. Maybe it’s odd, but in the chaos and violence of my familial road, I found refuge. In the overwhelming period when my coming of age was imbued with tumult and confusion, the idea of something so surreal living down the street offered comfort.

These days, Harvey Point Defense Testing Facility is markedly quieter, though it remains active. The dust has seemingly settled over Hertford and my own powder keg of a family. The craters have been filled with personal interpretations of sharing the terrain with world history, and the smoke has lifted over our unassuming heads. My guess is that it’ll sit there forever, our little peninsula shrouded in mystery. A relic of militarism and Southern anonymity. On Hertford continues — this time around a little more aware of its place in the world. Forever set apart from every other small town with big lore.

And me? I find consolation in the explosions of everyday life. I seek sanctuary in the loudness. Because somewhere in the cacophony is nostalgia—for youth, for family, for familiar. In the din of ballistics, bombs, and custody battles, I came about and found my footing as a burgeoning writer and creative. Ever aware of the noise around me.

Meditations on queerness, religion, and the southern identity. Email: hannah.lane177@gmail.com

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