Jorge felt nostalgic during his visit with me last week. He told me that, as a boy, he stayed awake at night dreaming of becoming a fireman. He laughed about how conventional his boyhood ambitions seemed. I countered, saying that firefighters have very dangerous jobs and that their lives are anything but conventional. A lot of training and hard work go into becoming and remaining a firefighter. I said that his ambition had many humanitarian qualities.
Jorge steered the conversation away from himself by asking what I dreamed of becoming when I was still young. I reminded him about my two dreams. One was to become a broadcaster, which I did fulfill. The second was to be a lighthouse keeper.
Jorge laughed as he described how I might look, wearing a rain-suit trying to keep a pipe lit in the middle of a severe coastal storm. He couldn’t imagine me struggling to warn ships of danger while Mother Nature raged with fury.
I responded by asking if he still imagined himself in the act of entering blazing buildings, rescuing frightened people. Or did he think he could just hang out at the firehouse all day, polishing the ladder truck and petting the dalmatians.
Jorge admitted that sometimes these visions came to mind while driving long-boring stretches of Interstate highway in his semi-truck. Then he steered the conversation back to manning a lighthouse. Did I understand that lighthouse keepers did more than watch the seagulls keeling over the crashing surf? What did those lighthouse keepers actually do, to while away the time?
I said that I’d spent a good deal of time reading seafaring and lighthouse stories when I was younger. I found out that the work entailed many serious responsibilities and the life could be harsh at times, but the benefits outweighed the negatives. It was important to make sure the lighthouse was kept in perfect condition because lives were at stake.
Lighthouse keeping, as a profession, has its own legends and tales just as seafaring does. One of my favorites was told to me by a tour guide at the Point Reyes Lighthouse in Marin County, north of San Francisco.
In olden times, lighthouses in remote locations were manned by three lighthouse keepers at a time. But it hadn’t always been so. One of the oldest legends of lighthouse lore was set at an old lighthouse on the Irish Sea in the cold months of 1800.
Two men were paired as the lighthouse crew. Tom Griffith and Tom Howell had come to hate one another. The locals knew that the two Toms bitterly quarreled and detested each other. The two were posted for three-month stints with only each other for company, at the small lighthouse, in the middle of nowhere.
The winter of 1800 was one of the nastiest in history. The lighthouse was pummeled with wind, driving rains, and gigantic, crashing waves. The lighthouse shook and rocked. The cold winds whistled through the building day and night. It was a terrible chore to make sure the light remained lit at night.
In the first month of their assignment, Tom Griffith was killed in a freak accident. Tom Howell faced a big quandary. Because their mutual hatred for one another was famous, Howell believed he would be suspected of murder if he dumped the cadaver into the sea. So, he stashed the body into the living quarters, of course the stink became unbearable and Howell’s sanity was tried. He worked through the difficulty alone and wrote about his worries in the lighthouse logbook.
He managed to make a primitive coffin for Griffith and hauled the body outside. Howell wrote that the storms broke apart the coffin and exposed the gruesome body. The horrible sight and thoughts of being accused of murder brought on an anxious madness.
Howell’s relief pair finally arrived to find him unrecognizable. His hair had turned white, and Howell could only babble that he was innocent. The story was verified by the authorities from the evidence and the logbook entries. Following an inquiry by the British Lighthouse Board, lighthouse teams were increased to three men to prevent such a situation from ever again taking place.
Most lighthouse keepers never had to worry about dead co-workers. They had plenty of chores to keep them occupied. Each day began by turning off the fuel supply to the lamp flame. The clockwork weights were halted and locked in place, to stop the Fresnel lens from rotating. The weights were then hoisted, by hand, like those in antique grandfather clocks, only larger and heavier.
The lantern and lens were thoroughly cleaned and polished each day. A lens bag was fitted over the lens and curtains were drawn over the windows to prevent sun-rays from reigniting the lantern and discoloring the lens prisms.
The rest of the day was devoted to monitoring weather and tide conditions and logging them in the logbook. If there was a station boat, it was checked. If there were markers and buoys, they were checked and repositioned. The foghorns were regularly checked, too. Minor repairs were made to the lighthouse and its machinery as deemed necessary.
At nightfall, the lighthouse keeper ignited the lantern and started the clockwork mechanism that rotated the Fresnel lens. He watched for an hour, then retired for supper.
The logbook contained daily entries regarding routine lighthouse operation, ship traffic and unusual occurrences in the vicinity of the lighthouse.
Before the introduction of electricity, fire was a prime worry of lighthouse keepers. kerosene or oil for the lamp, lubrication oils, coal or wood for heating, and paints posed many hazards. To prevent problems, most lighthouses kept the materials in a supply outbuilding, away from the main structure.
Of more concern was the probability of shipwrecks. One of the primary responsibilities of lighthouse keepers was to summon help and/or give aid to the victims.
Keepers were basically on duty around the clock. Depending on seniority, a keeper had from half a month to a full month of leave, each year. Despite getting by on very low pay, lighthouse keepers enjoyed prestige in the neighboring communities. During quiet times, keepers had plenty of time for solitude, reading, and philosophizing.
Later on, electricity was used to power each lighthouse, so many of the dangers and responsibilities were eliminated or minimized. However, reliability and safety were still held as high priorities. Lighthouses were inspected regularly to see how competent the keepers were.
In the later 20th Century, automation was introduced. The end of the lighthouse keepers came to pass. Electronic and computerized monitoring and operation have taken over lighthouse work. Now, the few remaining lighthouse keepers act as grounds keepers, repair workers, and tourist guides. The ages-old tradition of lighthouse keeping is now a thing of the past.
Jorge looked at me and asked if I regretted not becoming a lighthouse keeper. I said I was happy to have been a broadcaster, but sometimes wonder if I should have joined the Coast Guard to work in a lighthouse. In a way, I was a lighthouse keeper, anyway. I just used a higher frequency of light to carry out my duties.