Day 161 – Can Hardly Believe it Myself
Lots of people feel they were born at the wrong time; that they would have been “happier” had they been born earlier or, increasingly, later. I don’t know about happier, but I do know I’d have certainly been more useful, at least for a while, had I been born in the time of the Lighthouse Service.
What would become the Lighthouse Service began as a private enterprise in Boston in 1716 that was later swallowed by the government as a new service then merged with the Coast Guard in 1939 (primary source Lighthouse Digest). Thanks to various, but diminishing, revenue sources most of the lights still stand. Many still function though none are primary navaids. The east coast has the larger number of lighthouses, but the Pacific coast lights rival those of Maine or the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Most of the descriptions of a keeper’s job begin with “it was a hard life.” Ok, newsflash, in the 1800’s (when most of the Oregon lighthouses were established) everybody had a hard life. Imagine being a farmer on the coast, or a rancher, or, the majority occupation, a logger. The service provided Lighthouse keepers with houses (built to last), at least some arable land to raise a kitchen garden and keep chickens and maybe some livestock, reasonably regular resupply, and in many cases at least one assistant keeper. And they were paid a salary all the while living in a place where there was little to buy. But above all these were men, actually families, with a purpose: keep the light.
The downsides? Long periods of isolation, and a general disconnectedness from society. It indeed would have been difficult for keepers to regularly trundle to town and hit up the local tavern.
True, injury could be a problem, but medicine in 1879 wasn’t exactly on par with today; no world-class hospital awaited at the end of the arduous road or boat trip into town. Advanced first aid, being able to set broken bones, relocate shoulders, etc., would have been mandatory training.
I can’t help but find this enthralling. No struggle with your fellow-man. No need to lie, to cheat, to fight for the illusory competitive edge. No need to covet another’s possessions or spend your time and money acquiring stuff. No need to be a businessman, living and dying by the bought and the sold.
And it’s not like keepers and their families were on the surface of Mars. Keeper’s journals often cite visits from fishermen, picnics with families from relatively nearby farms and the occasional diversion of the trip into town.
And behind all this was the raison d’être: keep the freakin’ light. This wasn’t some picturesque metaphor about being a guardian of a flame. This was the calling of the keeper. It was tantamount to a sacred duty. Lives depended on performing this duty flawlessly. And, perhaps the best part, you never knew who, if anybody, saw your light or heard the fog signal. Sure on many a clear, or at least less foggy nights, the lights of ships passing north and south could be seen by the keeper. But on those nights when storms kicked up or the fog rolled in all the keeper could do was man his post, keep the flame going and the fresnel lens turning.
So it’s in this spirit of attempting to be useful, to do a job most hardly think about, but that remains important to many and important for the community, I’m on track to begin training to become a bus driver for TriMet, the Portland metro area transportation authority, beginning this August 24th. I can hardly believe it myself.