On October 4, 1976, at the age of eighteen, I enlisted in the United States Coast Guard. Like many my age, I was not sure what direction my life was going and I believed it would be time well invested as my life’s journey found its course. Shortly after completing basic training, I was assigned to the Plum Island Light Station, New York. Being eighteen and yearning for adventure and accomplishment, my immediate response to my assignment was disappointment. It would take some time for me to completely realize the impact this year would have on my life and the pride I would feel being a part of this American tradition.
Upon my arrival at the lighthouse in the first week of January 1977, I was warmly greeted by my new extended family. Mark, a First Class Petty Officer, was the Officer in Charge. Jim, a Third Class Petty Officer, was second in command and the Engineering Officer. Steve, a Seaman, and myself, a Fireman, made up the remainder of the four-man crew. They immediately gave me the “ten cent tour” of my new home.
Adjacent to the living room on the right was a recreation room. It contained a pool table that took up ninety-five percent of the room. I remember we had to use short little cut-off cue sticks in order to play without hitting the wall. There were four bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor. The smallest bedroom was converted to an office/radio room. Mark and Jim each had their own room and Steve and I would share the large bedroom.
In the upstairs hallway was a stairway to the upper levels. Continuing up the stairs we came to the steel hatch that leads to lantern room. As soon as I entered the lantern room the first thing that grabbed my attention was “the Jewel of the Lighthouse,” the Fresnel lens. What a fascinating work of functional art! Though showing some damage from a century of service, it was still a breathtaking piece of brass and glass reflecting light from the midday sun. I was also captivated by the wondrous view of Plum Island, Plum Gut and Long Island Sound. These first fifteen minutes as a lighthouse keeper are forever etched in my memory.
An interesting structural feature in the house was a three-foot square hatch in the kitchen floor. I believe it was a cistern but we were kind of hesitant to open it. Who knew what was down there? Maybe the government kept the Area 51 aliens there. I can say with certainty, though, that this house was like every other old house I had been in — it made lots of strange noises in the night.
After a couple of weeks of orientating myself to my new surroundings, I became very comfortable with my new life as a lighthouse keeper. Even though our atmosphere was somewhat relaxed, we were still a military unit and conducted ourselves accordingly. Mark ran a “tight ship” and instilled much pride in us with regard to the lighthouse, our responsibilities and the Coast Guard in general. He was a very competent supervisor and became a good friend, as did Steve and Jim.
We worked 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with one hour for lunch, Monday through Friday, with a half-day on Saturday. One of our weekly maintenance items that stands out in my mind was the polishing of the brass on the Fresnel lens. This was quite a feat that generally required a half-day to accomplish. Despite skinned knuckles and sore fingers from polishing in between all the prisms, we took great pride in this task.
In addition to the regular workday, we would each stand a rotational eight-hour watch. While on watch you were responsible for monitoring weather conditions, answering the telephone and of course, lighting and extinguishing the beacon. If visibility became diminished, you were also required to activate the foghorn on the Orient Point Light and the siren located in our auxiliary generator shack (now destroyed by erosion). Lighting the beacon was performed one half-hour before sunset every night and involved more than just throwing a switch.
With the exception of the electric light itself, the light mechanism and lens operated much like it had for over a century. A one-hundred-pound counterweight, suspended by a cable, traveled through passageways cut in each floor level. Several minutes of arm-tiring cranking would raise the weight to the top, translating to about eight hours of operation. This energy source would power the clockworks that rotated the Fresnel lens at a constant speed, thereby giving flashes of light every 4.5 seconds.
Should we lose electrical power on the island, we had a backup emergency generator to maintain the beacon. We even had an oil lamp in case there was a problem with the generator. We did test the oil lamp on occasions, but I do not recall ever having to use it. When you think about it, it’s amazing — how many things today are built to last over a century with such precision and accuracy? Not many that I am aware of.
When I had the evening watch, I enjoyed climbing up to the light tower early and spending time sitting out on the catwalk with my legs hanging over the edge. The solitude and scenic beauty was soothing to the soul. Time seemed to slow down up there. Passing mariners would wave and it was like I could sense them saying, “Thank you for being there.” It was not like they were saying it to me, but to the institution of the manned lighthouse, whose unfailing sole purpose was to guide them safely home. It was times like this that would help me come to realize the true tradition of this lighthouse and the keepers before me.
During the winter months, after eating we would usually head to the ping-pong table set up in the mudroom. We all became pretty good players and had some exciting matches. I would tell you who the champion was, but I think it could be disputed. Then we usually headed to the living room to watch a little television. If it was your TV night, you got to pick what to watch. I don’t think we ever had any disagreements about what to watch, though. During lunch, we just had to catch up on the soap operas.
Unless you were on watch, nights and weekends were free time. If you didn’t find something you enjoyed to do during this time, it could seem like an eternity and you found yourself longing for the workday to begin again. Isolation is something most every lighthouse keeper experienced and Plum Island was no exception.
For those of you who don’t know, Plum Island is a quarantined and restricted island due to the USDA Animal Disease Center located there. So it’s not like we would get very many visitors. Every now and again someone from the island would stop by or we might see one of the guards on their rounds. The mailman came every so often too, but that was about it.
We kept two bicycles, our only form of transportation besides walking, in the garage. These bicycles looked like something you would find in a time capsule from the fifties. We were glad to have them, though. I guess at one time the crews used to have a Jeep but somebody before us rolled it over, and that was the end of that.
At several locations around the island there were old bunkers from its Fort Terry days. Sorry, there were no Area 51 aliens there, nor any of the ten-foot chickens I heard rumors about. We also visited the gravestone of Colonel Gardner. He died in the late 1700s, and we think he visited us once. It was late one night and we were all watching TV. Suddenly, we heard two loud metal crashing sounds. We knew exactly what this distinct sound was. It was the steel hatch in the floor through which you entered the lantern room. We immediately went up to investigate and found the hatch open. I think we all slept in the living room that night.
Walking the beaches was always enjoyable. We would find all kinds of things washed up on shore. One time Jim and I found a message in a bottle. The letter inside was from a high school studying northeast ocean currents. So we typed them up an official looking letter explaining where we had found it and sent it back.
Probably our favorite things to find washed up on shore were lobster pots (traps). The pots could not be returned to their owners due to the quarantine, so we set out a few in the little harbor there on the island. We would ride our bicycles down to the harbor and work the pots. We kept a little rowboat there to use. I think we only had one oar — that was a challenge. Actually, we did quite well. We had a freezer half full of lobster.
Our real passion was fishing for blues and stripers (bluefish and striped bass). Steve was quite the fisherman and taught me much about the sport. We would make up lures out of steel leaders and surgical tubing, then go down to the water in front of the lighthouse and cast out into Plum Gut. It was incredible. We could pull in twenty-pounders right from shore. Needless to say, the other half of our freezer was filled with fish fillets.
As weeks turned into months, I slowly became a seasoned lighthouse keeper. I found a piece of that adventure and accomplishment I was yearning for in the place I least expected to, a lighthouse. Knowing that all good things do come to an end, I received my orders for Damage Controlman School in the late fall of 1977.
The sadness of leaving my new friends and new home was magnified as I knew that the lighthouse would be abandoned and replaced by an automatic beacon shortly after my departure. A long chapter in American history was coming to an end and I was so very fortunate to have been able to touch a piece of it.
This story appeared in the
December 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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