“I thought it was a gravy job,” said George E. “Bubba” Eaton, U.S.C.G. retired, in recalling being assigned to West Quoddy Head Light Station. After only four years in the Coast Guard, he became Officer in Charge at age 23 in his hometown of Lubec, Maine, “it seemed like gravy to me.”
West Quoddy Head, always remote at the easternmost tip of Maine...and the nation...is also a long way from the Coast Guard Group at Southwest Harbor, down the Maine coast. “People who couldn’t make it in groups, the ‘derelicts,’ were sent to lighthouses a hundred miles away,” Bubba explained. “And I had my share of them.”
Asked how he acquired his nickname, Bubba told me that as a child his youngest sibling couldn’t say “brother.” So “Bubba” stuck and flourished. “I was known as Bubba in the Coast Guard, too.”
Raw recruit Eaton started his basic training at Cape May on April 1, 1974. Following duty on the cutter Active out of New Castle, New Hampshire, he was stationed at Southwest Harbor, Maine, in 1977-78.
Then Chief Yeoman Larry Boyce told Eaton, “Hey, I got a good deal for you. The top position at West Quoddy Head is open.” BM1 Clifton Scofield was then Officer in Charge and, with 20 years in the Coast Guard, was ready to retire. “I answered that I only had four years. I was E-5 on E-6 list. But I jumped. Very fortunate to get that... going to your hometown after only four years doesn’t happen too much.
“I took over with three others,
two seamen and an engineer, two
E-3’s and an E-5. This was my stepping-stone. But I was young and the level of responsibility didn’t sink
in for a while. The paperwork,
the budget, everything, including personnel problems. I matured.”
Bubba took his share of the grunt work, too. “I spent a lot of time taking duty shifts. I had to report the weather every four hours. Two days on, two days off, and every other weekend.”
And that big turnover of crew. “An isolated place is bad for insecure individuals. One man wanted to jump off tower and commit suicide He went to the top of light and locked the door. We finally got him down and I drove him to Southwest Harbor.” Bubba also told me of a seaman with a drug problem who stole his car.
“I jumped right in at the beginning and told my crew that we are going to paint night and day for the next two weeks.” Two weeks later the place was immaculate. “The Captain said to keep it this way.”
“I got a lot of stuff done down there maintenance wise.” But then reality sunk in. With the red-and-white lighthouse so famous, tourists, then as well as now “came in droves. I’m in a position where people are visiting and I’m the image of it.”
“My policy was everybody come. Please drive down to the light, even busloads. We wanted everyone to know the history of the Light Station for which they’re paying taxes. I’m
an outgoing person and I like talking to people.
“Quite a bit of my time was greeting visitors.” Bubba and his crew often took them up the tower, but that changed in later years. “One of our jobs was public relations.” This included frequent tower repainting, not without incidents. Once Kyle Hatch was painting up high, his bosun’s chair hitched around the fence “The phone rings,” says Bubba. “I let go of the rope. Carl came down ZZZZ. Carl said he was all right, but we rushed him to the hospital fearing broken legs.”
Routine work in that pre-automation era included checking the radio beacon and the foghorn on schedule, turning the light on and off, making all reports, and keeping the books. Every six months the Captain made a group inspection. “Once Jonesport put down the wrong date and officers showed up three weeks earlier than expected. But Captain Smith checked everything and it went good.”
Sometimes the Captain sent inspection staff unannounced. “The first member of my crew who spotted them would call out, ‘Here comes another one.’” When Rear Admiral Wood visited “we had everything immaculate, and served hors d’oeuvres. He was impressed.”
“But the biggest problem was the remoteness and loneliness.” Bubba worked his last three months alone, sometimes leaving West Quoddy Head Light Station locked up with the light and foghorn on.
“Too much turnover. If it had been a family light I would have been much happier.” The Coast Guard then renovated the house, creating family facilities. “But even then wives didn’t want to be stationed here. While expecting a replacement, a wife walked in, then went out to the moving van and told them to take everything back.”
Regulations then permitting, Bubba appeared bearded from about 1982 to ‘84 when a new Coast Guard Commandant forbade whiskers. “My beard helped on deck in cold weather,” Bubba said.
“After I left the lighthouse I was on ice breaker duty during the harsh 1982 winter.” That year heavy ice on the Penobscot River required ice-breaking activities all the way to the city of Bangor. “The Mayor was very pleased with our clearing the port.” Dennis “Don” Soucy was then Chairman of the Bangor City Council, the Mayor. “Don even invited us to his home for dinner.
Work finished, Soucy wanted to board the cutter. “The tide was low when he arrived at the dock, with the aluminum ladder sloping downward twenty or thirty feet. And the cold weather resulted in ice adhering to
Sure enough, in he went. “We thought he was gone, but we got him out. The end of my career flashed before my eyes.” Hospitalized with fractured ribs, the entire crew visited his room in full dress uniform. “He couldn’t have been nicer,” Eaton told me. “He took full blame, saying he insisted on trying to board.”
Bubba’s career continued. He served on several vessels including the cutter Bridal out of Southwest Harbor, and from 1987 to 1990 the Tamaroa out of Newcastle, New Hampshire,” the cutter in in The Perfect Storm,” Bubba added. From 1994 to 2000 Eaton was with the First CG District Search and Rescue Branch Small Boat Manager at Boston.
Bubba retired from the Coast Guard on September 1, 2000 as Senior Chief Boatswain’s Mate after exactly 26 years and 5 months service. He now lives with his wife, Cindy, in hometown Lubec. He loves to talk about his career...and, the gravy.
This story appeared in the
September 2007 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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