Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2017

From the Commodore

“Fish, Biscuits, Bathtubs, and Bedbugs”

By Debra Baldwin


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Frederick P. Dillon

The lighthouse keepers in the Fifth Lighthouse District in 1918 were generally selected locally from a non-educational civil service examination based on experience as boatmen, or in a trade, such as painter, carpenter, etc., with boating ability being a requisite. This resulted well for men familiar with life in the locality of the light station where selected. The regions were provincial so a man from Hatteras would feel that he was in foreign territory around Baltimore.

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Somers Cove Lighthouse, Maryland was one of the ...

Living conditions at shore and off-shore stations were a little better than those of the natives of the locality, but both primitive according to modern standards. At shore stations, substantial dwellings, somewhat of a rural type, were furnished to the keepers. These were without basements, with a cistern for catching rain water and a cast iron cook stove in the kitchen. No other furniture was furnished. The kitchen had a sink with a hand pump.

The keepers were required to furnish their own blue dress uniforms with lighthouse insignia on coat lapels and above cap visors. Dungarees were official uniform for working and it seemed the keepers were always working, for the dress uniforms could be seen carefully preserved in the closets. Most of the keepers, when they appeared in town, were proud to wear their dress uniforms.

As living conditions for the public generally improved, the Office felt sorry for the “poor” keepers and, without request from them, decided on certain modern improvements, such as running water and sewage disposal. Elevated tanks and power pumps were provided at some isolated stations and bathtubs were installed. At first, this was too rapid an advance for the families. It was noted that the bathtubs served them very well for storing their winter supply of potatoes and vegetables. It is doubtful whether in wintertime they ever took a bath. In summer, water as all around for bathing.

The Mechanician of the district was a very important employee. It was his duty and that of his force to install and maintain the lighting equipment at the light stations and on buoys among other duties. Charlie Vinson was that important person in the Fifth District. He regaled the office force with his experiences visiting the stations.

When the tender dropped him off at a screw pile lighthouse, he always carried a bundle of newspapers in his equipment. They were not for the keepers to read. “Jack is ashore on liberty,” the Head Keeper would say, “And Mr. Vinson, you can sleep in his bed.” So, “Vins,” after a hard day’s work, perhaps installing a new incandescent oil vapor lamp, would say (but he knew the answer before he spoke), “What do we have for chow, Chief?” “Do you like biscuits?” asked the Keeper. Without waiting for a reply, he continued, “We have biscuits and fish.”

When Vinson prepared for a good night’s sleep “in the deep,” he carefully examined the absent keeper’s bed, pulled down the blanket, scrutinized the mattress “sans” sheet, unfolded his newspapers and, meticulously covered the mattress with several layers of the Baltimore Sun humming the while that little ditty, “The bedbugs have no wings at all, but they get there just the same.” After a peaceful sleep soothed by the lapping of the waves around the piles below, he popped the question, “Breakfast, Chief?” Reply, “Fish and biscuits.” Vins knew the menu at noon if his work kept him that long, “Biscuits and fish.” “The fish were in abundant supply and fresh, caught overboard,” said Vinson, “And you could crack nuts with the biscuits.”

Editor’s Note: This excerpt is taken from "The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer," the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2017 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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