Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Do You Have a Lighthouse Tattoo?

Tattooing is a very old practice. Sailors of centuries ago learned it from South Pacific Islanders and readily adopted the symbolism of it for their own. Nautical tattoos gave seamen a sense of camaraderie but also provided protection, either through superstition or in the real sense. An anchor symbolized a sailor's connection to shore; an albatross or crucifix might protect a seaman from drowning. (In the age of sail few sailors knew how to swim!) Johnny Depp's "Jack Sparrow" character in the popular Pirates of the Caribbean films gave us a laugh with eyes tattooed on his eyelids, but there's some sense to that practice. A sailor could grab forty winks and no one would know he was sleeping, especially the officers on the ship. Tattoos also offered reminders of home--the name of girlfriend for example or a sailor's hometown--and attested to his personality, line of work, and the risks associated with going to sea. Sea monsters, King Neptune, mermaids, anchors, ships--all were common symbols in nautical body art.

Tattooing has made a big comeback in recent years, and much for the same reason as in the days of sail. I've met a number of people sporting lighthouse tattoos. (I'm hesitant to get one myself: I'd have trouble deciding which lighthouse I should wear. The permanence of it is concerning too, and I dread the thought of what it would look like when I'm 95!) Usually, people with lighthouse tattoos tell me the design is a favorite lighthouse or symbolizes a virtue, such as strength or salvation or duty, or pays tribute to someone. Sometimes, they choose a lighthouse simply for its beauty. Some of the designs are stunning.  Type "lighthouse tattoo" into any search engine or on Pinterest, and you'll get many examples. Here's a folio of a few lighthouse tattoos--

First up is my friend and fellow author, Chris Mills of Ketch Harbour, Nova Scotia, with his upper arm lighthouse tattoo. If anyone deserves such a badge of honor, it's Chris. he's a former British Columbia lighthouse keeper who served on some really remote stations. Today he works for the Canadian Coast Guard servicing automated lighthouses. Gannet Rock Lighthouse is his choice. Last time he visited with me he flexed his biceps and triceps: "Stormy seas!"

 The design below is popular, the striped lighthouse. Notice the beams falling like waterfalls from the lantern. I like the message, "So shine a light." We should all shine a light, yes?

Raging seas speak volumes about struggles and overcoming adversity. Check out the two inundated towers below.

Next down the list is a screwpile lighthouse of the Chesapeake Bay variety. Possibly this is a favorite place to go or conjures wonderful childhood memories for the wearer.It certainly would be a conversation piece, since this style of lighthouse is not common.

This one below looks very much like North Head Lighthouse on the southwest coast of Washington. Kudos to the artist for a good likeness!

Why not two upper arm scenes? (above) Twin lights perhaps?

Below is surely a rendering of Cape Hatteras, a tribute to Sylvia, lucky girl.

This looks like Nauset Beach Light on Cape Cod. Lots of ink in this one!

...and below is a resemblance to Cape Neddick "Nubble" Lighthouse in Maine, complete with its signature red oil-house. The artist chose elements of the station, just the tower and oil-house, the island the sea.

Spilit Rock Lighthouse in Minnesota is below. No water laps at the base of the real Split Rock Light, though, as it sits high above Lake Superior on a rock outcropping. Yet, some elements were accurately preserved, like the blanking panels on the lantern to direct the light in a specific direction.

There are temporary lighthouse tattoos as well, and body painting designs. A few of the above examples may fall into those categories. Artists are so good it's hard to tell!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Who doesn't love stairs? They lead somewhere, sometimes a mysterious place. As a kid I loved to play on the stairs in our old, drafty house. The stairway was enclosed, because there was no heat upstairs, but it had a window at the bottom overlooking the front porch. It was great fun to hide in the semi-dark stairway or hop my stuffed bears up and down the steps in a pretend game of mountain-climbing. Those stairs were synonymous with morning--coming down at daylight and opening the door to wonderful kitchen smells of breakfast--and bedtime too, trudging up step-by-step in pajamas and slippers. Latr, as a teenager, I lived in an old house with a beautiful oak staircase. The second to last step before the landing creaked loudly. The trick when coming to bed very late was to skip that step so as not to wake my mother! Perhaps this childhood fascination with stairs is why I like lighthouse stairways.

Stairs are a feature of almost every lighthouse, and they come in myriad styles and lengths. I always take photos of the stairways in lighthouses I visit. Stairways tell us a lot about the character and purpose of a lighthouse. I climbed tiny Lake Kootenay Lighthouse in British Columbia last summer. It has wooden stairs, very steep (pictured below). The local historical society keeps the interior of the lighthouse crisply painted and clean.

The big lighthouses of the Outer Banks--Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island, Currituck--have long, spiral staircases made of cast iron. These were made in foundries in the mid to late nineteenth century. They are open framework, a design meant to reduce weight and allow air to move freely through the towers. There's no central column around which the stairs are fitted. They are anchored into the inner walls of their lighthouses. Leaning over the railing and looking up or down is a thrill.

A central column spiral stairway is common is small lighthouses though. Below are the stairs at New Dungeness Light Station in Washington, where I've served as a volunteer keeper numerous times. For such a tall lighthouse, it's surprising to see this style of closed, central column stairway. It's a long jaunt to the lantern!

Here's the stairway in another small lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay. Notice I got my foot in the photo, which isn't such a bad thing. It gives some sense of scale to the image. The treads are a modern addition, I'm sure, probably installed by the Coast Guard for safety. The old U.S. Lighthouse Establishment didn't care much about safety; better worded, they weren't fixated about it like we are today.

Some lighthouses have stone stairways. Amelia Island Lighthouse, Stonington Lighthouse, and Concord Point Lighthouse in the United States are good examples. They're small lighthouses made of stone, and the stairways are built into their walls. Below is Keoghi Lighthouse in Greece. It has a marble stairway! Architects and builders used whatever was available and cheap. In Greece, marble is abundant.

This stairway is also marble. It's in Greece's Kakokefali Lighthouse where I spent almost a week in 2008. The checkerboard pattern floor is marble too. I was surprised to find that the marble stairs and floor were painted! I suppose painting kept the keepers busy on slow days, so they weren't tempted to get into trouble. Kakokefali's stairs were installed in the 1880s when the lighthouse was built. They have depressions where feet have worn them down.

Cap Arkona Lighthouse in Germany (Baltic Coast) has a really pretty stairway. Below is my friend Darlene Chisolm on the final course of stairs leading to the lantern. It's a tight spiral.

There are all manner of fun stories and sad stories too about lighthouse stairs--
The late Charles Settles of San Juan Island, Washington, told me he and his sister used to play with beads of mercury on the stairs of Lime Kiln Lighthouse when their father sieved out the mercury from the float where the lens rested. The high density mercury made the lens revolve effortlessly, but the mercury got dirty and had to be cleaned. Always, a few beads escaped during the sieve process, and the kids had fun rolling them down the stairs like tiny marbles. Mercury is poisonous, I reminded Mr. Settles. He just laughed and said he was proof it wasn't as bad as everyone claimed.

Many lighthouses have ghosts on their stairs. While I don't believe in ghosts, I do understand how one could believe they exist in lighthouses. The stairways often are shadowy, damp, and full of echoes. I climbed Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse many years ago with a Coast Guard keeper. He dropped his pen down through the stairs by accident as we neared the top of the tower. It made the strangest sounds as it worked its way down through the tower. In Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, the air currents can feel like a clammy hand touching you as you climb. St. Simons Lighthouse has a stairway ghost, reputed to be the spirit of past keeper, and the creak and moan of the metal stariways in the Reef Lights of Florida have, understandably, spawned ghost tales. Metal expands when warm and contracts when cold and makes sounds as it does so. This might explain why those poltergeists are most often heard at twilight or just after sunset. As the temperature changes, the metal responds in a noisy manner.

There were occasional falls and other accidents on stairs. Sally Snowman, who was caretaker of Boston Light for many years, had a dog on the station with her that fell down the stairs. He survived with minor bruises. A lightkeeper at Bodie Lighthouse in North Carolina  was hit by a bolt of lightning that discharged down the metal stairway. Thankfully, he also survived.

A sordid activity in years past, when lighthouses were left open to the public without docents on duty, was throwing items down lighthouse stairs. Spitting and urinating down the stairways was popular with vandals too, and disgusting. Huntington Island Lighthouse in South Carolina used to be left wide open 24 hours a day. When I climbed it in the summer of 1983 the smell of urine inside was overpowering. There were soda cans and other garbage in the base of the tower, and the lens that was sitting in the base was missing prisms. I'm glad to report the lighthouse is now cleaned up and cared for by the park and the lens is in a better place.

One of the wildest stairway stories concerns old Cape Florida Lighthouse on Key Biscayne. Seminoles set fire to it during the 1830s with the keepers inside. The wooden stairway burned out completely and left one surviving keeper stranded on top. The other keeper was shot. The survivor was rescued, but was badly burned and injured. The old engraving below depicts the event.

Modern stair-climber exercise machines might keep us in touch with the exertions of yesterday's lighthouse keepers as they daily ascended and descended lighthouse stairs, sometimes a dozen times or more. At the very tallest lighthouses, duty was a cardio-vascular adventure! It's funny how we'd rather take an elevator or escalator than stairs these days, yet we go to the gym and get on those exercise machines.Old lighthouse keepers would laugh at this contradiction in modern behavior!

One final note from science:
A spiral stairway is a very old invention that combines several simple machines, the screw and the inclined plane. A spiral stairway is actually a special version of the ladder, which is a ramp with steps. A spiral stairway is a ramp wrapped around a pole. It's a screw with steps. Mindboggling!

Spirals are ubiquitous forms in nature, from a chambered nautilus shell to the shape of a galaxy to a small bone in our inner ear. The mathematician Fibonacci came up with a special numbering system to explain spirals.

Who knew lighthouse stairs were so complex??!!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Birthday of the First Lady of Light

Today, June 4th, is the birth date of Constance Scovill Small (1901-2005). She was a great friend and resource for my books and articles about lighthouse life. I glibly referred to her as my #1 living lighthouse relic! The photo above was taken June 1, 2001 on the occasion of her 100th birthday celebration in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I was holding a picture of Connie and me taken in the 1980s when I conducted the first of several interviews with her at her home in Portsmouth, Maine. She commented that we both looked much younger in the photo! We met numerous times thereafter for interviews and visits, and she kept up a lively letter correspondence with me until she was unable to wield a pen. She remained bright-eyed and lucid almost to the end of her life.

Connie was born in 1901 and spent much of her life on lighthouses. Her husband, Elson Small, was assigned to several lighthouses in Maine and New Hampshire. The photo below, of Connie feeding her chickens, is one of my favorites. (I love chickens and have a flock of my own.) The photo was taken in 1945 on Dochet Island, Maine. It's a great shot, with the lighthouse in the background. Connie and Elson had other livestock at this station, including a cow named Blossom who appeared with Elson in a PR photo for the Coast Guard when that entity took over management of the nation's lighthouses. Elson was shown in 1946 milking Blossom--a hint to would-be lightkeepers that life on a Coast Guard lighthouse was bucolic and pleasant. Another year the Smalls witnessed the cutting of the national Christmas tree on Dochet Island.

Connie told me life on lighthouses was anything but easy. She loved it, but it was very hard work. The worst assignment for the couple was Seguin Island Lighthouse at the mouth of the Kennebec River, Maine. Though only a mile from shore, it was isolated--bitterly cold in winter, damp all year, plagued by summer fog, and overrun with snakes and rodents. Connie big fluffy cat was a good rodent and snake catcher. Connie was afraid of snakes, and one day the cat brought one in the house and plopped it on the floor. "He was just giving me a gift," she said. She used a broom to sweep the disabled reptile out the door and gave her cat a thank-you pat on the back. Connie told me the keeper's house on Seguin Island was heated with coal and often in very cold winters the coal supply would run out before the lighthouse tender brought more coal. Connie would go down to the beach at the landing area and dig in the sand to see if she could find any coal that might have spilled in previous deliveries. She gathered driftwood too, to fuel the kitchen woodstove. The image below  of Seguin Island Lighthouse is from an old postcard.

Connie enjoyed working side-by-side with her husband for the many years they served on lighthouses. When I asked her about marital bliss, she admitted that being together 24/7 was challenging sometimes. She told me that when she and Elson had a disagreement, they would pause, take each other's hands, and remember how many things they agreed upon and cherished about each other. Elson would say, "Come on now, let's get to work. We have a lot to do." There was no going home to her mother or other escape. "We simply knew we had to get along, every day."

So many of the genuine people of the lighthouse service are gone, and others will go soon. Connie, thankfully, recorded her memories in a book called The Lightkeeper's Wife. It was published by Down East Books. Amazon has a link to it http://www.amazon.com/Lighthouse-Keepers-Connie-Scovill-Small/dp/089101098X/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1370367499&sr=1-7&keywords=the+lightkeepers+wife. It's a good read--the real thing from a gone-but-not-forgotten Down Easter of hardy stock. Happy Birthday, Connie!