Tuesday, October 29, 2013

National Cat Day

There seems to be a national day for almost everything. Some national days seem rather silly, like National Stuffed Animal Day or National Sandwich Day or National Flip Flop Wearing Day. Others have significance and substance. I like National Astornomy Day, which floats its date each year according to the moon's phase and what planets are visible, and I like National Lighthouse Day--August 7th--of course. This Friday, November 1st is National Author Day. (Hooray for me! Perhaps my husband has some exciting activity planned to celebrate my success. Dinner out at my favorite eatery??)

Today, October 29th, is National Cat Day. Meow! Purr! Rub! Being a cat lover and cat owner, I like the idea of National Cat Day. On the way home from campus today I heard on public radio about the importance of cats in our lives and that they outnumber all other species as pets in American homes. They are considered therapeutic for some people. (Me? Probably.) That seems to qualify National Cat Day as something akin to a federal holiday, I think. My sister would agree. She has, at any given time, at least ten cats, most rescued from a cat dumping spot about a half-mile behind her house. (Why do people throw away cats? They're not disposable pets!)

October 29th is a good day for NCD. It's near Halloween, a time we often think of cats and their eerie habits, their flitting nocturnal forms, silent footsteps, and coven consorts. We once feared the prospect of a black one crossing our path. Cats got a bad rap in days of yore and were labeled unlucky. But lucky for them, their reputation has  improved in recent years. These days, they're simply fun emblems of a scary night. I have a black cat on my front porch for Halloween

In fact, there's a lot of cat minutia around my house--trinkets really. My laundry room is decorated in a cat theme; it's the unofficial room for my two cats. Their litterbox and drinking fountain and food bowls are in the laundry room, and on any given day they can be found curled up in the laundry basket on top of the dryer (warm!) or napping in the yarn baskets on the upper shelf. Sometimes, they sit in the laundry room window and stare and stare at the world outside.

"Cat in the Window." It's an iconic image for anyone who is owned by a housecat, and an image I chose for my new e-Book publishing company. That's the late, great Zsa Zsa below, a.k.a. "Lighthouse Kitty." She saw me through many of my writing projects 1996-2009.

She was the star of "Kids on the Beam," the column I wrote for Lighthouse Digest for many years. She got lots of fan mail, which she always answered (with my assistance, of course), she had her own email address and website, and she is immortalized in a painting that hangs--where else but--in my laundry room! Above, she's shown sitting on my office computer in 2006 as I worked on The Lighthouse Keepers' Menagerie: Stories of Animals at Lighthouses. It has an entire chapter about cats that lived at lighthouses. I ended up dedicating the book to Zsa Zsa the Lighthouse Kitty. (You know you've written a lot of books when you start dedicating them to your pets!)

The radio pitch today was really a call to action: Please visit your local humane society and adopt a cat. Humane societies and shelters are crowded with cats and kittens this autumn. The end of summer usually brings a rise in feline numbers at shelters. Many more litters are born in the warmer months than in winter, and lots of cats wander away in the summer months, or are abandoned by people who think cats can live on their own. Many can, but... They need and deserve homes. I do my share to make sure some of them get a good home. Here in the DeWire household, they live like royalty!

I've had many shelter cats over the years. Currently, I have two--Sophie and Sadie. Both came from my local humane society. Yes, I know their names sound like they're a couple of saloon girls! They are, all decked out in fancy fur, glamorous made-up eyes, and with personalities full of fun and devilment. They're beauties, as you can see from the pictures below. Sometimes I get them confused and call them Sodie and Saphie, especially when they're chasing each other over my desktop when I'm hard at work.
Sophie, top, is almost two and a short haired tabby-tortie. Sadie, bottom, is one-half (seven months old tomorrow) and looks like she has a little Maine Coon in her pedigree. Both girls love my office and sprawl on my desks, sit on my computer towers and book shelves, play with my pens and paper clips and rubber-bands, harass the single fantail goldfish in my little office aquarium, and sleep in a cushioned chair by one of the windows. Every morning, they sit in my office window like statues, watching the birds and buggies. They're writer's cats, all the way.

In the archives of my blog you'll find a post I did months ago on writers and their cats. Some very famous writers have had cats, including Hemingway, Flaubert, T.S. Eliot, and Twain. A picture of a cat on Mark Twain's mantle in his Hartford, Connecticut home became famous as the "object" of his nightly fabricated tales for his daughters. I have a print of that cat in a frame. It's a reminder to me that cats are good grist for writers.

Below is a shot of Hootie, a cat that owned our family from 1986-2001. (No, he wasn't named for the band, Hootie and the Blowfish. He preceded them.) His face appeared on an issue of Weatherwise Magazine. I wrote an article for the issue called "Feline Forecasters." Our cats were the no-cost models for the images used in the article. The only pay they got was extra food. After his debut on the magazine, Hootie went by the epithet "Cover Boy."

Dusty, shown sphinx-like on the stairway railing in our house in 1978, was the inspiration for my first short story, published in Cat Fancy in December 1982. It was titled "For the Need," and featured a ghost-like cat that resided in a house where various renters and owners came and went, always with a need the cat met. Another story Dusty inspired was called "The Two-Timer," about a cat that lived at two homes. She two-timed us in Florida, mooching off our neighbor and even being let in her house for treats and naps.

There were other cats in my life--Ruby, Pooh, Boots, Cody, Puff, Buster, Warhead (named by my Navy ordnance officer husband!)--and other stories and articles too. In fact, I've written so many cat tales--fiction and true--I should wrangle them into an e-Book. It might be a good seller on National Cat Day!

A final note: I find it ironic that Amazon calls its e-Book business Kindle, the term for a litter of kittens...and for starting a fire! Stroke your cat from head to toe on a dry, cold day if you want to feel that spark of fire in every cat. (Yeah, I know it's just static electricity...or is it?)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Oktoberfest and Lighthouse Beer

Did lighthouse keepers drink beer? Perhaps. Probably. Yes.

In the U.S. Lighthouse Service, alcohol was strictly forbidden at light stations. But we can be sure it was consumed. I've interviewed many descendents of the keepers who served under the old USLHE and have been told drinking was commonplace and that some keepers even made their own brew: "We hid the brew under the floorboards of the kitchen," one woman said. (I'll protect her identity.) "When the inspector came and walked over that spot on the floor, the floorboards squeaked and we held our breath. One visit he told my dad to get that floorboard fixed--nail it down tight. Ha! If he only knew!"

The Coast Guard keepers I spoke with at New London Ledge Lighthouse in the late 1980 said they were grateful to the local fishermen who often stopped by the waterbound tower on their way home from a day's work and dropped off a six pack. I heard the same story from an early 1970s keeper at Delaware's Harbor of Refuge Light. He said the crew had a special sling for the beer that they lowered into the bay to keep it cold. If they saw one of the Cape May Coast Guard officers approaching in a boat, they hauled up the cache and hid it.

The granddaughter of a 1920s Fire Island lighthouse keeper told me her grandmother often took over the lighthouse duties on Friday night because the keeper (her grandfather?) and his assistant were too drunk to get up the long, spiral stairway. Usually, the men went ashore on Fridays to get mail and supplies and visited the local taproom. "Don't drink and drive a boat" wasn't a self-imposed rule for the two men.

Looking back at issues of the Lighthouse Service Bulletin, published from 1912 to 1939, I've seen a number of entries that read something like: "Keeper of ___________ Lighthouse dismissed for drunkeness."  Logbook entries at lighthouses sometimes had telling notes: "Asst. Keeper got drunk and cussed me out..."

I suppose anything forbidden was all the more desirable. And when you lived far from the charms of civilization and worked at a tedious job, getting drunk was a way to cope.

In recent years, lighthouses have become popular motifs with breweries. I have a sizable collection of beer bottles with lighthouse labels, though I'm not a beer drinker. I usually pour out the contents and keep the bottle. We moved a lot during our active duty years with the U.S. Navy, and a bottle full of liquid--any liquid--can't be shipped with a moving company. If I wanted to keep my lighthouse beer bottle collection, the bottles had to be empty. You can imagine the amused expressions on the packers' faces as they carefully wrapped and boxed the bottles before they were taken on the moving van.

On a trip to British Columbia last year to do some research, I was excited to find a brewing company in Victoria that features several BC lighthouses on its labels. And there are many others...

Here's a fun collection of lighthouse beers and breweries, in honor or Oktoberfest!
Above, the Lighthouse Brewing Company of Victoria, BC offers several lighthouse beers. Below is their pretty label, featuring Race Rocks Lighthouse.

Bodie Island Lighthouse on the Outer Banks gets the honors on this label. A deer riding in a rowboat? I'm not sure what the message is there. Maybe there's an explanation on the carton.

A brew made in Belize! I love the pretty green bottles. Eventually, they might become sea glass. I find a lot of green sea glass--the most common color, I think.

A brew from Lincoln City, Oregon. Is that lighthouse sitting on a whale's head? And does that whale look a bit inebriated?

The old Eddystone Light--the first one--is featured on this UK label.

Here's an acrostic-type lighthouse on the label.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse appears on several beers. Notice the light's rays are symbolic of "blond-ness."

I think this one is Australian--a modest brew considering some of the rough-sounding names for Aussie beers. Dog Bolter is one I remember from my visit to Fremantle in 2000. The sea foam and beer foam seem to go together.

This one even has a cute slogan!
When the night is right...
Get LIT on Barnegat Light!
But don't get wrecked!

And then there are the breweries and pubs...

The lighthouse as beer bottle? Or, the beer bottle as lighthouse?  This is some clever Photoshop work.  From the appearance of the cliff in the first image, I'd say the Photoshopper swapped out Yaquina Head Lighthouse for Corona Lighthouse. I like the lime slice on the cupola. Zesty!

An old tin wall ad for Goebel Beer. The caption says, "It's Mellow-ized!"

And last, below is an actual photo taken when a work crew was sent out to Beachy Head Lighthouse off Dover, England. The place was lonesome, the work was hard, and they painted a request for passing ships to see. I hope they got their beer.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Lighthouse Keepers Do Windows

Who likes to wash windows? I do. I love a clean, sparkling window, but I get discouraged by the streaks. Is there a non-streaking window cleaner that really works? And that continuous motion of washing makes my right shoulder hurt a bit. It’s an old injury from a nasty fall I had about thirty years ago. Probably, window washing is good PT for it. 

Yes, I do like a clean, shiny window...the kind you would have seen at a lighthouse a hundred years ago. Today, I’m reminded of that as the sun drops lower in the autumn sky each day and in October shines directly in the cathedral windows of my living room. Oh, those streaks! So many of them! They weren’t visible until the sun decided to shine a light on them. If only I had a real lighthouse keeper to wash my windows.

Lightkeepers were expert window washers. It was part of their job. The lighthouse inspector came as often as every quarter in some locales and put his white-gloved hands on everything. The windows—in the lighthouse and the lantern room, in the residence, storehouse, oil house, workroom, boathouse, and in all the buildings on station—had to be spotless, with no dirt or residue or streaks.
The cleaner of choice in the old lightkeeping days was vinegar diluted in water, or a concoction of salts of ammonia and water. Sometimes, keepers referred to the cleaner as “spirits of wine,” though it wasn’t really the ethanol we know it to be today.  The recipe is actually a bit of mystery. I’d say "spirits of wine" wasn’t something to drink , but that it was relatively streakless when applied with a soft linen cloth and didn’t scratch. A drop of liquid soap would have boosted the cleaning power and made it slide smoothly over glass. That same cleaner might have been used on the lighthouse lens itself, an aggregate of delicate prisms and brass. But there was another set of cleaning rules for lenses--a topic for another blog post after I interview lens expert, Chad Kaiser, about it.

To do a “little light housekeeping” was a popular joke among lightkeepers, and it still is with groups that maintain old lighthouses. I have a cute collectible doorknob hanger in my office that glibly states: "Needed--A woman to do a little light housekeeping." It features a picture of man standing next to a lighthouse. It's a joke, yes, but lighthouse historians know women hired by the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment were fastidious lightkeepers and housekeepers.

Check out some images below of window washing at lighthouses.

Beachy Head Lighthouse, England is pictured above circa 1940. You can see the side of the lens assembly on the left and one of the chariot wheels that made the lens revolve. (From Sheila Ryan's blog)

 Here's some serious winter window cleaning in an illustration on the cover of the December 1876 Harper's Weekly. This situation is one of the reasons the British, French, and American lighthouse authorities began building handholds into the lantern windows. Cleaning windows on a day like this one was risky. Notice the keeper is standing on the icy gallery railing to reach the top of the lantern window. Yikes!

Irving Conlin, himself a California lightkeeper, snapped this photo of a keeper cleaning the lantern windows at Point Vicente Lighthouse about 1940.  You can see the built-in handhold I mentioned in the previous caption just below his left hand. Notice the pretty bow windows. These allowed rain and snow to slide off easier than flat windows, and their diagonal astragals (metal frames) supposedly didn't interfere with the light as much as the horizontal type. (Nautical Research Center Collection)

This picture, courtesy of the Great Lakes Lightkeepers Association, has volunteers cleaning the windows on St. Helena Lighthouse. This station is a showpiece for the association and its education site.

In 2005 I visited Point Conception Lighthouse in California with a Coast Guard crew. While I poked around the site and took pictures, two of the Coasties cleaned the lantern windows and did some maintenance on the tower.

"I wanna be a lighthouse keeper, and live down by the sea," an old song goes. I got that chance! In 2004, during a week-long stint as keepers at New Dungeness Light Station in Sequim, Washington, Jonathan and I gave the lighthouse a little TLC--new inside walls, some paint, a fix to the lantern railing, and a good cleaning. This is me washing the windows of the lantern. I loved the job--such an honor to do the work I've written so much about!! (Photo by Jonathan DeWire)

And just for fun...
Click on the image to enlarge the cartoon.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Christopher Columbus and the Lighthouse Connection

Columbus Day—a day to relax from my teaching duties and a day to remember a great explorer.

Sadly, Christopher Columbus, great “Admiral of the Ocean Seas,”  has been much maligned in recent years. He’s been taken down a peg or two as discoverers go. Did he really discover America? Technically, no. Historic evidence leans toward the Vikings, and of course Amerigo Vespucci gets the naming honors. Columbus got close—the Bahamas—but did he set foot on the North American mainland itself? No. And we also know (but for centuries blinded outselves to the fact) that there were thousands of Native Americans in America on October 12, 1492, so we must accept that “discovery” is an odd, in accurate word for what Columbus accomplished.

No, he wasn’t the first westerner to find America, but no one would deny he was an exceptional navigator in his day, a man of unusual vision. He had just the right amount of persistence and pluck to find the money for his venture and stay the course through adversity and doubt to find those Bahamian islands in the Caribbean that count as “America.” He never quite set foot on the mainland, no, but we appreciate his efforts and how close he came, if only because of the Federal Holiday he bequeathed us.

We know a lot about Columbus, but perhaps one thing not recognized is his connection to lighthouse history.  Cristoforo Columbo (his proper Italian name) grew to love the sea in the middle of the Fifteenth Century during visits with his uncle, Antonio Columbo, who was the keeper of the great lighthouse at Genoa, Italy .  Genoa was an exceedingly busy and prosperous port in the 1400s, and as such, deserved its own lighthouse. Such emblems of civility and welcome were rare in this pre-cinquecento period. Historians believe the Lighthouse at Genoa, often referred to simply as La Lanterna (the light) was at this time the best-known lighthouse in the world.

Antonio Columbo became lightkeeper in 1449 and was still serving at the lighthouse when his nephew Cristoforo was born the following year.  He continued to work in the lighthouse as Columbus grew to manhood, and he was his nephew’s favorite uncle. Young Cristoforo might have followed tradition and become a weaver and cheese dealer like his father, Domenico Columbo. History is glad he didn’t. The call of the sea--an enormous uncharted frontier at the time--was loud and clear. As the son of a merchant, Cristoforo certainly came to understand the origin of Genoa’s wealth and the need to develop new trade routes to sustain it.

Inspiration for the young Columbus came from two sources: His brother, Bartolomeo, worked in a cartography shop. Its colorful and varied maps intrigued the boy, especially maps with large empty spaces and drawings of mythical sea monsters and unknown lands. On days he was not helping his father in the family businesses in Genoa, Columbus often slipped away and climbed the hill to San Benigno and the stately lighthouse. Here, he went to the top of the tower to help his uncle tend the oil lamps and polish the mirror that amplified the light. He may have marveled at the lighthouse’s curious fish weathervane topped with a cross—a symbol of Christianity. Even more, the elevated view of the commercial activities in the harbor below, the briny smells wafting up from the port, and the distant and enigmatic flat horizon over which toylike ships appeared and disappeared, beckoned to him.

The great stone lighthouse was one of the oldest sentinels in the world, even in Columbus’ day, and mariners everywhere knew it well. Originally established around 1128 as a tiered tower resembling a fortress, it dominated the profile of Genoa from sea and land.  The well-traveled coastal road to the city passed between the lighthouse and the sea. A cobble road led to the hill where the lighthouse stood and inside the great tower stone steps--each one hand-hewn--led to the lantern, modern for its time and fueled by wood. Ships entering the harbor at Genoa paid port dues which helped maintain the lighthouse and pay its lightkeeper. But the tower was also, at various times in its career, maintained by local merchants and the Church. By the time Antonio Columbo became the lightkeeper—a much venerated occupation—the Lighthouse of Genoa was illuminated with olive oil lamps and was part of the city walls. It was the most defining structure of the shoreline and a symbol of the city itself.

In some of his writings, Columbus claimed that he went to sea by the age of ten.  Perhaps he exaggerated in saying this, but certainly his life in one of the world’s greatest ports allowed him to rub shoulders with seaman and yearn for the roving life asea. What boy wouldn’t have been enamored with the idea of living on a ship and traveling to new places? (It could be compared to a desire to be an astronaut today.) By age twenty, Columbus had signed aboard a Genovese fighting ship to protect the city of Naples. Subsequent voyages on various types of vessels took him to many places in Europe. He learned everything he could about seamanship.

In his twenties, he married into a wealthy family, had a family of his own, and began working the trade routes of the Mediterranean and West African coast. He was becoming ever more self-educated, with extensive knowledge of geography, cartography, astronomy, and history, and he had mastered numerous languages. He was well-read, an astute thinker and speaker, and sensible enough to know anyone who found new lands found new trade routes…and fame too.

He was also a skillful enough sailor to know the Earth is round. Many of us who were educated years ago were fed a sanitized, altered version of history, one that taught us that the popular notion of Columbus’ day was of a flat Earth. The prevailing Fifteenth Century belief was quite different—a least a spherical world in some form. Anyone as nautically experienced as Columbus knew the planet was round. Seeing Genoa’s lighthouse appear on the horizon and rise above it as he approached his native city, or drop and disappear as he departed, was proof enough.

The rest is history, all-too-familiar….
In 1492, with funding from the Spanish monarchs and Italian investors, Cristoforo Columbo, a robust man in his forties, set off on August 3, 1492 from Palos de la Frontera, Spain with three ships, some passable maps, his Bible, journal, and navigating instruments, extensive knowledge of the sea and sailing, excellent navigators in the Pinzón brothers, and a dedicated heart and taste for adventure. The crossing was not overly eventful considering it was dreadfully hot and hurricane season; he rode the same route as tropical cyclones do.

In the night on October 11th Columbus stood at the rail of the Santa Maria and spied a light on the horizon—not a lighthouse, but a bonfire, he said. Hours later, not long after midnight on October 12th, the lookout on the Pinta sighted the moonlit profile of land, present-day San Salvador. But Columbus’ claim that he had “seen the light” hours before ensured he would receive the first-to-sight-land prize promised by the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella—a lifetime pension. 

If there was a light on the shore that night (and many historians believe Columbus falsely claimed thus) , it could very well have been a lighthouse in the metaphoric sense. One of history’s most celebrated men—much bruised by recent theories about who saw America first and our modern sensitivity about altering the truth to suit our needs—was himself a lighthouse. And as proof, I'll add that the great navigator today has his own lighthouse in the Dominican Republic. Columbus Memorial Lighthouse was dedicated in 1992 for the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first historic voyage. The lighthouse is shaped like a cross and has 157 beams of light that are directed skyward. The interior houses a museum of the Americas and various memorials to Columbus.

If the Great Admiral were to sail by today, he’d have no trouble finding this island!

A nice video of a visit to the Columbus Memorial Lighthouse can be found on You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vC2E1DtJtc
(All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Free to Hurl My Lance at Anything

Freelance. This past week, I said this word in one of my college classes, and students had never heard it. They were asking about my “other job” as a writer, and I told them I worked as a freelance writer. “A what kind of writer?” they asked.

Freelance. I suspect a lot of people work freelance. They run their own schedules, generate their own work, and cobble together a career and an income. In a way, I’m a freelance professor, I told my students. I’m an adjunct and can take or leave the classes I’m offered as my schedule and whim permit. Every class is taught on a contractual basis. I get paid by the credit hour. Freelance teaching, I think I could call it.

I’ve been a freelance writer since 1982. It's hard to think more than thirty years have passed since I took the leap into self-employment as a writer. I remember visiting the local library in Deltona, Florida where I lived when I launched my writing career. There was a huge collection of books in the nonfiction section of the library devoted exclusively to freelance writing. There were probably 150 books on the subject. I was astonished and asked the librarian about them. "It's a popular career here," she said. Deltona was largely a retirement community in those days, and lots of folks try their hand at writing when they retire.

I checked out the books on freelance writing eight at a time—the limit per subject per checkout. I read them cover to cover, took notes, and tried to apply the advice they gave. It worked. I was published within the year. The first thing I sold was an article on lighthouses to The Compass, the magazine of Mobil Oil Company. It’s out of circulation now—a victim of budget squeezing and the Internet—but it was a classy publication and a wonderful career starter for me. I eventually sold about twenty articles to it.

Hundreds of articles and eighteen books later, I’m still happily freelancing. I’ve done a little freelance editing and freelance exhibit design and scriptwriting too. I think I'll always be a freelance worker. I did a stint as a public school teacher for a few years, but I like freelance work better, including the freelance teaching I now do at a community college. Freelancing allows me to take contracts and assignments based on what I know I do best.

Talking with my students reminded me of the origin of the word freelance. It goes back to medieval days when rich landowners had small armies to protect their castles and lands. Sometimes, those wealthy dukes and barons, even princes and kings, needed more soldiers to fight for them. The mercenaries they hired—paid for their services--called themselves freelancers, because anyone was free to hire their lances; they fought for pay. I think it’s rather fascinating that the word survives today to describe anyone working for himself or herself. I suppose "taking a stab at" various kinds of work is a good metaphor for the freelance life. (Confession: I secretly wish I had a lance hanging on my office wall!)

National Freelance Day is November 21st. Perhaps I should wait to post this, until November. But it’s too much on my mind to wait, too interesting. It made for a teachable moment in class this week. I'll be sure to celebrate in November.

Freelance writing, freelance teaching, freelance editing, freelance scriptwriting…It’s a good life!