Wednesday, October 19, 2016

A 1995 Interview

In 1995 I spoke to the "Literature of the Sea" course at the University of Connecticut (my Alma Mater!) as part of the "Working on the Water" seminar at Avery Point. The students also interviewed me about my work as an author and as a lighthouse historian/preservationist. More than 20 years later, much of that information is still viable and important to me. I'm sharing the interview here. I hope you enjoy it!

An Interview with Elinor De Wire

Keynote Speaker, "Working on the Water Seminar"

University of Connecticut at Avery Point


Interview transcript from students in “Literature & the Sea,” University of Connecticut at Avery Point

Photo by Jonathan DeWire, October 1995

Q:  Why do you feel it's important to preserve the stories of lighthouse keeping?

A:  The occupation of lighthouse keeper has officially ended in this country.  Except for the figurehead keepers assigned to Boston Light, there are no more lightkeepers in the traditional sense.  There's no need for them.  Lighthouses operate automatically and need only periodic checks by maintenance crews.  No one needs to turn the light or fog signal on and off.  There are all sorts of high-tech gadgets that have replaced the hands of the lightkeeper.  But they haven't replaced his heart.  Lightkeeping before the electronic age required a lot of devotion and fortitude.  The lifestyle was unique, and the people were special in many ways.  I think it's important to preserve the human history of lightkeeping before all the old keepers are gone.  Only a few are left.

Q:  How did you become interested in lighthouses and their keepers?

A:  My interest began in 1972 when I lived in Maine.  My husband and I were newlyweds then, with little money for entertainment.  We beach-combed a lot, and the lighthouses were there, wherever we went.  Maine has more than sixty lighthouses.  I was intrigued and started keeping a scrapbook on those I visited.  I took pictures, scribbled notes, wrote poems and stories, jotted down the names of people I met at lighthouses.  Before I knew it, the scrapbook had become a box, and then a bureau drawer.  Today, it occupies four filing cabinets in my office, and my house is full of trinkets and mementos from my lighthouse travels.  I think everyone ought to have a passion in life — something to care about, to be devoted to.  My passion is lighthouses.

Q:  Why do you think the public is so fascinated with lighthouses?

A:  Lighthouses symbolize things that are important to us, and things that give us comfort — strength, safety, guidance, salvation, a light in the darkness, the welcoming home of a weary traveler.  People have always regarded them as emblems of humanity, and, of course, their keepers have become legendary for their courage and sacrifice.  A lighthouse is a metaphor for human goodness.  It represents the best humanity has to offer, so naturally people are drawn to it.  For this reason, you see lots of images of lighthouses in advertising:  A bank or investment company might use the rock-solid, brightly-lit tower to sell itself, a soup company or clothing manufacturer might choose a lighthouse to represent traditional goodness and reliability, or a church might use the warm, comforting beam to convey divine guidance and deliverance from evil.  You can think of lots of examples — Cape Cod Potato Chips, Snow’s Seafood Soups, Mitchell College, WNLC Radio.  It's a very popular and meaningful symbol.

Q:  Do you have a favorite lighthouse?

A:  I love them all, of course, no matter how beautiful or plain.  But if I had to choose a favorite, it would probably be Nauset Lighthouse on Cape Cod.  It’s so well-preserved and interpreted for the public.  It embodies everything I think a lighthouse ought to be — tall, strong, architecturally handsome, a beautiful daymark, a classic look, a friendly place for people to visit.  The iron spiral stairs are wonderful.  The acoustics and air currents inside the tower are indescribable.  The grounds are beautiful too, with the backside beach nearby and the roar of waves.  The lighthouse’s history is compelling too. The site once had three small lighthouses lined up together, the nation’s only set of triple lighthouses. They are now displayed in the woods nearby.

Coast Guard Historian's Office Photo

Photo by Jonathan DeWire, 1979

Photo by Chris Cook

Q:  Few traditional lightkeepers are still living, but you were able to interview some of them.  Was there one you found particularly interesting?

A:  Frank Jo Raymond, who served on Latimer Reef Light off Stonington, Connecticut was fascinating to talk with — very candid.  He said some surprising things and dashed a few of my long-cherished images.  He couldn’t understand why people found lighthouse life so attractive.  He said if you lived that life you wouldn’t find it so fascinating.  He kept reminding me that it was “just a job;” yet, at times he waxed sentimental about it.  He talked a lot about nature, especially the weather.  He was very sensitive to wind and the most minute changes in it.  He was on the lighthouse during the 1938 hurricane, which devastated southern New England.  Frank was also an artist and musician, and that was an interesting facet of his life.  He was painting on the day I spoke with him.

Q:  What made the lightkeeping profession unique?

A:  There were aspects of lightkeeping that were found in few other jobs, and sometimes no other jobs.  The main characteristic of the lightkeeper was solicitude.  Early on, before the Lighthouse Service began regulating the job and assigning several personnel or relief keepers to lighthouses, lightkeepers worked 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.  It was truly a full time job, and it could be dangerous and exhausting.  Lightkeepers were expected to accept great personal risk during storms, wars, and other catastrophes; and they were required to rescue, house, and care for survivors of shipwrecks, as well as their neighbors, who also might be refugees from storms that carried away their homes.  Everyday life itself presented its own special problems, especially if the keeper and family were isolated on a remote island or headland.  Things like food and fresh water were often difficult to get and keep.  There was loneliness and anxiety.  It was hard to get mail, fetch a doctor, or send the children to school.  Living next to the sea exacted a price in loss of life and property.  There were good things, of course.  Lightkeepers were witness to incredible sights of nature, they had the sea for a playground and, when the fishing was good, a supermarket.  They were respected government servants, venerated for their virtuous duty.  And they must have experienced enormous job satisfaction knowing they were saving lives and shining a light to guide "those in peril on the sea."  The stories of lightkeeping are striking for their special, sea-spun character.  Think of all the joys and challenges that faced lightkeeping families, because they lived on or by the sea and had to keep a light through every kind of pleasure and tragedy.  No one will ever live that life again, because lightkeeping is obsolete.

Q:  Guardians of the Lights is a collection of stories about lightkeeping that exemplifies the life of the lightkeeper in America.  Is there one particular story that's your favorite?

At the time this interview was done, Guardians of the Lights had just been published and was in its first edition. The copy above is the 2007 edition. Steve Jones, who taught "Literature of the Sea," was featured on the cover. The tiny guy next to the lighthouse is my son, then age 16.

A:  As an author, I have a special feeling for all the stories I write. I love them all.  When I give my slide talk on lighthouse keepers, there are a few stories that always touch the audience more than others — make them laugh or sigh or gasp in surprise.  The story about the baby found in a box from a shipwreck off Hendricks Head Lighthouse is a touching one; so is the story about the rock garden on Mount Desert Rock Light, planted from soil brought out from the mainland.  I think people like these stories because they show the strength of character lightkeepers had and how they overcame adversity.  The story of the bull at Destruction Island who thought the lighthouse foghorn was a rival bull always brings a hearty laugh.  People are amazed, too, at the bird attacks and the storm stories and their attendant rescues.  I suppose my favorite story is the one I delight so much in telling — I call it "Buried and Married in the Same Day."  It's in the first chapter of Guardians, and it brings both a tear and a chuckle.  It's about a Massachusetts lightkeeper who takes his fragile new bride to live at remote Egg Rock Lighthouse.  She becomes ill and dies the first winter.  The keeper cannot get her ashore for a proper funeral, so he makes a coffin, places her in it, and puts her in the oil house to freeze.  In the spring, he takes her body ashore and has a quick funeral service.  Not wanting to return alone to the dismal isle lighthouse, he finds a willing spinster and gets married that very same afternoon.  His new wife returns with him to the lighthouse before sunset.

Q:  Was isolation, then, the most difficult aspect of lightkeeping?

A:  In most cases it was.  I think it really depended on the assignment.  Some isolated lighthouses were wonderful assignments, like Kilauea in Hawaii and Sanibel in Florida.  But those that were separated from land by difficult stretches of water had their problems.  St. George Reef Light was one; so were the lights at Farallon and Minots Ledge.  If you got sick on these stations, and the sea was too rough, you couldn't get ashore to a hospital, and a doctor couldn't get to you.  Sometimes people died.  Kids couldn't get to school; delivery of supplies was at the whim of the sea.  Loneliness made life on remote lighthouses difficult too.  The Lighthouse Service eventually forbade families to live at isolated stations.

Q:  What do you think the future holds for lighthouses now that the lightkeeping profession has ended and many electronic advances are replacing lighthouses?

A:  It's true we don't need lighthouses anymore — traditional lighthouses, that is.  The modern navigator has much more accurate and dependable systems available, such as GPS.  But any navigator, from the small boater to the skipper of a huge tanker, will tell you there's something very comforting about seeing a lighthouse and using its beacon to determine position or guide a vessel to safe harbor.  No matter how sophisticated the electronics become, we still feel more at ease when there's visual confirmation.  This is sentimentality, of course.  It's not easy to grab hold of new technology without a pang of regret at letting go of the old, especially when the old is as beautiful and nostalgic as a lighthouse.  I think lighthouses will become obsolete someday, maybe soon.  Many of them already are.  The small boater still needs them, but the day will come when even he or she won't.  Then it will be up to the public to see that these old relics are saved.  We'll have to decide which ones are worth saving, because it's going to be difficult, if not impractical, to save them all.  We're experiencing that now.  Many communities are angry with the Coast Guard and their local governments because a beloved lighthouse is deteriorating or being vandalized or slated for demolition.  It's important that we decide what to save and then do a commendable job saving it.  A retired lighthouse deserves respect.  It shouldn't have to masquerade as a gift shop, a hamburger stand, or a decoration on a mini golf course.  There are plenty of willing souls out there who'll scrape and paint and sweep to keep a lighthouse, even after it's been retired.  I call them the "New Keepers."

Photo by Jonathan DeWire, 1986

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