Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2013

The Importance of Being Ernest

By Brian Gersten


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It was a chilly Sunday morning when Ernie DeRaps heard a frantic knock at the door of Maine’s Heron Neck lighthouse. Standing in the walkway was a man who resembled a drowned corpse, holding a little girl under his arm, with a small boy clinging to his side. The man stumbled over his words, trying to explain to Ernie that their boat had overturned and his nephew was still stuck on a rock off the coast. The tide was coming, the surf was rising, and the stranded boy couldn’t swim.

Ernie’s “unsinkable boat” was in for repairs so he was forced to take a 10-foot skiff into the rough, frigid waters. Without thinking twice, he took off in the skiff, maneuvering past jagged rocks and surging waves. Ernie navigated through the treacherous obstacle course, making his way closer to the helpless boy. The lighthouse keeper swooped in around the young man who grasped to the rock for his life.

The youngster refused to jump into Ernie’s boat, and it was only a matter of time before the boy would be swallowed up by a sudden swell. Finally, after the sixth pass by the rock, Ernie extended his arm out as far as it would reach, snatched up the boy with his fist, and dragged him into the boat. He then returned the boat to shore, tied it to the dock, and walked the traumatized boy up to the lighthouse where his family was eagerly awaiting his arrival.

“That’s just one of those many things that happened,” Ernie says, recounting the story. In his prime, Ernest DeRaps (or “Ernie” as he likes to be called) looked like a hyper-realistic Popeye, merely lacking a corncob pipe and a mouthful of spinach. Nowadays, the 84-year-old Mainer looks fragile, but his handshake could make an arm wrestler blush. A cloud of white hair covers the back of his oval head. His thin-framed glasses rest squarely on his face. He wears a simple gray flannel shirt, beige khakis, and white Velcro shoes.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, Ernie and his family lived at Monhegan Island Light, then Fort Point Light, and finally Brown’s Head Light, all in Maine. But at Heron Neck Light, Ernie was on his own. Life on lighthouses was often isolating and laborious. Foggy nights at Brown’s Head were met with the incessant wailing of a deafening siren to signal vulnerable boats. As it so happened, his bedroom was right next to the booming fog siren. When stationed at island lights, the water supply either came from the roof or was brought over by the lighthouse tender. Ernie examined water samples once a month to ensure it was safe for drinking, and would occasionally have to add bleach for purification. Then there was the matter of being away from his family during his time at Heron Neck. He couldn’t even come to his father’s deathbed because he was stranded out on an island.

At Monhegan Island Lighthouse, Ernie had to become familiar with an incandescent oil vapor lamp, a challenging lighting system unlike any of the other lighthouses he worked at. To light the lamp, he first used a Bunsen burner to preheat kerosene, which eventually became a fine gas vapor when it reached a certain temperature. A hand-operated air pressure pump then forced the kerosene into the lighting mechanism within the lens. With an 8-by-6-foot lens, Ernie had to get right inside the apparatus in order to light it. Finally, in a miniature room underneath the light, he wound up a clock mechanism with a series of weights in order to rotate the lens. He needed to time this perfectly so that a ship on the water could see a flash every minute. Ernie couldn’t simply flip a switch.

Nowadays, because of radar, sonar, and GPS, many of the 650-some lighthouses scattered throughout the U.S. no longer serve a meaningful purpose. All lights have been automated, so there’s no need for lighthouse keepers. At one time, lighthouses were a symbol for American heroism and steadfastness. Now, instead of a beacon for boats, they are beacons for tourists. And sadly, most of those tourists could care less about the history and the sacrifices that were once made by the people who lived at them.

At Portland Head Light, in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, tour buses routinely roll into the bustling parking lot. White-haired, white-faced sexagenarians slowly disperse. Cameras dangle from the necks of tourists who have wind-burned ears and noses. Others clench tripods, camera bags, and iPhones, eager to take photographs of an oft-forgotten monument. “Say ‘cheese!’“ an overzealous woman says to her companion before snapping a photo of him in front of the empty lighthouse tower.

Sitting directly underneath Portland Head Light are serrated, rocky outcroppings that look like ancient Mesoamerican daggers jutting out from the coastline. Atop one of the rocks is inscribed, “Annie C. Maguire. Shipwrecked Here Christmas Eve. 1886.” Once this was the sight of nautical nightmares and daring rescue operations. Now, the lens within the lighthouse tower spins aimlessly like a never-ending load of laundry, and the keeper’s living quarters have been converted into a museum. There are no more light keepers, no more heroes of the light.

Nestled halfway between the mountains and the sea, in the town of Richmond, Maine is the home away from lighthouses of Ernie and Pauline DeRaps. The single story home, which Ernie meticulously constructed himself, sits at the end of a narrow dirt road, shaded by rows of pines, oaks, and sumacs. In the front yard, a model lighthouse tower stands slightly off-balance in the grass.

“I’ll have a tea if you don’t mind,” says Ernie, ensconced on his maroon La-Z-Boy reclining chair in the corner. “Yea, I mind. I’ll send you the bill,” Pauline fires back, walking past their cat Ben-Z who lays spread-eagled on the carpet.

The kitchen is immaculate. Pauline keeps the home spotless, a result of countless unscheduled lighthouse inspections from U.S. Coast Guard Commanders. When living at lighthouses with Ernie, she was forced to endure strangers searching through cupboards and drawers, riffling through closets, and trampling through her home. At times it felt more like a drug bust than a military inspection. It’s one part of lighthouse life she doesn’t miss.

Displayed in an oak cabinet, beside the television, is a collection of family photos: from top to bottom – six children, eleven grandchildren, and nine great grandchildren. “You do what you gotta do when you’re providing for a family,” says Ernie; “I’ve tried. To which Pauline says, giggling from the kitchen, “Yes, he’s very trying.”

A while back, Pauline sat her husband down and said to him point blank, “Twenty-eight and a half years military. Twenty years working for the State of Maine. You’ve been building houses for the last twelve years. You’re 80 years old. It’s time to quit work.” That’s when Ernie set up his basement studio and started his lighthouse life all over again.

In 2006, Pauline and Ernie wrote a book, published by FogHorn Publishing and Lighthouse Digest, which is a mix of journal, diary, memoir, and family scrapbook. The front cover is titled, “Lighthouse Keeping,” and the back cover is titled, “Light Housekeeping.” Although the book is now out of print, it was actually two books in one. It’s part family history, part lighthouse history. It’s also a reflection of what happens to those who inevitably become obsolete. Ernie writes, “Human senses can not be replaced by automated machinery or electronic gadgetry. The personal judgment of a lighthouse keeper (a person) can not be equaled or duplicated by machinery or electronics.” The man has Type 2 Diabetes, and he recently suffered a minor heart attack. “Getting old ain’t for sissies,” he says. He is a lighthouse keeper without a lighthouse.

Down a steep, dimly lit stairwell, in the serenity of his cavernous concrete basement, Ernie works at reconnecting with the past. He sifts through gray crates and cardboard boxes filled with thousands of lighthouse slides, lighthouse photographs, lighthouse postcards, and lighthouse prints. From floor to ceiling, the walls are covered with dozens of tranquil lighthouse paintings. Vibrant canvasses with soft white clouds, flowing blue water, and soaring lighthouse towers jump out from the confines of their black plastic frames. Weathered paintbrushes and crinkled tubes of blue acrylic paint rest on a drafting table where another painting is currently in progress. He has painted every lighthouse in the state of Maine, 65 in total. It took him a year and a half.

He can no longer tend to lighthouses, so he obsessively tends to his lighthouse paintings. This year, from May to October, all of Ernie’s lighthouse paintings will be displayed for the first time at the Merrymeeting Arts Center in Bowdoinham, Maine. He says his goal is to keep lighthouse history alive, and by working on these paintings, Ernie keeps himself going. With 80-plus years behind them, Ernie and Pauline DeRaps have no qualms about the past. “It’s been a good life,” they say, one after the other.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2013 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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