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The Alarm Clock of Lightkeeper Sidney Wilkinson


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Between the hurricanes and the Confederates, the ...

As published in The Wilmington Journal, September 7, 1904

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The new screwpile lighthouse on Cat Island, ...

“Speaking of the light-houses,” said James J. Lea, “always reminds me of alarm clocks. You may not see the connection, but I have in my mind a light-house which was in the habit of acting as an alarm clock.”

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Cat Island Lighthouse had frequent visitors as ...

Mr. Lea drew a long puff upon his fragrant Havana and settled back in his chair. It was evident that a story was forthcoming and Mr. Lea’s tales are not to be lightly tossed aside.

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It is easy to see why Al Davis thought he would ...

“Dan McCall’s death was a peculiarly tragic one, you remember,” he said. “Dan was, until a couple of weeks ago, keeper of the Cat Island Light. But before Dan came there, the light-house was in charge of old Sid Wilkinson, who was a character known among coastwise traffickers as well as the light-house itself. I believe he held down that job considerably more than a quarter of a century.

“Sid was a bachelor. He lived in his light-house all alone except for occasional visitors, who were frequent enough to keep him from dying of solitude. The Cat Island light was, in fact, a good deal of a camping ground for yachting crews in summer time and Sid always had a bed ready for anybody who wanted to spend the night with him.

“But he had one other companion which was unfailingly present. To Sid, life was one long, continual jag. It was the culmination of much experience, and it was an achievement in that line for any man to boast of. It never left him that I ever heard of and I was quite fond of visiting the old man myself.

“Now one day, Al Davis, who used to be a prominent man here, but has been dead now for some eight years, had an inward longing for the sea. He had a beauty sailboat, swift as the wind. So, he upped sail and came across the sound to Cat Island.

“That evening, Sid had a particularly glorious jag. He offered Davis a bed, though, and made him as welcome as his state would allow. Then they both went to bed.

“Where Wilkinson showed his ingenuity was in safeguarding himself against the effects of his indulgence. At that time, and possibly even now, the light was revolved by a weight on a long rope, which hung down the inside of the tower. This weight had to be wound up at 2 o’clock every morning or the light would quit revolving and not be a bit of good, besides probably wrecking any vessel that might try to sail by it.

“So, in order to wake up every morning at 2 o’clock, Sid had fixed up an alarm clock arrangement worse than the trumpet of Gabriel for waking sleepers. His room opened on a landing at the head of a flight of stairs that were the steepest I’ve ever laid eyes on. They slanted almost straight up and down, with a curve to them. It was like climbing a ladder to mount them.

“The weight on the end of the rope that revolved the light came down inside the tower to just above the landing, which was a little below its reach. Sid balanced a plank across the transom of his door in such a way that the weight would strike its end and overturn it. On the outside half of the plank, he piled in a loose heap, all the old empty five-gallon tin cans and galvanized iron hubs he could find. He had accumulated a number of them, and they were battered and smashed and used up and compressed into a small space until the quantity he could pile on that board was something wonderful.

“When the weight hit the plank, of course, and overbalanced it, all of these things would fall and tumble down the stairs clear to the very bottom, making in their fall a shattering clash enough to unseal the sepulcher of the dead.

“Davis, it seems, had never slept there before and did not know of the arrangement. There were two beds in the room opening from the landing, and Sid had been too much overcome to show him another room, so the two shared the same room. Davis did not notice the alarm clock arrangement when he went in and Sid, of course, did not think to tell him.

“Well, the pull of the weight slowly unwound the rope and it descended down upon the plank. The plank, naturally overbalanced and all of its load of racket-making instruments tumbled down upon the steps and thence cascaded clear to the bottom, making in their passage such an infernal noise as the ears of mortal man seldom hear outside of a boiler-shop.

“You can imagine the effect on Davis. He had been sleeping the sleep of the Just. He had not been told about the infernal device of Wilkinson’s for rousing himself from his stupor and had not a shadow of a suspicion of what was going to happen.

“So, when he was roused from his pleasant sleep by the sudden crash and thunder of the tin cans falling eight feet down upon the steps, and then the long, shattering, rattle-smash, bang, clack-clanging of their descent down the stairs, drawn out into a diminuendo series of crashes and ending in a final racket as the mass of cans landed on the bottom floor, he was scared half to death.

“One minute, all was peace; and the next, the peaceful bosom of the night was rent with such a clamor and uproar as he had not dreamed possible. His first thought was that the lightning had knocked the tower over; his next, that earthquakes were rending land and sea and would engulf them both. So, he made for the window.

“Half out the window, however, he was arrested by a snort and a grumble from Sid, who emitted an indistinct murmur culminating finally in an explosive ‘damn.’ Then, he yawed and rolled about a little and finally rose and groped blindly for the door.

“Davis’ mind, according to his own account, was not very clear, but he was possessed with the idea that he must save Wilkinson from the catastrophe, whatever it was. Drunk as Wilkinson was, he thought he would break his neck inside of a minute if allowed to go alone.

“Davis jumped back, therefore, and seized Sid’s arm to draw him back. But Sid was entirely unconscious, acting merely from force of habit and without the faintest mental perception. So, he hauled back and smashed Davis in the face, went on upstairs, wound the rope up to the top, returned and laid down again, all the while wrapped in the profoundest slumber.

“Davis lay for a while where he had fallen and then crept back humbly to bed, stanching his nose with the sheets. In the morning, Sid was loud in his protests that he had not raised a finger, and that Davis must have fallen down and hurt his nose.

“Davis spent many a night in the light-house thereafter, but he never again interfered with Sid Wilkinson’s alarm clock.”

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2022 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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