The passing of six decades has done little to dim J. Carl (Jim) Gullette’s recollections of the childhood years he spent living a kind of Tom Sawyer-like existence at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, where his father was the last keeper of the lighthouse station. Gullette shares his memories in a new book, Sonny’s Fort: A Light in Charleston Harbor.
A thoroughly enjoyable look at a remarkable place through the eyes of an adventurous child, Sonny’s Fort is written in the form of a novel. Gullette freely admits to a fair degree of embellishment on some of the details (“about 20 percent”), but the events and emotions at the heart of the story are true.
Jim’s father James H. Gullette was a veteran of several years in the Lighthouse Service when he moved his wife Eva and children Jim and Anne to Fort Sumter in 1939. He had previously operated radio equipment on lightships, including the Frying Pan Shoal Lightship off North Carolina and Florida’s St. John’s Lightship. He was sent to Fort Sumter to operate a radio beacon station, but his duties also included some maintenance of the automated lighthouse, at least the third at the historic fort.
Jim (a.k.a. Sonny) was only five years old when the family moved into the lighthouse keeper’s house at the fort, and his sister was a year older. A still-active skeletal-type lighthouse stood at the end of a walkway near the keeper’s house at the front of the fort. Another tower stood at the back of the fort, and a three-foot section had been removed from the walkway to this tower to prevent unauthorized access. For little Sonny (Jim), the temptation was simply too much. The scene is described in Sonny’s Fort:
Gathering himself for the jump, he (Sonny) made a short running start and easily cleared the missing section. As he made contact with the other side his feet slid out from under him on the wet surface and he fell backwards, sliding on his back. His legs went over the side of the catwalk first and he could feel his backbone scrape against the edge of the wood, as the rest of his body followed. He had reached out frantically for something to stop his fall but there was nothing to grab but air. He fell a few feet to the water, knowing there was no one around to help.
Fears of drowning and shark attacks came quickly to mind, but Sonny managed to escape with only a skinned back and dirty clothes — and a slightly more cautious attitude. This was one of his closest brushes with true danger at the fort, but there was no lack of adventure. There were encounters with the fort’s mysterious resident cat, Moon (it was said that Moon “had always been there”), the capture of a fox by men at the fort, and the brief adoption of a pelican that had been injured in a storm. Through it all run tales of Confederate ghosts haunting the fort, the birthplace of the Civil War.
At the core of the story is Sonny’s deep friendship with an old Gullah fisherman named Capers. (The Gullah culture and unique language developed in the slave communities of the coastal South.) On the day of their first meeting Capers prepared fish stew right on the beach and shared it with Sonny, who “knew he had never tasted anything so good and at the same time had found a new friend.” Through his friendship with Capers, Sonny got his earliest lessons on race relations and heard of the wonders of the Intracoastal Waterway. He even learned how to properly cast a fishing net from shore.
Sonny’s bond with his black Labrador retriever King (dubbed a “devil chaser” by Capers) also played a prominent role as he confronted his fears of strange sights and sounds in the fort’s dark dungeon.
The Gullettes endured a powerful hurricane in August 1940, and that experience provides the book’s suspenseful climax. Jim Gullette says he clearly remembers being temporarily stopped in his tracks by the wind as he tried to cross the fort’s parade ground to a magazine where his father believed the family would be safer.
He couldn’t even hear himself yell over the sound of the wind and panic began to grip him. The rain was hitting his face and he knew part of the wetness he felt was warm tears...
The rising tide proved to be the greatest threat to the family in a storm that caused about $10 million in damage in South Carolina and killed 34 people. “If that storm had been as powerful as Hurricane Hugo (in 1989),” says Jim Gullette; “I wouldn’t be talking to you today.”
Sonny’s Fort covers two years of life at Fort Sumter, but after starting school Jim/Sonny was still able to spend a few more happy summers and school vacations at the fort. After World War II, his father was transferred to a LORAN station at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. James H. Gullette retired in the mid-1960s after a U.S. Lighthouse Service career that spanned nearly 37 years. At the time of his death in 1997 at the age of 92, Gullette was said to have been the oldest living veteran of the Lighthouse Service.
Jim Gullette eventually served on a ship for the U.S. Geodetic Survey and experienced for himself the Intracoastal Waterway described by Capers years earlier. For the past 25 years Gullette has been in the cutlery business. He has designed official NASCAR knives and one for the South Carolina bicentennial among many others, and he’s also an accomplished scrimshander.
Sonny’s Fort is Gullette’s first book. He cites his sister Anne — who lived the story with him at Fort Sumter — as an inspiration, and also says the encouragement of his wife Louise and son Kelly was invaluable. His writing is never preachy, but Gullette hopes that readers of Sonny’s Fort will “get a little education about race problems.” He’s already started another book about the family’s years on Sullivan’s Island.
This story appeared in the
September 2003 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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