Digest>Archives> December 2005

A True Lighthouse Story

By Shirley Bachelder


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James Ralph Lord from a photograph taken when he ...

“Clear the decks,” shouted Captain Lord, “there's a storm brewing.”

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A photograph of a painting of the schooner Abby ...

To Ralph, his young son, it sounded terribly exciting and he scrambled with the crew to get everything inside while others jumped to batten everything down as the sloop, the Abby Wasson, twisted and rolled as if in anticipation of an ordeal to come. Only 12, Ralph had spent many summers aboard ship with his family, while his dad, the captain, transported cargo down the Maine seacoast to Boston. His mother, even the dog, Cub, came along. Many wonderful evenings were spent sitting on the bulkheads, studying the stars, watching for meteors and listening to dad's teaching about the constellations.

Mother, even in the dark, could knit continuously and smilingly as she watched her brood of seven listening and learning the ways of their father. Ralph, one of the youngest, especially seemed gifted toward the sea.

Now it was the week before Christmas, and because all Ralph's presents were made for the family and he wanted so to go with his dad on this comparatively short voyage, his mother relented and said Ralph could go.

This trip was totally different from those soft summer eves. Heavy clothes made getting around the deck a challenge. Unexpected ice could send one flying. One's grip wasn't as good with homemade mittens. One's nose could get so cold it would ache. Captain Lord allowed no partiality for his son. Ralph was expected to “pull his weight.” This was no cruise this wintry weather in 1886. He wondered if he'd made the right choice in leaving his safe home in Brooksville, Maine.

He had never seen the ship pitch and veer as it was doing right now.

Soon, the wet driving snow, more like a sleet, was adding to the misery that permeated the mood of the crew. Ralph would go to the cabin, warm up a little and then go back to his father's

side. He was pleased that his father didn't send

him below.

In the howling gale, his dad hollered to Ralph, “We've got to see that Boston Harbor Light before we're upon it.” Other crew members were on deck now, squinting into the snow-filled darkness. Howling winds and sea spume mixed to send a spray of ice over the group. Each pellet stung the cheeks and every scarf was caked with ice. The wheelman at the prow of the ship hung on to the giant wheel and peered into the blackness that turned solid white in the night.

Occasionally, Ralph's father would go up and take the wheel, and the wheelman would run

to the rail and hang his arms over the edge

to rest them.

Soon, the captain returned after giving the wheelman encouragement and stood on the bow of the heaving vessel and joined the others peering into the white.

Coming from a God-believing family, Ralph knew his dad was praying. He too prayed

“like anything,” fervent and frightened.

“We must make it soon,” his dad muttered.

On inspiration, Ralph's dad said, “Could you climb up in the rigging, Ralph, and see if you spot any light?”

His father believed that he could do it, and that was enough for Ralph. Painfully with iced mittens, afraid of slipping at every step, feeling the wind blow even harder, he climbed step by step, looking ahead all the while. At least, the ocean's spume was not quite so intense. His cracked lips no longer felt the salt, which was the supreme torture.

Higher and higher he crawled through the

ice-laden ropes. Hardly had he made it to the top, when he saw it — the light! And they were heading right into it.

“Light!” he screamed. “Light!” he yelled,

the very word swallowed in the howling gale. He looked down and knew by the time he got to the deck, they would be piled up on rocks!

A prayer, and then he grabbed a line and with his icy mittens, he held on to it and slid until he thumped to the deck. His mittens were ablaze from the friction. He threw his mittens toward his dad, and still on his knees, he pointed straight ahead and mouthed “light.”

Turning at the sight of the flaming mittens, his father dashed ahead to the wheelman and together, with almost superhuman strength, they put the wheel port over as far as it would go.

The Abby Wasson heeled over and Ralph thought it would capsize as he slid across the deck, stopping at a binnacle in his slide. Regaining his feet, he ran to the railing which was closest to the light. As he watched, he saw the lights of their own ship glistening on the dark rocks that would have caused their doom.

Only then did he remember to thank God for the answer to his prayer. His bare hands brought him up to reality. He saw his father beckon to him, arms open wide and just before he got his great manly hug, he saw what he knew were tears of relief on his dad's cheeks.

“Go, get yourself warm. You've done a good night's work. I'm glad I brought you along. You're a son to be proud of.”

It would only be a little while and

they would be in a snug harbor. It was a Christmas to remember.

This story appeared in the December 2005 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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