When I was growing up, my father, Bruce G. Keene, was in the Coast Guard and stationed at many different lighthouses in Maine. We lived in Lubec, Maine, right next door to my grandfather, Thomas L. Keene, who had retired from the Coast Guard as lieutenant commander. My grandfather spent many years in the lighthouse service and also served in World War II. At the end of the war, he returned to Lubec and was stationed at Maine's West Quoddy Head Lighthouse, where he retired. Unfortunately, he died when I was eight years old, although I remember him well. I wanted to learn more so in December of 2003, I traveled to Portland to talk to my father, Bruce Keene, and my uncle (Jerry), Thomas F. Keene, to ask them about their years in and around the lighthouses.
I have wanted to write this article for a long time as a tribute to the men in my family who gave so many years to the Coast Guard and the lighthouses. I live very close to West Quoddy Head Light and go there often, drawn by a past that now seems like another lifetime and in a way, I guess it is.
I never take a drive to West Quoddy Head Lighthouse that my mind doesn't travel back through the years. I always get that deep feeling of nostalgia which brings sadness and regret that there is no way to go back to days that are gone forever and yet I know I am blessed as so few are, to have been a part of the era of lighthouse keepers. Whenever I go there, the memories from the past engulf and wash over me like fog rolling in from the sea…
When I was growing up, my father was a lighthouse keeper at West Quoddy Head. I have fond memories of staying at the lighthouse. It was always a great adventure for me. I would be keyed up with excitement, watching and waiting for him to come and take me there for the night. He would come and get me around suppertime and we would drive the short distance to the lighthouse. After a good supper, I would trail him around the area while he tended to his duties until bedtime. “My” bed was upstairs and we would climb the stairs where Daddy would tuck me into the metal frame bed, heavy with military-issued wool blankets. After he left, I would lay there listening to the surf pounding the cliffs just a few feet away.
Fog is an ever present part of life on Quoddy Head and on many nights, my bed shook each time the foghorn sounded. Somehow, I would eventually manage to fall asleep rocked by the sound of the surf and the foghorn. My imagination would run wild with dreams of tomorrow.
During clear days, West Quoddy Head is stunningly beautiful. Mornings there were full of promise and excitement. My father often took me up into the tower with him. As we entered the tower, I always felt like I had entered a magical place. The walls were so strong and the metal circular stairs seemed like they went all the way to heaven. At the top of the stairs is the huge lens. It was fascinating and so beautiful. It never failed to take my breath away. I would slip my hand inside my father's and we would stand there and gaze out over the Grand Manan Channel. It seemed to me as a little girl that I could see forever.
Back then, I was very young and did not grasp the importance of lighthouses and the people who manned them until I was much older. I became a commercial fisherman, sometimes fishing 100 miles offshore. Many times, we came home long after dark. The first lights we would see were the lights from the various lighthouses. They always gave me a sense of safety and home. I no longer fish far out on the sea, but I often find myself driving to Quoddy Head. Usually, there are people there taking pictures of this famous place. Yes, it is beautiful, but as I gaze at the candy cane stripes, I see my grandfather and my father in their Coast Guard uniforms, lovingly tending the light they loved so well. They were not called upon to risk their lives to save another. However, they would have, I know they would have. They were lighthouse keepers.
The following are some of their re-collections as told to me in December 2003.
My Uncle (Jerry) Thomas F. Keene began the story…
“In 1930, I was four years old when my father was stationed on Big Cranberry Island. It was a Coast Guard lifeboat station. I hadn't started school yet and I remember the station. We rented a house on the island right close by the lighthouse and we could walk right down there. There were six or eight people there. I remember two of them, a man named Ottie White and some other man that cut wood all the time. Then my father went back to Quoddy Head where he was stationed at Quoddy Head Lighthouse Coast Guard Station. I remember his duties on Quoddy Head were keeping the light clean, standing watch in the watchtower and making the solo patrol around Quoddy Head. The patrol had to be performed every four hours without fail. It was awful walking around there. I used to walk with them; they were looking for distress signals from ships. The path was very narrow and right along the edge of those high cliffs. There were three punch stations along the patrol route, one at Carrying Place Cove, one at Green Point, and the final one was at the lighthouse.
“They began the patrol from the station and walked down the main road to Carrying Place Cove, punched the clock and then they'd come back from the cove and walk the whole way around West Quoddy Head along the path. Then they went back up over the hill to the station. Sometimes, the fellas liked to play tricks on each other.
I remember when they set the trap for ol' Captain Maker. It was out there where those old sailors' graves were. One night, they were shorthanded and he took the patrol for someone who was sick. After he had gone out, two of the guys got some white sheets and they went and waited for him to come by the graves. It was about two in the morning when the Captain finally came along swinging his lantern. They stood up with the sheets over them and went ‘Ooooooooh…What are you doing on our graves?’
“But Ol' Captain Maker was made of stern stuff and without missing a beat, he replied, ‘What are you doing out of them?’ And he kept right on walking. The men at the station said that he was the bravest guy they'd ever met in their lives.
“My father was also stationed in Rockland, South Portland, Duck Island, Cross Island in Maine and on Ten Pound Island outside of Gloucester, Massachusetts and other lights.”
My father, Bruce G. Keene, also remembers his years living in the lighthouses with his father.
“Where were you stationed when you were growing up?” I asked him.
“Well, in 1947, my father was stationed on Duck Island. My mother Vida and I lived out there with him for 1 1/2 years. There were also two other families stationed out there at that time. That was the year of the Great Bar Harbor Fire; I was ten years old when that happened. There was a terrible storm that night, a southeaster blowing a gale. We had a bird's-eye view of the fire. We could see the fire and the smoke so we walked over to the end of the point and then we watched the fire go up over Cadillac Mountain in one big sweep. The Coast Guard sent a boat from Boston and they came close to losing the boat. It was so rough.
“I really liked living on Duck Island. There was a freshwater pond and just before dark, you would get a lot of ducks coming in. Also, someone had released some giant Flemish rabbits and they had no natural enemies so they had multiplied and they were everywhere. I had a lot of fun hunting, which also provided us with fresh meat. We also hand-lined and caught fresh fish and we had our own lobster traps. We ate very well.
“There were never any shipwrecks out on Duck Island when we were there but over on the north side, there were some graves of some bodies that washed ashore from a shipwreck years ago.
“There was a wheelbarrow ramp the whole way across the island and they would come ashore on one side and wheel the supplies the whole way across the island. There were a lot of times that it was really rough out there.
I remember one time when we couldn't get off the island for two weeks.
“Another time, when my father was stationed on Cross Island, they had a terrible winter and my mother's sister, Eva Cleaves, had come to visit. She was stranded there with them for a long time, waiting for a break in the weather. That was sometime in the 1930s. I remember they talked about it now and then. We used to get packages dropped to us at Christmas time by Edward Rowe Snow, The Flying Santa. In one of the stories, he wrote that he used our dog in the story. Mostly, the packages contained reading materials. Sometimes, the packages ended up in the water and we had to go out and retrieve them.
“In 1951 when I was 14, he was stationed on Ten Pound Island. I used to have to row to go to school on
the mainland. I loved it, even when it was rough.”
My father also grew up and joined the Coast Guard. When I was young, he was stationed at Quoddy Head, Whitlock Mills and Little River Island.
I have very fond memories of joining him there while he performed the duties associated with keeping a light.
Thomas L. Keene wrote a number of poems dealing with lighthouse life along the Maine coast. Some were published at Coast Guard magazine, and they are now being shared for you to enjoy.
Hiawatha of the Lighthouse
By Thomas L. Keene
(The Duck Island Saga)
In The Land of rocks and thistles,
Midst the spruce trees' hanging branches
Lived a Lighthouse Keeper desperate
And each month his hair grew longer.
Gulls and gannets white and lanky,
Soared o'er head both day and nighttime,
Left their name cards in his cistern
And their footprints on his rooftops.
In his library neatly hidden
Dwelt the books Headquarters furnished,
Spicy tales by Georgie Sheldon
And the Rover Boys' whole series!
In his kitchen, somewhat drafty,
Where the plaster fell in sections
Was the stove of ancient vintage
And the oven's one hinge missing.
When the rain would stop its pounding
And the leaky roof stop dripping
It was then he cooked his biscuits,
Wading slowly through the puddles.
Each month on days uncertain
Came the mail in pouches massive
Catalogues and month-old papers
That pictured Lincoln's bold assassin.
The dirty deal in old Manila
And the Maine sunk on her moorings,
James Madison's horseless carriage,
And other timely notes of interest.
With his wife, a freckled terror,
And three children large of earage,
Lighted lights and blew a whistle,
On occasion dodged the dishes.
Thrown in haste at little Junior
Who was scarcely then house broken
Or at Rodney tall and lanky
Who refused to clean the hen house.
Modern plumbing still was missing
But lace curtains in the outhouse
Gave a touch of homey welcome
When breezes shook their trimmings.
Bath water, bucket — heated,
Poured on Junior held by handcuffs
Washed the smell of toil-soiled bodies —
Lysol would have done it quicker.
But the Keeper and his family
Happy in their clapboard residence,
Asked no more from life but groceries
And fought all day about the store bill.
On the shore in rented building
Stood their car, there dead and quiet
A 1918 model Velie
With three hundred miles upon it.
No schoolhouse graced the island,
So the kids were somewhat backward,
Wiped their noses on their mittens
And ignored the forks at dinner.
But the bank account kept growing.
Swelled a bit by legal lobsters
Caught with bait a little rotten
Kept in barrels in the wood shed.
Very soon he would retire
But the very thoughts were dreadful,
He worried long in earnest
Over traffic snarls and movies.
So we leave the family living
On this island far from humans,
Far from anything that matters
In the Coast Guard's foreign Legion.
By Thomas L. Keene
When the world is at play both
at night and the day,
And the lights on the shore sparkle bright,
How would you like to be on an island sea
Alone in a watchtower tonight?
With wind howling wild
and the spray flying high,
And a tattoo of sleet from the dark, angry sky,
With no one to talk to, no chair and no light,
Oh, you're lucky to be by your fireside tonight!
We wonder how folks are enjoying their rest
And feelings of loneliness rise in our breast;
Are the children all home?
Is there plenty of coal?
And this kind of thinking is hard on the soul.
Four hours alone looking out on the sea,
With only the clock for your company.
Looking for lights to glow in sky.
The sign from some ship in distress passing by.
Then back to the station to roll into bed;
And scarcely the pillow seems
touching your head,
When the brazen gong lets go with a bong!
A trip in the lifeboat, twill take all night long.
So into your oil skins, sou'wester and boots,
And launch a wet dory down over the chutes.
The green spray flies high
and makes ice on the stays,
As the compass is scanned
by the skipper's close gaze.
A long, dreary tow; lines froze hard and fast;
About fourteen hours the job will last.
Oh, the surf man's life is a merry one,
No hard work and plenty of fun,
The six-mile walk in shifting sand
With clock and Costons and lantern in hand;
Scrubbing and mopping and scraping the paint,
Routine that would ruin the life of a saint.
And though we all grumble
and kick 'n complain,
As sure as the devil, we'll sign up again.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2006 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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