They say you can never go back. Well, you can. But it might be harder than you think.
My dad, Dan Moore, was an engineer in the Coast Guard. In January 1951, he was transferred to the Guard Island Light Station for a year. It was called
“isolated duty” because the conditions resulted in confinement and he served long periods of continuous duty, along with two other seamen and a chief.
During that year, my mother lived in Vancouver, Washington, while pregnant with me. After I was born, Chief Jackson, who was my father’s senior, suggested my mother and I move up there. At that time, Guard Island was one of the few Coast Guard light stations that still allowed families. My Dad mulled it over with my mother during their frequent written correspondence.
There were several things to think about: Daddy had agreed to another year’s duty there, so Mother and I could be with him only by joining him. My parents would be able to save money because Daddy received isolated duty pay, and most of our family expenses would be covered. On the flip side, there was the isolation. Plus, they would have a new baby — me — to consider. All the factors were weighed, and they finally decided to move the family to Guard Island.
We lived in one of two houses there. Mother kept house and raised me. Daddy worked. The Island was always ready to pass an inspection, and everything was kept trimmed and painted and clean.
As the engineer, Daddy was responsible for and maintained all the mechanical things, including the generators, air compressors, batteries, oil storage, heating systems, and boat engines. He enjoyed his work and approached it with a discipline only the military could instill. His domain was the room beneath the light.
The main room held the diesel engines, which powered the generator and air compressors. A smaller room in back contained batteries. Inside a lean-to was the watch shack with the communication equipment. In it was a desk neatly piled with paperwork and log books, and up on the wall hung the clocks and transmitters.
The watch shack was manned continually. Daddy held 6am-6pm watch daily, and the seamen covered the night shifts. Their primary job was to check the timing of the radio beacon transmitter signal. The boats, ships and even airplanes received the radio beacon from two or more stations, so they could triangulate to calculate their position. The beacon had to be timed perfectly to align with other beacons.
They radioed in weather reports to the Coast Guard Station in Juneau constantly. They noted the height of the cloud ceiling, the density of the cloud cover, wind direction and speed, temperature and dew point.
The generator supplied electricity for the light and for the rest of the Island. It ran all night and was usually turned off during the day. Various tools hung in designated places above my dad’s workbench. The place was always impeccable and it smelled of fresh paint and the oil of machinery.
The power was stored in sixty glass-walled 2-volt (or 2.1 or 2.2V) batteries, which were wired in series to add up to 120 volts of power. A logbook on the desk tracked the batteries’ voltage. If they got down to 105 volts, the generator was turned back on. The air compressor sounded the foghorn and ran some of the tools.
The watchman turned the foghorn on if he couldn’t see two miles out from the Island. Often the skies were clear, but a low level of fog hovered just a few feet above the sea, so the horn had to blow.
The foghorn sounded for five seconds every thirty seconds. It came on at exactly 25 seconds and 55 seconds after each minute. Daddy said that a boat had to be able to hear it five miles away, so it was loud. The adults learned to talk in twenty-five second intervals, and automatically suspend their conversations for five seconds in time with the noise, since they couldn’t hear anything over it anyway.
The foghorn was mounted on the lighthouse, and blasted right into our bedroom window. Daddy was worried how I’d react when I was brought up there, but I didn’t seem to mind it. I guess we all became accustomed to it.
So there we stayed and worked and lived and laughed
for twenty months. It was a wonderful time, but when
we left, we never expected to return. As time passed, my parents’ recollections faded, and I was too young to remember anything at all.
Fifty-two years later, my husband, Bruce, and I decided to take an Inland Passage cruise to Alaska. When I mentioned our vacation plans to my parents, they decided to go on the cruise, too. I chose an itinerary that gave us a long day in Ketchikan, where I planned to rent a skiff and motor out and see Guard Island. After the long disembarkation process, we took a taxi up to Clover Pass Resort and rented a small boat.
With my Dad, now 78 years old, at the helm, and my
74-year-old mother, my husband and me aboard, we headed out to get our first glimpse of the Island through the mist. As we neared the Island, it was obvious there was no easy way to land the boat. The beach, such as it was called when we lived there, was really a very rocky and shallow shoreline. So, we decided to circumnavigate the Island and see it from the water.
All the pristine old buildings were gone, except for the lighthouse. My Dad pointed out the small pile of concrete rubble that was once our home. Finally, after we completed our circle, we tried to approach the beach. The current was flowing sideways and he had trouble getting up to a relatively smooth point on shore.
My long-legged and willing husband was on the bow of our boat ready to jump ashore as soon as possible with a rope to tie the craft up. Finally, after several tense moments and aborted attempts, we succeeded. Bruce was the only one who got his feet wet as we all arrived on the Island.
With Bruce racing ahead and scouting out the best path,
we slowly made it through a rocky chasm, over a couple of driftwood logs and onto the remains of the old boat ramp.
From there we could walk up the ramp, over another driftwood log, and onto the slope where the boathouse and the two houses used to be.
The old boathouse was rubble. The only thing Daddy could identify in the debris was the pedestal that once supported the engine and winch that lowered and lifted the boats on the ramp. The concrete of the boat ramp was cracked and the railing had been bent, probably by huge logs crashing into the rails during a storm.
The old sidewalks that lead to the two houses and the lighthouse were so cracked and overgrown, they were hard to identify. We made our way up to the location of the houses. There was not a stick of wood left. The concrete of the foundation and the basement had been pulverized by dynamite and the rubble filled in what were once the basements. I picked up and saved a couple small chunks of concrete as souvenirs from my childhood home.
Vegetation had reclaimed the rest of the Island. We walked up to the lighthouse, which is now automated. There was a ladder on the east side, so Bruce and I climbed up on top for a better view. I was stunned at how small the Island is. Although it is purportedly 10 acres, the inhabitable area is really a scant one-half acre.
For my parents, especially Daddy, seeing the change that five decades brought to Guard Island was painful. I could see it in his expression. He and I went into the room under the light, where he spent so much time working so long ago. He had always kept it immaculate. His workbench, with the tools hanging in designated locations above it, was gone. So were the batteries, the engines, the generators, the compressors, and the lean-to with the watch shack.
The place was a vacant and musty mess. Layers of paint were peeling off the concrete walls. I remarked to my dad that he had probably put one or two of those coats of paint on the walls.
Daddy bowed and shook his head, and said, “It’s hard to go back.
We went outside and back down to the where the houses once were. We smiled and posed for pictures. Then we slowly retraced our route back down the ramp, over the logs, through the crevasse and onto the cobblestone beach. One by one, we boarded the boat and left the Island again.
We felt joy and we felt pain. Part of life — we had completed a circle.
Chris Waugh is a motivational speaker, corporate trainer and author whose passion is lending wings to your success. She based this article loosely on her book, Misty Memories of Guard Island, Alaska: Ketchikan’s Legacy of a Lighthouse Family. To get a copy, visit www.reNvision.com.
This story appeared in the
October 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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