Yesterday's memories are, in some ways, like the ten second eclipse of a lighthouse beam; one must grasp the image and expand it for range and distance. In reference to the above, it is a way of introducing a narrative of my father, Christian Heim, former lighthouse keeper in the Hawaiian Islands between 1925 and 1930.
A brief history of my father would include his birth in 1877, in Kublis, Switzerland. A number of documents I possess has helped me to piece together portions of his early past. In World War I, he served in the British Mercantile Fleet; then enlisted in the U.S. Navy when the United States entered the war.
My father and mother were married in 1919. Mother was born in Cardiff, Wales. After the war and after serving several enlistments in the U.S. Navy, my father was discharged in 1925, at Pearl Harbor, territory of Hawaii. Entering the Lighthouse Service after his discharge, he was stationed at Kilauea Light on the Island of Kauai.
Inasmuch as I was only 18 months of age, my recollections are nil. However, I do have photos of my sister, brother and me taken at Kilauea. One in particular is of me sitting on the knee of Mr. Frederick A. Edgecomb, who would eventually be appointed Superintendent of Lighthouses for the 19th District.
My wife, Aylene, and I were privileged to visit Kilauea Light in 1968. Our visit was rewarded as we met several keepers who were very cordial. Recording our visit on film, we wanted to make certain to include the keeper, his wife and child, who were residents of our former home at Kilauea. Other points of interest were the cistern, our former water supply, and support buildings, which were in an advance state of deterioration due to their obsolescence.
In 1988, Kilauea Light celebrated its 75th anniversary, and today the light is replaced by an electronic beacon. The station is under the direction of the Dept. of the Interior and is designated as a fish and wildlife refuge.
In 1927, my father transferred to Kalaupapa, Moloka'i, also the location of the leper colony. Moloka'i Light was the tallest light in the islands, as well as the most radiant in the Pacific. Kalaupapa was very remote. The Lighthouse Tender, Kukui, with a length of 190 feet and a 12 foot draft, was our only source of supplies. Off loading supplies, as well as personnel, was accomplished by whaleboat and only in calm weather. I vaguely recall being handed from the whaleboat to waiting hands on the beach on one occasion.
Other stories handed down were told by my parents. Such an example was when storms prevented delivery of foodstuffs, fuel and other necessities of life. My father, under the heading of "Related Duties," went hunting for wild goat on horseback. Incidentally, my brother Robert was born at Kalaupapa.
In October 1974, after receiving permits from the State Department of Health, Alyene and I visited Kalaupapa, the Hawaiian word meaning "flat reef." There were three means of travel to get there. One could hike in, ride a mule, or fly in. We chose the latter. Our tour guide was Richard Marks, a resident of Kalaupapa. Giving Richard somewhat of a hint that my father was a former lighthouse keeper there years ago, resulted in the ultimate sightseeing tour. Another couple flew in from the island of Maui to join us, which made our tour comfortable. During our visit, I had visions of my father as he might have been during his service there. We drove through the town of Kalapapa with its many historic buildings and churches. The hospital building and the wharf, now accommodates barges only.
Other highlights of our visit was a drive to the old settlement, now over 100 years old. Also interesting was seeing the first church built on the peninsula and the old cemetery. We observed remnants of the first settlement, one was the chimney of a bakery owned by a Chinese. Of special interest was a visit to Father Damien's church, named Our Lady of Sorrows Church. All the churches we visited still hold regular services. Our tour enjoyed a picnic lunch at Kalawao Park, near the scene of the first landing of the lepers many years ago. Arriving back at the airport and bidding all a fond "Aloha," we boarded our plane.
Inasmuch as nobody was allowed on the lighthouse reservation, we were at a vantage point for taking excellent snapshots and movies. I asked our pilot, as we lifted off, if he would circle over Kalaupapa; I wanted to record on movie film my former home, most likely for the last time!
I recollect several inter-island voyages on the Tender, Kukui. They were either due to a change of lighthouse stations, or, possibly, for medical attention in Honolulu. The trips were usually rough, as a result of the Kukui's shallow draft, and sailing through the Kawai Channel between Oahu and Moloka'i emphasized that fact. One crossing, I recall, I was to become seasick. After leaving the harbor, the ship encountered the usual swells which took its effect on me. The captain of the Kukui allowed our family the use of his cabin. I promptly stopped up the lavatory sink. A member of the crew soon resolved our dilemma. There were tranquil trips also, especially at night with the moonlight shimmering on the ocean and an occasional island silhouetted against the sky. The Kukui usually transported huge buoys; I assumed to be put in service when and wherever needed as aids to navigation.
My father's next station was Makapu'u Point Light on the eastern extremity of Oahu Island. A document I have is dated August 5, 1929, stating he took an examination on April 15, 1929, for the title of Second Class Engineman at Makapu'u Lighthouse. At this point in time, two of the children were of school age, resulting in maintaining two homes; one in Kaimuki near schools, and the keeper's home at Makapu'u Point. Incidentally, Kaimuki is my birthplace.
At age 5, memory brings into focus more clearly Lighthouse Service as I remember it. Most of my time was spent with my father at Makapu'u. Father taught me some of the responsibilities of a keeper. There were many routine tasks such as polishing brasswork and spiral staircase railings. I assisted in cleaning the hyperadiant lenses, inside and outside, the interior being 8 1/2 feet in diameter. At night, while my father was on duty in the engine room that provided electricity for the entire station, I slept in our keepers house. Alone one night, I had a nightmare and envisioned huge lizards crawling on the windows outside. After that scare, my dad let me sleep on the engine room floor on a blanket. One night while asleep, I rolled over and was promptly bitten on the ear by a centipede and my screams could be heard even over the engine noise.
Weekends were important because my mother, brothers and sister would visit us at Makapu'u. We would hike all over the cliffs and climb up and down the spiral staircase in the lighthouse, thus provoking some anxiety on our parents.
At certain times of the year, from a vantage point of 420 feet above the ocean, we could watch a half dozen whales or more with their broad backs heaving and spouting and plunging down deep; sometimes accompanied by a school of porpoises. Trips to town in my father's Model T Ford was a thrill for a five year old. Our return trip up the narrow winding road to the top, I would classify as a "terrifying" trip. Our Model T would never reach the top without the radiator boiling over. My father either waited for it to cool down or added water to the radiator.
Alyene and I were permitted to tour Makapu'u Light in November 1968. The light was still operated manually by a Coast Guard crew. We inquired if there were records or log books available; none were, except one dating back to my father's era. It was a log book to record visitors names, dates and the time. I did recognize my father's handwriting in one of the entries. We were allowed inside the lens, shown the 1000 watt electric lamp as well as the one on standby. Incidentally, the winding, steep and narrow access road had not changed. When we first arrived at the gate below, we used the phone to communicate that we would like permission to drive up. We were given approval, but were cautioned to wait until the mail messenger who was driving down on his way to pick up the daily mail at Waimanalo, had passed. We noticed two old abandoned wrecks on the side of the road on our way up. I recorded many scenes of our visit to Makapu'u with still camera and movies.
My father retired from Civil Service in 1946, and lived in Wahiawa on Oahu his remaining years. He died Febraury 1949, and was laid to rest in the National Cemetery of the Pacific overlooking the city of Honolulu. What an honor and fitting resting place! Other tales are lost in the dusty, tattered pages of time.
This story appeared in the
June 1998 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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