Edited by Timothy Williams and Ralph Krugler
It’s 1960, Sept. 9, and Timothy “Tim” Williams is on his way home from Pompano Beach Junior High School at noon. At that hour, all of South Florida’s schools were empty and telephone lines, radios, and TV’s blared weather alerts. Hurricane Donna would arrive that afternoon and had ripped open houses and left families homeless in the Florida Keys. Peninsular Florida ressdents packed their cars and drove north while others nailed plywood over their homes’ windows.
The skies are silver and grey, with enormous puffed up blue and purple clouds. Winds are soft, as stillness alternates with darts of spiraling winds.
Tim, 13, was always the first passenger on and the last child off the mustard-yellow school bus. The driver stopped in a long line of cars in front of the bridge that crosses Hillsboro Inlet to Lighthouse Point. The bridge tender who rotates the wooden swing span would not open the bridge.
Tim’s eyes are sky-blue, his hair is wiry brown waves, and his suntan is even all over. His sneakers were worn. He wears no socks, and his tan shorts and crew neck t-shirt are a size too large. Tim sits in the seat immediately behind the bus driver. The wooden swing bridge sits perpendicular to its landing. “We need to talk to the bridge tender, he knows me – he will let us go over the bridge,” pled Tim. Tim stands and points to the tender’s control booth in the center of the bridge. “Just get in the left lanes and drive to the bridge so he can see us.”
The driver puts the bus into gear and pulls into the left westbound lanes and drives to the foot of the bridge. With the bus in sight, the bridge tender waives, and the swing span creaks slowly into place.
After a half-mile, the bus comes to a stop at the entrance to Tim’s home. A wooden banner arch crosses two tall, whitewashed pillars. It reads, Hillsboro Lighthouse, property of U.S. Coast Guard. A green starboard lantern sits on top of the right post; on the left post, is a red port lantern. Beyond the gate of Tim’s oceanfront homestead is a well-tended lawn with sidewalks in a grid pattern between tidy white clapboard cabins with wide porches. To the east is the pleated, turquoise Atlantic; west, is Hillsboro Inlet. A pier of cracked, warped, thick wooden planks, stretches from the lawn and into the inlet for about 600 feet. Across the inlet, fishing boats clang over cerulean water. On the far left point of the yard, is a wall of stacked granite boulders that divides the ocean from the inlet. And in front of the granite, on the green’s edge, The Hillsboro Lighthouse rises 136 feet into the sky. The lighthouse, or as Tim refers to it, the Light, is nearly 100 percent iron, cast in 1906. Its skeletal frame, like a water tower suspension, glistens with white enamel paint that switches to black halfway. The light tower ends with a black globe, and prickly radar instruments top the roof.
On this day, Tim noted the lawn was different. Chairs, paint cans, boats and other projects were gone. A tan-colored twisted rope as thick as a python reached from the newel on the Light’s exterior staircase, to the radio room behind the family cabin, and then to the back porch of the cabin, in a triangle.
Tim’s stepfather, John Evdokimoff, met Tim on the lawn in front of the tower. John is a U.S. Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer, and Bosun’s Mate 1, Keeper of the Hillsboro Lighthouse. At 35, John is 6 feet, 8 inches tall of lean muscle.
“Timothy,” John says in a hardline tone, “A hurricane will be here in a few hours; we will use the rope if we need it during this storm. Timothy, you understand it’s our duty.”
“Where are the coasties?” asked Tim. He looked right and then left.
“They got called to Miami by the Coast Guard,” John responded. Coasties are seaman, who work under John. They paint the tower, replace boards, repair fittings and machines in the Light, electronics in the radio room, and clip the grass.
John is always in uniform: khaki slacks with a crease down the front, and a matching button-down pleated shirt. Tim and John went into the cabin and ate a small meal. The glass carafe, full of coffee, was on the stove. An hour passed. Then the house began to rattle. Outside the window, Tim saw the palm trees bend over.
“Timothy, I don’t think this house will stand this storm,” said John. “We will have to go to the radio room.”
Tim and John held onto the rope as they moved about 20 feet from the cabin to the radio room. The stiff wind pushed them forward and then backward until they were inside. John spoke on the radio equipment. The sound of static and beeps alternated with men’s voices from the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami. Tim heard the words “weather equipment” repeated during the communications.
John turned to Tim and said, “Timothy, we have to go to the Light and fix the equipment on top of the tower so Miami can track the hurricane.”
Outside the windows, palm fronds skipped across the lawn, the ocean was wild with whitecaps. The sky was a white, pearl-grey.
As John led Tim out of the radio room, he said, “Timothy – you have to keep moving.”
Wind embroiled Tim and John. They gripped the rope as the wind tugged and pushed. It rained sideways, and sand was inside of the rain. Tim squinted his eyes. He moved his hands one over the other as pressure lifted him off the ground. He landed. Sandblasted, the sand crawled on his skin and into his eyes. And then Tim was airborne again, except he was still attached to the rope. He landed again.
“I don’t know how I will make it to the Light,” he thought.
Tim stood for a moment, shivering with pain from the unrelenting sandblasts. Still – holding the rope with both hands.
“Timothy – we have to keep moving!!” shouted John.
Tim alternated his hands and feet over one another. Then he saw John’s grip on the brass ball, the ball on top of the newel, where the staircase to the Light began. John leaned into the stairs, moving one hand from the rope and onto the banister. Tim did the same. Tim’s hands were on the Light staircase – its balustrades were wet and slippery. Tim gripped the iron and squeezed each part. John reached the black door. He strained and tugged the door, again and again. The door was an inch open, and then another. Tim moved nearer to the door when the opening became large enough for the two to squeeze into the lighthouse.
The door slammed in a single clank.
Inside, Stentorian Donna whooshed. It was the same sound as a rocket launch Tim had heard recently.
A layer of damp, beige sand encrusted both Tim and John. They were caked. Their clothes, arms, shoes and faces began to dry. Sand mixed in their hair. Crusting extended into their ear funnels and the corners of their eyes like morning gunk.
John clawed his hand over the grey ball that began the Light’s spiral staircase and said, “Timothy, we need to keep moving. The instruments need to be fixed.”
Tim followed behind John on the Light stairs. He gripped the smooth grey banister and began his ascent, damp sand falling from him and John was like grit and powder. They reached the first window. Tim kept his view on John’s back. The two reached another window: Tim knew they were halfway. He had climbed the tower every day, twice a day or more, taking visitors to the top balcony and then back down again. The two reached the Watch Room and its golden wood floors. Tim and John paused for a moment as they were both heaving, they took deep breaths and after their breaths slowed – they returned to the steps. Up. Steadfast. Tim looked down the center of the spiral, at its familiar nautilus shape. The tower as moving, an inch to the east and then back to the west again. The next landing was the Machine Room. From inside that room John drug a battered wooden toolbox to the stair nearest the tower’s highest iron door and carried a pail of tools.
On the other side of the door, the rocket wind pulsed. John pushed his body into the door. It stood still. John pushed again. And then again. Finally, the wind yanked the door open. John charged into the storm outside, he placed his right hand, and then his left onto the black rail, and grasped it. John was on the Light’s gallery, a circular, narrow wrap-around balcony that oversees the ocean.
Tim also plunged into the punishing sandblasts. The tower groaned and swayed to the south, and then screeched back into place. The skin on Tim’s face, arms and legs ached as the wind and sand whipped him. After a few feet, John and Tim reached a black iron ladder mounted on the wall of the gallery landing. The ladder rose alongside the lantern room and to the top of the lighthouse tower.
“Timothy, stay here and hand me the tools,” said John.
John made a fist around the bucket handle, ascended the rung ladder, and disappeared onto the top of the lighthouse.
Tim moved between the ladder and the tower’s exterior wall, both hands on the ladder’s slippery rungs at every moment as the tower oscillated continually.
“John or me – or both of us – could get blown off the light and into the wind,” Tim thought to himself.
Tim closed his eyes and thought of ‘normal days.’
He thought about early morning and afternoon swims in his “secret cove” on the edge of the inlet. Tim would run and plunge into the cove where he would swim along with loggerhead sea turtles, pink, yellow and electric-blue tropical fish, shrimp, seahorses and starfish.
“I liked to watch the seahorses because they moved like none of the fish did – only up and down,” Tim remembered during an interview. “The Hillsboro Light is my home,” said Tim. “I loved rolling out of bed at the ocean and the Light.”
But on this day, Hurricane Donna had broken weather collection data instruments on top of the Light. Devices that were on top of the lighthouse in 1960 included a weathervane, barometer, and an anemometer, according to today’s Lighthouse Historian, Ralph Krugler, who wrote the “The (Almost) Complete History of Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse.” John appeared at the top of the ladder and told Tim which tool he needed next. Tim pulled the tool from the box and met John halfway up the ladder where they exchanged tools.
“We didn’t get much notice when hurricanes came to south Florida and the people who drove hurricane hunter planes into the storms, and scientists at the National Hurricane Center in Miami were heroes – John and I felt our duty was to repair the equipment,” said Tim.
Following the tool exchange, Tim didn’t close his eyes. On the point opposite the tower, his gaze fixed on the southernmost point of the inlet, on a structure that locals called a “million-dollar glass house.” At first, a piece of the house that held a large glass pane flew into the inlet. And then – a larger portion of sheet glass was airborne, like a saucer. A second later, there was an implosion of glass. The groovy home dissolved in less than two minutes.
John appeared on the ladder again. Tim could see something in John’s eyes that he had never seen before – Fear. John handed him a tool and asked for another. Tim crawled to the toolbox, returned to the ladder, climbed three rungs, and made the exchange, nearly losing hold of the ladder. He got down and sighed.
Tim closed his eyes and squeezed his face around them. He wondered again if he or John would be the wind’s next victims. The rocket engine sound was more intense. Tim could hear flying objects hit the sides of the tower. “Thunk. Clunk. Ping-ping.”
“We would get in a boat and head out to sea when boaters were in danger,” said Tim. “Saving lives was the most important part of John’s job, he told me.”
To help out, Tim would guide visitors up the tower to the Watch Room and Gallery. But he was not able to take the guests into the Lantern Room. The Fresnel lens was fragile, John had told him. The lens, a work of art and technology in its time, was invented in Paris, France, by a French physicist, Augustin-Jean Fresnel (1788-1827). Hillsboro’s Fresnel was made by artisan employees of the Barbier, Benard & Turenne Co. Fresnel’s inventive lenses were stacked thick glass pieces strategically spaced that would throw a light beam much further than a convex lens, preventing shipwrecks and protecting lives, according to Krugler’s book.
Every day, often twice each day, Tim would visit the lantern room. An avid amateur astronomer, his telescope was stored there, but dominant the lens. The room looks looked like a giant birdcage with diamond-shaped and curved windowpanes.
“The lens always threw a rainbow of colors from its prisms,” said Tim. “At night, there were more blacks and golds; during the day, I saw deep indigo, reds and oranges like a fire, pinks, light greens and yellows.” Tim had found all of the planets and constellations with his scope. Orion was his favorite because it looked like a man, he said. During the day, he found sailboats, sport boats and yachts that flew post-war surplus flags; most of the flags were from Central and South America, and each vessel flew its country of origin flag.
Tim felt the ladder vibrate. John climbed down to the last rung. “The work is done,” said John.
“Moving back through the door to the tower was a tug of war,” Tim said, “And after our descent from the light, the entrance door was stubborn as before.”
John and Tim used the rope guide to make their way back to the radio room, about 30 yards. The atmosphere around them was a dense fog, grey, and rainy at once.
“The visibility was low. We could not see far on either side or in front of us, so we just moved along the rope knowing, it would end at the radio room,” said Tim.
Once inside, John used the radio equipment to notify Miami that he had completed the mission. Tim heard a crackling voice respond, “We are now getting data from the radar equipment. Thank you.”
Soon, the rocket sound faded. As the grey fog thinned, the sky turned to deep indigo. John and Tim left the radio room for the cabin. The light was on. The lantern room was golden, and a beam of pure white light reached across the ocean.
On a recent day, in July 2020, Tim Williams was able to visit the Hillsboro Lighthouse. Retired from a career in child protection services, Tim enjoys each visit to the place he will always call home. In 2007, for the light’s 100th Anniversary Celebration, Tim was the keynote speaker.
“Remember that the light’s first purpose was to save lives,” said Tim. “Today, the lighthouse still saves seafarers when GPS technology fails. The light is always a guide to boaters when they depart and return to shore.”
Tim delights to the present-day Hillsboro Lighthouse Preservation Society’s work in the 1990s to restore the light and preserve its active original Fresnel lens. The light is mainly in its original condition. But the society needs funds to make repairs, he said.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2020 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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