A lonely, lofty perspective



We come now to the subject of lighthouses.

Of course we aren’t exactly inundated with them where I live, on the Texas gulf coast.  The closest one to yours truly, over on Bolívar Point, has been privately owned for decades and isn’t open to the public.

As a member of said public, I want to go on record as saying I wish that it was.

That coal black, kerosene-powered beauty illuminated the entrance to the port of Galveston from 1872 until 1933, when it was determined that lights installed on the ends of the jetties provided the same service, and more economically.  Since then it’s sat unused, a constant reminder of a past era.  And I’d like to be able to visit it up close and personal.

I’ve always been infatuated with lighthouses.  And the room I am sitting in as I write this – the former bedroom of a daughter who grew up and moved away – that is now my office is proof.  If there is anything close to a specific theme among all these books, maps, mementos, mugs stuffed with pencils and pens, journals, and stacks of old manuscripts it is a lighthouse motif.  There are framed prints of lighthouses and ceramic miniatures of lighthouses and coffee mugs displaying pictures of … well, you get the idea.  One of my most cherished possessions was a thoughtful gift from a good friend: a framed drawing of the Brazos River lighthouse that was dismantled years ago, with a piece of the lens from the light matted beneath the print.

It would be nice now if I could tell you that my interest in those lonely sentinels comes from visiting a good many of them, climbing up into them, and standing long on their parapets and gazing out at to sea.  But the honest fact is that I have never set foot in a lighthouse or even, I’m pretty sure, stood in close proximity to one.

Part of the romantic notion I have must comes from old movies.  You know the ones, with crusty light tenders played by actors like Guy Kibbee and Lionel Barrymore, old salts smoking stubby briar pipes and outfitted in heavy, tattered parkas and short-visored captain’s caps.  They snarl and roar a good bit, matching their mood to the sea, and usually display a heart of gold to some waif that’s been left in their care.  In the process, they offer direction in the kid’s life, stretching out the lighthouse metaphor about as far as it will go.

And many a novel I’ve read has fueled this odd enthrallment.  The lonely tower on the edge of terra firma with the vast eternal briny deep stretched out to the far horizon has provided authors with perfect settings for their tales for centuries.  One recent offering I especially enjoyed was The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Steadman, and one I read in college by Virginia Woolf was titled, appropriately enough, To the Lighthouse. There were  many more good yarns in between; one of the best was Ray Bradbury’s fine short story “The Fog Horn”, which was set in a lighthouse.

And part of my fascination comes from wondering what it must be like to live completely removed from towns and society and have just one responsibility: to keep the light burning so ships’ captains can navigate by it.  The rest of the time, the way I’ve conjured it, would be spent reading books by the fireplace – the perfect lighthouse in my imagination has a big fireplace in the keeper’s cottage – or standing on a nearby windswept cliff looking at the ocean and pondering the meaning of life.

Realistically, a day and a half of such a routine would just about do me.  Beyond that, I’d get awfully bored and have to go off in search of those towns and that society I wanted to distance myself from.

Still, there’s something soul-stirring about those tall, handsome monuments to the past that once sent their illumination crawling out over the waves to bring vessels safely home. Almost all of them have stood dark for decades, having long outlived the people who kept their lights burning.

Maybe it was the symbolism offered by lighthouses that lured me into my paying such close attention to them.  Because they are, at their most functional level – purely useful.  And, given this frantic, oftentimes mean world we inhabit, what is more appealing, really, than something useful?  Something like a light in the darkness that can bring us safely through.

I’ll go on loving lighthouses.  I might even follow through on an old goal and write a story or novel set in one.  But if I do it would probably be a good idea to actually pay a visit to one, don’t your think?  I just hope it will have an elevator.


[Parts of this lighthouse piece first cast its beam in a Sunday morning newspaper column sometime in the dark past.]

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