My grandfather was a lighthouse keeper. His feet hammered up 134 steps four times a day. His hands spent 30 years working steady to keep the beacon of a Fresnel lens and lamp aglow from dusk through dawn. Those hands were rugged and hard worked but never greasy. Yens never greased up a lens and spent all night cleaning it up, I take it, if ye don’t know how to get that damn dirt of your hands. He had two pairs of rubber boots: one pair for church on Sunday and one pair for absolutely everything else.
Walter was a simple man like that. I asked him, often, trying to strike up conversation between heavy breaths, trying to pull myself up turn after turn of the spiral staircase behind him, what makes a man want to live in a place only reachable at low tide. He never had an answer, just a shrug of his shoulders. I never could tell if that gesture told of indifference to the question or the answer.
Sometimes, on nights spent atop the tower, Walter would lower his eyes from the horizon, and roll the beginning of the pharos’s history around on his tongue like a wad of chewing tobacco under the lip. Bricks, he would say, a lot of damn bricks, and they put them on the edge of the ocean here. He would spit it out in chunks: back in the old days (which, for the record, all days, to Walter, were the old days) a schooner had come into harbor here and crashed upon the rocks. Nine men were taken under by the waves. The keeper had tried, my grandfather tried to settle me, the keeper had tried, but the weather that night was too much. No signal light in the world would have stopped that schooner from perishing. Still yet, in the gruesome history of this safe hold of stones, a keeper found himself mad, right crazy, after weeks of high tide and decided it best to reach shore by diving from the very top down onto the shoals below. I do not need to tell you how that story ends. These stories, of course, were my grandfather’s version of bedtime stories to his children and grandchildren in that tower. Starlight, star bright, starboard is to the right.
His radio would blow static most nights, but some nights a call would come in from miles down the coast. The cracked voices across the waves of the radio and ocean were a foreign language to me. “AX 56134, Keeper that’s Alpha X-Ray 56134, approaching starboard into harbor,” and my grandfather would shine his light out in a magical Morse code to let the ship, barely seen by my naked eye except for a green flashing light, know that it was safe to dock.
On stormy nights, my mind would certainly be consumed of the best and worst of possibilities. Any storm could be the one to take another schooner in the harbor and crack it like the tail of a whip against the shore. I could picture it in my head, the wood of its bow splintering against the smooth stones on the shoal and the jagged, torturous rocks looming above it. White paint chipping, water boarding the deck like pirates, consuming the rocking boat like a ravenous animal attacking prey. My imagination ran wild while my grandfather spun his radio dial, searching stations, guiding those ships, sloshing on the rough sea, into harbor. His voice as calm as the sea was before nature took up its rage. His hands, flashing that lens back and forth. This way, boys. The best of possibilities happens as the rain creeps in cracked windows atop that pillar: My grandfather is the hero in this and many other storms.
The beads of sweat that formed on his forehead were pure sea salt. He smelled like roasted chestnuts and pipe tobacco. He could charm fish into his nets. He kept his harbor safe.
There is so much more to say about him, of course, but those are stories for another time.