in Worth1000, Writing

Confessions of a Lighthouse Keeper

There are few places on God’s earth more desolate than Bedlam Reef. Two hundred miles off the Southeastern finger of Newfoundland, the Reef is the mainland’s last outpost, perched on the very edge of the Atlantic abyss. It is hardly a welcome mat for incoming sailors. Before my grandfather built the lighthouse, many a captain had torn out his keel before he even knew the Reef was there, just below the surface, waiting for him.

Lighthouse keepers are an odd breed to begin with, but offshore men like me make the coastal boys look like regular socialites. The supply boat shows up once a month, except in the winter storm season when it takes a three-month break, but the way I see it you have to travel two hundred miles to find a more happening place than the Bedlam Light. Nobody throws a more exclusive party than me.

The Reef is beautiful, in its own peculiar way. The interaction between the warm Gulf Stream and the cold Labrador currents turns the ocean into a giant mood ring. On calm days, the sea is such a rich blue that the fish are compelled to leap into the air as if they cannot afford the rent. I took a photograph of the lighthouse on such a day and sold it to a postcard company. It’s a best-seller. Other days, the thick Grand Banks mist hangs close to the surface and makes everything gray. Mother Nature lets you know she’s about to throw a tantrum when the water becomes oily green. On days like that, sailors abroad had best look out.

Only a few dozen square yards of rock actually rise above the surface. Folks said my grandfather was crazy to try taming it, but he had survived an encounter with Bedlam and knew that it would be more crazy not to. It took him three attempts to build a foundation that would still be there after the next storm. The Reef claimed two more ships before Grandad turned on the light for the first time. The Bedlam Light was haunted before it even opened for business. Grandad never had a chance.

I was not ten years old when they took him away. He didn’t last long in that lonely white room with no view of the sea. Before that, he took me one day to the very top of the lighthouse where the foghorn was mounted, just me and him, an old man and his grandson. Some day this will all be yours, he said, sweeping his arm expansively from horizon to horizon. One day it was.

My father took over the management of the lighthouse, but he did not have the stomach to live there himself. He hired men to operate the light. Few of them ever lasted more than one good storm. The Bedlam Light was mine for the taking, just as soon as I could finish school. I was a smart kid, I guess, but I didn’t make but a nominal effort. Book learning means nothing offshore. Two hundred miles out, you either have what it takes to keep it together or you don’t.

My first storm was a spectacular Arctic gale. The waves exploded on the Reef and the wind turned the spray into needles which attacked rock, lighthouse and any living creature with equal ferocity; to venture outside was to be instantly stabbed with a thousand knives before being carried away and buried at sea. My Bedlam Light burned brightly and my foghorn added its deep voice to the din. The fishing outfit must have seen me, just as I saw its navigation lights dancing faintly beyond the wall of white water on the reef. When the waves broke the glass in the light room and destroyed my lamp, the crew must have known they were dead, and so they were.

An experience like that would have broken anyone else, but to walk away would have been to give up my inheritance. I figured Grandad had his ghosts, and now I had mine. That fishing crew talked to me while I repaired the light, and I came to know them well. I was alone when I came to Bedlam, but now I have a family.

My family has grown over the years. I suppose restless spirits crave company, and I find myself in a position where I can give it to them. I felt a twinge of guilt the first time I shuttered the Bedlam Light during a storm, but they turned out to be such interesting people! These days, when the sea turns a greasy, envious green, I stand beside my darkened lamp and watch the show. Sailors abroad, beware.


Previously published at Worth1000.com.