• Heather O’Neal


The Lighthouse Keeper’s Log

Episodes from the Lighthouse

Nepal While at the lighthouse I learned about the nightmare that occurred in Nepal. I simply cannot believe the Crown Prince shot and killed nine members of his Royal Family, including the King and Queen, and then he shot himself — eight times? So unlikely, it is preposterous; never mind how drunk he was. People snap in America but not in Nepal. Someone is hiding something. I am watching anxiously. My little country has been badly wounded.

I have only seen the King in person once and that was in 1987. It was when Ceausescu, the then leader of Romania, came to visit and there was a procession down the main street in front of the palace in Kathmandu. I watched the leaders pass in their limousines. I could see them through the windows in their cars. The King sat next to the Queen in the back seat of the first car. Ceausescu was in the second car.

If only I knew then what the predestined fate of these people would be, maybe I could have done something. I could have jumped out into the street and stopped the procession right then and there. I could have changed history.

Instead, I just stood at the edge of the sidewalk like everyone else and waved as the cars rolled slowly by.

Light Housekeeping One day a few years ago, I was looking for a summer job. In the newspaper I found an ad in the classifieds which said something about a part time position as a “light house keeper”. I was curious. Could I actually live and work in a real lighthouse?

I called the number and asked, “Where exactly is this lighthouse?” I figured it must be on the Great Lakes somewhere since the ad was in the Ann Arbor News.

There was silence on the other end of the line. “I’m afraid there has been a misunderstanding,” the man said. “There is no lighthouse. The job is for a light — housekeeper in my home, cleaning, moping, dusting. You know.”

The Lighthouse Keeper’s Log

IIs this place haunted?” was the first question I asked.

Upon walking up to the front door hauling a duffle bag of assorted clothes from my closet, it occurred to me that this house was very old, over 133 years old. It’s an isolated lighthouse on Lake Michigan. Twelve big shipwrecks lay in the watery depths just off shore, and one ship, mostly covered in sand now, sits on the beach nearby. Named by the French settlers, Big Sable means big sand and sand is everywhere. A lighthouse keeper must learn to live with sand in her shoes, in her socks, in the house, gritty on the floor, in the rugs, and eventually it makes its way into the bed.

“A few have died here, but it’s not haunted,” Robert said. “Really, it’s not.” Robert wears a sailor’s hat. He looks good as the handyman, repairing, painting, sweeping, caring and telling little known lighthouse facts. “This lighthouse is old. Many people have lived here.”

Robert and Mary James do an awfully fine job preserving and sharing one of Michigan’s most wonderful lighthouses. They recruit volunteers like myself to live and work at the lighthouse for two weeks at a time. Unlike lighthouse keepers of the past who had to stay up all night watching the light at the top of the tower, our job was to watch after the tourists.

Though the light is still in use, maintained by the Coast Guard now, it is relatively hassle free. If the wind blows too strongly, the halogen bulb will not blow out. In fact, there are three other back-up bulbs that will rotate into position if one goes out. It’s all automatic. At $20 a bulb, all four will last about three years without anyone lifting a finger.

“What happens if the power goes out,” I asked the young man from the Coast Guard who was on the job making sure everything was working properly.

“We will probably get a phone call,” was his answer. “If someone’s out there in a boat and they don’t have GPS, they’re in trouble. They shouldn’t be out there.”

If a sailor is lost during the day, the lighthouse tower acts like a street sign. Every tower is distinct in either its stripes or its shape. The Big Sable Lighthouse is identified by one big black band. Not only does it mean land, it represents a specific place on the map. I told many school groups, “This is the Global Positioning System of the past.”

Like a street light, the light in the tower automatically turns on when it senses it’s getting dark. Only one two-inch bulb has the intensity to travel 15 miles across the lake. That’s about as far as the eye can see. The Big Sable Lighthouse doesn’t turn, flash or flicker which are common signatures for other lighthouses. This one is a constant white light. The ships know it means Big Sable Point, and it also means “keep away.” A constant white light says to the ships, “It’s shallow here. Watch out for the sandbar.”

In the beginning, the bulb was a three inch flame inside a giant five foot Fresnel lens, a beautiful structure of glass prisms, angled and precisely arranged on a brass frame. Without it, midnight seafarers were totally lost in the dark. Oil and kerosene had to be carried to the top of the tower — 130 steps to the top. But that’s not as bad as it must have been listening to the fog horn. Three blasts then 51 seconds of silence all night long, all day and all night, sometimes for weeks. The three families who lived and worked here had to modify their conversations in order to account for the loud interruptions. But for the ships, the 51 seconds told them where they were on the map.

I quickly learned that there is a breed of lighthouse people. Many who came into the gift shop were decked head to toe in lighthouses. They wore sweatshirts with pictures of 30 Michigan lighthouses, lighthouse earrings with pins and necklaces to match. They carried lighthouse tote bags, wore lighthouse hats, bought lighthouse magnets. And I had to beware, this fashion statement was contagious.

I spent many hours in the top of the tower drawing pictures in my sketchbook. The echoes of tourists among the twirly metal stairs below alerted me to stand at attention and meet and greet and spew some facts. People from all corners of the planet appeared, Australia and Hungary included. It was a small world at the top of the tower. Some people were more interested than others, and others were more afraid of heights than some.

When not tending the light (that didn’t really need tending), I spent my time walking and walking, exploring miles and miles of isolated beach and miles of trails in Luddington State Park. The sound of the waves crashing along the shore inspired me to sing. I found I could belt out operatic sounds to the sky like one might in the shower, and no one would hear me except the freshwater mermaids and maybe the porcupines in the woods. No one for miles. No one. Not a one.

On each of my walks, I came back in the dark guided by the light in the tower with pockets full of stones. Pebbles with stripes, a rock with a weathered hole in it, others with fossils, some perfectly round, more that were flat or square and one, a Petoskey stone. All had a reason for being in my pocket.

The Tower Trio On the stormiest night, after coming in from one of my walks, I was informed that Joyce and Gayle (two fellow lighthouse keeper volunteers) had gone to the top of the tower to tend to the light. I thought I should join them and at least help measure the wind speed with that silly little device.

The light was bright in the top of the tower 112 feet off the ground. The ships were not lost as the winds howled around us. Seconds on that round balcony outside meant hours brushing whipped hair later. Still it was exciting to be there at the epicenter of the beam knowing it was designed to keep ships safe, especially during a storm.

I’m not sure how it happened but around step 80 during our decent, Gayle, Joyce and I broke into three part harmony. Individually we were quality choir material, counting the measures with our feet as we landed on each stair. This tower’s echo was more superb than the acoustics in any theater. Soon our voices melted into “Row Row Row Your Boat” in a three part round. This was our best song — twirling down and down and around the lighthouse tower steps.

At the bottom of the tower, we stood for over an hour singing Christmas Carols mostly and other songs that each of us knew. We titled ourselves, The Tower Trio. I look forward to reuniting with these ladies one stormy night to sing in the tower again.

Cleopatra I named her Cleopatra because she was so beautiful.

One evening while walking near the shipwreck on the beach, I came across a struggling butterfly. Her wing was half buried in sand. A monarch, she was lucky to appear in my path.

I lifted her out of the sand before the next wave swept her away. Specks stuck to the underside of her wings and sand was on her back. I studied her butterfly-ness as she walked in the palm of my hand. Her long legs were weak and clumsy, a tragic moment. As her rescuer, I hurried toward the forest where it wasn’t so windy.

Cleopatra and I walked almost two miles through the breeze along a sandy trail back to the lighthouse. The whole way, she sat on my chest like an expensive piece of jewelry. I felt like Snow White as the two of us walked among many deer, standing near the trees watching us. (It bothered me that they were so still, hopefully not for hunters.)

Cleopatra must have fallen asleep. When we arrived at the lighthouse I nudged her, and she woke up with a jolt. I was worried about the sand on her wings. Maybe it was too much weight which could offset the science of butterfly flight. I tried to rub the sand off with my finger but she flinched as if it hurt. So I stopped and took her inside.

When I walked into the kitchen to where the five other volunteer lighthouse keepers were chatting, they smiled at me.

“It’s not alive, is it?” one questioned looking serious.

“Sure, she is,” I said proudly. “Her name is Cleopatra.”

I was easily the youngest of the six of us. Perhaps I was the youngest volunteer lighthouse keeper the association had ever had, well probably not. Maybe I’d get the prize for being the most eccentric, anyway. The night before, I had suggested a method for leading a moth to the door with a flashlight rather than killing it, a story I heard them telling again. And my day job trekking in the Himalayas was not your ordinary career. Plus my drawings of llamas and scenes from Peru had this group squinting. Now I was talking to Cleopatra.

“I want to give her some food,” I said.

Joyce, a retired fifth grade teacher helped me. “We used to raise Monarchs in my classroom,” she said. “They are only attracted to food if it is brightly colored. We need some food coloring.”

I spotted the neon orange price tag on a bag of bread that sat on the counter. “How about this?” I said. I peeled off the sticker, stuck it to the bottom of a plastic dish and mixed up some sugar and water. Cleopatra and I went to my room.

“We don’t want that thing flying around in here, do we?” I overheard a voice say from the kitchen. They were laughing with me rather than at me; I made sure of that. We got along exceedingly well. Wonderful people!

So Cleopatra sat on the bed. Her wings were perfectly symmetrical, orange, black and white. The specks of sand remained though I desperately wanted to brush them off. She was busy drying her wings and wasn’t noticing the price tag in the sugar water. I put a drop on my finger and touched her nose. She didn’t flinch or jump. She just sat stoically like a work of art.

Pretty soon a long tongue-like appendage advanced from her head and curled under. She must have seen my puzzled look. It was a butterfly thing, I figured and went on about my business.

Cleopatra and I sat together for hours. I drew a picture of her, wrote about her in my journal and studied the intricacies of her being. She must have weighed less than a postage stamp.

The next morning I found her clinging to the lighthouse patterned lace curtain over the window. She looked so good there. By now my hand was a familiar part of her world, but she liked it better on my fleece. I wore her as if dressed up for the opera. We went out to the kitchen for some coffee.

“She’s going to Mexico,” Joyce said cheerfully. “Monarchs go to Mexico, you know.”

Later I took Cleopatra outside but she didn’t budge from my finger.

“Fly away. Be free,” I said but she didn’t move. Finally I put her on a tree and left her there. Three hours later, she was still there. Then I checked again two hours after that. She was gone.

I am thinking of her now. She’s on her way to Mexico at this very moment.

The Bat One morning at breakfast, Rod, a fellow lighthouse keeper volunteer, came in with some news. “Well folks, we have a bit of a problem. There is a bat in the basement,” he said. “Heather, either you can try to save it, or I’m going to. . .” and he swatted with some force at the air. There was no choice.

I found myself all alone in a distant corner of the basement in a separate room where all the paint supplies were kept. The space was big enough for maybe two people to stand upright. Paint cans lined metal shelves and brushes and rollers, spackle and paint sticks. These were awkward things to set aside but I had to get to where the bat was.

Through the plastic white curtain that was tacked at the ceiling over the high basement window, I could see the shadow of a bat. He was about the size of an egg, folded up neatly, probably scared to death and wondering how he was going to get out of this mess. How had he gotten in?

I found an empty cardboard box which I placed up to the window covering the little scared shadow. Then rather ungracefully, I pulled on the plastic above hoping the bat would be forced into the box. He resisted. I could see the bat’s shadow reaching with two little bat hands through the opaque curtain. He was scrambling to get away, unfolding his wings slightly, trying to maneuver to safe ground. But he was stuck between the plastic and the glass, probably wondering about the box.

I remembered bats were blind. Is there such thing as x-ray sonar? Did he know the box was on the other side of the plastic? Since he was blind he probably couldn’t see the shadow. I wasn’t sure if he knew what I was trying to do.

Then he started to chatter in a strange voice. It almost sounded electronic. I had to think before I realized what it was. “Get in the box,” I responded nervously. I imagined the bat would soon be flying frantically in that tiny room with me ducking and dodging. I’ve heard bats’ wings are sticky and can get stuck in people’s hair!

It was a miracle! The bat was in the box. My plan worked. I could hear his little fingernails scratching at the cardboard. Now I’d have to get the flaps of the box closed without losing him. “Stay in there,” I said out loud. And he did. The box was closed.

I was sweating.

Outside I climbed a nearby sand dune. I opened the box and the bat landed on the concrete foundation of a temporary lighthouse built in the 80’s when it was believed that the big lighthouse was going to fall into the lake.

The bat seemed stunned. And then he took off. It was that same frantic sort of flight that I had visualized in my mind. A kid walking up on the road said to his friend, “Look, she has a bird.”

“It’s a bat,” I yelled. And just then the bat flew toward me. I ran like mad down the dune filling my shoes completely with sand. At the road, I looked over my shoulder. The bat was gone.


Heather O’Neal

Of Global Interest Adventure Travel

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