The Good Life
By Tony Tuliano
On October 4, 1976, at the age of eighteen, I enlisted in the United States Coast Guard. Like many my age, I was not sure what direction my life was going and I believed it would be time well invested as my life's journey found its course. Shortly after completing Basic Training, I was assigned to the Plum Island Light Station. I had only recently learned that lighthouses were even still manned by crews. Being eighteen and yearning for adventure and accomplishment, my immediate response to my assignment was somewhat of a disappointment. Time would soon teach me my feelings were unfounded.
Plum Island (NY) Light Station
Upon my arrival at the Lighthouse in the first week of January 1977, I was warmly greeted by my new extended family. Mark, a First Class Petty Officer, was the Officer in Charge. Jim, a Third Class Petty Officer, was second in command and the Engineering Officer. Steve, a Seaman, and myself, a Fireman made up the remainder of the four man crew. They immediately gave me the "Ten Cent" tour of my new home. As you enter through the Mud Room there was a access to the basement straight ahead and the kitchen to the right. If you are looking at a side view of Lighthouse, the kitchen would be the smaller stone section to the rear of the main structure. Walking towards the front of the house, you would then enter the livingroom, which was furnished with all the modern conveniences. Adjacent to the livingroom on the right, was a recreation room. It contained a pool table that took up ninety-five percent of the room. I remember we had to use short little cut-off cue sticks in order to play without hitting the wall. Continuing on, you would come into a small foyer behind the front exterior door. Immediately to the left was the stairs leading to the second floor. There were actually four bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor. The smallest bedroom was converted to an Office/Radio room. Mark and Jim each had their own room and Steve and I would share the large bedroom. Also in the hallway was a small closet and the stairway to the upper levels. This narrow staircase wrapped around the interior of a shaft way that worked its way up the light tower. From here I caught my first glimpse of the counter weight of the clockworks, which provides mechanical power to the lens. It traverses the center of this shaft way down to ground level. As you climb these narrow stairs, you first come to the attic level. I was kind of surprised to see how much room there was in the attic. You can easily stand-up in the center of the room. The only thing kept in the attic was some weight lifting equipment. A few months later we did discover some initials of previous Keepers carved into the rafters. If my memory serves me correct, we added ours to the collection. Anyway, as we continued up the stairs, we came to the steel hatch that leads to Lantern Room. As soon as you enter the Lantern Room the first thing that grabs your attention is "the Jewel of the House," The Fresnel Lens. What a fascinating work of functional art. Though showing some damage from a century of service, it was still a breathtaking piece of brass and glass reflecting light from the midday sun. Once the distraction of the sight of the lens and clockworks subsided, you are captivated by the wondrous view of Plum Island, Plum Gut and Long Island Sound. These first fifteen minutes as a Lighthouse Keeper are forever etched in my memory.
One of the first things I learned about being a Lighthouse Keeper was "DUCK". This Lighthouse was built around 1869. I guess people were not very tall back then or maybe they were just more agile. All I know, is that I am over six feet tall and I must have wacked my head about a hundred times my first week there. It was one of those "sink or swim" lessons. Eventually I caught-on.
The structure itself was sturdily built with the finest craftsmanship of its day. It had withstood over a century of the most extremes of weather conditions the Northeast could deliver. I remember that it was not exactly air tight. If the winds were blowing strong, you could watch the window curtains move even though the windows were closed. Fortunately, we had a modern oil furnace to compensate for the drafty conditions.
Another interesting structural feature was the three foot square hatch in the kitchen floor. I believe it was a cistern but, we were kind of hesitant (afraid ) to open it. Who knows what was/ is down there. Maybe the government kept the Area 51 Aliens there. I can say with certainty that this house was like every other old house I had ever been in; it makes lots of strange noises in the night.
After a couple of weeks of orientating myself to my new surroundings, I became very comfortable with my new life as a Lighthouse Keeper. Even though our atmosphere was somewhat relaxed, we were still a military unit and conducted ourselves accordingly. Mark ran a Tight Ship and instilled pride in us with regard to the Lighthouse, our responsibilities, and the Coast Guard in general. He was a very competent supervisor and became a good friend, as did Steve and Jim.
Our typical work hours were much like everyone else except we couldn't go home at the end of the day because, we were already there. We worked 8:00 AM to 5:00PM with one hour for lunch on Monday thru Friday, and a half day on Saturday. If a project had to be finished right away, we would just do it. During the workday we would perform routine maintenance and repairs to the Lighthouse and surrounding facility.
Maintaining a structure of this age can be quite challenging at times. On some occasions, we had to carefully remove a century of old paint to refinish a surface. One of the weekly maintenance items that stands out in my mind, was polishing the brass on the Fresnel Lens. This was quite a feat generally requiring a half a day to accomplish. Despite skinned up knuckles and sore fingers from polishing in between all the prisms, we took great pride in this task.
In addition to the regular workday, we would each stand a rotational eight hour watch. The watch was responsible for monitoring weather conditions, answering the telephone and of course, lighting and extinguishing the beacon. If visibility became diminished, the fog horn was activated on the Orient Point Light and the siren located in our auxiliary generator shack (now destroyed from erosion.)
Lighting the beacon was performed one-half before sunset every night and involved more than just throwing a switch. With the exception of the electric light itself, the light mechanism and lens operated much like it had for over a century. A one-hundred pound counter weight suspended by a cable, traveled through passageways cut in each floor level. Several minutes of arm-tiring cranking would raise the weight to the top, translating to about eight hours of operation. This energy source would power the clockworks which rotated the Fresnel Lens at a constant speed, thereby giving interval flashes of light within its sight. I believe our designated interval at the time was a flash every 4.5 seconds. I remember we use to calibrate the rotation speed of the lens to: one complete turn every forty-five seconds. There was a little thumb screw inside the clockworks that would adjust the rotation speed. Should we lose electrical power on the island, we had a back-up emergency generator to maintain the beacon. We even had a oil lamp incase there was a problem with the generator. Being this use to be the primary source of illumination, the Lantern Room was equipped with a flue to exhaust the fumes and make-up air vents to keep the flame burning properly. One section of the lens was hinged so you could open it to remove the bulb and place the oil lamp in the center. We did test the oil lamp on occasions, but I do not recall ever having to use it. When you think about it, its amazing, how many things today are built to last over a century with such precision and accuracy? Not many that I am aware of..
When I had the evening watch, I enjoyed climbing up to the light tower early and spend my time sitting out on the catwalk with my legs hanging over the edge. The solitude and scenic beauty was soothing to the soul. Time seem to slow down up there. Passing mariners would wave and it was like I could sense them saying, "Thank You for being there." It was not so much them saying it to me, but to the institution of the manned Lighthouse, who's unfailing sole purpose was to guide them safely home. It was times like this that would help me come to realize the true tradition of this Lighthouse and the Keepers before me.
The four of us lived in the Lighthouse much like a family would... without the kissing. We always tried to combine our resources to make life more pleasant. The Coast Guard paid us each a substance allowance for food. Instead of just providing our own food, we would all pool our money and go shopping every couple of weeks. That would cover all the basic meals. Any extras a man wanted like yogurt, cigarettes or whatever, would be paid for separately. All of us would take turns cooking our specialties, but Mark did most of the cooking because he was the most talented cook. Our evening meal was always a sit-down meal at the table. Our table conversations ranged from laughing and telling jokes to planning upcoming projects. We also took turns doing the dishes, but generally, everybody helped clean-up after the meal.
During the winter months, after eating, we would usually head to the ping-pong table set-up in the mud room. Again, it was a tight fit, but enough room to play. We all became pretty good players and had some exciting matches. I could tell you who the champion was, but I think it could be disputed. Then we usually headed to the living room to watch a little television. We even had a rotation schedule for the TV. If it was my TV night, I got to pick what to watch. I don't think we ever had any disagreements about what to watch though. During lunch, we just had to catch-up on the Soap Operas. Occupying free time is probably something I could talk about for a while. Unless you were on watch, nights and weekends was free time. If you didn't find something you enjoyed to do during this time, it could seem like an eternity and found yourself longing for the workday to begin again. Isolation is something most every Lighthouse Keeper experienced and Plum Island was no exception. For those of you who don't know, Plum Island is a quarantined and restricted island because the USDA Animal Disease Center was located there. We would got few visitors. Every now and again someone from the island would stop by or we might see one of the guards on their rounds. Of course, there was the mailman. He came every so often too, but that was about it.
One thing we all like to do was walk the beach and explore the island. Our only modes of transportation were walking or riding the two bicycles we kept in the garage. These bicycles looked like something you would find in a time capsule from the Fifties. We were glad to have them though. I guess at one time the crews used to have a Jeep, but somebody before us, rolled it over and that was the end of that.
The island itself has a very rich history. At several location around the island there are old Battery Bunkers from its Fort Terry days. Sorry, there were no Area 51 aliens there either. Nor were their the ten foot chickens I heard rumors of. They were interesting structures though.
We also visited the grave stone of Col. Gardner. He died in the late 1700's, I do not recall the exact date on the head stone. We think he visited us too. It was late one night and we were all watching TV in the living room. Suddenly, we heard two loud metal crashing sounds. We knew exactly what the distinct sound was, the steel hatch in the floor through which you entered the Lantern Room. We immediately went up to investigate and found the steel hatch open. I can't say for sure, but I think we all slept in the living room that night.
Close to the Lighthouse was a rather large pond. It was a cold winter that year, so Mark and I decided we would clear it off and try a some ice skating. After a couple hours of shoveling snow and some feeble attempts at skating, we determined the ice was just too rough to skate on. Oh well... it was a good idea anyway.
Walking the beaches was always enjoyable. We would find all kinds of things washed up on shore. One time Jim and I found a message in a bottle. The letter inside was from a High School studying northeast ocean currents. So we typed them up an official looking letter explaining where we had found it and sent it back. Probably our favorite thing to find washed up on shore was Lobster Pots (traps). The pots could not be returned to their owners due to the quarantine, so instead of them just being destroyed, we set out a few in the little harbor there on the island. Before or after work, we would ride our bicycles down to the harbor and work the pots. We kept a little row boat there to use. I think we only had one oar. That was a challenge. Actually, we did quite well. We had a freezer half full of lobster.
Once the weather broke, we engaged in one of our other favorite pastimes, fishing. Sometimes we would go down to the harbor and fish for little snapper blues, but our real passion was fishing for Blues and Stripers (Blue Fish & Stripped Bass). Steve was quite the fisherman and taught me much about the sport. We would make up lures out of steel leaders and surgical tubing, then go down to the water in front of the Lighthouse and cast out into Plum Gut. It was incredible. We could pull-in twenty pounders right from shore. Needless to say, the other half of our freezer was filled with fish fillets.
Enjoying The Good Life
As the weeks turned into months, I slowly became a seasoned Lighthouse Keeper. I found a piece of that adventure and accomplishment I was yearning for, in the place I least expected to, a Lighthouse. All good things do come to an end, I received my orders for Damage Controlman School in the late fall of 1977. The sadness of leaving my new friends and new home was magnified by knowing that the Lighthouse would be abandoned and replaced by an automatic beacon shortly after my departure. A long chapter in American history was coming to an end and I was so very fortunate to have been able to touch a piece of it. I hope by reading this, you too, can have some understanding of what it was like to be a Coast Guard Lighthouse Keeper on Plum Island, New York.
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