- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Best-selling author Homer Hickam is keeping the light. In his new novel, “The Keeper’s Son,” he writes about adventures on the lighthouse-dotted islands of the Outer Banks in

North Carolina during World War II.

Mr. Hickam — whose memoir, “Rocket Boys,” about his childhood rocketry experiments in West Virginia, became the 1999 movie “October Sky” — wants to preserve the heritage of the region, which features some of the most famous lighthouses in the country.

His new book tells the tale of Dosie Crossan, a beach patrol horsewoman, and Josh Thurlow, a Coast Guard lieutenant, who find love during war. Lt. Thurlow, a lighthouse keeper’s son, is part of the family that has “kept the light” at the fictional Killakeet Lighthouse for generations.

Along with the other local people, Miss Crossan and Lt. Thurlow defend the imagined barrier island of Killakeet when German U-boats invade the area, while trying to unravel the mystery of the presumed death of Lt. Thurlow’s 2-year-old baby brother, Jacob, 17 years earlier.

“Lighthouse keepers and all their family members whole lives revolved around keeping that light glowing at night, in order to give safety to the shipping going past,” Mr. Hickam says. “There is a romance inherent to lighthouses that is very hard to define, except it seems to have something to do with caring for others … doing something that allows others to live.”

Lighthouses are icons of American maritime history. Although no new lighthouses have been built in more than 50 years, due to technological advancements, 602 of the towers still exist in the United States, says Wayne Wheeler, president of the United States Lighthouse Society in San Francisco, Calif. The nonprofit organization, www.uslhs.org, has about 10,000 members across the country.

The Global Positioning System, which is controlled by the U.S. Department of Defense, has replaced the practical use of the beaming towers, Mr. Wheeler says. GPS provides specially coded satellite signals that can be processed in a receiver, which computes a ship’s position, velocity and time.

However, about 425 lighthouses still are operated through the United States Coast Guard, which has overseen the structures since 1939. Although some of the towers currently are owned and maintained by government agencies, many are in the hands of other parties, such as nonprofit preservation societies.

“Lighthouses evoke many lasting ideas,” Mr. Wheeler says. “Some people consider it religious, as the light in the dark that points to the sky. It’s also a symbol of ‘terra firma,’ our land against the sea. It’s a symbol of perhaps a family’s happy time or a honeymoon at the beach.”

Until the late 1820s, U.S. presidents personally appointed each American lighthouse keeper, says Sandra Clunies, historian for the Chesapeake Chapter of the United States Lighthouse Society. The nonprofit organization, www.cheslights.org, which aids in preservation of 35 local lighthouses in the Maryland and Virginia area, recently applied for ownership of Thomas Point Lighthouse, located near Annapolis.

The first Congress in August 1789 established the country’s original lighthouse system, which began under the Treasury Department. Virtues such as being industrious, honest and sober were required qualities. Women usually were not considered qualified for the job, unless they were the widow of a keeper.

“They looked for men who were experienced with the sea, who understood what the ships go through trying to navigate shoals and dangerous areas,” Ms. Clunies says. “Preference was given to military veterans. … When the political party would change in the White House, the lighthouse keeper would change. Records would say a man was ‘removed.’”

In 1822, when the Erie Canal opened, it gave access to the Great Lakes to transport lumber and coal down the Hudson River, which built industry in New York City and along the East Coast. Lighthouses on the shoreline would give guidance for the mariners on their journey. Today, 116 of the towers still stand in Michigan.

In isolated areas, lighthouses might provide the only medical supplies for miles. Further, the sites also rotated boxes of books from one tower to another, which gave the communities access to libraries.

As a certified genealogist, Ms. Clunies also has interviewed kin of many keepers. Her research contributed to “Hatteras Keeper’s: Oral and Family Histories.” For example, if a teenage boy was raised by a keeper, he might apply forthe job when his father retired. In many instances, several generations of the same family maintained a lighthouse.

In May 2001, about 1,200 people attended “The Hatteras Keeper’s Descendants Homecoming” in Cape Hatteras, N.C., which was sponsored by the Outerbanks Lighthouse Society in Moorehead City, N.C. Ms. Clunies has continued to research descendants of keepers of other lighthouses.

“We need to preserve the stories and pictures of the people because we won’t have them as long as the lighthouses,” she says. “It’s a part of our culture. It’s a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore.”

John Gaskill, 87, of Wanchese, N.C., lived with his father, Vernon, at Body’s Island Lighthouse in N.C., during the summer from age 3 to 18. The structure, now spelled Bodie Island Lighthouse, is owned by Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

“It was a routine thing,” Mr. Gaskill says. “Every evening, he would light the light. Before that, I would go out and filter the kerosene for him. I would have it ready. He would carry it up to the top of the tower. It was 214 steps. … When I was about 14, my dad took me up and showed me how to put the light out. It’s a very simple thing. That was my job in the mornings.”

His father, who lived to be 95, worked for 36 years at 7 stations. As the last principal keeper of Body’s Island Lighthouse, he worked at the site from 1919 to 1940.

“When daddy first went to the lighthouse, we had to go back and forth to the island by boat, but now we have bridges and highways,” Mr. Gaskill says. “I never dreamt that would ever happen. When they first built a bridge from the island to the beach, we learned to drive in the sand because there were no roads.”

Most Americans have at least one descendant who was a mariner in their family and should be thankful for the service of lighthouse keepers, says Cheryl Shelton-Roberts, co-founder and president of the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society. The nonprofit organization, www.outer-banks.com/lighthouse-society, supports preservation of seven towers in the region.

“We all have it in our blood,” she says. “It’s going to take responsible and caring people to see that lighthouses are preserved, not just for our children and grandchildren, but for our grandchildren’s grandchildren. I would urge people to adopt a lighthouse.”

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