September 14th, 1970
Jake Winslow had been away from the lighthouse longer than usual. His mother, living clear across Florida along the gulf coast in Cedar Key, had suffered a stroke. The Coast Guard Lamplighter usually did the routine maintenance on the lighthouse lens and lighting apparatus once a week. So three weeks away from St. Augustine to get his 83-year-old mother discharged from the hospital in Gainsville and then moved and settled in with his sister up in Macon, Georgia, was the longest he had ever been away from the lighthouse in his twelve years as a lamplighter.
He hoped that members of the actual Coast Guard had not stopped by the lighthouse on one of their surprise visits or training exercises to notice his long absence. The night before, as he drove back into town, he passed by the old tower to make sure the light was still operating; seeing it still shining gave the 63-year-old man some relief. Although, he retired from the coast guard over a dozen years ago and was now a civilian contractor. The idea of being removed from his job, or worse, being reprimanded by someone half his age, kept him awake at night during his last few weeks away.
He loved the “old girl,” as he sometimes called her, with her stripes and steps, even though she was in poor shape at nearly one hundred years old and way past her prime. Neglected and almost forgotten due to the distant bureaucracy and their budget cuts. With her once bright paint faded and peeling with the woodwork rotting and the iron rusting, it was a small signal of a nation in decline, even as men were going to the moon.
He stood on the marble floor inside the bottom of the tower and listened to the distant hum of the electric motor high above. The familiar deep distant purr was interrupted occasionally by the rustling and screeching of noisy baby Swifts nesting in one of the oil house chimneys—nevertheless, the mechanical harmonics above a sign that everything up at the top was probably just fine.
Jake looked at his watch once he made it up the steps to the solid iron door. “Four and a half minutes,” he said to himself in a heavy breath. Not a speed record, but not too shabby. How many other men his age could climb the lighthouse at that speed? Jake smiled at his accomplishment as he unlocked and pushed open the groaning iron door.
The sun was above the Atlantic horizon on a cloudless September morning as he pushed the hulking door through the light sea breeze, hooking it to the wall to keep it open. The lamplighter took in the clean ocean air and the magnificent view, taking in the calm Atlantic, the northern end of Anastasia Island, and the miniature historic city across the shiny ribbon of the Intracoastal Waterway to the west. Jake had missed these moments of contemplation and peace, with only the distant drone of automobiles fourteen stories below as the island came alive at the start of another day.
Upon entering the rotation room, the space was just how he had left it in August. Everything was in its place. If twenty-three years in Coast Guard had taught Jake anything, it was organization. He stood still in the space, watching the greased gears slowly turn and mesh together, allowing the eight bronze wheels to turn on their circular iron track, smooth and carousel-like. The constant motion of the mechanism would often mesmerize Jake; it seemed to him almost celestial-like as it moved reliably, like clockwork, for much longer than he had been alive, which might as well have been an eternity.
He pulled down the sizeable nearby knife switch to turn off the electricity, causing all the motion above and directly in front of him to a silent slow stop. Then, at the cabinet to his right, he opened a few drawers removing a few rags in one and a wrench from the other.
He took the clean rags and climbed the ten battleship grey steps to the lens room level stopping at the top of the stairs to marvel at the brass and glass of the Fresnel lens in front of him.
“Functional artistry,” he said to himself, looking over in the one-hundred-year-old, nine-foot-tall, prismed capsule with its hue of rainbows in some areas. Jake thought of it as a heart and would sometimes tell guests, “If the lighthouse were a great beast, then this (lens) would be her heart. So I take care of the old girl’s beautiful heart.”
He crept around the lens, slowly taking in all the edges and curves, peering into the thick glass, its center curves making the horizon upside down, as a funhouse mirror might do. Then, stooping down into the service entrance and rising tall once inside the lens, Jake first noticed bits of wood and putty lying on the gray iron platform. Crumbs of latharge, made primarily of lead, an antique substance used to keep all the prisms in their proper mathematical placement, had fallen from above. Looking up, he saw the damage; the louvered pattern was broken, similar to a wide gap in an otherwise beautiful smile. There was an empty space on the east side; one prism was missing.