OF ALL MAN¡¯S WORKS the lighthouse is probably the most unambiguous, its purpose singular, its message simple: all is well, the way is clear.
Gaunt in its marine setting on island, cape or promontory the lighthouse is an outpost of civilization, safeguarding and preserving man from his oldest adversary, and a thread in the fabric on which the whole of civilization has been woven for centuries, that of trade between people and nations.
Yet oddly enough artists have not often found lighthouses worthy of paint and canvas, nor writers suitable items for pen and paper.
But considering lighthouses are in fact outposts, perhaps this is not surprising. They are not easy to reach. Their surroundings are often bleak, too-isolated capes and islands can be dangerous obstacles to ships and their crews, and lighthouses are warning signs to keep away the straying sailor or guide him safely past.
Because there are few accounts of lighthouses and those who tend them, whenever we mention we were lighthouse keepers we are asked a thousand questions.
Not only are there few accounts, there are also few lighthouse keepers. In New Zealand there are twenty-five lighthouses around the coast and forty-odd men and their families who look after them.
So it is even more inevitable we should be asked a thousand questions-in a population of three million how often could anyone meet a lighthouse keeper?
Although the questions may vary between the intelligent and the extraordinary, they have a common basis: what did we do all day?
We had plenty to do all day and indeed it has probably been the busiest period of our lives so far, yet our questioners really have no idea of the truth of it even after the explanations. Charles Dickens, for instance, was far from the mark when he had Sam Weller saying, ¡°Anything for a quiet life, as the man said when he took the situation at the lighthouse,¡± and Albert Einstein¡¯s belief that a job at a lighthouse would be the ideal way to solve complicated problems was equally off-beam.
In some respects both Martia and I were already in tune with the lighthouse way of life before we started.
As a nurse, Marita had long learned to take things in her stride. Dealing with the sick, the dying and sometimes the dead, one must gain some cognizance of the ways of the world and the people in it. For that is what lighthouse life is-society in microcosm; put two of three couples and their families on an island together for a year at a time and you are bound to find the truth of it.
As a seaman, for me it was really only a matter of changing the way of may association with the sea. In the lighthouses I found much the same things that sent me to sea in the first place. The most I have required of life is that each day may be different, a requirement well met at sea-too well met sometimes-I have spent the odd days in gaol for minor idiocies in various peculiar places and have been shot at in a South American revolution. But all in all life was satisfying.
Equally so in the lighthouse service.
There have been some who thought we had found a way of life that approached Paradise.
Certainly, Paradise, assuming it ever existed, is becoming harder to find in our self-created Utopia and sooner or later a man is driven to think he would like to live on an island and lie in the sun with the sea lapping at his feet.
We lived on islands and often lay with the sun overhead and the sea at our feet. But it wasn¡¯t Paradise. We still had our lives to live. And no man can live with himself, let alone others and still be in Paradise.
But for all that, we enjoyed the lighthouse life. Why else did we stay eight years? As a matter of fact, we left only because I was carried out on a stretcher.
And it all began with an Ancient Egyptian. ¡