Recollections of  Plum Island Seeing The Light

By David Robb Home Back

Labor day

Holidays meant that there would be a lot of boats on the water and a festive atmosphere. We would wear crisp cotton "whites" for those occasions and make our presence known. We enjoyed being involved with the public as a contrast to the isolation of station life. Labor Day like all the other national holidays meant that station maintenance Ops were suspended so we could put two boats on patrol and maintain a proper watch rotation at the light. Invariably, each town would have its local celebration and we made an attempt to drop in on each one. At those festivals, the soft drinks and hot dogs were on the house for the Coast Guard. In many native families of the area, someone could recall a story were the Coast Guard had saved the life of a family member or currently had a relative in the service and knew that somewhere, someone was being appreciative of their man. At $121.00 every two weeks, believe me, we appreciated it.

By Tuesday morning, all the summer vacationers were gone, the festivals were over, there was hardly a boat on the water and the sense of isolation closed around us like a suffocating blanket. Most noticeable was the silence. No more out board motor boats or throbbing cruisers, the ferries went to one trip a day and no one would be visiting the island until next year. Therefore, our daily patrols were not as necessary and to conserve budgets, we were restricted to patrols on the weekends. That meant we focused on maintenance with an eye towards getting the station facilities shut down by early December. For the next three and one half months, every corner of the island that had equipment was inspected and brought up to specification. All equipment from the winches that pulled the boats into the boathouse to the range lights was prepared for next year's season. Our motivation was that it would be ready the day we stepped back on the island next year. Besides, we didn't have anything else to do. Work made the time go by and with a plan, it would all get done.

Most noticeable after Labor Day was the change in weather. It got darker sooner and it became down right frosty in the morning. Painting outdoors could only be attempted in the middle of the day. Most work was inside the various buildings and structures attended by the numerous portable radios tuned to The Swap Shop. I recall painting some doors in the basement where Palmer was doing electrical maintenance. We listened to the radio as a punishment that made the tedious work seem enjoyable. I suspect that it was the strong paint fumes but we would get a little goofy as we worked. One day, Palmer threatened to call The Swap Shop radio station in a scheme to auction off the station to the highest bidder. That took up about an hour of insane planning but of course, never happened.

Boathouse thoughts

I remember spending several days in the loft of the boathouse by myself getting it organized and squared away. In 1965, most lines and hawsers in the Coast Guard were still made from heavy hemp rope. It gave off a pungent odor that reminded me of Cocoa trees. For me, it is the smell of the sea and boats and life itself. I believe that all life originated from the sea and eventually returns to it. I love the smell to this day.

While I'm in a poetic mood, I'll go on to say that life on the island brought me closer to nature and a theosophy of life that complimented itself. I realized that all clouds were once lakes and seas and that a power more miraculous than a young man can imagine, devised an invisible energy that could lift them to the heavens, roll them into an ever-changing animation of color and mood and drop them back to earth to not only nourish us, but re-create the soup of life. The solitude was at times boring but nevertheless, revealing.

In the dimly lit loft of the boat house, surrounded by dark wooden rafters and floor boards and lit by a couple streams of dusty sunlight from a roof top dormer, I passed the days splicing eyes in towing hawsers, greasing old wooden blocks, re-coiling mooring lines, braiding boat fenders and organizing the endless trivia that makes up a proper and well stocked bos'ns locker.

The old stuff intrigued me the most. Some of it was of obsolete use and kept for no other reason than it wasn't broken. I never knew how old it was but with the knowledge that Plum Island was first established in 1897, some of it could have been over a half a century old. This reminded me of all the other Coasties that had served on the island before me. Did they all feel the way I did? By greasing an old Lignum Vitae shelled snatch block, was I shaking hands with a man many years ago that had done the same thing? I believed so.



This entire story is copyright by David Robb, and appears here with his permission.

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This page last modified 08/23/2003