My friend Jack Messick is probably the last living person who spent a lot of time in the original Choptank River Lighthouse. In the late 1940s, when Jack was around 10 years old, his father asked a question that would leave most any boy weak at the knees: “Would you like to live out on a lighthouse with me for a few weeks during your summer vacation?”
Harold Messick worked as a lighthouse keeper between the 1930s and the 1950s. He served for various stretches in that window at Hoopers Island Lighthouse, Hooper Strait Lighthouse, and the Choptank River Lighthouse—all three located in Dorchester County, Md.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
Jack’s fondest memories from those summer days spent living aboard Chesapeake lighthouses involve that last beacon, which stood back then out in the Choptank at the mouth of the Tred Avon River. (The Choptank River Lighthouse you can visit today on the waterfront in Cambridge is a replica.) Thinking back to his first trip out to a lighthouse, Jack brings up an unexpected comparison—to a Jewish bar mitzvah.
“It was almost like, ‘Today, I’m a man. I get to go to the lighthouse.’ I remember the first time I saw the lighthouse. We were on a boat, coming from Oxford. At first, from a distance, it looked so small! But then as we got closer, it got bigger and bigger.
“In my 10-year-old mind, it fills up the whole horizon. It has this imperial quality. It’s majestic. And at the same time, it has a bright red roof and a white picket fence and shutters, so it looks welcoming place, like a home.”
Looking at life on the lighthouse through the eyes of a preteen boy, one of its most notable aspects involves personal hygiene.
“There’s no shower, and there’s no bathtub. That’s like heaven. Life doesn’t get any better than that for a 10-year-old boy. Everyone attended to their own hygiene as they saw fit. If the smell around any individual got too powerful, someone might eventually remind him that it was past time to clean up. The men boiled some water, put it in a basin, and had a sponge bath. The idea was to clean the essential parts only.”
In old photos, lighthouse keepers are often wearing starched dress uniforms. That was not the preferred fashion choice for Harold Messick and his assistants at the Choptank River Lighthouse, however.\
“Most of the time was spent in our skivvies. The uniform out on the lighthouse was your underwear, actually.”
There was always a risk that the dreaded and imperious “Captain Manion” would arrive to conduct a surprise inspection. But his boat would be far away when sighted, leaving plenty of time to don proper garb before his arrival.
According to Messick family legend that predates Jack’s time on the lighthouse, Harold Messick did get all spruced up in his uniformed glory back during the years of World War II. The gas-rationing rules in place then sometimes left him without enough fuel to get from the family home in Salisbury to Cambridge.
“If he put his lighthouse uniform on to hitchhike, some drivers would think he was a military man. Oh yes, it helped him get rides.”
During evening hours on the lighthouse, Jack would often be out on the deck or down on the rocks with the lighthouse dog, Chop.
“It was so much fun. whenever a steamboat would go by. You could hear it from a distance, and it would get louder and louder as it got closer. It would be all lit up, just blazing with light. By the time they got right abeam of the lighthouse, you could hear passengers talking with happy voices and the dance music playing. I remember it being Dixieland jazz. Sometimes, it was almost like you could hear the ice clinking in glasses when the steamboats went by. Oh, they were having a grand time on those boats.”
“My father thought that if you’re not up before the light, then you’ve wasted the day. So he would get up at oh-dark-thirty every morning. The first thing he’d do was smoke several cigarettes and have several cups of coffee.”
The elder Messick would make breakfast at a more reasonable hour, 7am. Then he would turn on the radio and listen for a while to the Arthur Godfrey radio show on WTOP out of Washington, DC. The workday that followed was primarily focused on cleaning, polishing, painting, and keeping a logbook.
BIRDS, BEES … BLECH!
Things were different growing up as the son of a lighthouse keeper. Harold Messick worked live-aboard shifts that lasted three weeks. Then he would get a week off. As a result, Jack spent most of his youth with the distaff side of his family, his mother and a sister. Looking back, he regards the time he spent with his father aboard the lighthouse as something of an introduction to manliness.
Sometimes, that had the feel of slapstick comedy. One task that Jack and his father tackled in their duties involved motoring up the Choptank River and “recharging” a series of smaller unmanned beacons along the river. Young Jack loved these expeditions, but they could have a downside:
“Being out on the water like that, my father had time on his hands and he figured ‘Well, this is a good opportunity to improve my son here by saying some important things that he ought to know.’ It was while we were out there that he told me about the birds and the bees. He did it in a way that was just too disgusting to even talk about—I mean, sexually transmitted diseases described in exquisite detail. The way it ended up, I felt, ‘Well, I won’t ever want any part of that.’”
But his father taught Jack lasting, important lessons as well.
“I was out on the deck one day, and I look down toward Benoni’s Point. He’s really moving that rowboat. I mean, there was white water in front. I called my father, and when the rowboat got nearby the guy said, ‘My boat is dead in the water, and my family is aboard.’
“We ended up towing them into Oxford. When we got there, the guy told my father how much he appreciated the help. He tried to give my father $10, but my father wouldn’t take it. Ten dollars was a lot of money then! In my 11-year-old mind, I’m thinking, ‘That two Red Ryder BB guns!’
“But my father wouldn’t accept it. He told the man, ‘I get paid to do what I just did.’ I didn’t appreciate it on that day, but it stayed with me. It was a matter of character to my father. A man must strive to have high character.”
One day in school, a teacher asked Jack about his father’s occupation. He replied that his dad worked as a “lighthouse keeper,” but what the teacher heard was “light housekeeper.” She thought Harold Messick vacuumed and did dishes for a living.
Before Jack headed to the lighthouse for the first time, his mother announced that he would not be allowed to go swimming while living in the middle of the Choptank River.
“She was sure I was going to drown and she was going to lose her only son. As a precaution, when she packed my bag, she did not pack a pair of swimming trunks. This is the logic of mothers: ‘If he doesn’t have swimming trunks, he won’t be able to swim.’
Jack went swimming in his skivvies, of course. To be fair, though his father did insist on a life preserver and a line tethering him to the lighthouse.
COLD WAR INTERLUDE
Most folks think of lighthouse keeping as a solitary life—just one or two men living out on the water with little human contact. But that wasn’t the case during the Cold War years. Paying hyper attention to security issues, the U.S. military assigned multiple Coast Guardsman to live on lighthouses. In his childhood trips to the Choptank River Lighthouse, Jack shared quarters with his father and two guardsmen.
“At that time, nuclear war was in the forefront of everybody’s mind. We did drills in school where you put your head down and got under the desk. There was a lot of talk about fallout shelters. Every other day, it seemed, you found yourself wondering, ‘Is this the day we’re all going to get blown up?’
“I’d get to thinking about this on the lighthouse, too. I’d be figuring things out: ‘Well, let’s see Washington, DC is over that way, and that’ll probably get bombed. So I’d look that way imagine how the mushroom cloud would look. There were constant reminders in those days that things were sort of hanging in the balance, held together by a very slender thread.”
‘HOLY OF HOLIES’
“The third level of the lighthouse, that was the holy of holies, where the light was. Every night my father and I would go up there. He would trim the wick so it didn’t smoke up the chimney. That was important because the smoke could obscure the light. We cleaned the lens often for the same reason. Some nights we refilled the kerosene.
“The light, that’s the reason for being, the raison d’etre of the lighthouse. It was amazing to me. It still is amazing to me, the way one kerosene lamp like your great-grandmother had, if you put it in the middle of this beautiful Fresnel lens with all these prisms, it can take that little light and amplify it so that it shone for miles and miles.
During a trip into the nearby town of Oxford, one of the guardsmen stationed on the Choptank River Lighthouse found himself being shadowed by a stray dog.
“He got back to the boat, and this dog jumped in. He wouldn’t leave the boat no matter what the guy tried. It got to be the time when the guy had to get back to the lighthouse. He showed up with the dog in the boat. We called him Chop.”
Chop stayed on the lighthouse for years. He used to do his business in the doggie equivalent of a litter box. When the Coast Guard decided to automate the light and stop staffing the lighthouse, the guardsmen did something pretty special for Jack.
“They drew up ‘official’ papers on Coast Guard stationary, an official set of orders that transferred Chop from the lighthouse into my care. So Chop came home with me. He was a good dog.”
“When we needed supplies, we went to Oxford instead of Cambridge just because it was closer in. We’d dock there and walk maybe a mile into town. My dad would go into the post office and get the mail. We would go into Bill Anderson’s grocery store to get bacon and pork chops and canned beans and pancake mix. My dad and Mr. Anderson would have a big chat while I sat outside and watched the boats on the Tred Avon.
“The thing I was waiting for, the thing I wanted most of all, was to go to Thompson’s soda shop. It was a real old-fashioned place, with marble-topped tables and woven-metal-backed chairs. I’d have an ice cream soda, and I’d be in heaven.”
When on leave, the guardsmen stationed on the lighthouse preferred to travel a little farther and go to Cambridge instead of Oxford.
“I was led to believe that this was because the women of Cambridge were much more interested in Coast Guard men than were the women of Oxford. I was too young to understand the ins and outs of all that, so I couldn’t say one way or the other today whether it was true.”
Jack Messick served in the marines as a young man. As the years went by, he got married, had a family, and taught school. He lives nowadays in the town of Reliance, Md., near Seaford, Del., with his wife, Rose. Obviously, he has never forgotten about his time at the lighthouse. In recent years, he has written down memories of those days and gotten out to speak to local civic groups.
Somewhere in there, Jack wrote a poem about the visits he and his father made to Oxford while stationed on the lighthouse. Here it is:
At the dock the chunky workboat sits snug to the weathered slabs
near a one lung Palmer powered drake tail tied to the rotted spans.
Across the way the ladies sing and laugh amid the steaming crabs,
as they pick and pack sweet, lump crab meat into shiny metal cans.
The lighthouse keeper and his son tread oyster shells onto the street’s
undulating sidewalk made of ballast bricks from ancient sailing ships,
leads to the heart of town and Thompson’s for their soda fountain treats.
Across the street’s the grocery with its weathered paint in peeling strips.
The keeper and the store man talk, while bagging his treats and staples:
chocolate covered grahams, milk, coffee, pork chops, bread and bacon.
The boy sits on a bench across the street, in a park of oaks and maples
where children play upon the green and sailboats cruise the Tred Avon.
The keeper’s son’s an old man now, and visits to Oxford bring him joy.
Children play upon the green, sailboats cruise, and he recalls the boy.
–posted by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC on Dec. 30, 2020. Many thanks to Jack Messick for sharing his memories.
• If you want to learn more about the Choptank River Lighthouse–the stories it has to tell date back to Civil War times–check this story out.
• Some wonderful shots of the replica Choptank River Lighthouse are available in the Shore Store. There are photo prints here and here and here, plus a fun little canvas block and a sleek curved metal photo print that stands on its own. There’s a gorgeous blank greeting card and even a beautiful condolences card to send to families mourning a loss.