In 1947, before Bernie Webber made the heroic rescue portrayed in the movie “The Finest Hours,” he was assistant keeper of the Gay Head Light, and in a memoir written many years later, he recounts those early years.
In our fourth installment, Bernie answered a rescue call and made a gruesome discovery off the coast of Nomans Land. In this, the final installment, Bernie writes about the isolation of living in Gay Head in the ’40s, interspersed with a few brushes with celebrity.
For some Coast Guardsmen, being stationed at Gay Head was depressing. There was a shortage of personnel, and time off from duty was almost nonexistent. A man might get one or two days off a month, but be restricted to the Island. To get to one of the more sizable towns that had stores and restaurants like Oak Bluffs, Edgartown, or Vineyard Haven, one would have to walk 20 miles or so, or try to thumb a ride. But there was a slim chance of getting picked up because there were so few cars on the road.
There were those who acted out their frustrations by knocking the edge off the cliff embankment out in front of the station, hoping to speed up the day that it would topple over into the waters below!
I bought my first car, a 1933 Chevrolet coupe, from a Gay Head Indian for $10. Seaman Jim Dodds had a 1936 Packard coupe. We worked out any frustrations we felt by racing over the local roads. I didn’t register mine, so once in awhile Dodds provided the way for some of us to get into town.
Chief Jack Grey did us one better. He had his own seaplane, and whenever he had a chance, he flew back and forth between his home on Block Island and Gay Head. He would land and take off from Menemsha Pond. He was also known to clue some of the swordfishing boats working the area of any swordfish sightings.
Chester Rich trapped muskrats, skinned and dried the hide, and sold them to Sears Roebuck for about a $1.50 apiece.
Joe Walsh from Oak Bluffs had his cats — about eight of them — to keep him company. At night up in the dormitory, the cats would all park in Joe’s bed purring up a storm. It would take a shoe thrown at Joe’s bunk to scatter the beasts for any of us to be able to get a little sleep.
Fifty years ago the Island hosted many prominent individuals that we came in contact with. I mean that literally, at least in the case of when I knocked down the famous actor James Cagney. It happened at the Dukes County Garage on a rainy summer’s day. I jumped out of a truck and hurriedly entered through the service entrance door, and bowled over the actor as he was kneeling down inspecting a car. I was dumbfounded, but Mr. Cagney was most gracious about the incident.
Some of the Coast Guard boys had the privilege of being invited for tea at the home of Katharine Cornell, the famous stage star. Dressed in their best “bib-and-tuckers,” they attended the event and raved about it ever after to the less fortunate who weren’t invited.
Others said they had been picked up and given a ride by the famous movie star Betty Hutton when thumbing a ride between one town or another on the Island.
I was to leave Gay Head and Martha’s Vineyard Island in 1948, but would continue to have contact with the Island lighthouses for the next 30 years when sailing around the waters of Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds.
The Gay Head Lighthouse tower now stands alone, still maintaining its vigil, but it’s devoid of its beautiful giant French Fresnel lens, which was replaced by modern-day electric equipment.* Much of the charm is now missing from the lantern room where once, every bit of light was nurtured by the touch of a dedicated human keeper and where glass prisms sent out a powerful beam through the bull’s-eye lens.
The dwellings of the light keeper and his assistant, once nestled at the base of the tower, have been demolished; so too the structures at the neighboring Gay Head Lifeboat Station, which was replaced with a Coast Guard station that was loaded on a barge, and brought over from Cuttyhunk Island.
I am indeed privileged to have lived and served as a lighthouse keeper at Gay Head during its heyday.
We recently received this gracious note from Bernie’s daughter:
I have heard from several friends about your pieces on my father’s time spent on Martha’s Vineyard — very awesome! … It is wonderful to see that your paper found it interesting enough to publish; my dad would consider it an honor.
Pattie Webber Hamilton
* The Fresnel lens at the Gay Head Light guided mariners from 1856 to 1952.