The fog horns bellowed regularly as I approached the gate marked "Pt. Loma Lighthouse: No trespassing . Government property." A walkway trisected the trim, white cottages designated Quarters A, B, and C; the neatly mowed lawn and green-shuttered windows made me feel as if I were stepping into a storybook of gingerbread, ladies with bonnets, and men with full white bears.
I followed the concrete path to what I assumed to be the lighthouse and peered through the glass door. My expectations fell as I saw what looked like the inside of a submarine. My lighthouse was not, after all, run by a man and his dog sitting diligently by a fireplace in a lonely tower with a spiraling staircase. The landscape seemed open and empty, rather like an immaculate hospital with no patients.
The lighthouse keeper, Petty Officer EN2 John Downen, said he would he be there at one o'clock, so I made my way to Quarter A, a quaint two-story cottage with a yard of geraniums and a white picket fence. The doorway was open except for a screen door, and only part of a couch was visible. Two legs were sprawled comfortably on the arm of the couch. I knocked and the two legs disappeared, only to reappear again vertically. Petty Officer Downen, with T-shirt and trousers, extended his beercanless hand in welcome. I was genially offered first a beer and then a grand tour.
Our man Downen evidently has been slowly phased out of his lighthouse-keeping duties by automation. A fog sensor device is now used to trigger the fog horns automatically when visibility is less than 3/4 nautical miles (a nautical mile is 1/8 more than a land mile). Two go horns powered with 120 volts, sound in unison at 30-second intervals for three seconds, a rotating 1000-watt light bulb with a prism lens flashes its light 26 miles out to sea, and a radio beacon sends out a continual navigation signal of "dash-dot-dash-dot" code for the letter "C," the designation for Pt. Loma. The beacon is sent out automatically every two minutes.
The lighthouse was commissioned by the Coast Guard in 1891, originally on a site 462 feet above sea level. This first lighthouse was evidently too high because low-lying clouds would screen the light. The new lighthouse was built in 1912 along with three resident caretakers' homes. Before automation took over, the lighthouse was run by a communal group of three families. All three families still reside there, but the lighthouse is now run by the single Coast Guard caretaker.
Downen's duties now include general upkeep of the area; keeping eyes and ear open for offshore accidents, and transporting the families' children to and from the school. When a water rescue is needed, an emergency call goes to the Coast Guard cutter at Ballast Point, just four minutes away.
Officer Downen continued the guided tour as we drove out to the cliffs. The lighthouse is set on 11 acres of land owned by the Coast Guard. The land, Downen added nonchalantly, has been appraised at $1,00,800 per acre. The view was spectacular; green plateau and craggy cliffs overlook one of the last tide pools in Southern California. When the tide goes out, the children run along the rocks searching the crevices for marine life. Such a life, I sighed, thinking of spending the day with my easel poised near the cliffs, or walking endlessly along the tidepools and watching seagulls plunge into the salty surf.
But apparently Officer Downen has just about had his fill of ocean spray, damp, windy nights, and bellowing fog horns. In another year and a half, after 20 years in the Coast Guard, he plans to reitire and set out with his family and belongings for the hot, dry deserts of Arizona.
The last part of my tour was a visit to the old lighthouse, near the Cabrillo Monument. At last my dreams came true. We climbed the narrow spiraling staircase and found rooms reconstructed the way they were "back when." A rocking chair sat unoccupied but worn and a recorded message blurted out a cozy story of the first lighthouse keeper and his family. The fireplace blazed in my mind as I bent over the rope that hung across the doorway. Perhaps decades from now when even Downen is replaced by machines, this old lighthouse will stand as a reminder that, yes, once upon a time there was a man and his lighthouse.