An American sweetheart: Ida Lewis

 

by Cantinker Moss

 

The other day it hit me.  It’s March!  No, I’m not thinking about the national college basketball tournament known as March Madness, but rather National Women’s History Month.  I got to thinking about women who have inspired me, and of course, first on my list is my wife, an RN for almost forty years.  What that woman has gone through to care for—or as is rightly implied, nurse the infirm and less fortunate should inspire anyone.  And if it were up to me, every nurse in history—from candy-striper (if they still exist) to nurse practitioner—should have people fall at their feet (not to mention receive a hefty pay increase), and then we all should confess what the world would be like without nurses.  To put it candidly, and let your imagination drift back to the Civil War, the world would literally be a bloody mess.

But my theme is not about a nurse.

It is about a tiny “slip” of a woman, as one person put it, barely over 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighing in at about 103 pounds.  She may have had compassion equal to any nurse, the courage of a Spartan warrior, the strength of a beast of burden, and the eye and resolve of any ship’s captain.  Scores of people in and around the harbor of Newport, Rhode Island were indebted to her.  As a result, she achieved rock star status for her time, received dozens of marriage proposals and entertained the company of notables such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Gen. William T. Sherman,  and President Ulysses S. Grant.

The woman is Ida Lewis, lighthouse keeper at Lime Rock, in Newport Harbor, Rhode Island.  Born in 1842, she was barely a teenager when she had to take over lighthouse and rescue duties from her father, Hosea, who had suffered a debilitating stroke.  An excellent swimmer, she also mastered the skills needed to turn a rowboat into an effective rescue craft.  She rowed everywhere:  her siblings to school and back to the island they knew as home; trips into Newport no doubt to acquire supplies because her mother was needed to attend to her invalid father; and of course, when necessary, to conduct a rescue.

It was not unusual for her to attend to victims larger than she was, and not getting the public attention that perhaps she deserved.  However, on March 29, 1869, with the help of her younger brother, she rescued two soldiers.  These men had hired a young man to row them to and from their destination.  The high winds and dangerous seas capsized the boat and drowned the man who rowed.  The soldiers might have met the same fate had not their rescuers been prompt, persistent and resourceful.  They were brought safely to the lighthouse.

Because these men were part of the military, official reports needed to be filed, and this led to a story about the rescue in the New York Tribune.  Though the rescue was extraordinary, Ida was humble enough to chalk it up to “another day’s work.”  The visitors began to come to Lime Rock—up to more than ninety a day, and yet Ida consistently kept to her work.  She had dozens of suitors and even married.  At this point, she left Lime Rock to live on the mainland with her husband,  Two years later, though, with the news of her father’s death, she moved back to Lime Rock never to leave again.  In 1881, she earned the United States Life-Saving Service Medal, and it is estimated that she may have saved between eighteen and twenty-five lives until 1911 when she, like her father, suffered a fatal stroke of her own.

Though distinguished for her life-saving career, Ida was on Lime Rock for another prominent reason.  Her attendance to the lantern in the second floor window of her house, could equally mean safety as any grip of her hand stretched out from her skiff to a drowning victim in the surf.  She referred to the lamp as her “child,” and twice a day she maintained the lamp reservoir with oil, trimmed the wick, and cleaned the glass necessary for a full brilliance so mariners could safely navigate into Newport Harbor.  In the morning, she would put out the light.


 

In 1971-75, I was a member of the United States Coast Guard.  During the last year of my active service, I was assigned to a light station off the coast of Massachusetts.  I knew nothing of Ida Lewis at the time.  But as a young twenty-two year old, I confess that I probably knew little of the purpose, which I shared with Ida Lewis.  I stayed up all night watching Charlie Chan and Boston Blackie movies, not to mention the early morning news-talk show.  I did yard work hoping that the property would not catch fire and plaster our throats with poison ivy residue.  We had a dog– part Lab and part Newfoundland who loved to stand at the bow of our Boston Whaler when it was underway.  We kept a radio—possibly VHF for communicating with the outside.  Our dock was actually a ramp, and it took skill, which our engineer definitely had, to aim the bow full throttle, and pull the outboard engine back lest we tear up the ramp planks as we slid the boat up to the boathouse.

These had nothing to do with Ida Lewis.  Well, maybe the boat did, but I never remember rescuing anybody while I was on “my island.”

However, there was the light.  We had a foghorn which needed maintenance because we would sustain intense fog in the vicinity, and a boater would be helpless, especially at night without the sound of the horn.  I understand that keepers would blow horns (literally) back in the day—horns that you held like a bugle.  I don’t know if a horn was ever blown from Lime Rock one hundred and fifty years ago.  So Ida and I in a sense are still in separate worlds.

But then there was the light.

I was on a Coast Guard Light Station that at one time used two light towers, going back to the eighteenth century.  By the time I got there, only one functioned.  But like Ida Lewis, I had to climb stairs to get to the lamp.  About one hundred of them.  And though I never looked at my light as “my child,” I worked with an attitude somewhere between keeping the C.O. out of my hair, and knowing that a job had to be done.  That didn’t mean I was the best cleaner of windows in the tower.  But if I did a sufficient piece of work, the view could be breath-taking.

At night, I could go outside and see the light in action.  It sent a beam far into the New England night.  In fact, it blinked with a distinctive signal for sailors to recognize and consequently sail by peacefully.  Never had any shipwrecks when I was there.  Ida would have been proud.

 

 

Material for this article comes from:

“Ida Lewis Keeper of the Light” by Michelle M. Fortunato, History’s Women, The Unsung Heroines   

http://historyswomen.com/moregreatwomen/idalewis.html

and

Newport, Rhode Island, C-Span’s American Cities Tour, on C-Span3, hosts:  Ashley Hill, Producer and Marian Gagnon, Documentarian   C‑SPAN   

https://www.c-span.org/video/?438467-1/life-legacy-ida-lewis

 

 

Above image courtesy of Library of Congress  (Digital ID: (b&w film copy neg.) cph 3b22436 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b22436)

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I Almost Didn’t Know America

by Cantinker Moss

 

One of the first things I think about in the beginning of a new year, is prompted by a traditional American folk song.  The title of it is “The Eighth of January.”  Now whether the tune by itself was inspired by events of January 8, 1815, or inspiration came later when country-western singer Johnny Horton sang the Jimmy Driftwood tune with lyrics known as the “Battle of New Orleans” in the early 1960’s,  I always did wonder what happened on that date more than 200 years ago.

During elementary school, I read a book-length account of the battle that was of course, titled The Battle of New Orleans.  Later, I saw the DeMille motion picture, The Buccaneer, complete with its larger-than-life characters, Jean Lafitte and Andrew Jackson, and the equally larger-than-life actors who portrayed them respectively, Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston.  I presently own the VHS tape and still get goosebumps at the sights and sounds of the fog and drums and pipes of the battle.  Why, over 40 years ago, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band produced an album featuring a sequence that ranged from tolling bells (I would often imagine the bells were from St. Louis Cathedral) to an Appalachian reel to a highly produced version of the Driftwood tune to upbeat Zydeco and finally to a flourish of “Sally Goodin” (with an alternate title).  And then I think of the times we vacationed in the Big Easy, and I was amazed how many different sites made up the historical park, like “which one should we visit first?”  Trouble is, we didn’t visit any of them, having only enough time to get some food in the French Quarter and then get on the road.

But then out of the blue comes Fox News host, Brian Kilmeade, with a bestseller known as Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans, the Battle that Shaped America’s Destiny, and I think to myself, “Haven’t I seen this story before?”  Oh, by the way Mr. Kilmeade, I do want to put your book on my reading list.*

Now it wasn’t my intention to write only about January 8, 1815 and its place in New Orleans history.  Remember when I said there’s something about the beginning of the year and the battle?  But then there is Kilmeade’s book and subtitle …the Battle that Shaped America’s Destiny?  Destiny.  Now there is a word.

Destiny

1something to which a person or thing is destined fortune 

  • wants to control his own destiny

2a predetermined course of events often held to be an irresistible power or agency 

  • felt that destiny would determine their future¹

Because I haven’t read the book, I speculate.  It probably goes without saying that January 8, 1815 is an important date in U.S. history.  However, by the sound of the title and subtitle, Kilmeade may be more than suggesting that it is not just a significant date, but that”the eighth of January” could be significant enough to influence history.  History has its moments like April 14, 1865 and November 22, 1963, when Lincoln and Kennedy were assassinated respectively; or July 4, 1776, when a number of men staked their lives on a signed document; or more recently, September 11, 2001, when 2 airliners flew into the World Trade Center in New York City.  All four of these dates led to significant events that in turn led to destiny, whether it be Reconstruction, the escalation of the Vietnam War, the birth of a nation, or currently the War on Terror.

Let me bring up this date:  December 7, 1941.

Most of us schooled in the last half-century understand that on that date…”a date which will live in infamy…”² air forces of Imperial Japan maliciously attacked the American air base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  And with a war declaration the next day, the United States entered World War II.  Successive events affected nearly the whole world, whether as a result of violent warfare, social oppression, or unprecedented changes in lifestyle.  Between my wife and me, we had no less than 12 male relatives see action in both theaters of that war.  You could say that so many things in that war had to do with destiny—the least not being the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ushered us into the Atomic Age.

But let me introduce another perspective of December 7, 1941.

You see, my father was a sailor on the USS Colorado (BB45) a battleship with “sister ships” USS Maryland (BB46) and West Virginia (BB48).  The USS Washington (BB47) was sunk as a gunnery target on November 26, 1924 by the battleships New York and Texas.

 

West Virginia (BB-48)Maryland (BB-46) and the Colorado (BB-45) (in the rear) at Pearl Harbor, circa 1939-40

USN photo by Albert Weigandt & submitted by James D. Card, QMCS (SW/AW) (courtesy of NavSource Online:  Battleship Photo Archive)

(http://www.navsource.org/archives/01/45a.htm

 

On December 7, 1941, the USS Colorado was sitting in the Puget Sound Navy Yard, Bremerton, Washington, beholding the news of the attack some 2,600 miles away.  Still, it couldn’t have been too settling for the men assigned to the ship, knowing that much of the American fleet was destroyed or incapacitated, and they could be in line for the same possibility in the future.  But still, glory be, my father had escaped Pearl Harbor for the time being, and life could go on.  In fact, even after my father was wounded during the Marianas Campaign of 1944, he was shipped to Chelsea Naval Hospital for 18 months to recover from major injuries and sit out the rest of the war.  Eerily, this meant that he escaped worse from the Kamikazes who began their missions in October 1944.

Now not only did my father’s life go on, but after the war on New Year’s Eve 1945, my father and mother married, my sister was born a few months later, and I was born in 1952.  Yes, life could go on for my father, but life also went on for his 4 children.  And then for his grandchildren and so far, for his great-grandchildren.

And what would have become of me and my father’s DNA in me if the Colorado hadn’t been ordered for repairs in Washington State?  What if his ship had been sitting next to the West Virginia, or the Oklahoma?  Possibly he would have become a casualty not unlike each of the sailors on the USS Arizona—all hands to the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  And after the war?  Maybe another man would have married my mother, and a son could have been born.  However, it wouldn’t have been me.  And though people may discuss fate and kismet, and argue that it wouldn’t have made any difference—only someone else would have been born, I do believe that God, who is Creator, may have had other plans instead.  And like the Empire of Japan in World War II, who are we to determine, or predetermine recklessly who should live or who should die.  Frankly, I am glad my dad lived, and I was born with perhaps a little divine intervention.

But let’s look at the flip side, and I don’t intend to bring guilt upon people who have made mistakes in the past.  God is a forgiving God and can deal aptly with past mistakes.  But how much should we behave appropriately so not to incur missteps?  And how do we do that?  Probably an investigation into one’s belief system or ethics might help.  And if we only depend on what we’ve come up with alone, hit or miss, we might end up with more crashes than we expected.  That’s why we study history—I don’t think Hitler’s national socialism or Mussolini’s fascism has improved the world since each one’s inception.  And for that matter, I’m not so sure we don’t have another problem with certain radical factions around the world; especially those who espouse violence and death.

And speaking of history, how many future marriages and births of children were lost on account of the multitude of deaths that day at Pearl Harbor?  And then there is the matter of about 3000 souls who went to their death in New York’s World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  Not to mention the emotional toll it took on families and relatives of the deceased.  Some might say it was fate, or even (perish the thought!) that those deaths were meant to be.  Even a hard lesson about war can give pause to “Why did these soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen have to die?”  Well at least to give the World War II generation the benefit of the doubt, I would say how many more would have died if the war had continued?

The issues of death, destruction, war, genocide, ethnic cleansing and others subject to debate are unfortunately all around us.  For many of us, if we think about them long enough, sadness or even a mild headache might set in.  Others may not be so fortunate.  They may be subject to PTSD, depression, addiction and more.  Again, I believe each person should evaluate one’s ethical system, or even one they observe in another, and determine whether it might work or not.  I’m not saying look at others and judge them (and perhaps pass sentence on them).  That is where the trouble usually has its root: “us against them.”  Perhaps Jesus had it right:  “Watch and pray.”

As for me, I am grateful that I was born and had a chance to live several decades.  I hope others may also have that chance.  I also hope that these who come into the world, and those who are already here may have more than that.  I hope that they who would be welcomed would have those who care about them and care for them any way they can with whatever resources are available.

I am glad I know America today.

 

¹Destiny.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2018.

²Freeman, Elsie, Wynell Burroughs Schamel and Jean West. “‘A Date Which Will Live in Infamy'”: The First Typed Draft of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s War Address.” Social Education 55, 7 (November/December 1991): 467-470.

*I am presently reading Kilmeade’s book.

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