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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Yarns of a Kentucky Admiral

by
Admiral
Hugh Rodman, USN


published by
The Bobbs-Merrill Company
Indianapolis
1928

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Chapter 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p170  Chapter X
Alaska, Whales and Lighthouses

If you have spent your life in traveling, if you have not only followed the beaten tracks, but wandered afield in the byways as well as the highways, and visited some of the out-of‑the‑way quarters of the globe, you have absorbed a lot of curious and interesting information. Often you pick up a bit here and a bit there in some other far distant place, which may be closely related and which, taken together, shed light on one and the same subject.

This fact was brought home to me through information conveyed by a Yakutat Indian who had worked for me and who had lived for a while in Seattle, where he had attended school.

Lying at anchor in Yakutat Bay late one summer evening, we had remained on deck until after midnight, entranced by the glories of a most wonderful sunset on Mount Saint Elias that rose some eighteen thousand feet, apparently almost sheer from the water's edge, though in fact it was thirty miles inland.

In this high latitude one can almost read at midnight and it never gets dark in the summer months. Here we could almost follow the course of the sun from the illumination in the sky, as its rays shot from behind the mountains. It was gorgeous and fascinating; the colors and their changes were spectacular, while to the southward the full moon showed just above the low fringe of trees on the moraine that lay between the mountains and the seashore.

 p171  Wild geese filled the air and salmon were jumping in the waters around us. The Malaspina Glacier, nearly one hundred miles on the front, was directly across the bay, and snow and ice were the prevailing features of the high mountain landscape.

Mountain Climbing This Indian was with us, and the conversation turned on mountain climbing. We spoke of Doctor Cook's attempt to reach the top of Mount McKinley, the account of which he had published in book form, and the tenor of our comments was that, judging from our Alaskan knowledge and experience, he had accomplished a most difficult feat.

Later I was surprised to hear this Indian say, "Mr. Rodman, Doctor Cook never climbed to the top of Mount McKinley."

But I have read his book and he gives a gull description of it — why do you say that he didn't do it?"

"Because I was a member of the party and went as high as any one did, and none of us got anywhere near the top." He said he had heard about the book, but hadn't read it or seen it, and that since he was an Indian, he wouldn't expect us to take his word against a white man's.

I do not know why the matter was not investigated. But our life was full and busy and there was neither the time nor opportunity to ascertain the truth and, like many other statements, as time wore on, very little thought was given to it. Some years later came Doctor Cook's claim that he had reached the North Pole. We are all familiar with that gigantic hoax, and the positive proof to the contrary.

During the World War, Major Filippi, of the Italian Army, who had accompanied the Duke d' Abruzzia on his mountain climbing expeditions in Africa  p172 and Alaska, came on board my flag-ship in the North Sea to talk to us about the Italian operations against the Austrians. Afterward, as we were sitting in my cabin and discussing our Alaskan experiences and his climb to the top of Mount Saint Elias, I mentioned casually that Doctor Cook's climb to the top of Mount McKinley must have been difficult because that mountain is almost two thousand feet higher and much farther inland than Mount Saint Elias and hence more difficult to negotiate.

Major Filippi hesitated before replying, possibly showing some embarrassment, and said, "Admiral, since you are an American, as is Doctor Cook, it is hardly seeming in me to cast any aspersion or create any doubt in your mind as to the veracity of Doctor Cook's statements or claims in regard to his reaching the top of Mount McKinley. As a matter of fact, however, there are no doubts in my mind. He never reached the top."

Then he proceeded to give a number of valid and plausible reasons why Doctor Cook's statements were unreliable, if not deliberate fabrications. When he had finished I told him what the Indian had told me — and that he had been deliberately led into expressing his opinion, one which is shared by a great many others, your humble servant included. So one must conclude that Doctor Cook stands preeminently the most colossal liar and fraud of our times. This statement is amply confirmed by his trial and conviction for his dealings in bogus oil stocks and his efforts to defraud the public commercially, as he had previously tried to deceive them in his claims of discovery and travel.

Alaskan Vegetation Alaska is exceptionally rich in timber, the whole  p173 of the southeastern part being an immense forest of valuable coniferous trees: hemlock, spruce and cedar, with cottonwood and birch in the interior. Since water-power is available, pulp-mills will be established, particularly when the supplies of material nearer home have become exhausted.

Alaska is remarkably fertile in places, and plants adapted to the climate do exceedingly well. Certain vegetables are cultivated, and a little grain grown in the interior, but only for local markets. Berries thrive, many in the wild state, and reach a high degree of perfection.

Alaska can never become a farming country, that is it will never produce crops for export, due to the rigorous climate, short season, uneven surface and heavy cost of transportation. But when the available lands in the United States have been preempted and cultivated, when our country, like Japan, becomes over-populated and other fields must be sought, then Alaska will be available and can support a large population on the supposition that all produce will be consumed locally.

The vegetation and foliage is so luxuriant in the summer that it rivals the tropics, particularly along the shore-line in southeast Alaska. And surely no country in the world can rival it for the variety, beauty and abundance of its wild flowers. In many places they lend color to the landscape and, mingled with the infinite shades of green, give the impression of being a gigantic carpet of brilliant coloring, in perfect harmony with its surroundings.

The suddenness with which spring arrives in these northern latitudes is startling. One season in the latter part of May we anchored in the harbor of  p174 Petropavlovskii, Kamchatka, which has in some respects a similar climate to that of Alaska. When we arrived the landscape was devoid of green and was still that of winter, though the snow had melted in patches.

In a very few days the trees were in full leaf and the bare ground was covered with new vegetation, among which were a number of blooming plants. Plant life followed close in the wake of the melting snow, and some of it actually forced its way up through the receding drifts and burst into bloom. It seemed as if we had jumped from winter into summer in less than a week's time, that is, so far as vegetation was concerned, for there was no sudden change in temperature.

It is beyond me to describe the wonderful and glorious scenery. Take any that you have ever seen and multiply it by X, and you will approximate to that of Alaska. There are bays and fjords in the interior waters whose scenery rivals, if not exceeds, that of Yosemite in grandeur and beauty. The little glaciers of the Alps would not be noticed or named in Alaska; in fact the Malaspina and other glaciers in the vicinity of Yakutat Bay would easily cover the whole of Switzerland.b There are snow-clad peaks rising precipitously to twenty thousand feet; active glaciers two miles on the front; waterfalls everywhere, thousands of lakes, all combined to excite interest and admiration from the time the territory is reached until one's journey is completed.

Traveling in Alaska Traveling in Alaska has been made easy and comfortable both on the water and on land. There are several steamship lines which may be taken from either Seattle or Vancouver, which follow the inland route,  p175 where the waters are as smooth as those of Chesapeake Bay. This route is made up of a series of inter-connecting narrow straits and channels, lying between wooded mountains that rise precipitously in places, on both sides, with a never-ending change of view in a picturesque panorama a thousand miles long.

If one be going to the interior by way of Seward, at the end of the steamer route, there will be a railroad journey of four hundred and seventy‑odd miles, and the train service and accommodations are comfortable and excellent. There will be something new and different to attract one's attention and interest from the beginning to the end of the journey.

After having spent most of my life traveling around the world, over many of the beaten tracks, and in some of the byways too, I can not understand why Americans, who like nature or scenery, will so often go to Europe when our numerous national parks and Alaska are so much more interesting and would give so much greater returns for the money expended. A transcontinental trip, combined with the inland trip to Alaska, costs so much less than a passage to Europe in any first-class steamer. I have spent eight summers in Alaska and could spend as many more there and never tire of it, always finding much that is new and absorbing, so greatly is its scenery diversified.

Whaling in Alaskan Waters During our last visit in Alaskan waters we became aware of the vast changes that have taken place in the methods of hunting, killing and trying out whales. Formerly small square-rigged sailing ships were almost exclusively used for deep‑sea work. They were fitted out for three years and spent most of the time cruising out of sight of land, rarely entering port except to replenish food and supplies, and then only  p176 stopping long enough to accomplish their mission and head out to sea again.

The quarters for the men in these ships were vermin-infested pest-holes; a Chinese opium-joint would be a drawing-room in comparison. The food was notoriously bad and often insufficient, and there were no pleasures or diversions for any one on board. The crew generally shipped on shares, that is, they were to receive a proportionate share of the profits of the catch, but more often found themselves in debt for a small advance in cash and the exorbitant prices charged for any article purchased on board.

It was hazardous in the extreme; aside from the fact that the ships were small, exposed to every sort of weather, and cruised in the Arctic and other dangerous places, the work itself was dangerous. It was a dog's life no matter from what angle it may have been viewed.

But now small steamers, with every modern appliance, have superseded the others. No longer is it necessary to chase the whales in open boats, harpoon them and hold on until they can be brought to the surface and lanced. No longer do we see the tow back to the ship, the crude methods of cutting up the whales alongside and trying them out, using blubber for fuel, with all the filth and smells that attended these operations, and the habitual stink of the ship from the decayed bits that found their way into the seams and crevices and were left there until they rotted away.

Now the whales are killed by firing on them from the ship itself, with a gun that sinks a harpoon with a line attached. If necessary, an explosive charge can be used to kill the whale, to put an end to its struggles. The carcase can now be drawn alongside by a capstan  p177 and the cuts hoisted on board by power winches, where immense kettles, heated by steam, soon try out the oil, which is at once stored in air‑tight tanks below to keep it pure and sweet. In fact, some of the most modern vessels are fitted to envelop the whale and avoid the risk and danger of cutting it up alongside. These steamers fit out for short voyages and keep in touch with ports where adequate fresh provisions and supplies may be obtained.

Recently, when on the outer coast of Alaska, we fell in with a whaling steamer that had just killed two whales. It had attached red marker flags to them so that they could be found and recovered, and was then tied up to a third, which was floundering around as it was being hauled alongside, where a shot soon put it out of its misery. Had the sea been rough, the three whales could have been towed into port, which was only a few miles distant, and the work of obtaining this oil could have been done under shelter, in the quiet waters of some of the harbors. In some localities, where whales are abundant close inshore, after having been killed, they are towed in and all further work done at the shore stations.

Unless some limitation be soon put on the number killed, or a closed season inaugurated, it looks as if they, like many of the other large mammals, will soon be exterminated.

While I was attached to the United States Coast Survey, I spent four summers in Alaska, part of the time in the interior waters, where whales came to feed and breed. One summer our astronomer established his camp and set up his instruments on a cape between two deep indentations, where the whales were constantly passing and repassing, blowing as usual and  p178 sometimes jumping almost clear of the water and falling back with a big splash.

In that high latitude where, in the summer months, there was so much daylight, the astronomer could only observe between ten P.M. and two A.M. and even then it was none too dark. He had a rather nervous disposition; small things worried him. The noise of the whales seemed to irritate him, so much so in fact, that he actually requested permission to change the site of the observatory to some quiet spot where the whales could not annoy him at all times of the day and night by playing around in his front yard!

Whale-Killers I was returning from work one day from the head of one of the inlets, in company with another officer. We were in a dinghy which was being towed by a steam launch. We became aware that three orcas, or whale-killers, were following us, and from their actions we questioned whether or not they might attack. At any rate, to keep on the safe side, with our rifles ready we ran into shoal water, upon which they left us. To this day, I can not make up my mind as to why they followed us, or whether they were considering an attack.

I have repeatedly witnessed attacks on whales, both by the orca and the thresher. On one occasion, in Silver Bay, Alaska, a narrow indentation several miles long, between high mountains, near Sitka, I saw thousands of porpoises and maybe over a hundred whales, all feeding on herring. A shoal of eight or ten orcas entered this place and attacked the whales, upon which the whole lot, porpoises and all, made for the open sea through the narrow entrance where our steam launch was taking soundings.

It was an extraordinarily marvelous and unusual  p179 sight — it was a race par excellence, at top speed, for the outer bay. The water was white with flying spray and the commotion caused by the attack and the effort to escape. No attention whatever was paid to our boat; we could all but touch the porpoises with our hands as they hurried past, and some of the whales passed us only a few feet distant.

And then we found ourselves in the midst of the fight. The efforts of the killers seemed to be directed against one or two of the whales. These in their attempts to get outside came directly toward us, and even though we maneuvered to avoid them, they came several times within an ace of ramming or sinking the boat. But fortunately they missed us, though there was little room to spare.

Once I was addressing a body of boys and telling them something about whales.

One of them said, "Admiral, did you ever see a whale-killer?"

"Yes," I replied, "many a time. There are two kinds — the orca, belonging to the whale family, and the thresher, belonging to the shark family."

"How do they kill the whale, Admiral?"

I made it a point to avoid giving misinformation or pretending to know when there were doubts in my mind so I replied:

"Well, boys, I am not certain; but I know that both attack the head end of the whale and, I believe, the tongue, which seems to be the vulnerable part."

"Why don't the whales keep their mouths shut?" asked one of them, and at the same time I wondered if it would not have been wiser on my part to have kept mine shut too, in the midst of so many bright and intelligent youngsters.

 p180  Speaking of whales, which are the monsters or largest mammals of the deep, reminds me of the legends concerning sea‑serpents which are so commonly credited, by a great many people.

The ancients firmly believed in sea‑serpents and not infrequently pictured them on their charts, while in my own time I have seen references to them in the public press, wherein some one has claimed to have seen one and finds many who believe the yarn. Strange as it may seem, there are several reasonable grounds for the existence of the illusion, but none for the serpent itself. Several times in my life I have seen that which the uninitiated might think was actually a sea‑serpent.

In low visibility, that is, when it is thick, foggy, hazy or misty, it is extremely difficult to judge distances or get well-defined images of objects seen at sea. For instance, off the coast of Nantucket in the autumn, there are large numbers of surf ducks which remain in flocks and feed in salt water. It is often characteristic of them to "follow the leader" and string out in a long line when in flight.

As they go from place to place, the line rises and falls at times with something of a wave motion, especially if the flock be near the water and the head of the column rises above the rest. Because of the indistinctness due to low visibility and their method of flying, I have sometimes seen them when it was not difficult to imagine that they resembled some huge sea‑serpent traveling along the horizon, with its head and forward part of the body erect, propelling itself rapidly with the remainder of the body.

Cormorants, particularly on the west coast of South America, fly very much the same way in going  p181 to and from their feeding grounds, and so do pelicans the world over.

Testing Effects of a Water-spout It would be endless to touch on the thousand and one myths and beliefs that pertain to the sea, but I can not refrain from mentioning one that is generally believed — that a water-spout may be dissipated by the concussion of a gun. Nothing could be sillier or more nonsensical. Water-spouts are local vorticular storms, similar to tornadoes on shore, and in addition to this motion, they travel along the surface of the water.

In the vortex the gyratory wind-currents attain a hurricane velocity which would prove very destructive to a sailing ship, but would only cause superficial damage to a large modern ocean-going steamer. To think that the concussion of a single gun could end this maelstrom is foolish beyond compare. Steamers can easily avoid water-spouts by changing course and giving them a wide berth. But I desired to test the effects of a water-spout, and obtained the captain's permission (reluctantly given) to do so.

We were coming home from the China Station in a small cruiser steaming across the Atlantic in the vicinity of the Azores when we ran into a veritable nest of water-spouts. Sometimes three or four were visible at one time, and several times we changed course to avoid them. So when permission was given, we steamed into the outer edge of the spout, where the sea was lashed to a frenzy of foam by the tornado-like wind. When it struck us, the ship heeled over about fifteen degrees, the canvas screens were ripped loose and torn to ribbons, everything loose on deck was picked up and sent helter-skelter, and much of it overboard. The wind caused a tremendous suction in the smoke-stacks  p182 which created consternation in the fire-room, and caused the men, who were totally unaware of what we were doing, to rush for the fire-room ladders in a wild scramble for the main deck.

Overboard went the captain's cap, like many others. In order to be heard above the roar of the hurricane he yelled in my ear at the top of his voice, "Starboard, you damned fool! Hard-a‑starboard and get out of this!" His orders were instantly obeyed and as we emerged his first comment was, "You made me lose a brand‑new, fifteen-dollar cap."

No, I didn't resent his calling me a damned fool. I felt that he was perfectly right; besides, if our relations had not been almost those of father and son, he would not have done it.

The damage to the ship was estimated at several hundred dollars. Did we fire a gun to test its effect? Hardly — it would have been just as easy to cure a headache by tickling the sole of one's foot with a broomstraw as to have snuffed out the water-spout by firing a gun.

"Cast Your Mitten Off" During one of our summers in Alaska our work kept us in the immediate vicinity of Sitka, which was then the capital and the largest city in the territory. Several of the officers in our party, including myself, had their wives with them, and I felt particularly fortunate in having found a small cottage which I leased for the summer. Its owner, George Castromitrinoff, was, as the name implies, of Russian descent; in fact he was born in Sitka while Russia still owned Alaska, and was at the time the interpreter of the United States court for he spoke the Indian dialects as well as Russian and English.

Every one called him George and often spoke of his  p183 wife as Mrs. George, since his surname seemed difficult to remember, and he asked my wife to follow the same custom. But in her reserve she thought it more dignified to learn the Russian name and use it; whereupon George reminded her that she could easily recall it if she would think of the English words, "Cast your mitten off."

Several days after our occupancy, I returned home one evening, and my wife informed me that our landlord and his wife had called, but that she found it impossible to remember their name which was quite embarrassing.

Then I said, "Don't you remember a formula or expression that he gave you to assist in recalling it?

"Yes," she said. "It was something about 'Throw your glove away,' but that doesn't seem to help me recall it in the least."

After that it was always Mr. & Mrs. George.

A Winter-time Possumist A few years ago President Harding, accompanied by several members of his Cabinet and the speaker of the House of Representatives, made an inspection trip to Alaska, and it was my good fortune to receive an invitation from the president to accompany him. I presume he invited me because I had often talked with him about that territory, and had spent so much time there in surveying and exploring that I had acquired a smattering knowledge of its activities and possibilities which might be of use to him, and also because he wished to safeguard the movements of his ship in some of the waters which as yet are none too well surveyed or marked.

After a leisurely overland trip in a special train, during which we visited a number of cities and some of the national parks, we embarked for Alaska, sailing  p184 from Tacoma, and proceeding through the inland passage.

My duties carried me into the presence of the president not infrequently. On one occasion, I judged from his conversation with one of his advisers that there was reason to believe that the incumbent of a certain office was not making good and might be removed.

"Would you accept the position, Admiral?" said the president.

"Yes, sir," I said, "from a sense of duty if nothing else."

"Do you want it?"

"No, sir."

"Then you are probably the only man in the United States who doesn't want something. As a matter of curiosity, why don't you want it?"

"Because it's abroad, outside of the United States, and since I have spent so much of my life away from my home country, I want to spend as much of the remainder as possible in it."

"Then you needn't accept it; but, by the way, I have never asked you if you are a Republican or a Democrat."

Mr. President," I said, "one in your exalted position is entitled to a direct answer, and I generally give one; but I am going to let you draw your own inference from this little yarn."

Then I told him that shortly after graduation at Annapolis, while I was at home on leave down in Kentucky, I met a darky about my own age, whom I had known all my life.

In conversion with him I said, "John, which are you — an optimist or a pessimist?"

p185 His face fell for a moment, then gathering courage and confidence, he replied:

"Ah aint quite sho which Ah is — but Ah knows dis much — in de winter-time Ah is a possumist."

I saw Mr. Harding daily during a period of six weeks or two months, and had many relations with him, both official and personal, and learned to admire him exceedingly. I have no affiliation with either party, am absolutely a non‑partisan, do not desire or seek any office in the gift of the president, and know practically nothing of the game of politics, so no one can justly accuse me of basing my opinion of him on party or political affiliation.

Mr. Harding was a lovable man, of great personal magnetism, human, thoughtful and kindly; no matter what may have been his calling or profession, he would have attracted other men to him in any walk of life. I am possibly not competent to judge his official acts, but this I do believe — that from the goodness of his heart and his possible desire to advance old friends, he may have been injudicious in the selection of some of the members of his Cabinet, who betrayed their trust and cast a stigma upon the administration. At the same time, he also went to the other extreme, and chose some of the strongest and best men in the country for other Cabinet portfolios.

We are all familiar with the charges against the Secretary of the Interior with reference to the oil scandals, and those against the Department of Justice, or rather, the head of it who was brought to trial for malfeasance in office. Let it be admitted for the sake of argument that these two Cabinet officers were guilty, for certainly there were the very strongest reasons to think so; yet I can not believe that Mr. Harding  p186 was cognizant of the situation, abetted it, or dreamed of its existence until the blow fell.

I can find no excuse for the publication of the book entitled Revelry which, though it purports to be fiction, must be assumed to represent the actions of men in public life during Mr. Harding's administration, including the president himself. It is simply preposterous for any one who knew Mr. Harding, to attempt to class him as this book seems to do, with impostors, get‑rich-quick schemes and public defrauders. The language ascribed to the character supposed to impersonate him is that of a felonious blackguard, whereas Mr. Harding's ordinary language, among his intimates, was always chaste, and he attracted attention by his choice of words, clearness of expression, and the absence of profanity or vulgarity.

I remember so well the surprise and shock in Mr. Harding's face on one occasion at an answer to one of his questions; but his sense of humor immediately turned it into a burst of natural laughter. During our tour of Alaska, while inspecting the coal-mines of Matanuska, a group of Indian children had been assembled, and among other stunts there was a pie‑eating contest, wherein huckleberry pies were laid on a wooden table and each child, with hands tied behind his back, was trying to finish his pie in the shortest time.

The winner, a boy of about fourteen, face covered with huckleberry stain, was presented to the president, who asked in his affable, kindly way, "Well, little man, what is your name?"

Without a moment's hesitation the boy answered, "Jim the Heller, son of Tough-Luck."

It is a long jump from service in Alaska to becoming  p187 a lighthouse inspector on our southern Atlantic coast, though it should be stated that several pers of sea and other duties intervened. As inspector my district extended from Cape Fear, North Carolina, to Jupiter Light in Florida. In addition to the lighthouses on shore and in the channels, we had several light-ships anchored offshore, the crews of which consisted of a captain, cook, mate and six men.

Wanted — A Mate Heindrick Heindricksen was the captain of Martin's Industry Light-ship, off Savannah and, so far as the industrious and efficient execution of his duties was concerned, it would be hard to find a better man. But it seemed impossible, in spite of frequent admonitions, for him to adhere to our regular forms in making his returns, or even in making some of the routine reports.

On one occasion I received from him a requisition for stores, provisions and supplies, written in pencil on a sheet of foolscap paper. The items were not grouped according to class, and the request bore this heading:

"Sir, Mr. Inspector, I needs the following much and prompt." Following this came numbered items, wherein No. 18 called for three bushels of onions; No. 19, one mate; No. 20, a skillet, et cetera. There, sandwiched in between the onions and the skillet, was a requisition for a mate.

The articles were sent to him with the usual letter of admonition and warning, which stated that difficulty had been experienced in reading Item 19, but that if it called for a new mate, he should make a full report of any dereliction on the part of the said mate, giving reasons for his discharge, and ample opportunity would then be given the mate to answer any charges. The letter requested all details and particulars.

 p188  Then came this from the said Heindrick Heindricksen:

"Sir, Mr. Inspector:

"On Nov. 27 I sent the Mate Mr. Shirelock ashore dead; he cut his juggling vein. He done it with a safety raiser blad, and done it good and plenty. More particular he cut his fingers some a doing of it. He aint got nuthin to say.

"Heindrick Heindricksen."

Just one more story of the Lighthouse Service: A man who had been on Frying Pan Shoal Light-ship, off Cape Fear, North Carolina, for twenty‑two years as a seaman and mate, was given the position as assistant keeper ashore at Cape Fear Light. He had been married for years, and, following our practise, had been entitled to remain on shore one month out of every three during his term of service on the light-ship.

After two or three months in his new position he asked permission to return to the light-ship in any capacity, saying that he was lonesome on shore, it was monotonous, time hung on his hands — at sea ships were constantly passing, there was more of interest and amuse on shipboard, and there he was his own boss.

It seems all but incredible that any one should make such a choice, especially when he was happily married, his pay was increased, and the shore light afforded far more comfort and decidedly less work than the light-ship twenty or thirty miles offshore, out of sight of land, where he had to remain two months at a time without going on shore.

 p189  Birds and the Lights While still in the Lighthouse Service, I became very much interested in cooperating with the Biological Survey of the Agriculture Department, in collecting data concerning the migration of birds, particularly those that pass up and down our Atlantic coast.

It came about in this wise. In my frequent inspections the lighthouse keepers would often tell me of birds being killed by flying into the lights, particularly on stormy or misty nights, when the weather was thick and when, in all probability, the birds could neither judge distance, nor see clearly. At one time the keeper at Cape Romaine Light, South Carolina, was offered a transfer to another post where the salary was higher. He gave as one reason for deciding to remain, the fact that the number of edible game birds killed at the light made a very appreciable difference in the cost of his food, in addition to which he was often able to sell many others.

It seemed hard to believe that some of the larger birds could damage the light; but such was the case when they struck it with their own velocity added to that of a gale. The actual light itself ordinarily consisted of a kerosene lamp with several concentric wicks, surrounded by lenses for concentrating or dispersing the rays. This, in turn, was encased in a circular metal framework fitted with plate-glass panes half an inch thick.

This outer glass casing was smashed so often at Cape Romaine Light, and several others, that it became necessary to put a protective screen of heavy wire mesh on the outside of the glass to break the force of the blows from the birds.

Cooperating with the Agricultural Department, we supplied the keepers of the first order lights with  p190 a small kit of tools and certain preservatives, together with a manual of instruction as to how to remove and prepare the skins of all birds found around the lights. We also gave them printed tags for the birds, on which to enter interesting and necessary data. A great deal of valuable information was obtained in this way, and utilized by the Biological Survey.

Formerly officers of both the army and the navy had the reputation of drinking too much, and while it was true that there were some very heavy drinkers in the navy, on the whole we were no more intemperate than the average man in civil life. Even when intoxicants were permitted on board ship, prior to the advent of national prohibition,c the privilege was abused more by the notorious few than by the service in general. As a whole, the navy could not rightfully be charged with being intemperate.

There were, however, some well-known and conspicuous examples of heavy drinkers, and I remember one commanding officer who was rarely on neutral ground. He was either drunk or sober, for his indulgence was periodical. On one occasion when we were in Shanghai, China, round or about New Year's Day, the "old man" had imbibed very freely and was loaded to the gunwales; and while he was still in this condition we sailed for Hongkong. On the south side of the Yangtse River, between Shanghai and the mouth, is a light-ship called Drinkwater Light.

I had the middle watch, for midnight to four A.M. About three A.M. the "Skipper," unsteady on his pins and equally so in his mind, climbed the bridge ladder with difficulty and, pointing to the light, said in a stilted stagey voice, "What light is that, sir?"

p191 "Drinkwater, sir," I replied.

"Don't you cast any aspersions on my actions or conduct, young man, for I will not stand for your impertinence."

Fortunately for me, the navigator came to the rescue about this time and finally appeased him.

"The Light Was Red" Of course there could never be any collusion in evidence before a general court-martial, but an inference, at least, might be drawn from the following incident.

A certain naval vessel sailed from New York for Hampton Roads, and was wrecked on the outer coast, north of the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. There was some implication that perhaps the flowing bowl had been patronized too freely before sailing. At any rate the vessel went on the beach and became a total loss. It developed in the testimony before the court that there had been a mistake in the identification of a light, and that the vessel changed its course to the westward too soon, in consequence of which the disaster occurred. Through all the testimony of the officers ran the fact that though the light was white, they thought it was red, owing to thick weather or poor visibility. Had it been red there might have been some mitigating circumstances.

Then the quartermaster of the watch was called as a witness and placed under oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I reiterate that of course there could be no collusion (?). So, following the usual form and custom, the witness was asked the first question, "What is your name and rate, and where were you stationed on the night of the nth of January, 18–––?

"Sir," he said, "the light was red."


Thayer's Notes:

a Correctly, in English, "Duke of the Abruzzi"; or, in Italian, "Duca degli Abruzzi". Admiral Prince Luigi Amedeo of Savoy (1873‑1933) was a well-known explorer; this page gives a good biographical sketch, focusing on his ascent of the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda and Congo, but detailing other aspects of his career as well.

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b Loose writing, but probably not true anyway. The Malaspina Glacier — not counting the "other glaciers" — has a (current) area of about 3900 km2; Switzerland covers 41,285 km2.

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c More loose writing. National prohibition took effect on Jan. 17, 1920; but liquor had been forbidden on U. S. Navy ships five years before that, by order of the Secretary of the Navy on July 1, 1914.


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Page updated: 11 Sep 17