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A Salty Piece of Land
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It all simply comes down to good guys and bad guys. As a kid, I wanted to be like Roy Rogers, the good-guy cowboy of all time. Roy and his horse, Trigger, would go riding through the movies, helping those in peril while never seeming to sweat, get a scratch, or wrinkle a pair of perfectly creased blue jeans. When the day was over, they would join the Sons of Pioneers by the campfire and sing the sun to sleep. Now that is what I called the perfect job.
One day, long ago in another place and another time, I was playing out my fantasy of being Roy with my childhood pals in the rolling hills above Heartache, Wyoming, where I was raised. We were racing our horses, bat-out-of-hell style, through the aspen grove that led to our little ranch. Like a true daredevil, I passed my friends in a wild sprint to the finish line, and once I had the lead, I turned around to admire my move as the leader of the pack. The next thing I remembered was waking up on the ground, my head covered with blood, my left arm pointing in the wrong direction, and pain - lots of pain - shooting through my young body. That's when I knew that life wasn't a movie.
During my mending process, I discovered a new role model in Butch Cassidy, who took me through my teenage years. He wasn't perfect. He made mistakes, and that seemed more in tune with the way my life was working out in the real world. He thumbed his nose at authority. To put it in today's terms, Butch Cassidy didn't work for The Man. He was his own man. He ran away to Patagonia.
The West was changing, and so was I. Now, looking back, I have to thank old Roy for teaching me that when you fall from your horse, you climb back in the saddle and plow ahead. From Butch, I figured out that what I wanted to be was my own man - just a good guy with a few bad habits. This is Tully Mars reporting in.
When I left Wyoming some years ago and made a not-so-difficult choice between becoming a poodle-ranch foreman or a tropical expatriate, I tossed a massage table through the giant plate-glass window of the ranch house owned by my former boss and modern-day witch Thelma Barston. That day, heading off to freedom, I made myself a promise. As I fled across America, I swore I would never again work for anybody but me. I pretty much kept that promise until I met Cleopatra Highbourne.
Cleopatra Highbourne is my present boss and the woman who brought me here to this salty piece of land in the southern Bahamas. She hired me to restore a 150-year-old lighthouse on Cayo Loco, which she owns, having swapped for it with the Bahamian government for some property on Bay Street in Nassau. To begin with, Cleopatra is 101 years old, but she doesn't look a day over 80. She is the captain of her beautiful schooner, the Lucretia, which was a present from her father on her eighteenth birthday.
Cleopatra has simply defied the aging process. Her eyes are a piercing green, and her speech is lilted with an island accent that is somewhere between Jamaican and Cuban. There isn't a romance language or Caribbean patois she doesn't speak like a native, and there isn't an island she hasn't set foot on between Bimini and Bonaire. Her skeleton is erect, which she attributes to being a practitioner of yoga for eighty years, having been taught the craft by Gandhi himself. She wears no hearing aids or glasses. Her skin is void of the weathered, leatherlike appearance caused by age, ocean, and ultraviolet exposure. She never smoked cigarettes, but she has her daily ration of rum and occasionally will puff a little opium if she is feeling ill. She also has a taste for Cuban cigars.
She dines on fish, rice, and tropical fruits, and a collection of potions, teas, and elixirs keep her biorhythms, brain, and sense of humor humming. She cusses like the sailor that she is, and she is rabidly addicted to Cuban baseball.
Though she says she has a few good years left in her, Cleopatra is on a most urgent mission, and that is where I come in. I am here to rebuild the lighthouse as her final resting place while she continues her search for an original Fresnel lens, which was the light source for this and many other old lighthouses.
So how does a cowboy wind up as a lighthouse keeper? Well, I didn't fill out any job application. How I went from the saddle, to the deck of a schooner, to the tower of this lighthouse still baffles me. But I believe in the aboriginal line of thinking that life's adventures are the verses and choruses of your unique song, and when it is over, you are dead. So far, I am still singing, but I would point out that adventures don't come calling like unexpected cousins visiting from out of town. You have to go look-ing for them, and that is exactly how I wound up on Cayo Loco.
I saw Cayo Loco for the first time from the deck of the Lucretia. All I knew about lighthouses up until that point was that they were warning lights, and they marked some kind of trouble. I'd heard a few stories, and I'd met a guy who had some theories about them, but that was it. I sat in a dinghy next to Cleopatra as the crew pulled for the shore, and the lighthouse loomed so huge that I had to lean my entire head back just to see the top. "This is it," Cleopatra said to me as we made our way toward the beach. "I traded those bumbling bureaucrats in Nassau a building they needed for a Junkanoo museum on Bay Street for her. I think we both came out okay. All we have to do is fix her up and get the light back in shape."
"No problem," I said, shrugging. After what I had recently been through, fixing up an old lighthouse sounded like a piece of cake.
As the bottom of the dinghy brushed against the shallow sand, Cleopatra sprang to the beach like a teenager. I had to laugh. Three months earlier, my life was rolling by at a snail's pace, and I was sitting on the beach in Mexico, wondering if the day would ever end. Then, all of a sudden, a ship carries me to a completely foreign place that would now become my home.
Solomon, Cleopatra's first mate, buried the anchor in the sand. All you had to do was look at his huge body, his kind eyes, and his weathered hands to know that he was the kind of person you wanted running your crew and your ship. "I'll stay with da boat, Cap'n," he said.
"Then I'll be the tour guide," Cleopatra said. She nodded at a narrow path up through the dunes. "Welcome to Cayo Loco, Tully Mars."
The well-worn path from the beach snaked up through the small dunes and then disappeared up the hill into a cluster of sea oats. We stopped at the top of the hill and looked down on the wreckage of time. With the exception of the light tower itself, the place looked as if someone had dropped a bomb on it. The concrete walls of what had been the compound of the lighthouse keeper came into view. The windows had been blown out, and the roof had been partially burned off.
We made our way through the overgrown paths, pushing back thorny bougainvillea bushes, sea grapes, and hibiscus blooms that camouflaged more destruction.
"This is the old cistern," Cleopatra said as we walked across a large rectangle. "This place was one of the first spots on earth where they made freshwater out of salt water. Those damn limeys have a strange fascination for remote and desolate places, but you got to hand it to them - they knew how to bring creature comforts to the boondocks. When Solomon's father was the light keeper here, this place was a little piece of paradise.
There was a vegetable garden, flowered paths, and even a manicured green lawn."
At close range, even the tower showed the ravages of salt and sea. I stared up at the peeling paint and the cracks in the outer wall.
"Good morning, St. Peter," Cleopatra said as she stopped before a large, thick spiderweb strung across our path. Its weaver, a nasty-looking purple-and-yellow spider the size of my hand, hung suspended across the path. He seemed ready to defend his territory. There was no doubt that this was a web you could not just brush away without consequences.
"You know this spider?" I asked Cleopatra. "He's perfectly harmless, if you don't piss him off," she replied. We detoured around St. Peter and walked in the brush between two small buildings. A raccoon exploded out of the underbrush and scurried off toward the beach.
"I thought you said this island was uninhabited," I said. Cleopatra didn't answer.
While I stood in the rubble looking around, I began to have serious doubts. Then a banging noise caught my attention, and I turned around to see Cleopatra hammering away at a padlock with the butt end of her machete. It was chained to a large iron door at the base of the lighthouse. Walking over, I waded through a toxic dump of decaying lead acid batteries that encircled the light tower. The people who'd been in charge of maintaining the automated light had simply tossed the dead batteries from the tower when they replaced them, adding to the bombed-out look of the cottages and grounds of the keeper's residence.
I looked from the rubble up to the lines of the giant lighthouse and the blue sky above it. On the voyage over to the Bahamas, Cleopatra had told me the story of where the lighthouse came from and how it had gotten here. Even though the light-house had seen better days, the sheer strength of it was still very much apparent. I just stood there and stared up, wondering how in the hell they'd built it.
"This goddamn salt air will eat anything. I just put this lock on here last month."
I went over to lend a hand. After a few more direct hits with a big rock, the padlock sprang, and I pried the iron door open. It creaked and squeaked and let out a thud as it banged against the wall.
Inside, it was dark and hot and smelled like shit. "Here," Cleopatra said, handing me a flashlight. I followed her with the beam of my flashlight, trying to keep pace as she bounced ahead of me like Becky Thatcher while I cautiously navigated the winding staircase. Our movements echoed off the iron cylindrical walls as we climbed through musty, humid air that had been trapped inside the lighthouse for God knows how long. Several furry little fruit bats scanned us with their radar as they fluttered around my head.
"Don't worry," Cleopatra called out. "I know a way to get the bats out of here when you move in."
Up and up we circled, until small beams of light appeared at the top. Cleopatra stopped on the stairs below the source of the light - a rusty hatch cover just above us. "I always like this part," she said. "It reminds me of the time I met Thomas Edison - the night he threw the switch that lit up the Brooklyn Bridge at the three hundredth celebration of the founding of the city of New York."
"You knew Thomas Edison?" I asked. "No, my father did. We were in New York on our way to France and boarding school, and we just happened to be at the right place at the right time."
I followed the beam of Cleopatra's flashlight as we inched up slowly.
"Electricity ain't a bad contribution to the betterment of mankind in general, but it sure as hell wreaked havoc on the lighthouse keepers of the world. The record player would have to go on the top of my list of Edison inventions, way ahead of movies and lightbulbs."
Cleopatra took a marlinespike out of the case on her belt and jabbed away at the hinges of the hatch. The hatch gave way with a creak.
"Ready?" Cleopatra asked. Sunlight flooded down around us. We lifted ourselves through the hole in the sky, and I stood there bathed in the morning light of the glass room. Below us, the Lucretia looked like a toy boat sitting at anchor on the smooth surface of crystal clear water that seemed to be only inches deep. But in fact it was in nearly thirty feet of water.
I could see several members of the crew diving up conch from the bottom. The view from the light tower encompassed the whole island, against a backdrop of turquoise shallows and the deep blue ocean beyond. Cleopatra pointed out the landmarks of Whale Cut, Boo Hoo Hill, and Osprey Point that I would come to know as well as my horse.
"Unbelievable" was all I could muster. "And well worth saving, don't you think?" "I get the picture."
"Except for that," she added, pointing to the bizarre tangle of frayed wires, makeshift junction boxes, and a strobe light resting atop a long, skinny shaft. "That has to go. The original lens that came with this light was not only a piece of engineering genius but a work of art. The lenses, circular prisms, and source that created the beam of light is called the bull's-eye because it looks like a clear glass target. A French physicist named Augustin Fresnel designed it in the early eighteen hundreds." "How did it work?" I asked her.
"The prisms concentrated the burner's light into a piercing beam that shot out to the horizon. The crystal lenses were held together by brass plates, and the whole thing weighed about four tons and floated in a circular tub containing about twelve hundred pounds of quicksilver. That allowed it to spin in a near frictionless environment. It was rotated by a clockwork assembly of ropes and weights that hung down the shaft of the lighthouse, and it had to be wound every two hours by the lighthouse keeper on duty. The sword of light it stabbed out into the darkness could be seen for twenty miles." Cleopatra paused as if remembering specific images. "Seen from the deck of a ship, it radiates its presence like nothing else on earth. Sailors call it the soul of the light."
"I guess all that beauty and precision seemed way too complicated for the twentieth century," I said.
"You would have thought that such a thing of beauty would wind up in a museum, but not here. They severed the base with a blowtorch, shoved it out the window, and just let gravity finish the job. Thus, the soul of the light was ripped out, smashed on the rocks, and the brass frame that once held the intricate Fresnel-lens system in place was sold for scrap." Cleopatra let out a big sigh. "That is what replaced it," she said, pointing at the present light source. "In a modern world, there is just no time for hand pumping kerosene or winding a clock. In the name of progress, they turned the Cayo Loco Light into a giant toaster." As we wound our way down the steps and finally out of the dark interior of the lighthouse, Cleopatra also wound me around her finger. Her mission was to find a bull's-eye lens before she died.
"You can't just order one up from the True Value hardware man," she told me. "It's a needle-in-a-haystack thing, but I'll find one. In the meantime, we have to rebuild this place and make it look like it did in its heyday, and that is where you come in." Back out in the fresh breeze at the base of the tower, Cleopatra reached into the pocket of her pants and pulled out a key. "Tully, I've been around long enough to know that the bullshit people heap on one another is more toxic than all the oil refineries in Texas, so I will come straight to the point. I know it all must sound wacko, coming from a bat-shit crazy old woman like me who you met on the beach in Mexico, but I think fate has somehow thrown us together. It seems that I bailed your ass out of trouble back there, so the way the karma thing works, I think you owe me one."
"I couldn't agree more." "Well, it occurred to me that maybe you could hang around here and fix the place up while I go find us a light," she continued.
"I have no problem with that," I told her. A hideaway in the middle of nowhere was something I could use at the time. "This job ain't gonna be no little fixer-upper, you know, but I just somehow know that you can do it."
"Well, I think I can." With that, Cleopatra gave me a big, long hug, which was witnessed by St. Peter, hanging down from the branch of a sea grape. "I just want to show you one more thing before we go, and then we will go."
We walked past a battered radio antenna and then around the back of the light tower. Cleopatra started to laugh. "You know, when I was a lot younger, I had me a cowboy once. They weren't much on huggin', but they got the job done," she said. "There," she added and pointed at a corroded, half-moon-shaped object near the base of the tower. The sea grape branches had snaked their way through what looked like bolt-holes, and the piece of iron had become a part of the tree.
"What is that?" I asked. "That is the old collar of the bull's-eye that they threw out of the light tower." Cleopatra gazed up at the tower and the indigo sky above. "At first, I wanted to cut it down and hang it on the door as a reminder of what I needed to accomplish, but then I decided it meant more where it was."
"I like that approach, boss," I said. "I'll clean up this mess. You go and find us a bull's-eye lens. We are going to rekindle the soul of the light."
She didn't say anything but stood there with tears in her big green eyes. St. Peter suddenly appeared on one of the branches of the sea grape as if he were bearing witness to a historic event. Then she handed me the key to the lighthouse door.
That was the day I became the keeper of the Cayo Loco Light.
Excerpted from A Salty Piece of Land by Jimmy Buffett. Copyright © 2004 by Jimmy Buffett. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.