Digest>Archives> December 2000

Riding a Box to School

By Katherine Bailey

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This painting by artist Madeline Downing, ...
Photo by: Katherine Bailey

The wooden box hung suspended over the crashing waves. It swayed as a gust of wind hit it. The rope on which the box rode sagged as it reached mid-channel. Ricky Winchester clutched the sides with his mittened hands, the roar of the surf filling his ears. On the island behind him, his dad hauled on the pulley-line.

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The white steel box hanging near where Ricky’s ...
Photo by: Timothy Harrison

Ricky was on his way to school. To get there he had to cross the one hundred- yard channel between Nubble Lighthouse and the mainland. Beneath him swept the waves of the Atlantic.

It was 1967, and Ricky’s dad, Coastguardsman David Winchester, was lighthouse keeper of the Nubble Light in York, Maine. Ricky, his four-year-old sister, Robyn, baby sister, Wendi Ann and their parents lived on the Nubble.

Ricky’s father had an important job. He had to keep the Cape Neddick Light Station in perfect running order. (Cape Neddick is the Nubble’s official name, but everyone calls it the Nubble.) When it was too foggy to see the York Harbor Bell Buoy or Bald Head Cliff, it was time to turn on the foghorn. Every day fifteen minutes before sunset, he climbed the 33 stairs up the tower to turn on the 1,000-watt light. It could be seen 13 miles away. When sailors saw the red light flashing three seconds on and three seconds off, they knew it was the Nubble.

Ricky must have had fun living on the Nubble. It isn’t a very big island, but it has great ledges for exploring. One dangerous ledge called the Devil’s Oven drops off about 50 feet to the ocean. Some lighthouse parents kept their little children tied to a post or even to the lighthouse ladder until they were old enough to stay away from steep ledges. I wonder if Ricky’s sister was “on a rope.”

Besides his family, Ricky had a lot of company on the Nubble, such as sunbathing harbor seals and curious seagulls. Do you think it would have been possible to sneak up on a harbor seal as it lay napping? Always looking for a handout, seagulls never missed a picnic. They’d steal anything they could carry in their beaks, even a tennis ball! For entertainment these funny acrobats couldn’t be beat!

Have you ever heard of sub-spotting? On the ocean side of the island is the cement foundation of a World War II lookout tower. From there Coast Guardsmen scanned the ocean for German U-boats. Once an enemy sub surfaced close to the Nubble. A ship from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard sank it just seven miles away, off Boon Island. With a pair of binoculars and a good imagination, Ricky could have kept a sharp eye out for invaders. A black harbor seal swimming by was an enemy sub! What if a whale had shown up!

Lobsters are plentiful around the Nubble Light. They crawl on the bottom of the ocean around the Nubble ledges. Bright buoys, marking the locations of lobster traps, dot the ocean nearby. I hope Ricky liked lobster, because according to local historian, William Thomson, Nubble families always had plenty of them to eat After hauling their catch, the local lobstermen often put five or six lobsters in a bag and tossed them onto the island. Fishermen appreciated the people who took care of the light.

Sometimes it was scary living in the Atlantic Ocean on the Nubble. In storms strong winds shook the house. Waves roared like lions against the ledges. Sleet and ice coated the island.

Even though the mainland is close, high seas kept the lighthouse people from getting to shore. Doctors and even groceries were difficult to get in bad weather. Ten years after Ricky’s family left the Nubble, a storm was so bad the lighthouse family went into the tower to keep safe. Waves came right up over the top of the island.

Who would have guessed that a painting would have put an end to Ricky’s box rides? It was a very realistic painting, done by artist Madeline Downing, entitled “Off to School.” It showed Ricky in the box, part way across the channel. The picture won an art contest in York, and then went to Boston where a newspaper ran a photo of it. The admiral of the Coast Guard, who was in charge of lighthouses, saw the photograph, and that was the end of that. He said the box was not safe. Ricky could not use it any more.

The rest of the school year Ricky lived weekdays on shore with friends. Weekends he spent at the lighthouse with his family. The Coast Guard made a rule that no one with children over four years old could be the keeper of the Nubble Light. When school was over that year, Ricky’s dad was given a new assignment.

This story appeared in the December 2000 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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