Dan Rattiner's Stories

Light Up: Up-Islanders Watch Montauk Lighthouse Turn On

This is the time of year that people go out in sub-freezing weather to stand around in large groups, singing songs and lighting up evergreen trees and other seasonal and historic objects with Christmas lights. Sometimes they go out in groups of 100. Sometimes 1,000. And sometimes even more than 1,000, if for example the object in question is the Montauk Lighthouse.

I think many of us who live here take the Montauk Lighthouse for granted and are not necessarily attracted to the lighting of the lighthouse as an event. Go out there. You can see all the way to the horizon in three directions. Yes, it takes your breath away. So what?

Well, last Saturday night somewhere around 3,000 people, mostly from up-island, drove out to Montauk to watch a local person designated by the Montauk Historical Society pull a switch to all of a sudden bathe the historic, 80-foot tall Montauk Lighthouse in lovely Christmas lights.

It was quite something. In the late afternoon, a whole parade of cars streamed toward Montauk and the Lighthouse to begin to fill the 700-car parking lot adjacent to the Lighthouse grounds. Signs alongside the road for the last six miles from downtown Montauk cheered people along the way, asking them to donate a few dollars toward the upkeep of the Light when they got there. Get your money out, whatever you want.

Police cars with their lights flashing slowed the line of cars down as they got to the Lighthouse so volunteers from the Historical Society, wearing heavy winter coats and knitted caps, could ask people as they approached in their cars to pay whatever they could afford, after which they were allowed in.

The sun hung low on the horizon. The line moved along, and then, at 4:30, 15 minutes before sunset, the gates to the lighthouse grounds opened and the many adults and children large and small streamed in.

During this time, a small party was underway in the Lighthouse itself in what had been in an earlier time the home of the Lighthouse Keeper and his family but which now is a museum of artifacts relating to the Light, including maps, a diorama, the giant Fresnel lighthouse lens that stands 6 feet high, several items from shipwrecks and various important documents, including the order to create the Lighthouse issued by George Washington in 1796.

At 5 p.m., darkness rapidly descended and everyone in the museum walked down through the crowd nearly filling the great Lighthouse lawn to do the pulling-of-the-switch ceremony there at the garage building 200 yards away.

Speeches were made. Sarah Conway and her band sang holiday songs from under a tent, people danced and sang, and then the countdown began and I wandered over to where the switch was. That was my job.

It was a very large switch. The switch plate was as big as one of the garage doors, and the switch itself, a four-by-four piece of wood painted red was attached to the switch plate on a hinge. You pulled it toward the sky to make it operate.

Dick White of the Historical Society was Master of Ceremonies and thanked everybody who had made all of this possible. And then, the moment came.

“Ten,” the crowd shouted. “Nine. Eight. Seven. Six….”

Was this switch really going to light up the Lighthouse? People looked up at the light and back to the switch.

“Three. Two. One. ZERO!”

And as hard as I could, I pushed the switch up to the ON position and my goodness, the word went out by walkie-talkie from a man standing 10 feet from me to another man in front of the Lighthouse with a real actual electric switch attached to wires and, bingo, the Lighthouse lighted up. Everyone cheered. People shook my hand, clapped me on the back, took pictures. And then, as the cheering died down, Dick White was once again talking over the microphone.

“Wait a minute,” he shouted. “There’s somebody way up at the top of the Lighthouse, coming out of the glass cabin up there. Why, could it be? It is! It’s Santa Claus!!!”

A spotlight shone up to the top of the Lighthouse, and there he was in his red suit, and everybody cheered once again. He too had a microphone.

“Merry Christmas, everybody,” he shouted, his deep voice wafting his invocation down over the landscape. What a moment. And then he was gone, through the glass door up there and back inside. Then Conway and her band began a rousing rendition of “Jingle Bells.”

What a nice time.

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