ANGELS GATE

Alexis Kelley

DOG at LIGHTHOUSE v01 crop.jpg

The dog lived in the lighthouse for one year and then left. On the sign under the photograph at the museum exhibit, no explanation was given. In its entirety the sign read, "Coast Guard personnel with dog. Circa 1967. The dog lived in the lighthouse for one year, and then left. Museum Collection. Gift of USCG."

The photograph shows two men in Coast Guard uniforms of darkest navy blue with traditional sailor collars, and a third man, dressed in street clothes--dark slacks and a light shirt with a button-down collar. He is squatting beside a dog. The dog is mostly black, with a white mask that begins right between his eyes, curving up and around his eyebrows, that is, where his eyebrows would be if dogs had such features. The mask then travels, in exact symmetry, down the sides of the dog's jaws until it comes to a point under his snoot, completing a perfect heart shape. There is a dark vertical stripe that runs through the middle of the mask and ends at his nose, giving the overall look one that is tribal. The dog is looking into the camera.

This is the story of what happened. Conjecture plays its part in the story, as it must in every story, but it is what happened, nevertheless.

In 1966 there were four crewmen who lived at the the Port of Los Angeles Lighthouse or Angels Gate as it was called. This was before the lighthouse became fully automated in 1973. The crewmen maintained the lighthouse, living there while their families were housed on shore. What a feeling of adventure and pride it must have been for a child to look out over the water and imagine his father in the uppermost part of the dramatic, Romanesque tower that rises seventy two feet above the sea. The father would be standing with his back to the shore. With wind in his hair and binoculars pressed to his eyes, the father would look out to sea, ever diligent in his duty to protect American children from Russian submarines or sea monsters. The child's mother would feel relief that her husband was incarcerated at the lighthouse, leaving her free to play bridge with her friends on Friday nights or spend an afternoon at the beauty parlor, gossiping about the neighbors.

Life for the men at the lighthouse was a pabulum of tasks that varied only inasmuch as the weather. Constant maintenance and polishing of the engine room apparatus, cleaning the faceted glass bars of the Fresnel lens that sent out the warning beam, scraping and painting the structure, daily living chores such as cooking, washing, and mopping were all routine duties that saw the days and weeks go by. Many crewmen didn't last more than a month. However, there were days, making light of the repetitive scutwork, the crewmen felt a camaraderie of good will towards one another and shared a few beers in the evening. The California sun painted the sea in ribbons of gold and black before it sank beneath the glassy, lacquered horizon, a performance worthy of an opera, but the men had long since stopped noticing. They drank and told tales about women they didn't know or wished they did know. The drink helped to dull the olfactory senses, diminishing the smell of brine and salt and machine oil that was ever present; the talk of women gave them a fantasy to take to their single beds and that night's dreams.

Other times, all their wits and strengths were put to task as a storm that had gathered out at sea came crashing into the harbor, a terrifying force of wind and waves that battered the lighthouse with a sound of screaming steel and a roar of water that threatened to dismantle the very foundation upon which the beacon stood. The twelve steel columns, anchored into the rock that supported the lighthouse, were all that saved it one year when a gale lasting five days hammered it so ruthlessly that the four story, cylindrical structure was forever altered. After the storm had done its worst, the keepers found it difficult to walk in one direction. They dropped a plumb line from the lantern gallery and the line told them what they already knew. The tower was listing. To this day, the lighthouse leans towards the shore, forever imploring the mainland to lift it out of the jaws of the gale.

 

It was in the routine and tedium of the everyday that the dog appeared, just as a storm would, out of nowhere. To get to the lighthouse without a boat was a feat for the foolhardy. The tower stands nearly two miles from land, at the tip of a breakwater that is treacherous in the best of weather. Walls of water slam up against three million tons of boulders that hold the sea at bay, and every fisherman who has foolishly ventured out on the seawall, in the hope of catching a Sunday dinner, can tell a story of rescue or tragedy that begins with a mammoth wave sweeping men, and sometimes children, into the furious whitewater below. For a dog to travel the entirety of the breakwater, leaping from boulder to boulder where the straightaway had been washed out, was unimaginable.

 

Perhaps someone had thrown the unwanted creature from a boat and he was able to swim to the lighthouse. How the dog arrived at Angels Gate would remain a mystery, but he broke the banality and loneliness of life for the crewmen, and they were glad to make him their mascot.

He arrived wet, scrawny, frightened, and cowering, but patience and kindness--gently offering leftovers from their meals, stroking his wiry back, or talking to him quietly--finally earned the men enough trust for the dog to submit to a bath. As the salt from the sea was washed away, the dog began to come to life. He put on weight. The men made a bed for him in the storage room on the second floor of the tower. Soon the animal wanted to sleep on the third and fourth floors where the crew was quartered but he slept near a door, the need for a quick getaway ever looming as inevitable. The men tried to teach him tricks, to sit or shake hands or roll over, but the dog refused to do any of these except sit, and then only for food. Commands that were not tricks, but were routine or for safety's sake, were obeyed without hesitation. When one of the men moved a ladder or carried a heavy bucket of chemicals, the dog was told to get on his blanket and wait. He would go straight to his place and sit very still, the only movement from him a slight quiver of the coyote ears that planed out in ninety degree angles from his head. He wouldn’t move until given permission to do so. The dog settled into the Coast Guard way of life.

The men discussed whether or not to take the dog to the mainland so he could run, and it was decided he would accompany the next one of them to go on shore leave, but the time came and went and the dog remained at the Gate. It had taken almost six months and a great deal of work to gain the dog's trust; no one was willing to take the chance of losing it. Besides, they reasoned, he was an older dog and didn't need the exercise a young dog would need. The dog became content and confident in his place among the crew. His tail wagged when one of them approached. He curled up outside the lighthouse, away from the spray of the waves, and slept in the afternoon sun, his black coat magnifying the heat that soothed his arthritic joints. At day's end, the dog lay quietly with his head on his paws, looking out at the golden ball of light that descended and then floated on the horizon before it vanished beneath the water. It opened the men's hearts to see him there, to pet the dog or talk to him when they needed to share a confidence.

As Christmas approached that winter, the animal had been a part of the routine at the lighthouse for a little more than eight months. For Christmas Eve dinner the men thawed a flat steak and let him eat it raw. On Christmas day they gave him a collar of nautical knots they had made in their free time. One of the men was renowned throughout the Coast Guard for tying the most beautiful knots in all Southern California. Another was handy with metal and a welding torch, which he used to bend and forge a buckle. A third man hammered out a disk from a saved, silver quarter which he then sanded and polished smooth so the fourth crewman could engrave it before hanging it from the collar. The engraving looked homemade but it had been etched with care. It said, “Angels Gate Petty Officer 3rd Class.” The men were extremely pleased with their gift and the dog seemed proud of the collar and the attention that came with it. The medallion with his rank hung at a point below the dog's neck, where it rested on a cowlick of white, a snowy swirl that set off the silver of the ID tag.

 

It was two days after the New Year. The morning sky was clear and promised a bright day but the sea was grey and choppy and promised something else altogether. The man on breakfast duty that morning was in the storage room looking for flour when he got a feeling he couldn't shake, that something in the engine room needed attention. He went below and was relieved to see that it was only a mop bucket, lying on its side in the middle of the room. The men had been somewhat lax since New Year's eve and he was put out with himself for it. He was about to right the bucket when he stopped in alarm. Something moved against the wall behind the fog horn's compressor. He froze and squinted his eyes to see into the dark corner. The thing, grey and slick, began to move from its hiding place. A three-foot-long California harbor seal waddled towards him.

 

The little harbor seal was about seven months old and there was no mother to be found. The crewmen went into action to take care of him. They fished for bonito and rock bass, and, when they didn't catch anything, gave the seal fish sticks which he liked enormously. With apprehension, the men watched the seal whenever he left the rock to dip in and out of the water. The seal was eager to please and learned tricks. They let him beg at the supper table--something the dog was never allowed to do--and they doubled over with laughter every time the seal clapped for more. The men referred to the seal as the best mascot on the California cost. Their only worry was that if the dog wanted to kill the creature, he could do it in one terrible, swift motion. No indication that the dog would do such a thing ever occurred, still, the crewmen kept him locked up in the storage room or they chained him outdoors, just to be on caution's side. The men did try to remember the dog, to give him attention and feed him on time, but they were besotted with the seal and often forgot about the dog.

The first time the seal disappeared from the rock and surrounding waters, the men were sure he had gotten too close to the dog and been harmed. However, on inspection, no evidence of violence was found so they unchained the dog and drank too much that night. Over the next few days the men tried to take comfort in the dog but he no longer wagged his tail at their approach, and he slept by the storage room door instead of the sleeping quarters. He stopped grooming, and his legs turned from white to a dirty yellow.

Then, early one morning as the men were waking, the seal was back, barking to be fed. They were overjoyed. The dog didn't wait to be chained, but went straight to the storage room. It went on in this way for two months. The harbor seal was growing. He would show up for a stay of three or four days and then he would be gone for a week. It became clear to the men that the dog wanted nothing to do with the seal so they didn’t bother chaining him. The dog would go as far away as he could get from the seal and the men. For hours, the old animal lay without moving, looking at nothing but the line of black where the sky met the sea at the end of the dog’s world.

February was particularly wild in 1967. Savage winds threw walls of water all the way to the top of the lighthouse. The men tried to get the dog to come inside, away from the heavy spray, but he wouldn't budge from his spot.

On a day that was unusually mild and keen with winter sun, the seal left and he didn't come back. First it was a week, then it was ten days, then two weeks. The mood at the lighthouse plummeted. When the seal was still gone at the end of March, the men began to accept that it was bound to have happened, but they were sad about it. Slowly, one by one, they remembered the comfort of the dog, how he used to be happy to see them, or how they talked to him when they couldn't talk to another soul. They felt bad they had neglected him. They attempted to make it up to the dog with choice leftovers, petting him as they tried to coax him into accepting the treats, but the dog would not respond to them or the food. Even though he was often drenched, he never moved from his spot at the edge of the rock.

On April 3rd, sometime during the night, the dog left. He vanished as he had arrived. None of the men could figure out how he got outside the lighthouse to the rock, and none of them wanted to guess how he got off the rock.

On the fourth day after the dog left, one of the men was in the storage room to do the heavy cleaning that was part of his rotation at the lighthouse that month. He was moving the oversized cans of cooking oil and tomato sauce when he saw it. There, between the wall and a barrel of rice, was the dog's collar. It was lying beneath the jagged point of a large, forged nail that had been pounded through heavy concrete from the outside and was now sticking out from the wall on the inside. There was a small trace of blood on the collar. The dog had used the iron nail to wrangle the collar from around his neck and had cut himself on its rusty point. None of the men had noticed how much weight the dog had lost since the seal first came to the lighthouse. The collar was so loose that the dog needed little help getting it off and only scraped his neck by way of impatience.

Years later, when the men remembered their days at Angels Gate, it was the dog they thought of with affection and regret. They would tell the story of the harbor seal, as party talk, but not one of them ever mentioned a dog.  

 

 

 

 

End