A few miles off the end of our family wharf and a little to the left lies Middle Bay Lighthouse, a famous Gulf Coast landmark since the late 1800s. We’ve been there many times, fishing the structure and climbing into it. Sometimes we jumped from the roof into the mysterious, spooky depths of the Bay, where fear of your feet touching whatever was down there spiked white-hot up your spine.
One night I was fishing in our old Boston Whaler at Zundel’s pilings with two of my younger brothers, Reid and David. The Bay was glass calm and the sky full of stars. Middle Bay Lighthouse glowed softly, beckoning us from the ship channel.
“Let’s spend the night in it, ” I said.
They agreed. We’d discussed it before but never done it. I had a suspicion that it wasn’t permitted, but it was always open and seemed a harmless act. Besides, we planned to be out of there by daylight.
We went back to the house to get sleeping bags, pillows and a few snacks. Finally, we woke Mom and told her what we were doing.
She was still half asleep when she mumbled, “Have fun.”
We made the run to the ship channel and approached the lighthouse. Reid let David and me off on the ladder with the gear. Then he anchored the boat out and swam over. We helped him onto the ladder and started up.
I’ve often thought the structure belongs to seagulls more than people. The first thing you notice when standing on the deck is the overwhelming stench. The boards are coated with white, chalky bird droppings that stick to your bare feet like bits of wet clay. Inside, the lighthouse is eerily clean. There’s none of the graffiti or trash or dust you would expect in an abandoned building. You’ll find a couple of bare rooms with a spiral staircase leading to a small second floor and finally a ladder leading up to the roof where the old light was originally mounted.
We spread our sleeping bags in one of the bottom rooms. Then we stayed up for a while, lying on our sides and fishing through a hole in the floor. We eventually went to sleep a little before midnight.
In the early morning hours I woke to the sound of thunder. The temperature had fallen a few degrees and the sweet smell of a squall hung over me. Before long, rain tapped at the windowpanes.
At first, the storm was a soothing addition to our adventure. But as the rain came harder, water ran across the floor and wicked into our sleeping bags. We were soon backed against the far wall, listening to waves crashing into the supports below and wind whistling over the building.
“Sounds bad out there, ” I said.
My brothers agreed. We took turns peering out the window, trying to check on the boat. But it was pitch black outside.We couldn’t see a thing. Wet and cold, we waited helplessly for daylight.
As dawn crept over us, we saw Mobile Bay whipped into 10-foot seas. I had never seen it so rough. Fortunately, the boat was where we’d left it, rising on the wave crests and crashing down into the troughs. Relieved as we were, it seemed impossible that it wouldn’t drag anchor. If we didn’t get out of there soon, it was likely we’d be stranded.
We decided to go for it. On the deck the rain blew at us so hard it stung our faces like lead shot. We finally gathered our courage and leapt out into the waves. After a brief struggle, we made it to the boat and climbed into the back.
Somehow we managed to get the anchor up. Then, Reid and David sat on the deck and used towels and life vests to shield themselves from the rain. Meanwhile, I started the engine, pulled my shirt over my head, and put my face up to the compass on the console.
‘East, ’ I thought. ‘Just keep the arrow on East.’
I kept my face pressed to the compass, running blind, plowing through the storm. It was too rough to go more than a fast idle. Part of me was terrified, and another part of me felt like a hero.
I gradually came out of the storm to find myself about a half-mile offshore and a few miles south of our house, near Mullet Point. The water before us was calm and gently rippled with an east breeze, as though the storm had been our private punishment.
“They’ll never believe what it was like out there, ” I said.
We pulled up to the wharf, thoroughly beaten. I saw my mother running out. She hugged us all. She had seen the storm on the news that morning, checked on the boat, then called the Coast Guard. Apparently, we’d missed the Coast Guard cutter and the flotilla of locals that had gone out looking for us.
Inside, while we were eating a big breakfast, the phone rang. Mom answered it. She listened for a moment and held it out to me.
“It’s for you, ” she said smugly. “It’s the Coast Guard.”
Officer Thomas cleared up any questions I had about camping in the lighthouse. So you’ll know, it was illegal back then, and it is still illegal today.
text by Watt Key