Rick Reichenbach, Lighthouse Keeper
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Reichenbach is the caretaker for the Aransas Pass Light Station. Built in 1855 to mark entry into Corpus Christi Bay, the now privately maintained lighthouse—which is on the National Register of Historic Places and is owned today by H-E-B CEO Charles Butt—is the only manned lighthouse in operation on the Texas coast. After hurricane damage and a period of disuse, it was restored and began functioning again in 1988.
I moved to Port Aransas with a girlfriend twelve years ago. We bought a big sailboat, but in time we split up and sold the boat. I’d known the previous keeper of the lighthouse for many years before he took the job, and around this time I reestablished a friendship with him. When he started losing his vision, I house-sat for him and helped him with the lighthouse. I did a good bit of carpentry work out here, and when he finally came to the realization that he could no longer do the job, he asked me if I was interested. That was ten years ago this June.
I had no reservations about being the keeper. I like to joke with people that I write on the palm of my hand, “Daytime: light off. Nighttime: light on.” Actually, the lighthouse has a photocell, so it goes on automatically each night. Even so, the job is more complicated than it sounds.
The lighthouse sits on 25 acres on a huge island called Harbor Island. These acres are privately owned; the rest of the island is Texas land. There are three actual dwellings out here, including mine, as well as my workshop. The houses were built mainly for function rather than comfort, so when it’s cold, it’s extremely cold. All the houses are ten to twelve feet off the ground on pilings. So the wind goes around the structures. They aren’t insulated. Right now, the weather is miserable—cold, wet, and windy—but that’s part of what you have to put up with. A typical storm is just weather to me, no different from how people in Houston see bad traffic. If we get a serious storm threat like a hurricane, I have a routine: I put shutters up and go inland to a friend’s house. The light stays on by itself, since it’s automatic. A friend of mine who is in the merchant marines told me that on a clear night, on one of the big ships, you can see the lighthouse from about fifteen miles away.
The only way to get to the island is by boat. I have two seaworthy vessels I can go back and forth with. Everything has to come by boat: refrigerators, building materials, food. But I don’t get lonely. Aransas Pass is only a fifteen-minute ride away, so I can get all the social life I want. Then when I go home, there’s no traffic, no dogs barking. Nobody is slamming a dumpster lid down at four o’clock in the morning.
I get up in the morning and put up the Texas flag, the American flag, and a triangular lighthouse service flag. I put on a pot of coffee. I feed my two cats, Kitty and Gooberhead. I go out on the porch and watch the sun come up over the island. You see the wildlife, the birds, the barges going by, the ships coming in. It’s very relaxing. To the untrained eye, this area appears bland: marsh and water. But there is beauty. You see something different every day: the clouds or the sunset or the sunrise or a dolphin.
Later in the morning, I walk around the property and make sure the plumbing is all right. I’m in a constant battle with the elements. Everything rusts or molds out here, and because the place is historic, it needs constant upkeep. Sometimes a sewer line will break; other times the power will go out, and you have to run off a generator while you get the power people out to fix it. If a pump goes out, you won’t have any water. I try to stay ahead of the problems.
Sometimes I’ll have visitors—lots and lots of them. Large groups. Historical societies. Science classes. Friends and acquaintances of the lighthouse owner. The main house has all the accommodations, including a kitchen, so they fend for themselves. I see they get there safely. I bring them out to the island, and when they leave, I have windows to wash and floors to mop. There’s a lot of cleaning to be done, a lot of air conditioners that need to be taken care of because of the salt. The structures are all wood, and so rotted boards need to be replaced. I keep everything in pretty good shape.
I do have an Internet connection, but there’s no television. So when visitors come, they’re forced to do this thing—it’s so retro—called conversation. Where you sit around and actually talk to one another.
In retrospect, I wonder why I ever did anything else. I’ve always been on the water, so my boating skills are there. Apparently I have the social skills to deal with the guests. I’m a carpenter. I’ve built boats, I’ve run boats, I’ve done construction, I have the minimal skills in electrical and plumbing that are required—because you can’t just call somebody and say, “Send a plumber.” You can’t get a plumber who happens to have a boat ready to go on a Sunday night. Everything takes about twice as long to accomplish here as it would in, say, the suburbs, because the lighthouse is thirty miles from Corpus Christi. You have to plan a lot more.
Mainly, truth be known, there has to be somebody here at all times because it is such a curiosity. People like to go out and look at it, but they need permission to access the property. Lighthouses are like tall ships and steam locomotives. They are an important part of our history, and even though they’re now obsolete, people like to have them around.
This is a little embarrassing: even though I’ve been to lighthouses throughout the country, I’m not a “lighthouse person” per se. I’m just fortunate to live in one.