Listing | Ghost who walked over the moon

The Ghosts Who Walked On The Moon

by Peter Hill

It has become something of a cliché to say that everyone can remember exactly where they were that night in the sixties when news broke that the first men on the moon wouldn’t be coming home to planet earth. I was working on Cape Schanck as assistant lighthouse keeper. It was the late sixties and President Kennedy, in the last month’s of his second term of office, spoke to an anxious world. I had just lit the paraffin burners and set the light in motion on its sea of mercury. Even on the tiny black and white screen you could see that the President’s face still bore the scars of the Dallas assassination attempt. But there was an even deeper pain behind his eyes as he came to the end of the prepared statement which had been written months ago and which everyone at NASA hoped would never need to be used.

"For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come," and here he choked on the words, laid aside the paper and looked directly at the camera. "Everyone will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind."

He ended by calling for two minutes silence, one for each soul lost in space. The television went blank. I picked up my tobacco and wandered out to look at the moon from the rim of the lighthouse. Our pet family of kangaroos followed me to the base of the tower. I remember that Milco Zeeman was my fellow keeper that night, but he had long gone to bed as his watch would not begin until four in the morning. The rim of the light was my favourite place in the whole world. A place where I could lean on the rail at two, three, four o’ clock in the morning and gaze past the satellites to the planets and the familiar constellations, then the distant galaxies and beyond that the blackness of space. I’d always thought being a lighthouse keeper was as close as you could get to being a spaceman, except I had the company of the ocean as well as the stars. Strangely, I have always seen black as a joyful colour, a symbol of hope.

That night, as I rolled another cigarette, the moon was nearly full and the sky was cloudless. Far from the lights of the city, my eyes caught a billion photons in the space of a blink. The Southern Cross gazed down. Yet it was the only time I’d felt lonely on a lighthouse. "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" I thought about those poor buggers up there and how their view of the universe wouldn’t be so different from my own – immense beauty ossified by the terror of the sublime. Their grave would be the Sea of Tranquility as the rocks below me had become the headstones for four centuries’ of ship-wrecked mariners.

But that was over thirty years ago. NASA had been disbanded immediately after the tragedy, there had been no more space missions, and now there were no more lighthouse keepers. All around the planet these once friendly beacons revolved as automatically and lifelessly as the moon revolves around the earth. They say that every lighthouse has its ghosts, and now the moon had two of her own.

I often wondered what it would have been like if the French or the English had settled this country instead of the Dutch? But I’ve always been secretly proud that my family name Van Dieman was used to name the world’s largest island. The last of Van Diemensland’s lights were automated in 1989, that momentous year when China became a democracy and threw out the old guard. If you’d told me back then that I’d be bringing in the new millennium on the rim of a lighthouse, no way would I have believed you. But it all happened because of the millennium bug. The worry wasn’t so much with the lighthouses but with the satellites orbiting overhead. Most ships use satellite navigation these days, and if something were to happen to the eyes in the sky – which most admittedly thought unlikely – then the lighthouses would again become the first line of defence for coastal traffic.

1n 1998, when the threat of the millennium bug was first being taken seriously after year’s of warnings from experts who governments had labelled "academic cranks", UniBeacon the world federation of lighthouse commissioners met for the first time in almost a decade. In the past they had annual meetings, usually in some tropical location such as Tahiti or the Cocos Islands, locations chosen on the pretext of studying the world’s most remote lighthouses, and strangely always meeting during the northern winter – usually February, if I recall correctly. No matter, they decided that for a period of one month every lighthouse on the planet would be manned by at least one keeper until the end of January 2000. Probably they would have nothing to do except watch videos and surf the internet – but it was a precaution. They called it "Operation Insecticide."

Frankly, I jumped at the opportunity. I was semi-retired, trying to run a crocodile farm in tropical far north Abel Tasmanland. They were offering top money, and to be honest I missed the lighthouses more than I cared to admit even to myself.

And did I get a good light? A tiny outcrop of rock called Little Haarlem but the tallest beacon in the southern hemisphere. A one hour flight in a paraffin budgie north of Rembrandt’s Gulf. Talk about the ghost in the machine. The light would go on and off…well, like clockwork. The chopper dumped me and my provisions. Willem the pilot helped me up the rock with my kit and stayed for a quick smoke. "See you in a month my friend, when the moon is full again. Enjoy!" and with a wave he was inside the chopper, the rotors cranked into action, and he was gone.

It was strange, being back in harness again. The old familiar smells, the long climb to the top of the tower. But nothing to do. I couldn’t even get out on the rim, my favourite place, as the bolt on the big heavy door had rusted shut. That would be my first task, and marginally more exciting than playing Nintendo. I scraped off the rust, oiled the mechanism until it slipped like an ice skater on a frozen canal. My grandfather used to tell me about the great winter races through the frozen canals of Holland. I went out on the rim. God it was a long way down, but the view was spectacular. Within minutes I felt my skin burning in the heat. This is where I would see in the new millennium. I would bring the little chair out, and some sandwiches and a bottle of Scotch. And that’s exactly how it was. I’d brought a little portable television with me, no bigger than a loaf of bread, but good colour and stereo speakers. I watched the preparations in West Berlin. The Beatles had re-formed just for one night and it was rumoured that John and Paul had written an anthem for the 21st century. It would be blasted across the Wall to the East in a concert that had been sold out for almost a year. If China could become a democracy, then why not the Soviet Bloc? I poured a slug of Scotch and watched the news. The President, Rover Van Rijn had finally sent an apology to Queen Juliana for the stolen generation, the little Dutch children taken from their mothers by the aboriginal elders in the forties and fifties to be taught the ways of the dreaming. Old wounds were healing, which was how it should be at the start of a new millennium. I reckon everyone has something they need to say "sorry" for. I flicked to SBS. Kevin Murray, Head of the Van Diemansland Film Commission was introducing a series of cult classics that dealt with bugs and insects. They would screen all night. Crazy or what?

I switched to Channel 5’s special Sale of the Millennium, which held my attention for all of five minutes. Channel 11 was showing a documentary "Heaven’s Gates" about the late Bill Gates and the crash of his computer empire. It’s odd, you never can tell who’s going to commit suicide. I think I told you I semi-run a crocodile farm, but my real passion is art. I’ve been reading up about Van Gogh and Gauguin recently, stuff I bought in the offshoot of Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum that recently opened in Van Dieman’s Land, in Pacific Utrecht the state capital of Abel Tasmanland.

It’s a little known fact that Vincent Van Gogh attempted suicide, but he slipped on some wet leaves and shot a black crow circling overhead. I’ve often wondered how differently we would read the psychology of the two artists if Gauguin had somehow survived his own suicide in Tahiti – perhaps drinking too much arsenic and vomiting it all up, and if Van Gogh had succeeded in his own attempt. Certainly the world would have missed out on the legendary 100th birthday celebrations in Van Gogh’s Greenwich Village studio in 1953. But this is all fanciful speculation. History cannot be re-written; everything is fixed and final.

I was musing about these things when I realised it was almost midnight at the international dateline. I switched to the news. The world’s media seemed to have gathered in South Central Pacific. It would be our turn next, then India, Turkey, Amsterdam, London, New York, Los Angeles. Apparently the Scots were already celebrating in Edinburgh. Over two million people and counting according to the latest news. Talking of all things Scots, I poured myself another drink, then decided to go inside to get my thicker jacket. It can get very cold in the tropics at midnight, especially far out at sea. I took a sip, walked a small circuit of the rim and went to open the door. Nothing. It wouldn’t budge. I put my elbow to it and shoved. The bolt must have slid back across when I banged it shut. Too much grease on the bar.

Stunned, I sat down again and drained my glass. It took a few moments for the horror of the situation to sink in. Basically, I was stuffed. I was going to die in my favourite place, the rim of a lighthouse. The glass around the light could withstand a bullet at close range – I know, I tested it once by accident. I couldn’t jump, I’d be smashed on the rocks below. I looked up at the stars, but my attention was stolen by the full moon. Like most people of my age, for thirty years I hadn’t looked at it without thinking of the two bodies lying by the Sea of Tranquility, mourned and remembered but never buried. I’d often wondered what their last moment of consciousness must have been like? Knowing they were trapped in the vastness of the universe. In a few days I would find out.

Peter Hill C 15 July, 1999 (from NYMOCI)

Written for The Bug