The Austins

From To Illuminate the Dark Space by Jenny Edwards

In 1964, the Coast Guard hired Gene Austin to take care of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. By this time, no one had been living in the keepers’ quarters for more than two decades, but the light continued to operate for the benefit of small ocean and sound vessels. Twice a month, Gene would charge the batteries then climb the tower to clean the lens and change the bulbs. Shirley would go with Gene every once and a while and help him clean out the lighthouse. One time she and Gene swept all 214 steps inside the lighthouse, literally cleaning it from top to bottom. It was so dusty they had to wear respirators to breathe. Gene’s starting pay was around $25 a month. Although he received periodic pay increases, at one point his salary was not even enough to cover his monthly contribution for hospitalization insurance. In fact, in order to keep insurance, Gene and Shirley had to kick in about four dollars a month.’ So, pecuniary incentive. do not explain why, for 25 years after the compound was deserted, Gene, and by extension Shirley, took responsibility for the lighthouse. Gene, who is unpretentious and rather quiet, will tell you he tended the light simply to help out the Coast Guard. In the mid-1960s, there was no hard surface road between Currituck Beach and anywhere else. The only way to get to the compound was by four-wheel drive on the beach or by boat across Currituck Sound. When Gene took over lighthouse operations, he spared the Coast Guard from making a trip to Currituck twice a month. There were, however, more profound reasons why Gene and Shirley took on the light. The explanation lies in the past. 

Gene’s roots sprang from sandy soils. His progenitors were fishermen, sailors and lighthouse keepers on the Outer Banks. Gene’s maternal great grandfather was a Lewark from Peony’s Hill, a s mall fishing village about four miles north of Currituck Beach Lighthouse.’ His grandmother, Lillie Lewark, was also from Penny’s Hill.

The Austins
Gene and Shirley Austin

The Lewark family lived in virtual isolation from the rest of the world on a barren and often inhospitable landscape. In the mid-1800s on the Outer Banks, a man not fortunate enough to have a government job wit  the Lighthouse Board or LifeSaving Service had to survive on natural resources, often just above subsistence level. Eking a living from the barrier islands required deftness in hunting and fishing, skills usually taught to young boys, while girls learned how to cook, clean, sew and garden.

The Lewarks were a large family, with quite a few mouths to feed, and their ability to make a living fishing the Atlantic waters and hunt ing waterfowl in the Currituck Sound testifies to their fortitude and courage. Fishing could be especially dangerous. While most days passed uneventfully, occasionally offshore storms blew up without warning. When that hap­pened, ocean swells and winds were a lethal combination, sometimes swamping small boats and casting fishermen into strong currents. Storms aside, fishermen departed home everyday for a watery wilderness. The Currituck Beach Lighthouse, after it was finally completed in 1875, must have been a welcome landmark for fishermen like the Lewarks who made a living upon the rolling seascape.

Thomas Austin was Gene’s paternal great grandfather. Thomas was one of those lucky 19th-century sailors who lived to tell a bout the day his ship foundered off the Hatteras coast. According to the family legend, Thomas was the first Austin to arrive on the Outer Banks, and he is responsible for estab­lishing the Austin family there. Two of Thomas’s boys, sons of a shipwrecked sailor, were Wesley and Riley Austin, and they grew up to become light keepers at the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. Wesley was Gene’s great uncle, and Riley was Gene’s grandfather.

Gene’s father , and then later Gene himself, joined the Coast Guard, thereby continuing the family tradition of working on the ocean.

The poetry of this family history surely was not lost on Gene. His great grandfathers had been seafarers who depended upon light­ houses. Then, in the blink of a generation, his grandfathers and father became the keepers and Coast Guards men who were the stewards of the sea. So, in the mid-1960s, when the Coast Guard was casting about for someone to take care of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, it probably seemed a natural thing for Gene to volunteer for the job.

Shirley’s history in Currituck County also reaches back several generations. While he  paternal faily tree is rooted in the farm country of Tennessee, her maternal lineage is anchored in the offshore waters of Currituck County. Solomon Beasley and Cema O’Neal Deasley, a fisherman and fisherman’s wife, were Shirley’s maternal great grandparents. In the mid to late 1800s, they lived in Seagull, a small fishing village located near Penny’s Hill. Time and the barrier island’s natural littoral drift collapsed the village, and it has long since folded into ocean’s waves. Before it disappeared, Seagull was also home to Shirley’s maternal grandparents, John Whitson and Mary Amelia Beasley Whitson. Mary (Solomon’s and Cema’s daughter) was born on the Outer Banks in the summer of 1888. Her husband, John, was from Blackwa­ter , Virginia, but be adapted to the North Carolina coastal lifestyle, making a living fishing and guiding hunting trips.

Shirley does not remember her great grandparents, Solomon and Cema, but she spent a lot of time with grandparents, Mary and John, whom she loved dearly. Mary was attentive to little Shirley, making puddings and other sweet treats for her. John taught Shirley to appreciate Currituck County’s maritime environment. In Currituck County, as with most southern rural areas, labor for white workers was divided along gender lines. Although there were exceptions, for the most part women did not accompany their husbands on fishing expeditions. 

It was the men, therefore, who closely studied the sky for weather changes. This is not to say, of course, that women did not know how to watch the sky or were unconcerned with the climate.

After all, the lives of their husbands, brothers and suns often depended upon good weather. Yet, generally speaking, men had the greatest stake in the weather and paid very close attention to the cosmos. 

“One thing my grandfather did,”Shirley recalled, “was to go out in the evening on the porch to see what the weather was going to be like the next day.”‘ A sun dog, which was a smaller sun beside the real sun, meant the weather was going to take a turn for the worse. A ring around the moon at night also forebode bad weather, and the number of stars in the ring indicated how many days the inclement weather would last.

A rain bow, lovely as it might be, was bad news if it marked the sky at dawn. ”Rainbow at morning,” recalled Shirley,”meant sailors take warning.”

Shirley grew up in the days before weather satellites and electronic navigation aids. The accumulated wisdom of the preced­ ing generations informed her that the coastal environment was sometimes unpredictable and always to be respected. In this context, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse took on height­ened meaning. No matter how the sky changed, the lighthouse was a permanent fixture on the horizon. It was solidity in the midst of impermanence. Shirley remembers being on the water with her grandfather and watching him using the lighthouse to guide them home. After she grew up and married Gene, they relied on the lighthouse many times to mark the path across Currituck Sound. Things changed over time on the barrier islands. Seagull, the home of Shirley’s ancestors, has been erased from all but memory. Yet, the lighthouse has remained, a steady and important feature of her life.

The Currituck Beach Lighthouse is an imposing presence. It rises 162 feet in the air and took about one million bricks to build. The top of the tower is visible from almost any­ where in Corolla. Unlike the tower’s physical reality, the light is subtle; its rhythmic flash is a powerful force on the psyche. More noticeably regular than a heartbeat or breathing or ocean waves, the lighthouse beam has worked its way into the subconscious of the village residents, including Gene and Shirley. When asked if he ever worried that the light would go out without his noticing it, Gene replied, “When it went out, seemed like you knew it. I’d think just about anybody in the area would know it… Other light keepers have expressed the same sentiment. 

Roy Gilkie, a lightkeeper’s son on Sambro Island in Nova Scotia, recalled that his father became so accustomed to the light that if it skipped a beat or went out, he caught it immediately. If Roy’s father happened to be asleep, the mere absence of the flash was enough to wake him instantly.

Perhaps, then, in addition to the light’s physical presence and historical value, the regularity of the lighthouse is important to people who live in its shadow. Gene and Shirley, who grew up with the Currituck Beach Lighthouse practically in their back­ yard, were committed to it years after the site was abandoned. If the lighthouse is the brick and mortar of Currituck, then people like Gene and Shirley are its blood and bones.

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