Life in Crystal Beach
Episode 8:The Mysterious Lantern

I’m not much of a history buff. In fact, if I can’t sleep at night just give me a book about history and it’s lights out! I guess, though, knowing a little about history can sometimes be a good thing. They say those who don’t learn from history are destined to relive it.  Looking back at my life I think that’s true. However, there are some people who enjoy history and they love telling you everything they know about it.  As a bartender, I get my share of history lessons. It seems that Bolivar Peninsula has had an interesting past and there are residents here who will tell you a hell of a lot more than you want to know about it.

According to some, Bolivar Peninsula was named in 1816. It was used by the famous pirate, Jean Laffite, as a home base, and it was an overland slave route between Louisiana and Galveston.  The first settlement was started in 1838.  Throughout its long history, it has experienced a lot of storms and hurricanes.  For historians, the most memorable storm to hit Galveston was the hurricane called the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900.  Of course, I don’t remember that one but I’ve heard that a shitload of people, like 8,000 were killed.  It was a really badass storm. It also had a devastating effect on Bolivar Peninsula.  But for me, and most of people who live around here, it was Hurricane Ike in 2008 that inspires the most vivid memories.  Water covered the entire peninsula.  I think something like 200 people from Bolivar died in that storm. Others were never found.  You might wonder how that can be, that people can just disappear. In a community like this one, we get a lot of loners, you know, people who live in a small shack or a small RV and just keep to themselves.  They might have a couple of friends but no family, or at least no one knows if they have one.  So when a big storm like Ike comes along and some of these “loners” don’t get the hell out, if they get swept away, no one knows it.  They just disappear, vanish. After all of these years Ike’s impact can still be felt on the peninsula.

One late afternoon in November, my good friend, Wesley Granger, stopped by the Tiki for a beer.  I think it might have been on a Wednesday, but I don’t remember exactly.  I do remember that we weren’t very crowded.  He sat at the bar and I served him a Guinness.  Guinness is a very dark, stout, thick beer. It’s pretty good out of a tap but out of a bottle it tastes like road tar. Since things were slow, we had a chance to talk. You know, visiting with customers is part of a good bartender’s job.  Everybody has a story to tell and the more they drink the more they want to share it. So you learn how to smile and nod, but pretty much ignore most of what they’re saying. As I mentioned, though, Wesley was a friend so I didn’t mind having a chat. He liked scotch and cigars so we had something in common.  After a couple of beers, he suggested that we should go flounder gigging that night.  I’m not usually one to go wading in the bay after dark but I was feeling macho and decided that it might be fun. I get these brain farts every once in a while.  You know, agree to do something on the spur of the moment and then later realize how stupid it was!  We decided to meet at 8:30.

In Crystal Beach, November is flounder season.  Now for those of you who don’t know what a flounder is, it’s a flat fish that has both eyes on the top of its body. Its underside, is smooth and white. It’s a really freaky looking fish. In fact, it’s butt-ugly! It lays in the sand in shallow water and in grassy areas where mullet and grass shrimp hang out. In spite of its looks, flounder is one of the best eating fish in the Gulf so a lot of people fish for them especially in November when the fish come into shallow water to spawn.

One way to fish for flounder is spearfishing or gigging.  The simplest method is to wade in the shallow water at night carrying a lantern and a sharp gig.  When you see one lying in the sand, you stick it with a gig and put it on your stringer.  You really have to be careful, though, because stingrays also lie in the sand and they look a lot like a flounder when they’re half buried. Stingrays have extremely sharp barbs in their tails that they can shoot like a dart into your leg. Getting barbed by one of these little sons-of-a-bitch can hurt like hell.

At 8:30 we loaded the truck and headed for a night of floundering.  We tried several spots around Frenchtown Road but the water was too murky to see anything.  At about 11:00 we ended up at the Bolivar Flats.  The flats cover maybe a square mile or so, I’m guessing. It’s an area where the water is relatively shallow for a few hundred feet out into the surf. We thought we might have better luck in the open water then we did in the bay.  We’d been walking for about an hour when we suddenly realized that in following a narrow washout we had walked away from the surf and into the middle of the marsh.  If you’ve never been around one of Bolivar’s wetlands, let me assure you that it’s not where you want to be, especially at night.  In places the ground is so soft you can sink up to your waist in mud and stilt.  Besides that, the mosquitoes are as big as fucking airplanes, and these wetlands serve as habitats for huge rattlesnakes and ginormous cottonmouth water moccasins. When we realized where we were and that we didn’t want to be there, we decided to turn around and follow the washout back to the beach. Just as we were about to start back, Wesley noticed something in the distance.  He pointed it out to me. About fifty yards away we spied something that appeared to be a small light glowing in the marsh.

“What do you think that is?”
“Not sure.” Wesley strained to see better. “It looks like a light of some kind.”
“No shit, Sherlock! That’s pretty damn obvious! Or, it might be the eyes of an alligator,” I suggested. “You know how their eyes always glow in the dark?”
We don’t have many alligators around Crystal Beach, but there are a few that hang out in remote areas.
“There’s only one light,” said Wesley.
“So, it’s an alligator with only one eye!” I argued.
“You think we should go see what it is?” he asked.
“Well, let’s consider that,” I advised.  “It’s fucking midnight. We’re in the middle of no-goddamn-where, the mosquitoes are probably putting together a squadron to take us out and the snakes are just waiting for us to do something stupid like go see what that shinny fucking thing is! In fact, they probably planted it there just for us! I vote, NO!”
“Yeah, but what if somebody’s out there hurt?” he argued.
“Well, let’s see…” I yelled as loud as I could. “YO! Anybody out there?”
No reply. No sound except for some kind of man-eating frog that croaked in the distance.
“It’ll only take a minute,” Wesley said as he started in the direction of the light.
“Yeah, that’s what they say about lethal injection! I really don’t think this is a good idea.”

But what do I know? And who the hell listens to me, anyway? I figured we’d find some poor sap buried up to his neck in swamp water.  Or worst yet, find just his head.  Wesley led the way and I followed in his footsteps fearing that at any moment I would be fanged on the ankle.  We moved slowly since the constant swarm of goddamn mosquitos made it difficult to see. After several minutes that seemed like several hours, we arrived at our destination. I moved around beside Wesley to get a better look.  There on the ground, half buried in the mud and slime was an old lantern.  The amazing thing was that the little bulb inside the globe was burning, glowing brightly. 

“It’s a lantern,” said Wesley.
“Oh, really? You’ve got that Sherlock thing working again, don’t you?”
He leaned down and picked up the lantern.  It was rusty and covered with scum, that is, everywhere except the glass.  And, amazingly, the glass wasn’t broken.
“How long do you think it’s been here?” He examined it more carefully.
“Looks like a long damn time,” I said. I looked around to see if there was any sign of another person.  The night was dark and still. Wesley suddenly let out a yell.
“Is anyone out there?”
“Jesus Christ, Wesley! You scared the shit outta me! Damn, man, let me know before you yell like that!
“Sorry. Don’t curse.”
“Well, then, don’t fucking scare me!”

Wesley is a religious kind of guy. Not overly religious, I mean, not one of those go-to- church or go-to-hell kind of people, just your average religious guy, I guess.
We looked at the lantern that he held in his hand.

“How the hell can it be burning?” I wondered.
“I don’t know.  It’s really weird. Come on, let’s go. We’ll take with us.”
We started back.
“Wait!” Wesley stopped.
“What? Jesus…”
“Don’t curse!”
“…H. Johnson! There you go yelling again without giving me a damn warning! What is it now?”
“I want to mark the spot where we found the lantern, just in case we need to remember where it was.”

We looked around for something to use as a marker, but it was really dark and we couldn’t find anything.  Wesley decided to use his gig to mark the spot.  We followed the washout back to the beach and then made our way to the truck.  When we were safely locked inside, we examined the lantern more carefully. It wasn’t like any traditional lantern that either one of us had ever seen.  It looked like it had been converted somehow from using fuel to using some other source of power.  The bulb was a small, but powerful LED bulb. The rest of the lantern looked normal but it was rusty and caked with dirt. Wesley set it on the seat and we left.

I was never so glad to get outta there.  It’s not that I’m not a brave person, you know. It’s just that I don’t like to tempt fate.  And I don’t like being scared.  When I was a kid I hated it when everybody wanted to go see a scary movie. At the scary parts, which for me was most of the movie, I’d quietly hum to myself and stare down at my feet. And then when everybody around me would scream, I’d almost pee in my pants! Man, I hated those movies.

The next day, shortly after we’d opened the Tiki, Wesley came in and sort of rushed to the bar.
“Hey, man, it’s a little early for a beer don’t you think?” I smiled.
Wesley didn’t smile. He just set the lantern on the bar in front of me.
“Listen, Lee, you’ve got to take this thing!”
“What are you talking about? Is there a problem?”

Wesley began to explain what happened when he got home with the lantern.  He said he set it on the counter in his kitchen and then went to bed.  He said that around 2:00 a light woke him up.  He got up to see what it was.  It was the lantern. The light was on. He turned it off and went back to bed. In about an hour, it happened again.  The lantern was burning.  This happened almost every hour all night long.  Every time he’d turn it off and go back to bed it would come back on again.  The thing is that the switch was never turned on! He’d have to turn it on and then off again to turn the light off.

“That’s weird, man,” I whispered.
“You think?”
“So what do you plan to do with it?”
“I’m giving it to you!” He started toward the door.
“Hey...what? I don’t want the damn thing!”

But it was too late.  Wesley was gone. He’d left the lantern sitting on the bar. I eyeballed it for a minute or two and then carefully moved it to a shelf beside a bottle of Captain Morgan’s.

It must have been around 5:30 that evening when Matt Lawson came into the bar.  He was a regular at the Tiki, a Jack Daniels and water drinker.  By this time I had completely forgotten about the lantern.  I fixed Matt a drink and sat it down in front of him.

“Where’d you get that lantern? It hasn’t always been there, has it?”
I looked over my shoulder at the rusty relic on the shelf.
“No.  I just put it there this morning.”
“Hum. Where’d you get it?” Matt took a swig of Daniels.
“Actually, a friend of mine and I found it in a marsh near the flats last night.”
Matt seemed interested.
“Do you mind if I take a look at it?”
I took it off the shelf and handed it to him. He examined it carefully.
“This is a unique lantern. There aren’t many of these around.”
“Yeah.  A fellow over in Galveston was making them a few years ago. They’re converted from old kerosene lanterns. Here, I’ll show you.”

I started wiping off a drink glass so it would look like I was doing some bartending work.  I moved closer to get a better look at what Matt was showing me.

“What this fellow did was to take an old kerosene lantern like this one and then modify it.  He’d rig a rechargeable battery and slide it into the base that had once held the oil.  Then he’d cut a small hole in the side of the base and install a little solar receiver that would charge the battery during the day.  See it here?”
He pointed to a small round piece of tinted glass on the side of the lantern. You really had to look close to see it.  It was well disguised and covered with dirt.
“Then he’d replace the wick,” Matt continued,  “with a small LED bulb and run the wire from the battery to the bulb that was seated at the top of the base where the wick had been.  You see?”
He pointed to the little bulb. 
“Then, all you had to do was push this switch and you had light for several hours. He only made a few of them.  I got one just before hurricane Ike.  It was really handy for floundering.  Really lightweight.”
“So there weren’t many around?” I asked.
“I don’t think so.  I only saw two. The one I bought and the one a friend of mine bought at the same time.”
“Does your friend still have his?” I asked as I wiped off another glass.
“Not sure.  I haven’t seen him since the hurricane.”
“He left town?”
“No, I don’t think so.  Actually, I’m not sure what happened to him. I know he didn’t get off the peninsula before the storm but I don’t know what happened to him after that.”
He took another big swig of brew.
“Did he have family somewhere around?” I asked. “I mean, someone you might call to see if he made it out okay?”
“Not that I know of.  We fished together but he never talked about family.  He was sort of a loner. Hung out here at the Tiki once in a while but mainly kept to himself. Where did you say you found this?” He picked it up again.
“We found it in a marsh down by the flats last night. It was covered with mud.”
“You found it at night?”
“Yeah, it was burning. The light was on.”
He looked up at me curiously and smiled.
“Yeah, right. I doubt that.”
“What do you mean? It was.”
 “Look here.” He unscrewed the globe from the base and removed the rechargeable battery.
“This lantern hasn’t worked in a long time.  See?” He showed me the battery.  One of the wires was broken off.
“It can’t work without power.  Besides, the bulb is burned out.”
He held up the bulb.  It had a big black spot on it.
“Yeah, okay, I see that, but the fucking light was burning! Okay? I saw it!”
“I don’t see how. But if you say so.” He drank the last of his Jack.
“What was your friend’s name?” I asked.
“Lenny Gray. Hey, I know how we can tell if it was his,” he said remembering. “He scratched his initials on the bottom of the lantern.”

I watched with anticipation as he turned the lantern over and began scrubbing the dirt off the bottom with a bar napkin. 
“Well I’ll be a son-of-a-bitch! This was Lenny’s lantern.  You can see his initials.”
He held the bottom up so I could see.  There were the letters LG.

Matt figured that the lantern had washed away from Lenny’s house in the flood. Lenny had a small fishing cabin near the North Getty, not far from the flats. Matt had two more drinks.  I went on about my work but I could see that he was thinking about the lantern.  From time to time he’d shake his head and mutter something.

At 2:00 in the morning everyone left and I closed down the grille. I locked the door and started to leave.  When I got to the truck I remembered the lantern.  I figured I shouldn’t leave the dirty old thing in the bar.  I went back and unlocked the door.  Just over the bar, a small light was burning brightly. I called Wesley.

When I got home, I left the lantern outside on the deck. It burned all night.

The next morning I told Wesley everything that Matt had said at the bar. Wesley didn’t say anything.  He just sat there listening, or sleeping.  I’m not the greatest storyteller. In fact, I’ve been known to put my audiences into a trance. You know, when your eyes don’t blink and your mind kinda shifts into neutral? It happens a lot when you’re at school or in church. But in this case, he was actually listening. We decided to call the sheriff’s office and report that we’d found the lantern. We didn’t tell them about how it was burning even though the wires weren’t connected to a battery. They lock people up for shit like that. We told them we thought that there might be someone buried in the marsh; maybe an Ike victim. They said there was no reason to investigate, that there were lots of people who had disappeared after Ike. Some were swept away in the floodwaters and some had been eaten by animals or alligators.  They said that there were people who lived around the North Getty who had not been able to get off the peninsula before Ike hit. Some of them had tried desperately at the last minute to make their way to Fort Travis, the highest ground in that area. Some made it, some didn’t.

Since local law enforcement wasn’t interested in following up, Wesley and I decided to go back to the marsh and have a look around in the daylight for ourselves.  You know, maybe find a hand or a foot or something sticking out of the mud.  Wesley also wanted to get the gig that he’d left to mark the spot where we’d found the lantern.

On our way to the flats as we were driving along the beach, Wesley suddenly told me to stop the truck.  He got out. I thought he was probably going to take a wiz or something. But instead, he pulled a white cross out of the top of one of the dunes and got back into the truck. I should explain that some man had built a whole shitload of crosses and painted them white.  They were about two feet tall.  He’d given one to everyone who wanted one in Crystal Beach.  People had put these things up everywhere: in their front yard, on the beach, around stores.  I thought it was littering but I guess since they were crosses no one complained. You know, there’s supposed to be something special about two pieces of wood when they’re nailed together in the shape of a cross.  It suddenly becomes holy, I guess. 

“What are you going to do with that?” I asked.
“Just drive,” Wesley said as he began writing something on the cross with a felt-tipped marker.

I hate it when someone won’t answer your question! It’s like they think what they’re doing is some kind of a big goddamn secret or something.

When we arrived at the washout we made our way back to where the gig was sticking in the ground.  Man, things looked a lot different in the light of day.  It wasn’t a spooky place at all! Funny how light changes everything. We looked around for about half-an-hour.  Nothing. No hands or feet.  Wesley carried the cross over to the spot where we found the lantern and hammered it into the ground.  I read what he had written.

This is a memorial to Lenny Gray. He thought he
could survive Hurricane Ike but he didn’t.  Rest in Peace.

“Wow, that’s poetic!” I said sarcastically.
“Hey, I’m no poet, okay? It’s better than nothing.”
“Yeah, you’re right.  That is unless he’s still alive somewhere.”

I’m sure putting the cross up for Lenny was a nice thing to do.  I kinda felt like I was at a funeral.  I’ve only been to two funerals in my life: one for my granddad and one for my Uncle Albert. Uncle Albert was buried under a big oak tree. At the graveside, Aunt Mildred said that she thought Uncle Albert would like being under the big tree. I remember thinking, the hell he would. Uncle Albert would like being on a barstool at a bar having a beer! And if he knows he’s under a tree, dig him up cause he’s not dead! I just don’t get the significance of planting someone in the ground.  I mean, dust-to-dust, right? It seems like a waste of space to me.  Funeral homes and cemeteries would go out of business if I had my way.  Just cremate me and spread me around. I’ve been sort of cooped up all of my life. I can’t see spending god-knows-how-long in a shitty little box in a hole in the ground!

We made our way back to the truck and headed for home.  I never went back to the marsh. I know it sounds strange but the lantern never burned again after we put the cross up. As I look back on the whole affair I’m still puzzled.  I don’t understand what happened or how it happened.  In fact, I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it. Now, I’m not an overly religious guy and I don’t consider myself superstitious and I have no fucking idea what happens after we die, but old Wesley thinks that Lenny is buried somewhere out there in the swamp and that his spirit was causing the lantern to burn so that someone would know he was there. Wesley said that old Lenny just wanted to be remembered.  Maybe so.  After all, I suppose somehow, in some way, we all want to be remembered by somebody.