They are turning off the foghorn at Bloody Point Light. This is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but I feel a bout of maritime nostalgia coming on anyway, like a headache before the flu. I used to live in a little house near the western shore of Kent Island, hidden under loblolly pines so spindly and tufted that at night you could almost mistake their shapes for palm trees. I did this often at this time of year, fantasizing about points tropical as the dead weight of three months of "wintry mix" started to buckle my boat-starved mental knees. Depending on which way the wind was blowing and how much mist was skeining across the Bay, I would stare up at our loblolly palms outlined against a star-pricked sky and listen as the foghorn at Thomas Point (westerly breeze), the Bay Bridge (northwesterly) or Bloody Point (southerly) hooted in the unfathomable darkness.
It didn't matter that they were those boring electronic horns, the kind that sound a little like a sheep with indigestion. I could sit on a little porch in the swampy woods of Kent Island and, with the help of that distant, lonely bleat, imagine myself right out of time and place. Maybe I'd be on a whaler full of oil, hearing the foghorn off Nantucket, smelling land for the first time in three years. Or aboard a schooner, picking my way out of Bath, Maine, in a morning fog so thick it soaked my face like rain. Maybe I'd be on a Baltimore clipper, winging up the Bay and hearing the horn warning us off Smith Point. Almost home.
Well, so much for all that. They're silencing the foghorn at Bloody Point. And the one at Sandy Point. Those of us who think these antiques still have value should count ourselves lucky they're not completely mothballing both lighthouses, as they first proposed. Money, as usual, dictates this necessity-that, and the tedious reality that we don't need these archaic things anymore. Or so we're told.
In truth, fog signals have never been particularly dependable aids to navigation, says Wayne Wheeler, president of the U.S. Lighthouse Society. He's out in San Francisco, where they know from serious foghorns. "The sound skips and bends," he says, "and you don't know which way it's coming from." With electronics that can navigate you from Bermuda to your bathtub these days, what's the point? Still, when the Coast Guard shut down the two-tone foghorns in San Francisco Bay, Wheeler was one of many who tried hard to get at least one on Alcatraz Island re-established. "I thought the ambiance of a couple of these airhorns was worthy-you know, Sam Spade sliding down a California hill to meet some undercover agent."
Pragmatists and bureaucrats have tin ears when it comes to intangibles. What's in a sound hooting through the Maryland pines or moaning up a San Francisco street? Mystery, maybe. The thrill of not quite knowing what's out there. The fun of imagining what could be. Or maybe the simple solace of knowing that you're home.