Last civilian lighthouse keeper values solitude

Radio interview puts Coney Island man in unwelcome spotlight

May 05, 2002|By Charlie LeDuff | Charlie LeDuff,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - On the westerly point of Coney Island is a spit of land known as Nortons Point.

On that sliver of rock are a cottage and a lighthouse with peeling paint that are defended by a wizened old man who prefers the roar of the tide to the ring of the phone.

The old man is Frank Schubert, 85, the last civilian lighthouse keeper in the United States, and until a few weeks ago, very few people knew he or his lighthouse existed. Then a national radio program found him. In the interview, Schubert sounded put off and prickly and as charming as an ex-husband. Now everybody wants to talk to him. Television reporters. Documentary makers. Newspaper writers. Curiosity seekers. Lighthouse buffs. Romantics. Kooks. All want an audience with the hermit of the harbor.

"My head's going to explode," Schubert says, blaming his telephone, which bleats as endlessly as a colicky sheep. "I don't have anything interesting to tell."

`Stop these people'

But his bosses at the Coast Guard keep sending everybody by. "I tell the boss, `Why don't I just quit?'" Schubert continues, having worked up a good lather now. "`Why don't you just fire me? Why don't you stop these people from calling me?' The boss says we can use the publicity. What does the Coast Guard need with publicity? Who doesn't know who the hell the Coast Guard is?"

Fame is not the issue. As the last civilian keeper - in Brooklyn, no less - Schubert occasionally surfaces in the news pages and airwaves and in a normal year he gets a few hundred visitors.

But the magnitude of this year's attention is inexplicable to him. Perhaps it is a post-Sept. 11 nostalgia for the old, simple days. Perhaps 15 minutes of fame these days means 15 minutes of fame on every cable channel. Whatever it is, he doesn't like it.

"Bang, bang, bang; they knock on the door," he complains. "I've gotten discovered and now people won't leave me alone. People think there's something romantic about a lighthouse. It's just a lighthouse. I don't understand it, really."

So, in defense of his peace of mind and insular way of life, Schubert has contrived a brilliant scheme. If someone rings with a voice he does not recognize, Schubert will say that nobody by the name of Schubert is there, and he will set the telephone on a side table for the remainder of the morning. If the caller remains on the line, he will get an earful of the morning talk shows and the comings and goings of the man not named Schubert.

If a person reaches him in person on his doorstep, Schubert will excuse himself and say that he is waiting for an important call from Boston despite the fact that his phone is off the hook.

"Come back in five weeks," he says.

Five weeks later, Schubert will tell the guards of the gated community to turn away outsiders since he will not be accepting visitors that week.

"Sorry," says the sergeant of the Sea Gate Police Department, an armed private security force that patrols the sand-blown cul-de-sac that includes Nortons Point. "He's an old man with particular tastes. He just really likes to be left alone."

So, in this game of gotcha, some members of the news media have come up with foxy ways to corner him. They pretend to be relatives. They present themselves as handymen. They call and call and call. Even his bosses at the Coast Guard can't reach him.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm the last civilian manning a lighthouse in the country; so what?" Schubert says on his porch on a beautiful windswept afternoon, a tanker moving past the property and up the harbor while his companion Blaze, an overweight cocker spaniel, snarls at unannounced visitors.

"Does that mean I can't be left alone?" he asks. "I've got reporters coming around at night, on Sundays when I have visitors over for dinner, all times of the day.

`More questions'

"They shoot film for four hours and then call me back and say they want to shoot some more, that they got more questions to ask. How many questions can you ask about a lighthouse? They want me to climb up so they can film me. That's 87 steps. I've been up there so many times I've got vertigo."

His superiors at the Coast Guard say they have received three to five calls a day requesting interviews with the old sea dog since he was featured on All Things Considered on National Public Radio in early February.

"They're like: `Tell us about Frank at the lighthouse; tell us about Frank at the lighthouse,' `' said Petty Officer Frank Bari, a spokesman for the Coast Guard. "The guy can't sit and have a cup of coffee without being bothered. The man's not talking out of his head. He's sane and sensible. He's just an old salt lighthouse keeper. He doesn't mind talking now and then. But how would you feel?"

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