Leaving the light on

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Leaving the light on

GASADO ISLAND, South Jeolla -- Thirty-five years as a lighthouse keeper have earned Gang Yong-jeong a severed forefinger, the loss of sight in one eye and thousands of lonely nights. Though he reaches the mandatory retirement age next spring, Mr. Gang, 58, says he will miss the job.

At 2 p.m. on a recent Saturday on this remote island in the Yellow Sea, Mr. Gang gets himself ready to do the first check of the beacon. Built in 1915, Gasado lighthouse stands 11 meters and is snowy white; the light's beacon makes a complete revolution every 15 seconds. The light can be viewed by passing ships as far away as 55 kilometers. The light stays on from sunset to sunrise. To keep things going, Mr. Gang, the chief keeper and two assistants, Lee Sang-ik, 38 and Kim Yong-bok, 34, work 8-hour shifts each. Besides checking the beacon, the keepers have to paint the lighthouse every six months, to make it visible from afar.

When he came on duty this afternoon, Mr. Gang opened a sliding door to the ground floor of the lighthouse and then climbed up a narrow iron ladder. It's 25 rungs to the beacon, and he makes the trip at least twice a day, each way. Today, as he does each shift, he first wipes the inside glass of the dome-like beacon with a dry cloth. There are two small stools inside the lighthouse and only about five adults can fit inside the beacon at the same time.

Born on nearby Wando island, South Jeolla, in 1944, Gang Yong-jeong has spent all his life on islands in the area, save for four years in Mokpo, the seaside city at the southwestern end of the province.

Gasado island, which is 6.5 square kilometers in size, sits among the more than 3,000 islands scattered along the peninsula's coasts. Most of the island's 450 residents farm rice. From Mokpo, it takes two-and-a-half hours to reach the Gasado by a ferry, which leaves the port twice a day, making rounds at 21 neighborhood islands.

About 4:30 p.m., Mr. Gang climbs down the lighthouse ladder, walks outside and takes a look around the area along the sea. He has a small, private motor boat, on which he makes a round of inspection and sometimes fishes for fun. Eventually, he winds up back at his residence, a five-minute walk. His house, which he shares with his assistants, is a one-story, red-brick building with six rooms. One of those assistants, Mr. Lee, is making dinner this day for the three keepers, while Mr. Kim checks the weather on a computer. As the chief cook, Mr. Lee is fixing a spicy fish soup, while Mr. Kim, the younger of the two assistants, takes care of all the computer duties. Though the three get along well, living on the island is not always convenient.

"A newspaper is actually an 'oldpaper,'" Mr. Lee says. Mr. Kim once invited some friends from high school who were living in distant cities to the lighthouse, only to hear the visitors complain. "They told me how great I was to survive on this island, without seeing the latest films or listening to the pop music," Mr. Kim says.

The three keepers are married, and their families live in Mokpo. Mr. Gang just returned from Mokpo after visiting his family, a visit he makes once a month. During the monthly, three-day holiday, Mr. Gang gets a haircut and buys food for the crew, and usually a box of soju.

It's a little after 6 p.m. and the sun is about to drop into the sea. Mr. Gang heads back to the lighthouse to do another check. After making sure the beacon is working correctly, Mr. Gang goes back down, to an engine room next to his residence. These days, most of the tasks around Gasado lighthouse are automated and he does not have to run the power generator, which turns on the light, manually. All he has to do is flick a switch, at least theoretically.

"There were times when the lamp died out suddenly at night," Mr. Gang says, "so we should always be prepared." He lights up a cigarette on the front yard of the lighthouse. The light starts to spin.

A lighthouse is to many synonymous with nostalgia and romance. Mr. Gang does not completely agree. To him, it's a tough and solitary. "Up in the lighthouse, I feel like I belong to a different world," he says. "When I was a young active man, I used to be embarrassed by working such an isolated life that doesn't pay much." He's long since changed. Now, he accepts the life.

In his 20s, Mr. Gang wanted to become a government official. He was a fun-loving adventurer, always curious about the outside world. He did his military service, tried to go to college but did not a high school diploma, then prepared for a state examination for a government job. To study for the exam, he went along to uninhabited Chilpaldo island in the Mokpo area. While there, he ran his first lighthouse.

In 1968, while he worked and studied at Chilpaldo, he had to provide the beacon with electricity. Each day he had to turn a power generator by hand. One day as he cleaned the machine his attention wavered. A spark flew into his right eye. In great pain, all he could do was wait to for a ship to pass by. After three or four days passed, a freighter bound for Incheon saw him signaling with the beacon, and took Mr. Gang to a Mokpo hospital. By then, though, his eye had become infected and his sight in it gone. "I was going to throw myself into the sea and desert this world," he remembers. As he cursed his life, a pretty, young nurse named Yoon Ju-nim came into his hospital room. "If you need anything, just call me," she said, smiling. He thought her smile was the most beautiful in the world.

On the day when he was discharged from the hospital, the young nurse stopped him and said, "If you ever need medical supplies, please write to me." Then she hurried away, cheeks blushing. In the spring of 1970, he wrote her, "Are you interested in marrying a lighthouse keeper?" Weeks passed and no reply. Frustrated, he told himself that it was natural for her to shun a man with such a humble profession. One day, as he reached the bottom of the ladder at Chilpaldo lighthouse, Ms. Yoon stood before him. They were married soon after.

"I lost my eyesight, but through that I met my wife. Ju-nim is the lighthouse in my life." The couple has two sons, Jang-ju, 31 and Jang-hui, 29 and a daughter, Jin-i, 26, all of whom live in Mokpo.

About 8 p.m., Mr. Gang is seated on the floor of his residence, nibbling from a fruit plate prepared by his assistant, Lee Sang-ik. Mr. Gang says he gave up on the idea of being the government official after he lost the sight in his right eye, and accepted being a lighthouse keeper as his true vocation. "I just learned to be grateful for small things," he says.

"I wanted to call it quits several times. But after all these years, I realize that it was my destiny and now I'm proud of myself," he says, arms folded. He habitually folds his arms to hide his right index finger, half of which is missing. In 1978 he was stationed in Mokpo, checking automated lighthouses in the area each day on a small boat. When he came to one lighthouse that had a power problems, Mr. Gang put a finger on the beacon's motor. As he did, an assistant mistakenly turned on the engine and part of the digit was instantly severed. He rushed back to Mokpo carrying the top half of his finger, but all the hospitals were closed. It was the lunar New Year. He wrapped his finger and waited until the holiday ended, but by that time it was too late to do do anything.

Mr. Gang's starting salary in 1968 was 540 won per month, barely enough to buy a sack of rice. His wife, who had quit her nursing job, found she couldn't go back to the hospital.

"Being separated from my family was the hardest part," Mr. Gang says. Even so, his children grew up with sound and healthy. His eldest son works as a prison guard, while his daughter teaches at a school for the disabled. His second son, in his late 20s, is not employed. "I tried to get him to become a lighthouse keeper, but he declined. 'Dad,' he said, 'I really respect you, but I think one lighthouse keeper in the family is enough."

He says he understands his son. Thirty-five years in lighthouses has taught him that the profession is far from rewarding or fair. He could not receive compensation for his eye or finger injury. Mr. Gang ruptured a disk in his back while trying to move the power generator three years ago. "It's like my whole body is covered with wounds," he says, studying at his partial finger. "The pain was not only physical, it was mental."

Another thing that frustrates Mr. Gang is that there is no such thing as self-development in the life of a lighthouse keeper. "After 16 years, you automatically get the one-and-only promotion of your life, to chief keeper."

About 9 p.m. an hour before his shift is to begin, Kim Yong-bok, the younger of Mr. Gang's assistants, went to the lighthouse to check on things. In his residence, Mr. Gang now sipping soju, with Mr. Lee, says, "Although nobody cares about a lighthouse keeper, while you are sleeping we do care about other people's lives."

Mr. Gang shyly confesses that he once saved a man's life in 1989 when he was serving at Sihado island. A resident of the neighboring Eoryeongdo island was bringing his senile mother on a private boat to Mokpo. But he lost his footing while starting the engine and fell into the sea. The boat drifted to within sight of Sihado island. In his motor boat, Mr. Gang crisscrossed sea for three hours until finally found the drowning man.

"Ships from many nations pass the route on the sea every day," he says. "We're serving an international cause. That makes me proud."

There are 43 manned and 519 automated lighthouses in Korea. "The number of lighthouses is on the increase to cover more than 3,000 islands along the peninsula," An Jong-yeol at the Ministry of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries says. "But the government is trying to automate more and more lighthouses."

"My dream is to be the last lighthouse keeper on the peninsula," says Mr. Kim. But it's getting harder for Mr. Kim to reach his dream, for the Gasado light is scheduled to be unmanned within five years, along with many others.

Mrs. Gang wants her husband to live his retirement in Mokpo, but Mr. Gang is not so sure about settling in the city. "I've been wanting to leave for the city, the land, for the past four decades. I know it sounds strange, but I want to keep living on an island near a lighthouse. An island and a lighthouse are always there for you, like a mother."

by Chun Su-jin

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