Purposely Failing — Is it Ever Okay?

Recently in class we read a short story called “Three Skeleton Key” by George G. Toudouze. It is about three men who find themselves trapped in a lighthouse on a small key off the coast of South America. They happen to get trapped in the lighthouse when hordes of man-eating, ravenous rats manage — with the help of a derelict ship, whose crew they already ate — to crash upon the key, swarming off the boat en masse, making a beeline for the scent of fresh human. The men close themselves off inside the lighthouse, but begin to wonder how they might get out with their lives. They decide upon a solution. The narrator writes

“There was only one thing left to do. After debating all of the ninth day, we decided not to light the lantern that night. This is the greatest breach of our service, never committed as long as the tenders of the light are alive; for the light is something sacred, warning ships of danger in the night. Either the light gleams a quarter-hour after sundown, or no one is left alive to light it.”

The question is, then, were the men justified in committing the “breach” of their service (purposely not lighting the light for the lighthouse)?

In my opinion, the men were justified in not lighting the lighthouse. That is, it was okay for them to purposely NOT do their job. The human will to survive is strong, and these men wanted to survive. It is true that the consequences of not lighting the lantern could have been disastrous. After all, as the text mentions, this is a lighthouse that does not welcome mariners to safe harbor, but instead warns them away from treacherous shoals. If the men did not light the lantern, and if there happened to be a ship passing nearby, the loss of life could have been tremendous. What is worse? The loss of three lives, or the loss of 80? Most would say the loss of 80, but isn’t each life precious? Isn’t the tragic death of even one soul something to be mourned? If even the slightest opportunity exists to save a life, it should be seized. These men took the opportunity to save their lives. There have been other instances in life where people have purposely not followed the rules when the situation called for it. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person; the rules said she needed to move to the back of the bus. She refused. Mohandas Ghandi defied British rule in an attempt to inspire others to fight for Indian independence. We celebrate those people today for their daring and how their actions inspired others. Society changed for the better — and many people’s lives became arguably richer — because of a simple act of disobedience. Yes, it went against the lighthouse guidelines to leave the lantern unlit, but that was a chance the men needed to take. It was worth it, if it meant that the men would have a chance at living the rest of their lives as planned. In the end, we know that one of the men went insane because of the experience and one eventually died from infected rat bites. But at least they got a chance to die with dignity, rather than to be eaten alive twenty miles off the coast of South America in a desolate tomb of a lighthouse.

My Most Terrifying Experience

In class, we recently read a narrative called “Three Skeleton Key” by George G. Toudouze. In it, the narrator describes a particularly terrifying experience of his. Have you read it? It is a thrilling narrative about three men who find themselves trapped inside a lighthouse, on a small key off the coast of French Guiana. A derelict boat carrying a cargo of writhing, man-eating rats has crashed upon its shoals; the rats jumped off and scented the men. The men had nowhere else to go but inside their lighthouse. Now they are trapped there. If they go out, they face a certain, gruesome death. How will they survive?

I certainly would find a mass of man-eating rats surrounding my residence terrifying. But other things have terrified me in my life. I asked my students to describe their most terrifying experience. Here’s mine:


One rainy winter day in January, I found myself at a bus stop in West L.A. I was waiting for a bus to take me to Union Station in downtown L.A. The reason why I needed to take a bus is because, as a freshman at UCLA, I couldn’t have a car on campus. I wanted to get home because I was sick, and I just wanted my mom’s TLC.

Even though it was a rainy day, I had no umbrella. I had loaned the three I had out to classmates from my dorm. Now that I needed one to use as I walked to the bus stop, none existed. I waited in my dorm until the rain had stopped a bit, and then I set off for my walk through Westwood to the bus stop.

Well, of course as soon as I started walking it started raining again. I was drenched!

I approached the corner of Wilshire Blvd. and Westwood in West LA. The bus stop was right across the street. I had a red light, so I waited on the corner until the streetlight told me it was my turn to cross. While I was waiting, I saw the bus I needed drive up to the bus stop across the street, get passengers, let passengers off, and drive away. My bus! Now I would need to wait another half an hour until the next bus that I needed came.

And the thing was, the bus stop across the street had no cover! So I had to wait there for at least another half an hour in the rain.

There were two busses that ran the route down Wilshire Blvd. — the 320 and the 320A. The 320A went to Union Station, where I could catch the train home to Anaheim. The 320 came every few minutes, but the 320A came only every half an hour or so. Of course, I had no watch, either, and both busses said 320 on their placard instead of 320 and 320A. There was no distinguishing between the two, except to ask the bus driver. So I waited for (what I thought) was about 20 to 25 minutes. The next bus pulled up to the stop. I thought it must be right about the time the special bus that went to Union Station was due to arrive, so I stepped up to the bus and asked. The driver replied that I wanted the next bus, the one that was behind him a few minutes. I said my thanks, stepped back from the bus, and waited while other passengers got on and got off. A few minutes passed until all this was complete, and then the bus pulled away.

Then things got scary.

I had resolved to wait a few more minutes in the rain until the next bus came. While I was waiting, I heard the most vile swear words being yelled at someone. A stream of filth was coming from someone’s mouth. I looked around to see who could be using such language, only to find that it was a man — dressed in a nice suit and a fedora, complete with an umbrella — and he was yelling that trash at me. I started crying.

I had no clue — and still don’t, to this day — why he was yelling what he was at me. I could only guess that he was upset about not getting on the bus that drove away? But he had plenty of time to get on, even after I stepped back from the curb.

Did he not like the fact that I was white? Racial tensions were high in Los Angeles, after all. We had just had the ’92 Los Angeles Riots six months previous. Maybe I symbolized for him something that made him angry? Did he lose something or someone important in those riots?

At the time, these thoughts were racing through my mind. Was he going to pull a gun? Or, was I — at 17 and on my own in Los Angeles — just oversensitive and overreacting? Crying still, and terrified, I looked wildly around at the others who were standing on the corner, just like I was. None of them came to my aid. None of them even moved closer to stand next to me in solidarity. None of them told him to cool it. My heart thudded as I waited desperately for the next bus to arrive. Any moment now . . . any moment now. Please arrive soon, I thought. As soon as the bus arrived, I would get on and drive off to Union Station. Crisis averted. Back to safe ‘ol Orange County I would go.

Except when the bus arrived, he got on too.

I was horrified. I tried to sit right next to the bus driver. Surely the driver would tell him to hush up because, believe it or not, he was still uttering that stream of profanities. It had not abated, but rather the decibels had diminished somewhat. We were on a bus now, after all. He had no respect for me, but was courteously lowering his volume for the comfort of the other passengers. Perversely, on some level, I was even pretty amazed that he could continuously mutter and swear as he was, without seeming to even take a breath. I’m not sure I would have the wits to carry on as he did, before running out of steam. He never ran out of steam. He never once paused in his condemnation of me. And the bus driver didn’t say a darn thing.

For the next 45 minutes, until the man finally got off the bus at Figueroa in downtown, he mumbled. He. Never. Let. Up. It was with a huge sense of relief — almost indescribable by the human mouth or imagination — that I watched his back recede from view as the bus pulled away from the curb further east down Wilshire.

I made it safely to Union Station. After that, I made it safely home to the homey comfort of my childhood residence. It has been twenty years since this incident occurred, and I still remember it to this day. Panicked, terrified — naive in Los Angeles. That was me. I’m older now, and wiser. I wonder about that man. Is he still alive? Is he still so angry? I hope he hasn’t terrified any others.