Light: The Lights of Sutro Tower

San Francisco, California

Light: The Lights of Sutro Tower

Julie Orringer
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OR, TO BE EXACT: Twelve (12) FAA-approved high-intensity white flashing obstruction beacons, nine (9) FAA-approved medium intensity flashing red beacons, eighteen (18) FAA-approved steady-burning obstruction lights, three (3) FAA-approved red/white antenna beacons

As children, we had them in our bedrooms: night-lights, those miniaturizations of the daytime sun, those dim protests against the terrifying peopled dark. Small but powerful, they held off the luminous-eyed aliens lurking in our closets, made us invisible to ghosts. Their plastic switches rocked off and on with satisfying clicks. Elaborate versions, made for children who suffered persistent and brilliant terrors, had shades of stained glass or extruded plastic, of sand-dollars or alabaster. Some had revolving shades that would send tropical fish or carousel horses spinning endlessly around the walls of the room.

Now, as adults, we’re not allowed to admit we’re afraid. Our night lights indicate the way to the bathroom or keep us from tripping down stairs in the darkened theater. But our cities themselves are beacons in the dark, night-lights pushing out against the vast dark of our continents, and those cities have their own internal night lights, their own beacons. In San Francisco it’s the Sutro Tower, a nine-hundred-seventy-seven-foot broadcast tower on the city’s highest hill. Its topmost riggings float above the five o’clock fog like the riggings of a ghostly ship.At night, eighteen beacons burn a constant red; nine signal beacons flash their warning twenty times a minute. High up, three antenna beacons flash a paler red, their white day-bulbs shielded with red plastic filters.

High up, remote, space-age-looking with its splayed legs, narrow waist, and spreading arms, the Sutro Tower seems chill and vacant. But there’s a Tower Keeper responsible for all those lights, both the red ones that burn at night, and the white strobes that ward off planes during the day: Gene Zastrow, a lean, kind-eyed, silverhaired man who has occupied his position for eleven years. And there are two riggers, David Grimes and Dave Gaddy, who climb out onto the tower’s arms and scale its antennas to retrieve broken parts or change spent bulbs. Do not imagine your household pear-sized lightbulb; these bulbs, which send out 20,000 candelas during the day and 2000 candelas at night, sit in fixtures as big as a quarter-keg of beer. David G. has worked at the Tower for eighteen years, Dave G. for eighteen months. They are not afraid of heights. In their complicated harnesses, with Gene Zastrow worrying below, they are careful.

From his control room, Gene looks down over the rippling carpet of the city; from below, the city gazes up at his tower. Wherever you are, the lights of the tower remind you that someone is keeping watch.We are sleepless, we are afraid;we believe these lights will keep planes from flying into things. Gene, in his control room, is vigilant. The tower is strong. Its three million pounds of steel are rooted in ten million pounds of concrete. And its lights are connected to a smart computer system which knows what to do in case of power failures.

This is a comfort to me as I stand at the window of my living room and watch the tower’s lights. Blinking through sheets of fog or gleaming against a clear sky, they send their code out to all of us: comfort is possible. Safety is possible. Even if we don’t believe them, even if our adult fears are too well-founded to be held at bay by this thousand-foot nightlight, we know Gene Zastrow is doing his job. Even after hours, when he returns to his home between Glen Park and Noe Valley, Gene’s computer will alert him if there’s a problem. His cell phone will ring and the cold clear voice of the tower computer will tell him all is not well. From his computer at home, he can tell which bulbs are out.The next day Dave G. or David G. will climb up to set things right. And even if the computer fails—if everything, in fact, fails—Gene Zastrow can still just walk to the middle of his street, from which he can see every light of the tower.

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