"The Waving Girl"


This sign appears at Fort Pulaski in Savannah, Georgia:

THE WAVING GIRL

For 44 years, Florence Martus (1868-1943) lived on nearby Elba Island with her brother, the lighthouse keeper, and no ship arrived for Savannah or departed from 1887 to 1931 without her waving a handkerchief by day or a lantern by night. Throughout the years, the vessels in return watched for and saluted this quiet little woman. Few people ever met her yet she became the source of romantic legends when the story of her fateful greetings was told in ports all over the world. After her retirement the Propeller Club of Savannah, in honor of her seventieth birthday, sponsored a celebration on Cockspur Island. A Liberty ship, built in Savannah in 1943 was named for her.

Cockspur Island Lighthouse

Savannah, Georgia

July, 1887

Living on an island and helping her brother Ben tend a lighthouse wasn’t as romantic as people imagined. It was fine when Florence was ten and pretended that one day one of the many ships that came into her line of sight would suddenly swoop in, rescue her from the day to day drudgery, and whisk her off to sea. But when she began to ripen into a young woman, lighthouse life began to lose its luster. Despite having kindly neighbors and a great holistic mentor who was instructing Flo in the Gullah-Geechee ways of healing, life on the island was lonely.

By the time Flo turned eighteen, she started to think of the sea as the enemy, the island as her captor, and the men that passed by as nothing more than ghost lovers. On her nineteenth birthday she realized that if she didn’t find a way off the island, she would never know the pleasures of loving a man the way God had intended.

One dusky night when Flo’s brother told her that he had to go into Savannah for some supplies, she threw a fit. An honest to goodness, plate-breaking, name calling, hissy fit. He said a storm was brewing and if he didn’t get to town tonight they’d run out of oil. Ben left, humming a tune while Flo sat on the island swatting at bats as they encircled her head.

With only her collie Misty to keep her company, Flo sat perched on her favorite magnolia tree limb and watched the loggerhead turtles dip in and out of the water. The tree was in full bloom with Jack-in-the pulpits surrounding its base. She loved to sit in the tree and pretend that the limbs were tanned, muscular arms embracing her. She wasn’t sure how long she sat there but fog had rolled in and the sky was gray. Even though she was mad at Ben, Flo knew the sea was no place to be at night in a storm and despite the hostility she felt earlier, panic set in. She stood on top of the rock to see if she could get a better view.

That’s when she saw the fire. At first Flo couldn’t see much through the mist. Some days the fog was heavier than others so she wasn’t alarmed by the poor visibility. Much of what her job entailed was to keep ships from running aground, especially when the air was thick and vaporous. She couldn’t tell at first if the flicker of light she saw was from the lantern on her brother’s skiff or if it was something more sinister. But when the wind blew and lifted the density, there was no mistaking that a river dredge about a quarter of mile from shore was ablaze.

Flo set the lighthouse beam on warning mode. But nothing happened. Had Ben been right about the oil? Without thinking about consequences, she untied the old rowboat and rowed towards the flaming barge. Flo got about one hundred yards when she was rammed by her brother’s skiff.

“Get back to shore, Flo. It’s much too dangerous out here for you.”

“I’m coming with you.” She looked at the burning ship. “We’re their only hope.”

He tied their boats together and they drifted toward the smoke. They couldn’t see the blaze at this point but what they heard more than made up for their lack of visibility. They heard the splashing of waves and the death screams of men as they jumped off the rig. The air was also thick with arguments between the seamen. Flo would’ve thought fear would unite even the most hard-fast of enemies, but judging by the noise level of the submerging rig the opposite had happened. Friends had becomes foes. The river had tuned into a cacophony of anguish.

And the smells—not just of fire but of flesh burning—were hard to stomach. A few times she had to lean over the side of the hull to vomit. When they got within twenty-five yards of the barge, Ben untied his skiff and went in alone. He told Flo to drop the anchor and wait while he returned with the injured men.

Flo was calm despite the turmoil around her. But a few minutes later, when a hand grabbed the side of the boat, she screamed. A young man with black soot under both his sides, shimmied himself onto the sole of the boat. “Rope?’ he asked.

Flo pointed to the hemp Ben had used to tie their boats together. He grabbed a hold of one end and jumped back into the darkened water. He may as well have just leapt into a black hole.

Flo heard him call out, “Grab the rope, men. It’ll lead you to safety.” Before she could even get her bearings back, five badly burned sailors were shoved into the boat. The weight of the men sunk the boat about two inches into the water. Then the man with the soot under his eyes climbed in, plunging the row boat even deeper into the