The source of that story, which the Navy swears is untrue, is not known. It’s a joke that has been floating around for at least 10 years, and maybe 30 to 40 years. Some think it originated in a humor column in Reader’s Digest. Nobody knows for sure.But for the past four months the story of the ship and the lighthouse has been passed along, as gospel, by comedy talk-show hosts, lazy newspaper columnists and clueless cyberspace jockies until it has taken on an air of the apocryphal. It clings to Navy lore like that old captain from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” And, like Coleridge’s haunted captain, the Navy is having a real tough time getting this albatross off its neck.
This week the story was repeated by The New York Times News Service, quoting a Canadian newspaper. Last week it was read to a global radio audience on Michael Feldman’s popular Whad’ya Know? program on Public Radio International. Earlier, the same network’s Car Talk program aired the tale.
In the story’s current form, the ship is identified as the carrier Enterprise. In the past it involved a battleship. A version that arrived via e-mail in Norfolk
from the U.S. Air Force Academy identified it as the “aircraft carrier Missouri.” There is no such carrier. The Missouri is a retired battleship.
Various versions carry little embellishments. An amateur-radio buff communicating via the Internet said it happened in Puget Sound. A columnist in the Montreal Gazette said it happened last fall off the coast of Newfoundland. A columnist in North Carolina quoted a local man as saying it happened off the Carolinas.
“It’s a totally bogus story, but over the last four months we’ve gotten at least 12, maybe 18 calls from different media sources trying to confirm that,” said Cmdr. Kevin Wensing, an Atlantic Fleet spokesman in Norfolk. “Unfortunately, some of them don’t check it out. They just repeat it.
“The first time I heard of it was — oh, let’s see, how long — about 10 years ago or so, I think. “That story’s so old,” Wensing said, “it probably started out back in the galleon days, or back when there was a big lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt.”
Dutifully, when all those reports about the carrier Enterprise began to surface, the Navy had to follow procedures and check it out.
“Yes, we talked to the Enterprise,” Wensing said. “It was like, “We’ve heard this story and we’re pretty sure that it’s without basis … And their reaction was, ‘What? You can’t be serious.'”
For the record, Adm. Mike Boorda, the chief of naval operations, released no such transcript on Oct. 10. Or any other time, said Cmdr. John Carman, a spokesman for the admiral. “It’s a joke,” Carman said, chuckling in disbelief. “And not only that, I’ve been told it’s a real old joke. Like 30 to 40 years ago, that old.”
Of the many flaws in the recent version, the most glaring is that there is no longer a radio crew — or any crew, for that matter — on any lighthouse on the U.S. coastline. The last one was automated 10 years ago, said Lt. j.g. Ed Westfall, the lighthouse program manager for the U.S. Coast Guard’s Fifth District, based in Portsmouth.
Westfall said he, too, had heard the story for years, but he had a different understanding of its origin.
“I always thought,” he said, “it was just something one of us Coasties had made up to poke fun at the Navy.”