Imagine learning you were not the age you thought you were. That, in fact, you were four—or maybe even five—years younger. How would it make you feel? Elated? Buoyed by new-found youthfulness? Or confused and somewhat unsettled as to just how this could be—how you had managed to live much of your life thinking you were several years older?
John Robert Moorefield, Keeper at the San Luis Obispo Light Station when the Coast Guard took over the nation’s aids to navigation, was born in December of 1891. Or, so he thought. Why he understood 1891 to be his year of birth is not known. He joined the Army in 1913 (honorably discharged in 1920). He registered for the draft in 1918. He applied to be a lighthouse keeper in 1925. Neither the Army, nor the War Department, nor the Lighthouse Service, ever asked Moorefield to prove his age.
Although born in Washington County, Virginia, he was in Columbus, Ohio when he enlisted in the Army. When and why he made his way from Virginia to Ohio is not known. He served in the Philippines as a private with the Engineer Corps, and later in California with the Quartermaster Corps at Fort McDowell on Angel Island. After his discharge, he married Helen Cullen and settled in San Francisco, was employed by Union Iron Works as a ship’s blacksmith, by the Union Trust and Savings Company as a janitor, and by Lachman Brothers Furniture Company, where he took care of the elevator, steam heat plant, and fire protection systems. Just before applying for a keeper job, he was a 1st assistant engineer at San Francisco’s Steinhart Aquarium.
Moorefield started his keeper career in April 1925 at the Alcatraz Light, serving as 2nd assistant keeper, replacing Harry Davis who transferred to Point Vicente. The record of Moorefield’s physical examination for a keeper position lists his age as 34, his height five feet, eight and a half inches, his weight 155 pounds, his eyes blue and hair brown.
A year later, in April of 1926, he transferred to the San Luis Obispo Light Station, replacing George C. Streeter who was discharged “for cause.” What the “cause” was is not known. At the time, the head keeper was George Watters; the 1st assistant Antonio J. Silva. Moorefield divorced his wife in 1928, receiving custody of John Robert Moorefield, Jr., their five-year-old son. In 1929, Moorefield married Mary Elizabeth Studle Thompson and became stepfather to Lucy, her seven-year-old daughter.
In 1933, he was promoted to 1st assistant keeper when Antonio J. Silva retired. The head keeper was now Fred C. Saunders, who transferred from Punta Gorda in 1929 to replace Watters, who transferred to Point Bonita. In 1936, Moorefield was promoted to head keeper when Saunders transferred to Carquinez Strait. In 1939, shortly after the Reorganization Act transferring keepers from the Bureau of Lighthouses, Department of Commerce to the Coast Guard, his daughter Judith was born.
It wasn’t until 1940, as he was approaching his 49th birthday, that his age came into question.
An ardent radio enthusiast, Moorefield in his spare time operated a low-powered amateur radio station, W6OBV, at the lighthouse, having converted the old coal house into a radio room. In June of 1940, the Federal Communications Commission issued a ruling requiring all radio operator license-holders—amateur as well as commercial—to prove their U.S. citizenship.
Moorefield didn’t have a birth certificate, so he wrote to the Virginia State Registrar to obtain a copy of the registration of his birth. What he got surprised him. On August 4, 1940, he wrote to his Coast Guard superiors in the San Francisco District:
I have obtained a copy of the registration of my birth from the State Registrar at Richmond, Virginia. And have discovered that I was born December 6, 1896 and not December 6, 1891 as all previous records show. I do not know when the mix up in my age occurred, for more than thirty years I have been under the impression that I was born in 1891. The error in age does not affect other dates given by me for official records.
The certificate of registration of birth has been forwarded to the F.C.C. in compliance with the Commission order. And the Adjutant General of the Army will be notified so that all official records may be corrected.
If Moorefield thought that would put an end to the matter, he underestimated the government’s tenacity.
R.S. Patch, Commander of the U.S. Coast Guard, San Francisco District, fired back:
Proof of the date of your birth must be established in accordance with Inclosures [sic] (1) and (2). If you can obtain a copy of your birth certificate, this must be furnished. You are directed to comply with instructions contained in the inclosures at the earliest practicable date.
What the two “inclosures” were is not known, but one of them was most likely Civil Service Commission Form 2473.
My birth certificate was sent to the Federal Communications Commission…the certificate was sent to Washington about the 5th of August 1940. As soon as it is returned to me it will be forwarded to the District Office.
I had a photostatic copy of the certificate made but did not receive it in time to have it notarized before the original was sent to Washington, the copy is inclosed [sic] as it may be acceptable and a possible delay be avoided as I do not know how long the Federal Communications Commission will hold the original.
Could the federal government accept the photostatic copy? The Coast Guard asked the Civil Service Commission, only to be told:
In view of the fact that this certificate was not filed with the Registrar of Vital Statistics at or near the time of the birth of Mr. Moorefield, it is not acceptable proof…The data for this certificate appears to have been taken from a family Bible record which, if it meets the requirements outlined under paragraph 3 of Form 2473, may be considered as proof of his date of birth. It will be necessary, therefore, for Mr. Moorefield to submit either the original record or a photostatic copy of it to this office, being certain that the date of publication of the Bible is included, in the event that he is not able to furnish a Baptismal Certificate which is a preferred form of proof.
Please advise Mr. Moorefield that the certificate of birth furnished by him is not acceptable and that he should attempt to obtain the forms of proof outlined under paragraphs 2 and 3 of Form 2473 in the order given.
Moorefield obtained the family Bible and sent it to the Coast Guard, noting:
It is necessary that I return the Bible to my sister and as may be seen from the worn condition of the Bible it will not be available much longer as a record.
Unfortunately, the family Bible didn’t solve the problem. The Civil Service Commission rejected this evidence stating:
The family Bible record was not acceptable because the date of birth was entered several years after the birth occurred. The record from his grandfather’s Bible clearly indicates that the date of birth was changed from 1895 to 1896.
Further, an affidavit from Moorefield’s sister stated that the physician who attended the birth and the minister who baptized Moorefield were both deceased. Therefore, the Civil Service Commission concluded none of the forms of proof listed under Form 2473’s paragraphs 1 through 4 were available. The last resort was to rely on Form 2473’s paragraph 5, and Moorefield was asked to sign a release and fill out a form authorizing the Civil Service Commission to obtain his census records.
But the release hit a snag. Moorefield had only a general idea about where he lived on June 1, 1900, the first census taken after his birth. He wrote:
I have made every effort to establish the correct address of my parents as of June 1, 1900 but I have been unable to locate the exact address with certainty. As near as I have been able to determine, my father lived on a farm near Abingdon, Va. The owner of the farm was probably Milton Moore. There was no rural mail at that time in that vicinity. If he did not reside near the above town in June 1900 he no doubt was living on the farm of J.P. Edens near Wyndale, Va.
Fortunately, this explanation appeared to satisfy the Census Bureau, and his 1900 census record was located. The government determined his date of birth to be December 6, 1895:
Enumeration in the Census of 1900 of John R. Moorefield, age 4, month and year of birth given as December 1895, the 6th day claimed by appointee, accepted in the absence of the more preferred forms of proof.
Moorefield was advised of his new date of birth on January 30, 1941, when he officially became 45 years old instead of 49, aging backwards four years.
Having now an official age, the path was cleared for Moorefield join the Coast Guard. He resigned as Keeper, San Luis Obispo Light Station, July 6, 1941, and enlisted in the Coast Guard the same date.
The reason for his enlistment is not clear, although the Coast Guard offered enlisted personnel better medical benefits than its civilian personnel. Moorefield learned this while he was getting his age sorted out, when his wife became seriously ill and needed hospitalization. He wrote to Commander Patch asking if “the law providing for hospitalization of members of families of personnel of the Coast Guard would be applicable to persons in my status.”
Patch wrote back:
You are advised that members of the family of a civilian employee are not entitled to free hospitalization. Should you at some future date become inducted into the Coast Guard, members of your family would be entitled to hospitalization.
Having been inducted — as a Boatswain’s Mate 1st class — and with free hospitalization for his family assured, Moorefield continued to serve as keeper at the San Luis Obispo Light Station until his retirement on February 1, 1947, at the (new, younger) age of 51.
He continued to live in the area, in rural San Luis Obispo, engaged in fruit farming, until his death in 1967, serving for a time as head (“Grange Master”) of the San Luis Obispo Grange.
This story appeared in the
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