Points of Departure

Cabot Yerxa typically ended his written communications “Adios.” His use of the Spanish word conveys not only his appreciation for other cultures, but also seems jauntier than “Farewell.” After his second viewing of the 1931 movie Trader Horn (about an African adventurer who “at the end says ‘goodbye’ to comrades”), Cabot collected his memories of partings. “When I pick up and leave the desert, I am sad for days,” he wrote. “I never have left a ship without regret, and goodness knows. I have been on over a hundred. And a city in which I have lived I am loathe to leave.” Below are some of the occasions Cabot recalled. “I can sit down and think of ‘goodbyes’ that open a place in my heart large enough to put in the Pacific Electric building and room to spare,” he wrote.

I remember Alaska slipping back into the horizon and a school of whales lazily spouting water as clouds close in and cover the sun low in the west, and I shed tears.

*          *          *

I took the burro 11 miles to T+K Ranch, and I can still see it looking at me over the gate and hear its peculiar screaming cry whenever I left it. It could not follow me again in the canyon. I heard the cry, and I hear it yet. 

*          *          *

Among the hundreds of hands and handkerchiefs waved as the train pulls out, I look and see one tiny bit of white waving. And I know that handkerchief waves for me with all the good luck possible from one to another.

*          *          *

I have got my discharge from the Army. As I take my place in the train, I see the men falling in for the flag ceremonies at the end of the day, and I have pangs of regret at departure.

*          *          *

I have sold a baby burro and, with the help of trainmen, have loaded it in the express car.  The way it looked at me I would give the money back and take again the burro. But the train is moving away. And so we only have things to love and to give them up again. Sometimes I wonder: Does it pay to form attachments? Is it worthwhile to hold or cherish anything?

*          *          *

In the Seattle shipyards was that hard, bitter, burley, rough, big Scotsman. He was an expert ship machinist of the old school. I dragged his tools around engines, up and down ladders, and together we worked in the most impossible places: inside boilers, on planks swung by ropes, walking on steel eye beams, dodging hot rivets and moving cranes. He had about as much sentiment as a blacksmith’s anvil in a snowstorm. And yet, when I told him I had volunteered for the Army and shook hands goodbye, tears came to the old devil’s eyes and he said, “Lad, I have been a machinist all my life. I have had helpers following me around all these years and know an endless number of men. But I have never become as attached to a man as I have to you. You are doing a fine thing to volunteer. That’s a tough fight over there, and perhaps you won’t get back. Me and the old woman never had no boys, and so you can be our son in the war. Me and the old woman will pray for you, lad, as long as the war lasts. Now goodbye and may God bless you.” Tears ran down his cheeks through the grease and grime as he climbed an iron ladder into a maze of steel girders and engines under construction. And I was on my way into the Army. 

*          *          *

It is almost dark and I go into the art school alone to get a forgotten article. The men have gone. The room smells of paint. Dim portraits gaze at me from many easels. The eyes of each seem reproachful and sad and seem to follow my every move. I stumble out the long, dark passage to the street with reluctant steps and eyes blurred.

*          *          *

Blue eyes and golden hair she had. Quick smiles. A perfect storm of protest or ever-increasing, bubbling interest and enthusiasm. Never quiet. Never two days alike — nor two minutes for that matter. Restless change and vivacity. She kissed me goodbye with a little eager rush, turned on her heels, and was lost in the crowd like a breath of wind.

 *          *          *

A group of Eskimos had gathered to shake my hand for the last time — friends every one. We parted — they north and I south. We waved and shouted “al-le-on-nomayuk.” Again and again we waved and shouted the goodbye of Alaska. The time, the place, the peculiar lonesome chill of the north, the bareness of the country all worked on my heartstrings. And the last time I shouted before it was too far to hear, I added “na-na-co wonga itlee-ok-toonga”: “Someday I will be coming back again.” I wonder if I will.

As Cabot paused for reflection on the goodbyes in his life, he countered them with his philosophy on hellos.

But then there are sunrises. Familiar scenes that reappear, eyes that welcome, hands with a grasp of loyalty, and those who love us (few through they be).

 And always is the charm of new places, the excitement of new surroundings, the knowing of what lies on the other side of the hill, the interest of searching new faces for possible friends, the novelty of strange food, the pleasure of strange experiences, and the everlasting freedom of being able to proceed without criticism or claims of routine. So a rolling stone has his ups and downs, his rewards and punishments. Life is only an experience, and we only experience that which we are capable of seeing.

As poignant and shaded with sadness as goodbyes often are, we should not shy away from thinking about the people, animals, and places that have shaped who we are but from whom we are separated. As long as they remain in our hearts, they are not lost to us. As for Cabot’s one-time question, “Is it worthwhile to hold or cherish anything?” he clearly concluded that it is.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *