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William Baeck: Writing & Photography


The Dearly Departing

Sometimes you’re brave, sometimes you’re just tired. In a fearlessness born of exhaustion, as the end of school approached we set the date for the trip, rented our house out, found a house to rent in London, and gave notice at work. We said our goodbyes to friends, neighbors, co-workers, and thesis advisors, and handed in our final thesis to Linda, the Associate Dean of the program at our school. Five days later we were headed for London.

Friends of my mother-in-law, long-time world travelers, gave me the best practical advice concerning travel I’ve ever received. “The more you travel,” Mrs. Bloom had said, “the less you take.”

Arriving at the back loading area of United, we had two suitcases each and our four-year-old cat Grommet in his carrier. That, we thought, ought to hold us for a year. Anything else we might need we could buy over there.

The agent at the loading dock looked at Grommet’s oversized carrier. Hitching one black eyebrow a half inch higher than the other, he said, “you know, that crate is about twice as big as required.”

But Grommet looked awfully small and we felt even smaller. The carrier was just big enough for his litter box, a little bed to sleep in, his food and water, with room left over to soften our guilt about making him fly as cargo—the only way he was allowed to fly according to animal regulations. They settled his paperwork and took him in back to load him into the hold of the plane.

Then it was our turn to be processed through the airport grindery. Was there ever a time when people enjoyed flying? It seems so far removed nowadays.

We made our way to the United Airlines entrance. Standing in front of the Security Inspector, shoeless, beltless, coatless, I’d just turned all the coins out of my pockets, like a homeless man proving he had enough money to convince the cop he wasn’t a vagrant. The travel show trial had begun.

A hundred of us were drifting in line, unhumaned by our transnational fears. In a time when even shoes were lethal, security was illusory. Everyone was suspect, and security depended on illustrating rather than proving our innocence.

Traveling is supposed to be about seeing other lives, other worlds. But when travel begins at the airport the first, last, and overpowering thought is that it isn’t safe out there, stay at home. No borders should be crossed. Everything about the airport shouted, “Don’t Travel By Air, We Warned You!” Maybe they should have gotten it over with and just put a surgeon general’s warning on the side of the building stating that if we didn’t stop, flying would eventually kill us. No wonder they called it a terminal.

So I stood there, watching all my belongings making their way through the xray machine, reminded of the fruit conveyor belt where my childhood friend’s father worked when we were kids. Jim’s dad had supervised the harvesting at a fruit orchard in Santa Clara. Pickers would toss bushel baskets of ripe berries onto long belts that shook and rattled off the bits of stems, bark, leaves, and dried bird crap, until at the far end nothing was left but thoroughly shaken, gleaming, naked berries. Having been stripped of shoes, socks, belt, wallet, keys, comb, watch, and small change at San Francisco International Airport, there we were, fully processed and ready for shipment overseas.

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