Minds, sharper and more lettered than mine have, ever since we became sentient, been contemplating the Big Conundrum that dogs the human condition. What happens when it is all over? When we pass, meet our maker, go to heaven, snuff it, turn up our toes or, for the Monty Python lovers amongst us, become an ex-human. I suppose a flaw in getting older is that your contemporaries, start to, well, cease to be, become no more. I have had cause to contemplate this Big Question recently because I have experienced the “passing” of three mates in the past six months or so. Two last summer and one last week.
Where do we go as we breathe our last? Well, what is the we? If, as we are taught, energy cannot be made or destroyed, merely pushed around into different forms, what happens to the electricity that makes our brains, that is perhaps our brains, work? There is ample evidence to confirm the physical body ends up being a worm condo, but what of the “energy” of us? Is this the soul so many religions talk of? How does that electricity get turned into something else? Electricity is a form of energy, so what does it, in our brains, transform into after the body throws the switch?
My parents died long ago, but the news of a mate crossing the bar, always brings a moment, or several, of expletive deleted. Two who passed last year, Geoffrey Spranger and Bjorn Johnson, were fixtures in Newport, Jeff for nearly 50 years. Both were very involved in the Bermuda 1-2 and Bjorn also in the Newport Bermuda Race, competing multiple times on his own boats and on others. Jack Baxter, last week’s crossing, was perhaps not such a surprise as he was 79, but still…
Bjorn was six months older than me and so his death was close to home. The other two, Jeff, at around 80, and Jack, were sudden but not out of the range of the expected. I am trying to figure out how to explain the emotions that passed through me. What words can one use? “Good bloke,” “Damn shame,” “What a loss,” “Oh, no,” and so on. Why can humans not really articulate feelings for lost mates? We cry, get drunk, tell salty stories on them, laugh at some folly they were involved with, tell each other what a “fill in the blanks” person they were. But a description of the feelings we experience? Not so much.
Jeff, I had known since he was publishing an America’s Cup daily newsletter in 1980. I drive by his house several times a day. I need to visit his missus, Betsy, soon. The pain exudes from her, like the cloud over Bhopal, and there is nothing anyone can do. Long, silent hugs seem to do something, though mainly make me feel less sad, but I guess I am helping. Almost any pain can be managed to some degree, with a Tylenol or a joint or a bottle of scotch, but not the pain of loss. The emptiness of walking into the house, to not have your mate there, and to know he will never be again is one of those emotions and sentiments we cannot articulate, as we feel it.
Last week I got a note from Pippa Baxter, one of three daughters of Jack and Di Baxter, of Fremantle, West Oz. Jack was the navigator for three of Alan Bonds four America’s Cup challenges, though, like me, missing The Big One.
It came out of the blue, at 0730 in Facebook messenger: “Hi Coops, long time no hear, Dad died yesterday,” was more or less the message. It was not that abrupt, but that’s how we read it. A signal from a lovely woman with whom, when she and I were much younger, I had sooo much fun, but because of the distance, and well, life, we have not really kept in touch. Pippa lives in Kalgoorlie, a place located, like the Buddy Melges gag about Zenda, Wisconsin: “It’s not the end of the earth, but you can see it from there.” Then boom, Jack’s dead. It was – is – stunning. I sat there flashing back across the years to the 1980 AC and in my case the year before in Freo. It is truly amazing how the human brain is wired. Nigh on 40 years past and with just the right nudge, the electrical mental files open up like a Russian hacker on a roll.
“Jack was a great mentor. Watching him conduct himself was a lesson across all manner of disciplines, but mainly simply being a good human.”
I live in Newport so I am always driving by, around, or to and from memories of the halcyon days of the Cup in Newport. It is easy, when driving to Sail Newport, to pass the Salve dorm we lived in. The house where my girlfriend lived, on Memorial Boulevard. The timeshare complex where Newport Offshore was. Only a few years ago did they pull down the shed we used in 1980. Memories, zap zap, synapses triggering.
At the Cooke House, I can prop myself up against the west rail of the downstairs bar and be within a few feet of where, in 1980, Jack, me and a few of the other guys had drinks with Dennis.
I wrote a bit for Scuttlebutt on Jack’s passing. He was a great mentor. Watching him conduct himself was a lesson across all manner of disciplines, but mainly simply being a good human. His loss, even 12 time zones away, means contemplating the future without the prospect of a call or Skype. I wonder if the early primates had this problem? One occasionally sees some video of primates in various states of distress, and their compassion puts many humans to shame.
Another mate called recently to say he “was coming to town and let’s have dinner,” but then on the day of dinner he called it off. His brother had reacted badly to a medical procedure and was heading to sea for the last time. Or as the Storm Trysail Club refers to it, setting his last trysail.
The shock of, and the circumstances under which my mate’s brother approached that moment of casting off for the last time was as much of a shock and a stunner as anything. I didn’t know him, but being the brother of a good mate puts you right there, front and center in the grief and some degree of pain, and what can you say? “Oh, Fred, I am so sorry.” Geeze, we are sorry for being late. Sorry for treading on someone’s toes as we take our seat in the cinema. “Sorry” ought to come in increasing flavors of sadness, and be analogue, not digital. How can we use the same word for being late and as condolences for someone dying?
I guess one of the burdens of being homo sapiens is we have developed an electrical connection based in our heads, that registers such moments, and creates a “sad” emotion. But where does the electrical signal cross over to this emotion? And when it is our turn, where do we think we, our soul, to use a commonly accepted name for this electricity part of us, go?
My view is that when someone dies, and you cannot go to the pub with them, they never really leave us. They are always “there” in some form of stored electrical signals, but stored where? There is a lot of “space” out there and presumably a lot of electricity from millions of years of ex-humans, let alone our dogs and cats, primates and so on.
Solo sailors speak of hearing voices when at sea. I can attest to this. While trying to sail to France for the Mini Transat in 1995, I heard two voices with such clarity that I knew exactly they were my Dad’s and a longtime shipmate’s. The curious thing is my Dad was then over the bar and my mate was, and is, alive and kicking. The voices were theirs, but the signal was garbled so as to be indecipherable. I got the email, just could not open it.
Maybe one way of dealing with death is to write one’s column about it. Thanks for listening. May’s column will be brighter. We have a great sailing team at Prout this year, and THAT always cheers me up.
Australian born, Joe ‘Coop’ Cooper stayed in the U.S. after the 1980 America’s Cup where he was the boat captain and sailed as Grinder/ Sewer-man on Australia. His whole career has focused on sailing, especially the short-handed aspects of it. He lives in Middletown, RI where he coaches, consults and writes on his blog, joecoopersailing. com, when not paying attention to his wife, college senior son, dog and several, mainly small, boats. The cats have, sadly, crossed The Bar.