Willie Taylor Revisited


   Somewhere buried in my files is an old black and white photo of six greying men, standing before a rock wall, heads bared and lowered, giving their last respects to their old friend, Willie Taylor. As the youngest of the group, and a new friend of Willie’s, I felt no disrespect in stepping back from the semicircle of mourners and snapping a couple of photos. One of these was published in the LA Times and in subsequent years several of those men asked for and received a print. “Dock” said he was glad I took the picture as the others were too saddened to think of it.

   As one of those few left alive who buried Willie, I would like to put down just what did happen. There may be a lesson in it for many of us.

   We were in three of Marston’s aluminum boats—the ones the Sanderson’s later took over. Willie was assigned as a passenger in my boat. I was the boatman despite the fact that Willie, who was on the Esmeralda and other power boat expeditions, had far more experience (I believe he had dumped a boat once and swore off piloting evermore). The second day out, Willie complained of “acid stomach” and we camped early to give him some rest. Josh EISaman, MD, was one of us, but he was an ObGyn. Next morning Willie felt a little better and we pressed on, then had to stop and lay him down on the sand at Redwall Cavern. Willie was clearly sick. Josh began to suspect heart trouble, but I don’t recall his even having a stethoscope. The group decided (and here I must say we had some very high powered CEOs who weren’t terribly decisive that day) to continue on as better than staying at Redwall. Willie agreed. We piled up bags, etc, so Willie could be comfortable as possible in my boat, but not too many miles down, he was in greater distress. We put in at Mile 44.5 to camp for the day; as I recall it was before lunch. Willie lay on the sand for only ten minutes or so, groaning a bit, and died quietly. Josh then confirmed his earlier diagnosis.

   Naturally, the “what to do” question came up. Not to correct Jerry [Sanderson, bqr 7:3; Where it All Started], but we didn’t take a secret ballot. “Dock” thought we ought to carry Willie’s body to Phantom and pack it out. The “right thing to do” syndrome. We could have made it before dark easily. Most of the group seemed to agree. I didn’t, and hated to see the trip disrupted—I barely knew Willie and no consequences of the decision would reach me. When I pointedly asked “Dock” to whom Willie’s body would be shipped, he got the point. There was no heir, no family. We had no radio, nor access to helicopter service. And whether Willie had ever expressed any desire to be buried in the Canyon, I never knew, but the group immediately agreed that that was what he would have wanted.

   So we buried him, crudely carved his name and date in the rock visible in the photo, and stopped at Phantom two days later to call the sheriff and NPS. Both were unhappy, but thanks to Josh we did have a physician to certify cause of death. Faced with a fait accompli, the authorities punted.

   The lesson isn’t in the burial, but the heart attack. Knowing what to look for and what to do cannot be underestimated. I’ve had three passengers die of heart attacks on my daysail schooner here in the Virgin Islands. And a couple of them who lived. Know whom to suspect (mostly overweight, middle aged men) and be very ready, mentally and otherwise. I’m not so sure, for example, that a little oxygen in the First Aid box isn’t such a bad idea.

Bill Beer