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 Willies, 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 Marstons aluminum boatsthe ones the
Sandersons 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 dont recall his even having a stethoscope. The group decided
(and here I must say we had some very high powered CEOs who werent 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 didnt take a secret ballot.
Dock thought we ought to carry Willies 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 didnt, and hated to see the trip disruptedI
barely knew Willie and no consequences of the decision would reach me. When I pointedly
asked Dock to whom Willies 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 isnt in the burial, but the heart attack. Knowing what to
look for and what to do cannot be underestimated. Ive 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. Im not so sure, for example, that a little oxygen in the
First Aid box isnt such a bad idea.