William Hilgendorf, 1945-1967

Celebrating a Life Too Short: Hong Kong, 1967
In Memory of H. William (Bill) Hilgendorf, Jr., Yale, ’67, classmate, colleague and friend

By David A. Wilson, ’67, St. Louis, 1997


It was another hot day. What else would one expect in Hong Kong in July? Here we were soaking in a cool mountain pool, a waterfall trickling down from 30 feet above. I surveyed the valley. Treeless mountains rose steeply on either side, covered with grasses, mostly brown in the summer heat and drought. The mountains were well rounded and I asked myself where did the large rocks in the narrow creek bed come from? Hiking up maybe a mile, along the creek bed had been a chore. We climbed, jumped and skirted rocks that ranged in size from a foot to a dozen feet in height and breadth. These grey-black boulders looked like building blocks dynamited and strewn down the rapidly descending creek bed. These blocks enclosed the pool, too, and I lay on one, half in and half out of the water.

Three of us–Christian Murck, Yale, ’65, Bill Hilgendorf and I– had climbed up wearing just sandals, swimsuit and tee shirt. We also carried a bag with extra clothes and drink.

Just before we reached the pool, Bill had slipped on the face of one of these boulders and slid down its face — at least ten feet. It had provided a momentary fright to all of us — the suddenness of the slip. I noticed then that his sandals, all leather– just a flat sole, with a loop for the big toe and another loop around the ankle — provided a lot less traction on those boulders than the rubber soled sandals I wore. He was visibly shaken, but he was ok, and now we had made our destination, cooling down, soaking in an idyllic setting. I had not imagined that the crowded Hong Kong – well, really the New Territories, that China signed over to the British in a 99-year lease after the 1898 Boxer rebellion — contained such a vast amount of open space.

The brilliance of the tropical sun made me so thankful I had gotten prescription sunglasses before leaving the States just two weeks ago. Little did I realize as I reveled in the peace and quiet of the pool that within an hour, and less than 200 yards from where I lay, disaster would strike.

“See why I like this place?” Chris asked smiling. “After two years in Hong Kong, I think I have found all of the remote, quiet places — and this is my favorite.”

After just five days in Hong Kong it felt really good to me, too. I thought about the two years Bill and I would be spending in Hong Kong, teaching English as a second language to the students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. As I reflected on the previous two weeks and all that had happened since leaving home, I also looked forward to sharing the coming two years with Bill. Our time together had begun so auspiciously.

On June 26, 1967, I had flown to Hawaii, wandered around the beaches for a couple days. I was to meet Bill at the home of his friend Star Black in Honolulu. I went out there a couple times, found no one home. The third day Bill called — he and Star had just come back from a week on Maui or Kauai. We gathered with Star’s mother for a picnic dinner in a grassy park across from the Black’s home. After tossing a ball around until dusk, we went to the Reeves’, where I was staying. Bill Reeves, Jr., ’56, was a Yale Bachelor in Hong Kong from 1956-58, now at the Iolani School. He regaled us with stories of a wide-open Hong Kong filled with refuges from the Communist revolution led by Mao Tse-tung. A Russian who worked as a sports reporter because other journalistic work was “just too dangerous,” and a committed communist labor leader were among interesting characters Reeves had befriended in this international city that still lay as the only real contact point between Americans and the People’s Republic of China with its 800 million-plus people. He recalled the Hong Kong of refugee shacks on the hillsides, that most of us know best from the movie “The World of Susie Wong.” Now, just a decade later, new refugees from China, continued to arrive daily, even though the British colonial government did all it could to keep them out. It was home to a broad range of politics, represented in both October 1 National Day celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party and October 10 celebrations of the Chinese Nationalist Party. The British justified their rule from London as enabling the colony to avoid the internecine conflicts between rival Chinese political factions. A haven for capitalists, taxes were low and money could do just about anything. It was also an important R&R site for the American troops fighting in Vietnam. As an open international city amid the cold war isolation of China and the United States, it would be our window on the world. The sense of excitement was rising.

I was so eager to go. I had thought I wanted to see Hawaii and spend a few days here, but my focus was really on Asia. Bill, on the other hand, had been living in a cottage on the side of a volcano on a beautiful island with a beautiful woman he loved. He told me how difficult it was to leave, to say goodby. I found myself both envying the relationship he had with Star and being thankful that I was unattached as I started this two-year adventure with Yale-in-China.


The next morning the Blacks came by with Bill and took us to the airport. On the flight from Honolulu to Tokyo, he and I talked about expectations, dreams for the coming year, what had motivated us each to make the journey. China intrigued us. Both were eager to learn Chinese. Both wanted to come to grips with our own society by living, working and experiencing life outside it. Both hoped that somehow we could make a positive difference. We talked about our education at Yale and what we might share of what we learned. We speculated on our ability to teach English as a second language to university freshmen.

Body counts, the widening war –and the fact that this trip was in many respects an alternative action to fighting in Vietnam –was heavily with us. We were optimistic about taking steps to bridge cultures– to learn from, and not to destroy, those who were different. We both understood that the war in Vietnam was really about China. And Hong Kong was as close as we could get to China.

Now we were going to be sharing an apartment, work, meals. We talked about home, families, our four years at Yale. I remember his enthusiasm as Bill quizzed me on what I had learned in my Chinese History classes with Jonathan Spence. Bill was curious about everything.

Bill was excited when I told him that I had stayed with a family in Kanazawa, Japan, just before my first year at Yale. He urged me to call them. I was skeptical about trying to visit, as it was a long train ride from Tokyo, we wanted to visit Kyoto and Nara, and we had allotted ourselves just five days in Japan. Moreover, I had not wanted to force my agenda on him.

“Let’s do it if we can,” Bill responded quickly. So I called the Tanabe’s from Tokyo, and found out that my Japanese “brother” Teruyoshi was at Kyoto University. The Tanabes invited us to come to Kanazawa and also gave us directions to find Teruyoshi in Kyoto. I was so thankful that Bill wanted to plunge into the adventure, to do whatever – and as much as – we could in the short time we had. By the end of the first night in Tokyo we were both glad to have a companion and to be heading out of the city.

We had taken the monorail into the Tokyo from the airport. From there, we thought we could catch a taxi from the station to the International House, an inexpensive youth hostel near down town. We stood in foggy drizzle outside the monorail station, waving at taxis, but most just drove on. Two different cabs stopped, but when we said International House, and the drivers determined that we did not speak Japanese, each waved us off. Finally a young woman passing by offered in to help. She hailed a cab and gave the driver directions. We got there.

Later, we went out to walk around the downtown Tokyo, impressed by the neon and the crowds on the Ginza. After making the obvious comparisons to New York City, and walking many streets around the center of the city, Bill suggested we stop for a drink in a little, nondescript bar we were passing. We were, it turned out, far to close to the Ginza. As we sat in the booth, we each ordered a Sapporo Beer. As we waited for the beers to arrive, a couple of attractive women approached our table, motioned for us to slide over and tried to make small talk in broken English. The beers came. So did drinks for the women. So did a bar bill. Our beers were three times the price of the Wakiki bars, and the women’s “mixed drinks” were on the tab as well – double the price of the beer. I was confused and started to ask the waiter. Bill was furious and told the waiter, we were not interested. This set up a long debate between us and the waiter and then the manager. Finally we agreed to pay for our beers, nothing more. As soon as they settled the tab we headed out. Somehow during the discussion I had been able to consume a good part of my beer. As we left I noticed Bill, in his outrage about being treated unfairly, had hardly touched his. On this our first night “abroad,” we encountered the phenomenon of “bar hostesses.” Lesson learned.

Still, what stands out from that first night was our second trial with a taxi. We approached a police officer who helped us get a cab. Since we now had the Japanese language address of the International House on a business card, we were confident. To our dismay the driver took us down a darkened, dead-end street and stopped. We refused to get out of the cab. I was glad I was with Bill, figuring the size and strength of an All Ivy League line backer was going to be invaluable in whatever might be brewing. After arguing with the cab driver for a few minutes, we finally convinced the cabby as best we could, to take us to the Tokyo Tower, a well-known landmark we knew was close to the hotel. From there we walked back puzzling about whether we had just avoided a robbery attempt, or what.

We found out the next morning that the cab driver apparently did not know the International House. He had in fact taken us to the correct street. But the street came to a dead end at the back of the hotel, then continued on the other side. In his ignorance, the driver had gotten us as close as he could. Even with that experience resolved, we were glad to board the bullet train for a two and a half hour trip covering 500 kilometers to Kyoto. As the clean, modern cars flew down the track, we could not help but make comparisons with the slow-moving trains between New Haven and New York.


Then we were in Kyoto, city of temples; sitting in quiet contemplation at Ryoanji (the rock garden), walking the gardens of the Silver and Golden pavilions, then sleeping that night on the tatami in Teruyoshi’s small, college room. Four years earlier, Teruyoshi had been in school 11 months a year, and studying four or more hours a night with his aspirations set on Kyoto U. Because of his intense study schedule, he had not traveled to Kyoto with us Americans during his short summer holiday then, although he had been part of a “host family.” Of course I had heard about the Japanese students who committed suicide when they did not get into their desired university. So I appreciated the fact that Teruyoshi was so much more relaxed (or so it seemed to me), now that he was in his chosen university and working on an engineering degree. Bill, as usual, was full of questions about university life, Teruyoshi’s career plans, etc., and we talked late into the night.

Next day we caught a five-hour train ride (250 km) to Kanazawa. [ Yes, it took twice as long to go half as far on a regular express train!] The Tanabe’s met us at the station. Daughter Chieko fortunately was home from her first year of college, as Mom and Dad Tanabe are much better with writing than they are with speaking English. She was an eager guide, and we the willing tourists. Mr. Tanabe urged us to study Chinese first and then Japanese, and to visit again, on holidays. Mrs. Tanabe urged us to eat incredible amounts of wonderful home cooked food while we were at their house. We went shopping and each bought a tea cup of a kind made only in that region of Japan–pictures of poets on the outside, haiku inscribed on the inside. On the fifth night we boarded a train for a ten-hour journey about 500 kilometers across the mountains of central Honshu back to Tokyo and our early morning flight to Taiwan.

We had calculated carefully how much money in Yen we would need to have something to eat on the train and catch the monorail from Tokyo station out to Haneda Airport. Unfortunately, to avoid having to exchange dollars into yen and then back into dollars, we calculated a little too close. We had been thinking that the monorail cost 50 yen one way — and I think that it was my miscalculation. Actually, the ticket was equivalent of 50 cents US– closer to 150 yen. At 7:00 a.m., all the banks and money changing stations were closed, and we were looking at a handful of Yen about 50 short of what we needed for two monorail tickets to the airport, and just an hour till our flight. As panic set in, we got creative. Using the ticket machines in the station, we purchased one ticket for Haneda Airport and one for a destination about half way – all that we could afford. Fortunately the conductor taking tickets when we got off at the airport did not look carefully at the bottom ticket when I handed him two.


As we flew that morning from Toyko to Taipei on July 5, I thought about my departure from Japan four years earlier. I remembered how at that moment, facing college and a new beginning, I had thought, “if the plane goes down now I will have led a full life and I will have gone out on top, having accomplished virtually everything I had set out to accomplish in high school . . . What a good time to go. I won’t have to deal with this self doubt and struggle of starting over in the next stage of life . . . ” –but that was then. Now I was eager for another new beginning. And yet, just as I then had contemplated my untimely demise, this time, too, leaving home, traveling around the world, going into unknown territory– heading toward Hong Kong, into a city where random bombings as an act of defiance to British imperialism, had become commonplace — how could one not face the prospect of death.

I told Bill I had purchased a life insurance policy in the weeks between graduation leaving the States. “Responding to some innate insecurity that comes with leaving home,” I had said. He said that he had given it some passing thought but decide not to worry about it– “What is the point?” He had said, finding no security in betting against himself.

Bill and I talked about escape. Were the two years in Hong Kong an escape from work, graduate school, relationships, the army and Vietnam, career? Yes, but maybe, it was a chance to explore and consider, to try something new, to act positively amid a widening war. We speculated more on what we were getting into and what we might get out of it.

In Taipei John Ewell and John King met us. Both were Class of ’66. Having completed one year of teaching in Hong Kong, they were studying Chinese in Taichung and had planned a five day vacation to show us the sights. I remember Taipei on that first visit, for its crowds of people at the train station, how dirty the city was, how polluted the air, how humid and generally oppressive it all seemed. Japan was modern; this definitely felt third world.

Bill had met a Wellesley student that spring who told him to look her up if he got a chance while in Taipei. He had her father’s name and knew that he was some kind of government official. So under the able guidance of John and John, we visited number of government agencies, in what I was sure would be a wild goose chase. Amazingly we tracked down the father, but the daughter was still in the States. (It turned out the father was the provincial governor!)

Next morning we headed southeast out of Taipei by train and then by bus along a gravel road cut into the cliffs that dropped sharply into the ocean– a road only recently opened and so narrow that traffic could proceed only one direction at a time. We would proceed south through a section of road, and meet a caravan of buses, trucks and a few jeeps, that were waiting their turn to go north across the stretch we had just traversed. Then we would wait at the next section while another caravan would make its way north. We passed teams of workers with picks, shovels and baskets (perhaps an occasional wheelbarrow) shoring up sections of the road. On we rode to Taroko, where the plan was to hike up that green granite gorge. As we started out, however, an empty dump truck came by, the driver offered us a ride and we accepted. Although we sat in the back and could see well, we did not realize that we were traveling rapidly up through the most fabulous stretch of Taiwan’s recently completed East- West Highway.

We slept at a beautiful Japanese style guest house at the top of the gorge and set out hiking the next day. And hiking. And hiking. Along an interminable dirt road. Across a mountainous terrain, rich green hillsides, recently shorn of their largest trees. Following the scar of the newly cut road far off into the distance. Thinking, “you mean we have to walk that far?” then getting that far, and following the road around the next bend and as far as we could now see into the distance. Bill and I, not knowing any Chinese, feeling dependent on our guides, John and John, were beginning to question just what kind of hike into which we had gotten. We were also trying to adjust to breakfast, at the mountain hostels where we stayed the next two nights, of rice gruel and steamed peanuts.

Still it was pure adventure as the four of us contemplated not only the length of time till we got to stop walking but also the year ahead. What didn’t we at least open conversation about? The war in Viet Nam; our friends who had gone/were heading there. The random bombings in Hong Kong and what that said about the breakdown in discipline among the communist party of China. Everybody agreed that China’s government in Peking recognized the benefit to the country of Hong Kong – its major source of foreign exchange, its major outlet to the world. On the other hand, the Red Guard– youth who were inspired by Chairman Mao’s call for continuous revolution — seemed ready to act on the basis of ideology. How could they possibly tolerate the presence of British imperialism on their doorstep?

Therefore, we recognized the tenuousness of our tenure there. We also agreed that in the two- China world of 1967, we might jeopardize our chances of getting into the People’s Republic of China in the coming years by having come to Taiwan–the Republic of China that still claimed its right to rule all of China. We also agreed that we just had to act based on what was possible now. We would experience “China” where we were able – and that was Taiwan and Hong Kong.

We talked about the new Chinese University that they were creating out of three Hong Kong colleges with backing from Yale-in-China, and others. Yale-in-China had been forced out of the Mainland after the communist-led revolution. After much agonizing, the organization had lined up with a core of refugee scholars who had created the New Asia College in Hong Kong in the early 1950s. Bill and I were the eleventh team of Yale Bachelors to go to Hong Kong.

Yale-in-China had also supported the development of a language center affiliated with New Asia College, for teaching foreigners both Cantonese and Mandarin. Bill and I planned to study Mandarin there when the fall semester began. On the second day of our hike we had met a retired Kuomintang general who had made his home up in the mountains along the new road. John King had excitedly talked to him and Bill and I had exclaimed afterwards how different was the sound of his spoken word when compared with the hawkers and cab drivers in Taipei. That led to a discussion of the beauty of Mandarin well spoken, by Northerners, the native speakers of the language. It had heightened our eagerness to get to Hong Kong and begin language training.


We caught a bus down the last leg of our hike across Taiwan, and two days later we arrived at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport, met by Chris Murck, a departing Bachelor, and Tim Light, ’60, former Yale Bachelor, now back in Hong Kong and heading the English Language instruction at New Asia College. In that position, Tim was our immediate “boss.” Chris took us to our flat (apartment) on Boundary Street. The street marked the limits of the territory ceded to the British at the end of the Opium War in 1842. After the Boxer Rebellion in 1898, the British had gained a 99-year lease on the New Territories and extended their foothold on the Mainland, across from Hong Kong Island, from a few square miles to more than 300 square miles. That additional territory –still called the New Territories– housed only a small fraction of the population, but concrete channels built on the mountains helped catch much of the water needed for the colony. Moreover, the government planned to build resettlement communities out into the New Territories to help disburse the rapidly growing population.

At the flat we were met by AhLai, the full time resident there, who had small quarters off the kitchen, and was Ahmah or maid to several years worth of Yale Bachelors. A furnished home, someone to cook and clean, a Yale Bachelor with two years experiences in Hong Kong ready to show us around — with all this awaiting us when we arrived, it really did feel like we’d just come home after our weeks of travel (ten days from Hawaii, which felt more like a month).

The next day we met Liu Ming, director of the Yale in China, New Asia College language center, where we would begin Chinese classes in September, and his wife, Bai Ya-mei, who would tutor the two of us together for the next five weeks — three hours a day. Liu Ming invited us out to a grand banquet – our introduction to Hong Kong’s Chinese cuisine and Liu Ming’s generous hospitality. For the next five days, we got settled into our apartment, toured the city, and the New Territories and began the routine of daily Mandarin lessons.

We wasted no time. In fact the only thing that we had found troubling was that the tap water was on only four hours every two days. Hong Kong was in the midst of an extended drought. Reservoirs were down. China was fulfilling contracted terms for water piped across the border, but as it was in the midst of a Great Cultural Revolution, and there was no one to authorize increasing the water flow to the British Imperialists in Hong Kong. On Thursday, four days after we arrived, the rationing went from four hours every two days to four hours every four days. During those four hours, every pot, bottle, bucket and plastic garbage can was filled, to be doled out for the coming four days. Then, fortunately, there had been time for each of us to take a quick shower.


Although we had only been in Hong Kong five days, in the heat and humidity, we felt the water shortage. We knew it was projected to run until the summer rains, now long overdue, finally arrived. So to be sitting now in a clear mountain stream and to shower under the trickle of water that still ran out of that mountain was wonderful.

The arrival of three young men interrupted my reflections on the past days. They joined us, soaking in the pool. They did not speak any English, though Chris, knowing a smattering of Cantonese could speak a bit with them.

The afternoon sun was beginning to drop, and Chris suggested that we start back. The other men indicated that they planned to hike up the mountains to a path at the top, which would follow the ridge and eventually return us to our car. Bill, recalling the difficulty of the climb up the creek, said he would certainly prefer to go back a different way. So we gathered our shirts, put on our sandals and started up hill.

We traversed the first several hundred feet upwards with relative ease, but then we hit some rough going. The hillside was steeper than it had appeared, and the surface was covered with small stones that slid under our feet. Chris, along with two of the three local men seemed to have an easier time, and he quickly climbed out of sight up ahead of us. Bill and I both had trouble with our footing. It felt like were walking on BBs. With each step, the gravel under foot slid. I was carrying the bag of clothes, wishing that I could use both hands to help stabilize my steps. The third local man, noticing that we were having trouble, had stayed back with us, and now he volunteered to take the bag, which I gratefully passed on to him. He was wearing thongs, and yet as I observed him, he did not have the trouble Bill or I was having. I attributed that to the fact that he probably weighed no more than 120 pounds. We stopped to survey the hillside, trying to discern which direction would be a little less steep, and we headed slightly to our right. As we moved that way, it seemed that the mountain grew steeper. Our companion was now just a few feet above and ahead of us, trying to help us pick our steps. It was more difficult to walk. I began to doubt that I could make it. I forget whether Bill or I suggested turning around, but the thought of trying to walk down the loose stone on the steep surface seemed to present even more problems than going up. We were moving very slowly, now, and every step forward included a slide back with the loose stones. Bill was along side of me now, maybe five or six feet to the right–just out of reach. Suddenly he said, simply, “I am slipping.” Our companion who was close enough to grab his hand did so, but Bill outweighed him by 100 pounds, and he did not have much more traction than we did. As Bill continued to slide, ever so slightly, our companion had to let go. It was only a brief moment. From his feet and hands, Bill lay down prone, hoping to slow his slide with the friction of his whole body on the ground. I assumed that would work, but to my amazement and his, he continued to slide, now faster and faster 10, 20, 30 feet, and then he was sliding over an outcropping I had not even noticed till then.

Bill spun around as he became airborne. In my last sight of him, he was pulling his legs up, his hands in front and out, as if he were awaiting the play to develop just after the ball had snapped. He faced down the mountain and what it brought. Then he was out of sight. My companion stretched his neck. I don’t know if he saw any more than I. Nevertheless, he looked at me with a look of sad condolence and shook his head. I don’t remember now whether I tried to speak to him. Inside, I screamed, “No, no!” Externally, I shouted, “Bill, Bill” – I don’t know how many times. I shouted “Chris, Chris,” up the mountain, too. All was quiet in both directions.

I had to decide whether to head immediately down to find Bill or to go up to find Chris. I concluded quickly, “find Chris, one of us can go for help.” With the panic still in my throat, I continued the upward climb, still wondering how I could make it, if Bill could not.

The climb seemed interminable. It was probably less than twenty minutes before I was nearing the top of the mountain and met Chris descending, looking to see what had taken us so long. Given his facility with the climbing it did not take us long to decide that he would descend and look for Bill while I headed to the top, and down the trail to the car. I could then drive to the police station, just a mile or so from down the dirt road. I think Chris asked my Cantonese speaking companion to go with me. Or perhaps he just volunteered. At any rate, I was happy that he was coming, so that he could explain, if there were no English speakers at the local station, what had happened and where. We found the ridge top path and I set off at a run, recalling my days of cross country running, wishing I were now in better shape to run these hills. This was life and death, and I kept on, with my companion not far behind. We reached the car and now I was careening down the dirt road. Given the way that taxi drivers handle the roads in Hong Kong, I was surprised when the English-speaking officer at the police station later told me that my companion was concerned that I was going to kill us both driving at high speeds down that dirt road to the station.

The officer tried to calm me down, while it seemed to take forever for them to get their rescue team together. Then he rode back with me, up the road to the creak bed, the rescue truck following behind. We left the vehicles and began the climb up the creak bed, over and around the boulders. Some of the rescuers were soon ahead of me and when I finally got to Bill, they had already given him what first aid treatment they could administer. They had wrapped a bandage around his forehead.

Chris told me in a subdued voice that it had not taken him long to find Bill, down near the bottom of the mountain. He had been sitting with his back against a stone, conscious, or partially so, and with a deep wound in his forehead. Chris had put his arms around him and had talked softly to him for at least an hour as they awaited the rescue team. Chris said that apparently the blow to the head had apparently affected Bill’s sight and speech, but that he seemed to hear and understand Chris’s words. The rescuers who had arrived with me carried a stretcher, into which they now tied Bill. It must have been about 6:00 p.m. when we reached Bill. I had been hoping they could bring in a helicopter to lift him out. Now they said that it was too near dusk, or something, and that they could carry him down. Of course they wanted me out of the way. The English-speaking officer came over to me and said “there is nothing more you can do here, why don’t you head down to the road before it gets dark.”

The feeling of helplessness was overwhelming. It had been since the moment Bill started to slide, but now that I had brought the rescue team to Bill, I could do nothing. Reluctantly I did as I was told. I headed back down the creek bed. By the time I reached the car again, it was nearly dark. I must have called Tim Light from the police station, as well, since he had arrived at the foot of the mountain. Somewhere during the evening my Cantonese speaking companion had gone home. I never learned his name, nor saw him again.

All I remember of that wait was looking at the night sky – crisp and clear. The stars were brilliant — and I kept praying that Bill would make it. That he would be OK. It was after 11:00 p.m. before they arrived with the stretcher, carrying Bill’s body. They said that he had died about 7:00 p.m., as they had struggled to bring him down. Carrying him in the stretcher over those giant boulders had been slow going. The rescue crew was exhausted.

I was stunned. I felt God had failed me and Bill. My prayers were not answered, and I felt that I had failed Bill. I could not help him on the mountain. Nor had I stayed with him, to talk to him and comfort him as they tied him into the stretcher and carried down the creek, over those same boulders, by a group of well-intentioned rescuers, whose language he could not understand. To whom could I say those things? What difference did it make? Why him and not me? We had set out to spend two years together. We had only two weeks. The numbness, the emptiness, the despair over senseless death has just been something to live with. I had nothing and no one to blame. There was no righteous lesson learned. There was no worthy sacrifice for a cause nor noble gesture of defiance.

What caused this needless loss of life? I have often thought that we were probably both suffering from mild sun stroke. We were not used to the heat of a Hong Kong summer. And of course the sandals . . .


Just this May, I attended the first grade camp-out at my son Joshua’s school. At one point, the school director, a woman with 30 years of experience in teaching experiential education to elementary and middle school children, taught the kids how to climb down a steep slope by walking with feet sideways, much like they teach skiers. “Plant the right foot across the slope. Bring the left down to it. Move the right foot down again and plant it again. Keep your knees bent.” I was first impressed just by the simplicity of the lesson. Later, as I came back to writing this memoir, it struck me that for all our learning, neither Bill nor I knew how to climb a steep slope covered with gravel. Neither of us thought to turn sideways. And I have been wondering, if we had the first grade experience that these 23 children had, would it have made any difference? Will my son and his friends fare better than Bill and I did that day?.

I wish I could say that his death had some profound meaning for me. (My brother later told me that in seeking some answer to Bill’s meaningless death, and the suffering of those of us left behind, he had found a minister who had answered his questions. Through those answers my brother found a new spiritual home. I, on the other hand, left God and that unanswered prayer for nearly twenty years. Now that I have rediscovered my spiritual life, I still have no answers to the meaning of Bill’s tragic death.)

I did gain, however, two valuable insights. First, our Yale-China family rallyed to each other and united in mutual support and grieving. I found personal strength and renewal in that experience. Second, I was personally moved by the willingness of a man who did not know us or even our language to stay with me through the crisis. That experience has anchored me in the belief of the the bond of common humanity which links people across cultural and language barriers.

Where would Bill be today, if he were with us? A judge; a U.S. Senator? A top ranking foreign affairs officer? A teacher? I have no doubt that he would be engaged in a life of service, and that he would be as curious about life and about people as he was then.

Bill and I had stepped into unknown territory, and traveled half way around the world to put into practice our belief in a liberal education. We sought an alternative to war through teaching and learning. There were many risks to be sure, but it seemed ironic that the most benign of that unknown territory is what took Bill down. To this day I cannot reconcile that fact with anything more than the fragility of our life.


– David A. Wilson