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  • Writer's pictureNeill Mckee

Tragic Death of a Great Volunteer

Updated: Mar 8, 2022

Finding Myself in Borneo, excerpt on visiting with Bill Howard

Memories of those days are like the Chinese dish called “sweet and sour pork.” We visited volunteer William Howard in Alor Setar, West Malaysia, a traditional Muslim town located in the northwest of the Malayan Peninsula. He worked for the government as a drainage and irrigation engineer. After meeting him at his workplace during the day, Beth and I joined him and a friend in the evening. They traveled all around town on their motorcycles to various Chinese restaurants, while we followed in our car. He called it a “pork crawl.” In one kedai, we started with pieces of quick-fried pork and vegetables. We ordered only one dish at a time, moving on to five or six places in all, spiraling gradually downward to pigs’ feet and pigs’ ears, all washed down with beer.

Eventually, William upped the challenge, ordering slices of pig’s snout in which holes for chopsticks had been provided by the animal’s natural anatomy. At our final stop, using his fingers in the shape of a sack, William motioned to the towkay to bring an order of pig’s testicles, a dish that I couldn’t face. I gladly let him win the contest.

That evening was the sweet part of this memory. The sour part came a few weeks after Beth and I had left Malaysia. I received a message that William had been riding his motorcycle without a helmet. Involved in an accident, he had fallen onto the pavement and died of massive brain injury. In spite of the frivolous tone of his revelry with us that evening, he was a young man with great social, diplomatic, and technical potential who never had a chance to continue a promising career. Once again, my own luck in life came to mind on hearing about William, for the motorcycle helmet I wore as a volunteer in Sabah, although embellished with whimsically protective Elvish script, was a very flimsy affair.

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