Joseph was my best friend. He was the only son of Adam Tan, a well-known former
athlete and a member of the first Malaysia team to reach the South Pole in an
expedition. Hence, many expected and assumed Joseph to be as sporting as his
father. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Since he was young, he has
been a weakling. He suffered from asthma and preferred to stay indoors. He
preferred to read books and was nicknamed "Professor" unkindly in class. He did
not seem to mind these remarks until one day. That particular day marked the
first death anniversary of his father who died tragically in an expedition in
the Mautu wilderness in Africa. He had been gored by a wild bull on the last
mile of his expedition.
So on this anniversary of his father's death, he was stung by the jibes of
Bala and Azhar, his classmates. They had called him `weakling', remarking that
he was a disgrace to his father. He lost his cool and fought with the bullies.
Of course, he lost. From that day onwards, Joseph devoted himself to building up
his body. He exercised religiously and turned his attention and efforts
enthusiastically to sports. No one, he vowed, would bully or compare him
unfavorably to his father.
Joseph joined the scouts troop in my school and became its leader. We were
all agog with excitement when we learned
that the school had planned an expedition in Kalimantan, Indonesia. It was also
meant to be in memory of Joseph's father, who was its former adviser.
The expedition really tested the mettle
and skills of my fellow scouts and me. Though we had the help of our two teacher
advisers, we were determined to succeed in the expedition which was to cross a
mountain, river and forest. The last stage was the forest and we were within
sight of our target. We had only four more kilometers to cover before we would
emerge from the forest and successfully complete our expedition in the required
time. If we succeeded, we would be the first school team to have done that in
However, on December 27th, Joseph experienced a recurrence of his asthma. We
noticed at first that he was faltering behind us. When we asked him whether he
had any problem, he gave us the thumbs up sign. Just before the last kilometer,
his team-mate, Shafiq, noticed his labored breathing. His face was pale and
Shafiq signaled us to stop walking. We gathered around Joseph anxiously and
forced him to stop and rest. Then we noticed his trembling hands. This was
serious trouble indeed. When we asked him about his medication, Joseph said that
he had lost his pills somewhere during the expedition. Behind us was 20
kilometers of wilderness which we had covered. We had left our teachers two
kilometers behind us as it was agreed that we would attempt the last stage
ourselves. We could not go back; it was a matter of pride. Furthermore, it
was too difficult. Ahead, lay civilization in the form of the nearest village.
We had to cover the last stage ourselves.
While we were deliberating on our best course of action, Joseph had all the
while, been pleading with us to carry on. "Help me finish the expedition for the
sake of my father. This expedition is in memory of him and he did not complete
the final stage of his last expedition" was in essence what he was blurting out
Joseph was therefore carried piggyback by four of us alternating in turns, on
this last lap. How we made it and burst through the jungle into the clearing we
did not know. It seemed an eternity but according to our teachers who timed us,
we had taken half an hour.
Half an hour! We went through hell at that time. Enduring
pesky mosquitoes and squelchy mud were only
minor difficulties. Carrying Joseph was a very heavy load but we did not mind
the physical part of the burden. What worried us was not finishing the
expedition in record time but that Joseph would die before he received medical
We struggled. By Herculean strength of spirit and body, we labored the last
meters. We reached the village, but the welcome team did not get to complete
their cheery support. They cut short their cheering when they saw us carrying
Joseph. He was later rushed by helicopter to the capital, Kota Kinabalu, after
receiving medical aid. We later learned to our relief that he was hospitalized
but had not got out of the critical stage.
Five days later, Joseph came home from Sabah. The school gave him a hero's
welcome. After all, he had tried and completed the last stage of the expedition
in his own way. He had not disgraced his father. After this, Joseph returned to
the pursuit of his first love - his books.