Lies My Father Told Me – Parts 3 & 4
Malaya was part of the British Colonial Empire. The world that Somerset Maugham had written about still existed when Harold was growing up. The white British Tuan consisted mainly of government administrators, soldiers and planters. The planters would still dress for dinner and swat mosquitoes while sipping on gin and tonics and stengahs on the verandah in the evenings. Dinner was then usually served by their local servants dressed in starched whites. Mind you, this was just a few years away from the end of a 200 year colonial rule… they just didn’t know it at the time. They had it good with their expat only dances, tombolas, affairs and other fun activities. One of of these fun activities was hunting in the jungle. Where the colonial masters engaged in trophy hunting… the locals preferred food hunting… usually wild boars or deer. In order to quell the possibility of an internal uprising it was very difficult for a local to get a gun license. So, when Harold was issued a much converted license he took up the sport of hunting. How did he get one? Straight out of High School he secured a government job in the Department of Forestry where a hunting rifle was standard issue. He was one of the special few and his name was added to a short list of locals… outside of the armed forces allowed to carry a gun. But I digress… Harold was all of 19 years old at the time. So, with the fire of youth coursing through his veins he went out into the jungle every few weeks or so hunting for wild boar…. Usually with another mate from work named Chin and an aborigine guide named Mat. Now Harold and Chin had been unlucky in their last 3 attempts at hunting wild boar and were being scoffed at the office and ridiculed at home. So, they were determined for a “sure thing” and emphatically communicated this to Mat over drinks at the Colisum Cafe. After much deliberation and a small bribe of cigarettes Mat agreed to provide them with the sure thing. On the day of the much anticipated hunting trip, Mat lead Harold and Chin deep into the jungle… the boys with their Government Issue rifles and Mat with his weapon of choice… a blowpipe. As they walked through the steamy jungle Mat told them that he would take them to a salt lick. Think of a salt lick as a … sort of jungle vitamin bar where animals came to get their mineral supplements from. Sometimes it was a small pond… usually just a muddy area smack dab in the middle of the jungle. Mat first lead them to a jungle stream. Both Harold and Chin were instructed to bathe in it. Then they were informed that this was their last chance to relieve themselves for the next 24 hours. Harold and Chin didn’t really need to go. Mat refused to accept this. Both men ventured a little down stream and tried… nothing. They came back to Mat and told him so. Mat walked along the banks of the stream… plucked the leaves off 3 different bushes and gave it to them. “Chew on this.” They did. Within 3 minutes… they suddenly really needed to go. Within half an hour… any possible human waste in their systems was completely expunged… which frankly left them a little lightheaded. Mat smiled, raised his blowpipe to his mouth … aimed at the trees and phut! Keeping his focus on the trees he took out another dart… dipped it into a small bamboo vial that held the sap of the Ipoh tree… loaded it into his blowpipe and once again… phut! Within seconds a squirrel fell to the ground… shortly after, another squirrel. After a meal of roasted squirrels, and as the sun was low in the sky it was time to head across the stream into the jungle. Within an hour they approached the lick … which in this case was just a muddy patch. They were strictly instructed to grab some of the mud and rub it all over themselves. This was to mask the human odor while they were in the area. They then climbed up the biggest tree next to the lick and each of them situated themselves on the hugh boughs that hung 20 feet over the lick. Mat had determined that the big leaves of the tree were sufficient camouflage. From this point the rule was… lean up against the trunk, get comfortable… not a move or sound until you were sure of a kill. After several hours the only thing that came by was a fox. Well, they were after big game… at the very least a Wild Boar… not some puny fox. So, they watched it lick the mud and saunter back into the dark of the jungle. In the dark of night the shafts of moonbeams provided enough illumination over the lick for them to see quite well. They decided to take turns to keep watch. Sometime during the night, Mat stirred the boys and pointed to his ear. The boys became suddenly aware that all the usual jungle noises had ceased. He then pointed to the south side of the lick. Harold and Chin squinted to see the slow graceful silent saunter of a tiger approaching. They looked at each other with a mixture of elation and fear… the sight of this magnificent creature was both beautiful and terrifying. Bringing back a tiger would surely raise their esteem among their work mates and families. The tiger dropped it’s head to lick at the mud. Then it stopped and looked straight ahead… something else was approaching. The boys heard a rustling behind them. They turned to look and it was an elephant. The tiger took a few steps back and growled. The elephant answered with a trumpet. Both animals began circling the patch of mud facing off for first dibs to the rights of the lick. Each animal determined in asserting their dominance on the other. Both using their massive vocal force to tell the other to piss off! The growls and trumpets began to take a more and more violent and otherworldly pitch. The guys pressed themselves up against the trunk as the vibrations of these fierce sounds reverberated through their bodies. This face-off of nature was playing out less than 20 feet below them. What seemed like the safety of a towering height now felt way too close for comfort. This combined screech of nature kept rising and rising to a fevered pitch… then, it suddenly stopped. All that could be heard was a popping sound. Both animals scurried into the dark safety of the jungle. Mat and Chin looked around to see where this popping sound was coming from. Finally they looked at Harold. His white shorts were wet and stained yellow. A stream of pee ran down his legs and was dripping on the huge leaves on it’s way to the ground. These two mighty beasts were silenced by this sound of dripping piss on leaves. Mat finally broke the silence. “This place is no good now for the next 4 weeks. Until the scent of your kenching disappears … the animals will not come back.” Harold had literally pissed that hunting trip away. This was one of the stories that had me fascinated as a boy… especially with blowpipes. Several weeks after my birthday picnic I casually mentioned the blowpipe again. “Dad, can we go out today to buy a blowpipe?” He mussed the hair on my head. “It’s getting long.” He said, then summoned me to fetch a pair of scissors and proceeded to cut a lock of hair off my head which he carefully put in an envelope. “Young man, it’s time to go to the barbershop.” And off we went to the barbershop and he didn’t mention the blowpipe at all. Perhaps I was being too subtle.
Back to that afternoon in 1967. Now my father was ill off and on when I was growing up and there were times his illness kept him bed ridden for several days at a time. This was one of those times when my cousins would sit around his bed and he would gently tell us stories. It was on this afternoon that he told us the mother of all stories. It was another jungle hunting story involving his friends Chin and Mat. It was a year after the incident at the salt lick and since then Mat had refused to take them back to any salt licks. There was a convergence of holidays coming up which provided them a full 5 days off work. This provided an exciting prospect of camping and hunting in the jungle for at least 3 nights. Until this time their hunting trips were overnighters. It was a trip that was in the planning for at least 2 months… and the destination was in the neighboring state of Pahang. Chin who had gotten married only six months before and as they trekked into the jungle my father and Mat were teasing him with this song. Again, again and again, Again, again and again, When I was single my pocket was jingle, I wished I was single again. If you haven’t guessed it yet… this is the sing-along section of the show… I wish I was single again, I wish I was single again, When I was single my pocket was jingle, I wished I was single again. Suddenly Mat’s hand went up motioning for quiet. When the singing stopped they could hear the babbling waters of a jungle stream nearby. What was unusual were the shouts and screams of female voices coming from the same direction. Without hesitation they headed to where these shouts were coming from. Within seconds they saw the stream and the figures of bathing native women frantically pointing to the whitewater further downstream. As the guys got closer they caught the glimpse of a female head disappear into the rush of the fierce current. Without hesitation Harold gives his gun to Mat and dives into the water swimming as quickly as he can to where he saw the head disappear. He reaches the spot and plunges his arm into the water frantically grabbing for whatever was down there. On his third try … from behind, he feels a hand grab his leg. He swings around… plunges his hand into the water and grabs a handful of hair. By this time Mat and Chin have formed a short human from the bank. Mat extends his blowpipe. With his free hand Harold grabs on to it and is pulled to the banks of the river along with the naked girl. The women gather around. The Chin and Harold collectively decide to try resuscitating the girl. Mat is not happy with this at all. He keeps telling them to leave her alone. “She grabbed me, Mat! She grabbed me in the water, She can be saved! “ Harold shoots back. They begin CPR. The women begin to get more and more agitated. After several attempts the girl coughs, spits out water and revives. Harold and Chin look up. The women are gone. Mat is standing there with a glum look on his face. “We are going to die. She is Senoi. We are going to die.” He says. Chin pulls a sarong from his knapsack and covers the girl who can’t be more than 15. “Which way did the women go?” “We are going to die.” “Mat which way did the women run?” Mat points north. Harold picks up the girl. “We have to get her back.” “Leave her or we will die.” “We cannot leave her here, Mat. Show us the way.” “I will not go.” “Mat…” “You don’t understand. The Senoi… they bury their dead around the village for protection. If you walk wrong.. it’s a very big pantang (curse).” At this point Mat turns around and disappears into the jungle leaving Harold and Chin to fend for themselves. Chin picks up their knapsacks and rifles. Harold picks up the girl who is still out of it and they head in the direction that the women had fled. Within 5 minutes of walking they are surrounded by several men in loincloth. Blowpipes and spears are pointed at them. Chin is relieved of the rifles and knapsacks. One of these men then motions for Harold and Chin to follow his lead. The sun is beginning to set. Soon they enter the encampment of this indigenous tribe. The entire tribe of about 50 is present. Harold is motioned to lay the girl on the ground and step back. 3 women step forward and carry the girl into a nearby hut. An elder approaches Harold and Chin and addresses them in broken Malay. He points to a hut. “You will eat and you will sleep here tonight. You have insulted the spirit of the river, We must dream on this. Our dreams will decide what will become of you.” Harold and Chin are given roasted wild tapioca root and some meat to eat. Being members of the Forestry department both of them knew a little about this tribe. Their entire lives and actions were ruled by their dreams. The boys were really hoping that no-one in the tribe had a nightmare that night. Needless to say it was a night of troubled sleep for them. At sunrise the tribe met and talked. They talked for a long time. It seemed as if each member of the tribe had something to contribute to the discussion in a language that neither of the boys understood. Finally the elder of the tribe who turned out to be the chief named Tok approached the boys and spoke to them. “The dream spirit came to us and told us that your intention was not to harm. You pulling my daughter from the stomach of the river is a good omen. But you must stay with us for 2 nights for a kenduri (celebration) to celebrate the rebirth of my child.” The boys were relieved. That night there was a great celebration of food, drink and dancing. The next morning the tribe met again. When the meeting broke the beaming chief approached the boys. “Tonight we will kenduri again. Tonight my child will be come a woman. The new life you have gifted back to her will be yours to enjoy. Her life now belongs to you.” And saying that, Tok walked away. Harold knew exactly what the chief was saying. He looked over to Chin who just smiled and began singing… Again, again and again, Again, again and again, When I was single my pocket was jingle, I wished I was single again. This was a delicate situation. Refusing the gift of his daughter would be a major insult. How would he get out of this? By noon the men returned to the village with the kill of a wild boar. Preparations were in full swing for the evening’s festivities. The chief declared that it was indeed a good omen that the kill was male. This was a sign of strength and fertility. Harold could wait no longer… He approached the chief. “Abang,” (elder brother) “Yes, my son.” The situation was getting stickier, and stickier. “I am humbled by this great honor. But Abang, what I did… what I did at the river… I would have done for the child of any of my brothers… for any of my family.” Suddenly the entire village went silent. After what seemed like an eternity the chief spoke. “You have other brothers?” “Dua abang dan satu adik.” (2 elder brothers and one younger.) “You are not the first born in your family?” “No, Abang… I am not.” After another long pregnant pause, the chief walked over to the carcass of wild boar lifted the hind quarters and inspected the genitalia of the beast. “This truly is a magnificent male.” After another long pause he said, “We will kenduri tonight… and tonight you shall have a new Abang and I will have a new Adik.” That night at the kenduri a solemn blood ceremony was conducted. The chief Tok and Harold became brothers. Harold was presented with the knife used in the ceremony by his new blood brother. “We are now dream brothers. As my Adik, this dagger is my gift of protection to you. After tonight it shall never more be used to harm or draw blood. Our blood has mingled on it. You will carry it with you at all times. Each day when you awaken from the world of dreams… if the blade is bright and clear… your day will be so. If the blade appears dull and rusted be on your guard for harm. When you leave in the morning know that I will always be with you in your dreams. Your joy will be my joy and your pain will be my pain.” The next day Harold and Chin were escorted to the edge of the jungle by Tok and his men. Once they were within sight of a road… Tok and his men disappeared back into the jungle. The story ended leaving a silence in the room. After several minutes one of my cousins piped up. “Did the knife work?” My father smiled. We all recognized that I’m-about-to-launch-into-another-story twinkle in his eyes. We collectively leaned forward and braced ourselves. It was 1943 or 1944 and the Japanese had now occupied Malaya for a couple of years. Harold still had his job at the Forestry Department and this afforded him access to the company Jeep which he used every weekend to visit his parents in Seremban. On one of these weekends a friend hitched a ride with him. Since he had received the knife, it was now Harold’s daily routine to unsheathe it every morning. On that Sunday when he did, the knife was totally rusted over. This was not a good sign. Harold wasn’t due back at work until Wednesday but his friend had a work project to complete on Monday. So, Harold gave his friend the keys to the jeep with the strict instructions to return on Tuesday to pick him up. By Tuesday evening there was still no sign of the jeep or his friend. Harold had to hop a bus back to the city and was naturally pretty pissed off at his friend. When he got to the bus terminal in the city he was surprised to be met by his work mate, Chin. “Don’t go to work tomorrow.” Chin whispered grimly. “I’m not going either.” “Why not? What happened?” “Your jeep was ambushed outside Kajang by the Japanese Sunday night… and the driver was killed.” “Why?” “They thought it was you.” Chin explained that the list had been found. It was the short list of locals who were issued with gun licenses by the former British Administration. Because of this, everyone on it was now a suspected British agent. Harold spent the rest of the war laying low sometimes under the guise of an assumed identity and Chin joined a band of freedom fighters in the jungle. And the knife? (The teller reaches for the Keris on the table and unsheathes it. Holds it up.) This isn’t it. After this story was done all us kids around the bed, almost in unison, demanded to know where the knife was. He simply smiled looked at us and said, “I lost it at the end of the war.” My cousins and me over the years often discussed the validity of the stories that my father had told us. See, my father was quite the movie fan. He especially loved the movies of Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire and Johnny Weissmuller. We finally came to the conclusion that perhaps… just perhaps he had seen one movie too many. But I did finally get my blowpipe. Several months after cutting the lock of hair he came home with it. He explained that he wanted me to have a real blowpipe that was custom made for me… not something that a tourist would buy. It was made by an aborigine friend who he worked with. He showed me how the bindings had bits of my hair in the weave. But the story doesn’t end there. When I was 10 we were going on a family vacation to Kuantan on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. One of my cousins was joining us on this trip. On the morning of the trip, in the car my father looks at my cousin and me, “If you see a group of aborigine people on the side of the road… make sure you tell me.” “Why, Dad?” “I had a dream about my blood brother last night.” My cousin and I look at each other with good natured cynical doubt in our eyes. My cousin whispers in my ear. “He just cannot let a good story go, can he?” For the next hour in the car both of us are giggling with each other. A hundred miles later just as the car weaves through the 2 lane highway my cousin and I spot a small group of aborigines emerge from the jungle. We immediately alert my father to this. He stops the car, walks over and has a 5 minute conversation with them. He then gets back into the car and we continue our journey to Kuantan. And what happened to my blowpipe? I lost it on the move here to America. So, why did I start this show off the way I did? Just for the PG-13 rating? As I was cobbling this piece together I often wondered… especially through those troubled teenage years if I would have sassed him like that… like most teenagers are wont to do. See, my Dad died when I was 12. He was sick off and on especially for the last 5 years of his life… the same period in my young life when I was the prime age to share adventures with. He was not a wealthy man so there was no inheritance… just these stories. Sneaky bastard… even from his sick-bed he had found a way to take me to places and share adventures with me that I would not trade for the world. What more could I have asked for? Let’s face it… throughout our lives we will lose things and people… but for good or bad if we choose to discard our stories… how much of ourselves will we be losing? I have these stories (PAUSE) What do you have? (The teller pulls the pith helmet over his eyes. Cue Music. Lights fade to dark.) Powered by Castpost