Sunday, October 11, 2009

Childhood memories, centipedes and a snake bite

It is funny how some things stick in your mind. I recall many moments with my father when I was five or six, both happy and sad. I remember him carrying me about the house when my legs froze up after I received a polio injection. No one really knew how children would react to these truly horrendous shots and I was virtually crippled for days. My father would carry me from my bed to the recliner in the living room every morning before he left for work. I remember him getting really annoyed with me when I wouldn’t leave him in peace to do his gardening; and I remember kissing him on the forehead as he lay in a coma in his room in the Matilda hospital the night before he died.

In the late 50s Dad was fortunate enough to be able to obtain a plot of land on the Ngong Peng plateau on Lantao Island. In those days, as now, the only way you could purchase what was then Crown Land was through a public auction. And then sometimes, but very infrequently, you might be fortunate enough to find a family that wanted to sell a plot of ancestral land. And this is how my father was able to obtain his land.

Dad was an engineer who was a frustrated farmer. He would plant field after field of vegetables and potatoes and at the right time of year we would enjoy the produce of his labours.

At that time we lived in Wanchai and would travel up to Ngong Peng only once or twice a month as there were no buses in those days. We would travel to Tai O or Tung Chung, both fishing villages, and then walk up to the house, which would take us several hours. I must have been a real chore for my father as I hated walking and spent most of the journey complaining and begging to be carried.

As we would stay away from the farm for weeks on end my father hired a recovering leper to work as a caretaker and gardener. One of the childhood memories I mentioned earlier was when this man, whose name I sadly don’t recall, came to my father with one of the biggest centipedes I had ever seen. He explained to Dad that this was a very special creature and rich in healing powers. (Centipedes are also rich in venom which causes excruciating pain in adults and even death in the very young or elderly). He then went on to explain that what he had to do was drown the centipede in brandy in order to promote this healing ability. Dad, being Scottish had more faith in the healing powers of good brandy rather than six inch centipedes but to keep this chap happy gave him a cheap bottle of brandy. Absolutely delighted the man uncorked the bottle and dropped the still wriggling insect into alcohol. I’m sure it died a peaceful, blissful death. Dad returned to his gardening and I completely forgot about the entire matter.

It was some months later when the crops were ready to harvest that Dad invited his sales team for what they thought was going to be a pleasant relaxing weekend on the farm. Upon arrival they were each handed a shovel and pointed in the direction of a field. Things progressed happily and rattan baskets of vegetables and potatoes soon lined the verandah. Then one of the salesmen was bitten by a snake.

He was carried into the house in a swoon and Dad was seriously concerned. The man had not seen the snake that bit him and therefore could not identify it. There were no medical facilities on the plateau in those days and if the snake was venomous, as many of them are, there was precious little time to treat him. In those days, snake serum was specific to the snake, giving the wrong serum, even if it had been available, could have killed the victim as quickly as doing nothing at all.

In the confusion of the scene the gardener arrived with his bottle of brandy containing the centipede which by this time had turned a lovely shade of green. I watched, fascinated, as he brushed passed the worried salesmen and administered a shot glass of the ‘medicinal’ brandy to the victim and then rubbed a liberal amount on the bite itself. To this day I do not know whether it was the shock of being bitten or the sight of the centipede floating in the brandy he had just swallowed but the fellow promptly passed out.

He was tucked up in a blanket and two of his companions were tasked with watching over him. Solemnly the rest of the team filed out onto the veranda where my father promptly got them drunk. And then we waited. Periodic reports came from the window of the living room where the patient was sleeping. He was still breathing and appeared to be asleep as opposed to unconscious. I did not know the difference then (I’m not sure I know it now). And then after almost two hours he awoke.

There were cries of surprise and joy as he hobbled out onto the veranda shaking his head. There was a little pain from the bite but he showed no sign of fever. He sat down for a few moments and then accepted a glass of beer from one of his friends.

To this day I don’t know whether it was a venomous or non-venomous snake that bit him. One of the most common snakes in the area is the brown rat snake which gives a strong, painful bite but is non-venomous. The rat snake of course, is accompanied by the bamboo snake, the banded krait (both vipers and extremely dangerous, not only because of their venom but because they are extremely lethargic and most attacks come from being trodden on), and of course the Chinese cobra which will kill you as soon as look at you.

Of course there is the possibility that the medicinal brandy was responsible for curing the chap of a potentially lethal bite. Remember that the next time you come across a centipede and happen to have a cheap bottle of brandy in the kitchen.

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