There was no doubt that Charles Howard (Jed) treated his own life lightly, and was thus selfish to those that loved him, but there were very few occasions where he put anyone else at risk without provocation, that I knew about.
Brian Nicholson (No-nose), Jed and I were having a beer at a pavement pub in Marrumbala one Saturday morning, Jed with a canvas zip-up bag at his feet, watching the world go by. One by one, three Portuguese men joined us at our table; men that had met Jed at one time or another in the past few months. The last of the three pounded Jed on the shoulder in greeting and pulled up a chair. What he said amounted to: “Long time no see; and where is that South African brandy that you promised me, Amigo?”
“I have it right here,” said Jed, smothering his annoyance at the false bonhomie. He slid the canvas bag across the floor so that it came to rest neatly between the man’s feet. Surprised, but thanking him, the man yanked back the zip. We all got a horrible shock, but nothing like the man with the bag whose hand was actually reaching in for the contents. He squeaked, instantly turned white and his chair legs went chukka-chukka backwards across the floor.
The bag was filled with hideous coils, in the centre of which lay the huge, cream, diamond-shaped head of a gaboon viper. In the stunned silence, Jed chuckled as he reached over to re-zip the bag. Pandemonium broke loose and the unfortunate man took off, wailing, down the street. No-nose and I cursed the still chuckling Jed.
When the time came around for the usual co-ordination visit of Doctor Loxton and his agricultural survey boffins, I went to Jed’s camp the day before, as usual. From there we would join the rest at Trevor Tawse’s camp where he had built more grass huts to accommodate all the fifteen people that had been flown up in the company Lockheed L18-08 Lodestar from Johannesburg. (ZS-ASN served with South African Airways from 1939 to 1955 when it was sold to AOC, involved in aerial surveys, our sister company.)
When I arrived, Jed handed me an open bottle of Coke, which was odd as it should have been a cold beer. It was odd, too, that it was warm and frothy as if it had been shaken. Jed chuckled and told me not to drink it – it was urine.
Then, with mounting horror and concern, I saw that his peeling face was not pink, but jaundiced yellow.
“My God, Jed! What is wrong with you?” I demanded. He shrugged, saying he didn’t know, but that he felt enervated and had been urinating cola for the past week.
The next day, from the Co-ord meeting, we rushed him through to Mutarara. From there, the Lodestar took him to Beira where he was put on a Commercial flight to Johannesburg. He asked me to pay his men and retain one, whom he called Snake, to feed his collection of adders and vipers. He said that he would be back to fetch them when he recovered.
I knew that Jed had had his spleen removed, some years before, but none of us realised that this would affect his use of the anti-malarial quinine drugs that we were supposed to take. He had blackwater fever, badly. I got a letter from him a few weeks later to say that his red blood-cell count had been as low as it can get without killing him.
There had been nobody to meet him on his arrival Jan Smuts Airport, Johannesburg. No arrangements had been made for his hospitalisation and he knew nobody in the city to whom he could turn, so he decided to catch a flight to Durban where his mother lived. The problem was that he did not have enough money for the fare. It was to be some years before I got the full story.
If I had ever been approached in a public toilet by a yellow-faced, unshaven individual and he offered to show me his snake, I would either hit him or take off in disgust. Jed put his black hat on the floor of the cloakroom and announced to the occupants of the moment that he was short of money and would they please help him? In his turn, he would show them a beastie that they had probably never seen before. From his zip-up canvas bag, he took the one gaboon viper that he had smuggled along with him. The money clinked into the hat and in no time at all he was on the plane to Durban. I shudder to think what would have happened if any official had demanded to open the bag.
Jed lost his job with Loxton, Hunting & Associates. Practically all our work was in malaria areas and they could not risk Jed getting blackwater again. I called in at his camp from time to time to check that his camp-man, Snake, was looking after the gabbies, as Jed called them. He was, with utter devotion. I paid him and gave him enough money to buy a supply of small chickens to feed the fearsome reptiles for some months to come. I know Snake had more faith in Jed’s return than I did. At last we finished that part of the job, Brian Nicholson and I sharing the mapping of Jed’s area, and we moved to new sections, south of the Zambezi. It would have been a major expedition to return to Jed’s snake pit, after that. In all honesty, I doubted that Jed would be back or even that I would see him again.
I was wrong on both counts.