The Zoo Stocker and Tattoo Artist from Borneo
by Charles M. Saunders
Harry would be hard to miss, even in a crowd, although you might never see him in one.
He loved the bush and only felt himself when he was deep in it.
Every time I caught up with him it was a surprise and it was almost always in a bar and very late at night at that. The first time it was in the City Bar in Zwedru, the capitol of Grand Gedeh County. He was sitting on a barstool, by himself, and just staring straight ahead as if mesmerized by some compelling happenstance.
I wandered in for a nightcap, pulled up at the bar, sat down, ordered a drink, and just sipped absentmindedly. I wasn’t particularly interested in striking up a conversation with anyone just then. I was pretty caught up in my own little world and things were not going exceedingly well for me at that point.
After about 15 minutes of silence he turned to me and said something like, “What your excuse for being alive?” or some other pithy remark.
Have to admit that that comment broke me out of my self-pity party and I took a better look at him.
Harry was unique looking to say the least. He was topped with a fairly unruly wiry mane of salt and pepper, not quite wild, but something. His piercing blue eyes gave him the distinct impression of a bird of prey; a long, hooked nose perched above a fulsome grey beard altered the effect a bit and made him appear more like an arctic owl.
But either way he was clearly one of God’s creations gone amuck.
I don’t recall now what I told him in response to his query, but when it was his turn he spoke of his history and present status and about a world in which few people inhabit, other than the rare birds like dear Harry.
He had started out as a wild game hunter and trapper in Borneo. After 25 years of hunting and stocking zoos world-wide his reputation had landed him an interview with the First Lady of Liberia.
She wanted to enhance her status by establishing the largest zoological garden in West Africa. Liberia wasn’t particularly well stocked with rarities but did possess the only pygmy hippos in the world.
Apparently after fits and starts the project fizzled. So Harry went back to safari work, although there was not much of a call for that in the depleted forests of West Africa. All the Safari action was centered in East and Southern Africa where the plains and sparsely forested land made killing your favorite trophy quite the piece of cake.
Recently Harry had talked his way into a job with a blood research outfit in New York. All their research was conducted on chimpanzees so Harry and his girlfriend (whose name I can’t recall), kept a steady supply of pilfered animals going their way. This is where the portable tattoo machine came into play, but more on that later.
We ended up talking and boozing it up til dawn which is when I stumbled out the door with him and helped him to his truck. Well, it wasn’t actually a truck, it was a Volkswagen van and boy was it a mess.
He’d opened the slider on the side to grab a fifth from a handy case of cheap scotch he kept there and I must tell you, the stench was nearly overwhelming. There were animal and wild bird feces everywhere, along with a small collection of traps, specimen bottles, hunting rifles and small arms, various boxes and crates and shelves lined with assorted bush gear and supplies. And one more addition was his pet parrot which hung suspended on his perch and eyeballed all of the goings on.
We sat and sipped for a couple more hours and told tall tales and then parted company a while after the burning sun had come up; all chummy and the best of friends.
Oddly enough, in a country the size of France with not that many white folk, I ran into Harry again and again and visited a few of his bush camps. He always appeared to have some scam or adventure in the works to supplement his booze and the woman’s gin guzzling habit. Her favorite was a type of medicinal gin which came in 24 bottle cough medicine size cases. They kept a stack of the full cardboard boxes stacked in one corner of the van, her ready supply.
She was quite the piece of work herself; tiny but feisty looking, but with a soft spot for the animals which they orphaned. She kept them in diapers and toted them around on her back wrapped in a lappa, African woman style.
Anyway the next time I met up with Harry was at the Swamp Bar in Ganta. He was quietly excited and wanted to show me something that was top secret. So we left the bar, this was in broad daylight, and he walked me to a side street where we climbed a few concrete steps and he pulled back a huge warehouse rolling door. It was dark inside and quite a large space.
What I saw there made me gasp and choke back a cry of amazement and shock. There they were, rack upon rack upon rack in multiple layers and nearly completely filling the entire warehouse: Leopard skins, hundreds, no a couple thousand of them.
Being a combat vet and not really a good boy, I’d seen what I had thought was quite a lot, but this was the topper! The kicker was that Harry didn’t own the skins; a Lebanese merchant did and obviously couldn’t care less who it was that saw them. Hum, police payola, you think?
There were times when Harry would put his best effort out there to appear to be just an ordinary guy. He and his gal pal invited me and some of the other PCV’s to a Thanksgiving. They shared a house, when they were not in the bush, on the Firestone rubber estate; nice place actually. Her two daughters were in for a visit from the States and when we showed up everything was set for a proper and quite a lovely Turkey day feast.
Virtually every item was ready and set to go: the bird, the stuffing, the yams, the gravy and mashies, the cranberries, everything was there, everything that is except Harry. He had popped up at dawn and cooked it all himself, but somewhere along the way he tipped a bit too much and had to go to bed. He never made an appearance.
That didn’t stop us. We ate until we were over full and then capped off the night with a nice skinny dip in the huge pond nearby.
The next time I saw the Man was absolutely the most memorable, in more ways than one. I was sent up from my Ministry base in Monrovia to build some new roads from outlying villages into Ziahtown, site of the Paramount Chief’s compound in Grand Gedeh.
Harry had told me to keep an eye out for the miniature antelopes which were often found in the forests near town. He said that were folks who would pay beaucoup big bucks for one.
One day a small boy brought one on a makeshift leash into the local store where I was enjoying my morning Guinness.
On my truck driver’s next run into Zwedru for supplies I asked him to get word to Harry, and he did, and one day not much later out of the blue on a bright sunny early morning who should show up but Harry with the Gal, in the van.
As Harry’s luck would have it, that morning a young boy brought one of the tiny antelopes into the store. They were lovely little creatures, perfectly shaped with all the features of their full sized cousins, including the antlers.
Harry paid the boy over $100 for the animal, which was kinda nice since most honkies would have given him a few bucks or maybe nothing at all. Once the transaction was completed old Harry yanked a case of Clubs [locally brewed beer], warm as toast, out of the van and we set to it; no matter that it was 7:30 in the morning. After all, this was West Africa and a man needed his morning bracer to start the day right.
Meanwhile my guys were off about a mile and a half on the outskirts of town clearing the bush for some road grids and small plots which would be divvied up among the village leaders. I had surveyed the area and staked out the plots so they didn’t need me for a few hours anyway.
So Harry and I and the dozen little kids who constantly shadowed us set up near the clinic on a couple of reed benches that had been built under some of the only shaded area in town. It typically would serve as a waiting area for the local clinic, but not today. We had commandeered the spot and settled in.
We sipped and chatted and the little Gal sipped her gin and the time just passed pleasantly by. I don’t remember quite why but at some point Harry led me over to the truck to show me his new favorite toy; a portable battery operated tattoo machine.
He explained that it was used to ID the chimps which they gathered and which would be shipped to New York to begin their arduous contribution to the furthering of medical scientific knowledge or whatever.
At any rate Harry was toying with his little treasure when suddenly his bird eyes brightened and he brought forth his latest brainstorm.
“Why don’t I give you a tattoo and then you give me one and then we’ll be like blood brothers?”
Sounded good to me, although there were a few murmurs of, “Are you sure this is a good idea?” from the audience. But Himself and I were too many sheets to the wind to listen or to even care.
Harry pulled out a little spiral notebook and requested that I draw a sketch of with what I wanted to adorn my body.
I fairly quickly decided on my favorite symbol [at the time], the Egyptian Ankh, or sign of eternal life.
As I began to sketch my choice it occurred to me that I had no ability to draw and no real clear memory of precisely what an Ankh looked like, but that did not deter us.
When Harry saw my drawing he said something like, “Well here we go then.” And he set to work.
I forgot to mention that along with the Ankh I wanted the word LIBERIA inked under the symbol.
At this point the children’s curiosity was entering a fevered pitch and they gathered in a knot around the two inebriated white men. To increase the dramatic effect of the moment I had the children hold my arm down as my Tattoo Artist etched my new artwork on my upper arm. I even acted like it hurt for additional drama.
As the machine whirred away at some point I glanced down at my arm and to my chagrin noted that what was developing there did not resemble an Ankh at all. What was a trifle more disconcerting was that the word Liberia was trailing down my arm at an obscene angle. It more resembled a dangle of squiggles than a word. I asked Harry what was up and he jerked up his head and appeared to have some sort of revelation. “I just remembered, I left my glasses back at the camp and I can’t really see much without them.”
“No matter, I heard myself respond bravely, its fine.” But it really was not. It in fact was quite the mess.
But me and my boy were too happy and too far gone to care. We even forgot to do his tattoo.
Once the work of art was completed I escorted the pair of them back to my place. It of course was not my place, but it was the nicest structure in the town. The house was set back off the main dirt road and was nicely built of cinder block. There were numerous guest rooms, a great room and even an indoor bathing area, a rarity in rural Liberia.
The house belonged to ‘Paramount Chief’ Charles Ziah. He was actually not a tribal chief at all but an ‘appointee’ ensconced by His Excellence the President of Liberia, William S. Tolbert. Charles had been summoned to the capitol to see the Prez off on one of his overseas jaunts.
Whenever His Lordship flew out of town all of the appointed officials countrywide were forced to come to Monrovia. The object was to make certain that they would not decide to form a coup or some other type of monkeyshines. This was fairly effective, that is until 6 years after I left in 1982 when Billy boy was over thrown and assassinated in his own castle.
Anyway, that is why I had my own house and got to spend a few days with my Chum and his sidekick.
And that in a nutshell is the tale of how I came to bear such a wonderful remembrance of my time in that banana republic. In case you are curious, the tattoo machine did not have the oomph or the indelible ink that proper tattooists dispense. The word Liberia eventually disappeared and all I’m left with now is a faint but decidedly ugly semblance of that ancient Egyptian emblem of longevity.
And so now my friend, what, you may ask yourself, might be the moral of this quasi-sleazy tropical tale?
Just solely and only this, that it may not be a good idea to slurp down a half case of warm Swedish inspired 12% alcohol liter bottles of beer and to split a fifth of cheap booze in the torrid African mid-morn with a mostly crazed bush dwelling maniac who is wielding a portable chimpanzee tattooing device; no matter how mild mannered he may seem.
You just might find yourself with an eminently forgettable, yet indelible memory of the whole event. Let this serve as a word to this wise.