As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.

– JFK, 35th President of the United States

The year was 1965, and the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation was at its height.

At 11 years old, I was studying in Primary Four at a nearby primary school. Most families from our longhouse did their shifting cultivation at a vast area called Meragasing, about 90 minutes on foot from the community dwelling.

No less than 15 plots were cultivated, each plot by a family. Every family stayed at the farm plot, in a temporary hovel roofed and walled by nipah leaves.

During the weeding season, my uncle Ampoi Jembu (dad’s younger brother) and families were imperiled by a fire incident, namely their hovel was totally destroyed in a blaze that occurred around midnight.

Around after 10 minutes of the escape, he found out his second youngest son, Buma, was still trapped inside. Without hesitation, he rushed into the fire and found the toddler crying in pain. He managed to bring the child out.

It was said that about a week prior to the fire, a swarm of bees was seen circling the tree about 40m from the hovel and finally settled there for about two to three days and then left.

It was the night after the bees left that the fire occurred, purportedly caused by an oil lamp. Most Iban elders then said the bee episode was a bad omen or mali (an equivalent of a taboo that would likely to bring bad occurrence). The fire was a testament.

The next day after the fire, the entire farming community in Meragasing lent help to the poor family, comprising Uncle Ampoi, his wife Siti and her mom Biku plus five children, including Buma, whose back suffered second degree burns.

He was rushed to the Saratok clinic by longboat driven by Sing Kee, a Chinese trader at the Kedap riverfront, with his wife, who was dad’s cousin.

Saratok did not have a hospital then. The clinic was called a ‘dispensary’, led by a medical assistant known locally as drissa (dresser).

Luckily on that day, Buma was attended to by a visiting doctor, who required Uncle Ampoi to spare a portion of his left thigh’s flesh to be transferred to Buma’s back.

Buma was saved at the expense of his father’s pain in a sense though Uncle Ampoi never regretted losing a portion of his flesh — we used to joke about it in our adult years.

Upon returning to the longhouse, my cousin Buma, five years my junior, was put inside a specially woven basket with lid to keep away flies. The healing process must be very slow.

It was during this time that Confrontation fighters — the subject of my previous column — stopped in Kedap.

On the day after spending a night with us, the five soldiers led by their British captain, asked me to bring them to tour the longhouse. I knew Buma was inside the woven basket next to his maternal grandma Biku, who was making a mat.

The curious captain asked me what was inside the special basket. I asked permission from Biku for them to have a look.

They were shocked to see Buma’s condition and immediately made plans to ‘telegram’ their connection in Simanggang to send a helicopter to Saratok — I found out about this within 30 minutes because I was their guide around the longhouse, and from a tall tree in the vicinity, one of the Iban soldiers climbed up to send the message.

Luckily, Buma’s father was easily informed as he was tapping rubber nearby. The entourage was ready to go shortly with Sing Kee lending a helping hand and perhaps tipped handsomely by the soldiers.

The entire journey, including the helicopter flight to Simanggang, was sponsored by the army, thanks to the caring captain and his men.

Fast forward to the present, Buma, 61, a lorry driver, is well, with the status of disabled, as his back never fully healed.

Not so long ago, he did say to me pertaining to my part in his 1965 Simanggang trip, “It’s not too late to say thank you to you, my cousin, my brother!”

The views expressed here are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the views of New Sarawak Tribune. Feedback can reach him at tribunenew2019@gmail.com