The Dentist

I had to go to the dentist a month ago for a routine cleaning, and today I am having some sort of tooth-gum situation and I’m in dread of it progressing to worse. I am not fond of the dental work. But it got me to thinking about why I don’t like dentists, and the dental care we got in Nome and Suquamish. While reclining in the chair as a blank-cipher female probed my mouth the following took shape.

Margaret was very conscientious about dental health and went to her deathbed with all her teeth and proud of it. My father, on the other hand, had all his teeth removed at 16 or 18, and was in varying stages of discomfort with his plates all his life. It may well have been a contributing factor to his constant anesthetizing himself with bourbon. There was no one in Nome to fit and make a new plate, so there was frequent grinding and filling to tighten or loosen or ease the blisters etc. In Suquamish at one point he had to have some gum surgery to re-cover the jawbone, and that must have been excruciating. I was involved in model airplanes and had a bunch of tiny knives, tweezers and so on.  He had a strand of stitching that was ‘driving him crazy’ and I was recruited to try to grasp the little stub of stitching and cut it off with an X-Acto knife, in the dark recess of his rear left jaw. I ended up with a flashlight held in my mouth trying desperately to do this, and he was flinching as I’m poking around at what looked like raw steak.

He had become acquainted with a ‘friend’ on the ferry ride he took every day. There was this secret society of guys with dental bridges and plates, and through introductions and referrals, this ‘friend’, Red, would do some dental plate repair at home. Red worked in a large clinic that made dental prosthesis and I gather it was illegal or a firing offense for him to do unauthorized work. There was a very furtive air to handing over to Red a bridge or plate, wrapped in cotton and a handkerchief. We visited his home facility several times, and he and Dad would disappear into the little workshop (formerly a small bedroom). There was a mirror, some official looking desk lamps, a bunch of tiny tools, some motor driven flex-shaft grinders, knives etc. It was a very similar layout to what Karen used when doing jewelry. It was one of those situations where a bit of cash changed hands, and the parting words were, “Well, try that out and let me know how it goes.” And so we would be back in a couple weeks, for months on end.

red, horse, barns067Red was a cool guy, he was in love with Appaloosa horses and had several acres with a big but almost falling down barn, a failing stable near collapse, and several fenced areas. Appaloosas are beautiful horses – speckled, grays and browns. He had the idea of breeding them and making money but things never went well, and it was a big deal when a horse sold – for far less than he thought it was worth.

Red riding

Red riding

Babe & Red with horses

Babe & Red with horses

He had a wonderful wife; Babe is what he called her, a strapping farm girl. She could toss a bale of hay up over her head, load sacks of cement out of a truck. They had loose chickens – a couple dozen. On one visit she was expecting company in the evening, so while we were there in the early morning she went out and got a chicken slaughtered, plucked, and then brined the bird, as we sat down to grind the dental plate. She loved the horses, and was very affectionate with Red, touching, holding hands etc. I was 15 or so, we were out moving some used lumber from the truck into the barn so it would dry out, and she said something like “Red needs a lot of attention, he’s just like a horse. He had been alone and run a bit wild until we got together. A girl has to tame them by touching them.” Red had thinning red hair, and had been burned on the face and neck in his youth. There were scar blotches and he had been very sensitive about it and always felt out of place, and thought he was stared at like a freak until he got acquainted with Babe. He had also been scarred by a brief earlier marriage. In those days alimony still prevailed, but eventually the ex remarried.

They had no TV, but did have a wall phone. When he didn’t have ranch chores or dental work, he was a wood carver. One of his specialties was custom pistol grips and rifle stocks. He carved these out of myrtle wood, teak, and so on. He would just need small pieces. A ‘friend’ on the ferry worked in a furniture plant, and would sort through the scrap for pieces with good grain. The grips and stocks had to be fitted just so for the customers. I held a fitted Colt 45 once and it was a joy to the hand.

One Saturday crisp fall morning, a small bowlegged elderly guy walked down onto Red’s ranch, which was half a mile up a dirt road. Red was surprised to see anyone. “I see you’ll got horses…..’Course that means you got problems.” “That grey one over there needs a hoof trimmed, fr’ instance.” And they get to talking about horses, ranches etc. The old gent hit Red up for some work. The only name he will admit to was ‘Cowboy’; he said that is all he has been called his whole life. He admits to being 70 (my age now). He had been let go at a ranch in Wyoming and made the mistake of having a letter from his only relatives read to him. It sounded good so he came to Washington. He quickly hated his relatives, and wanted to leave them. He needed to get up a bit of cash by spring, and go back to Wyoming where he could be a cowboy again. He only wanted meals, a place to sleep, and cash pay – whatever you can spare. “It’ll be the best money you ever spent.”

cowboy Cowboy said he will sleep in the barn, it’s dry and smells good, and he’s slept in far worse places. But Red has a shed nearer the house and they settle on that. Cowboy gathered some horse blankets for his corner ‘bed’, moved the wheelbarrow off to one side and was home. He wouldn’t eat in the house with them, despite coaxing – it just wouldn’t right for the hired hand. He bathed outside once a week with a hose.

Cowboy is up before dawn fixing stuff, doing ranch work. Early in the morning, before he goes to the kitchen door for breakfast, he often did rope work. He had quite a skill at braiding and splicing lanyards, bridles and so on. The gate latch that hasn’t worked right for 12 years is suddenly fixed, the drain on the stable is cleared, all the accumulated manure is wheel barrowed over into a compost pit he built. The horses have never been curried and washed and brushed so nicely. The barn roof – 40’ in the air – is patched, scaring Red to see him up there. Ruts in the driveway are filled and on and on. Red had long thought of having a bit of a patio in the back yard, a mere mention and Cowboy is out digging up the patch, and Red brings in sacks of concrete and figures he will rent a mixer that weekend. Cowboy made a mixing trough out of scrap lumber, and has the patio done before the weekend. It was smooth and dead level.

Babe felt odd about the eating arrangement, but Cowboy was adamant about taking his meals at the porch. She discovered that he loved pie, and so there was a slice of pie with every meal, which he invariably thanked her for. She fixed Pineapple Upside Down Cake once and Cowboy didn’t quite know what to make of that – was it pie? Was it cake? Was it some sort of mistake?

Red was in awe of Cowboy’s work ethic, and found some other people with work to be done – Red became sort of became a contractor. Cowboy couldn’t drive on the roads (or read & write) so he was delivered to our place one morning to dig out an area for the pigeon pen, which he had completed by one or so, and with no suggestion he went on to fix some other stuff. We had ‘leftovers’ for lunch, roast beef sandwiches or some such. I was instructed to take lunch out to him. I neglected to take a cup of water out as well, so on the second trip, I found him cutting the slices of beef into tiny hunks with his pocketknife – he only had a few teeth. Dad slipped him $30 in 3-10’s, and Cowboy gave him $10 back, told him “don’t overpay the hired help”. The minimum wage in those days was about $2 an hour and he had only worked about 6 hours.

Red would occasionally go out to the ‘bunkhouse’ in the evening to chat with Cowboy about the day’s project or a future job. Red would take a bottle of beer out and they would sit on a box and talk a bit and Cowboy would drink no more than half a bottle of beer – complaining that it made him get up in the middle of the night to pee. Cowboy’s one vice was chewing tobacco, and since he couldn’t drive and thus rarely left the ranch, he asked Red to pick some up for him. He gave Red the empty package. Red smoked cigarettes, which he would buy from a vending machine. In Seattle he went into a local tobacco shop, and then another and finally several, none of them carried the brand. I recall the quaint package, but my memory’s eye can’t read the logo – maybe ‘Olde Liberty’, or ‘Liberty Belle’ – it was crinkly cellophane with filigreed gold lettering. The package was about the size of half a pack of cigarettes, and the chewing tobacco was in plug form. It was very dark, almost black, and beyond just firm, it was like wood. Cowboy would take out his knife and shave off a very thin curled slice and tuck it in his lower lip.

Red was getting concerned about finding this damned tobacco plug, but on the way home, about to catch the ferry, he noticed a tobacco shop adjacent to the terminal.  The place is packed with customers, each on the way to or from the ferry. With so many customers, of course they have it, way up top, back corner of the shelves. Every week Red would go in to buy another plug. After several purchases, the clerk asked Red “So, How is Gramps doing?” Red goes “What?” and the clerk responds, “Well, you are way too young to be chewing this, so I figured it was for your Grandfather.” That particular type of tobacco was probably common back in the time of the Civil War or WWI, but tastes in chaw had evolved, and only old-timers still used “Liberty Belle”.

Back behind the barn was a bunch of trees, the trunks about the size of a thigh, and Cowboy was clearing those pecker-poles out for firewood and the area was to be fenced for the horses; once he got the damned stumps out. There is also a big pile of rotten lumber, roofing tin, and part of a collapsed shed. In that pile of trash, Cowboy found an old rusty tractor. Red was unaware of it. That pile of crap had been there when he bought the place 15 years ago. Cowboy said he would look at it later, and a couple weeks later he came up to the house and requested that Babe come down and take some writing down for him and make a phone call. She had no idea what he was about, but once down at the barn he showed her a box he had found while straightening up. It contained some pieces of machinery – a distributor or carburetor, maybe. He then escorted her out to the tractor and he had scraped the engine numbers clean and he needed them written out, with the brand name, and then she could call a wrecking yard to see if they had one in the field. About a dozen phone calls later, at a yard half way across the county the guy answering the phone admited that they have a bunch of that old farm crap in the back corner and if she wants to hack back the berry bushes, she is welcome to it.

tractor The next day Babe and Cowboy set off to find this scrap yard. She commented that it was near the end of the week and he was a bit gamy. He had brought a machete and a toolbox, and once there they survey the berry patch that was a mound up over their heads. Cowboy suggested that she go to town and do some shopping for a couple hours. She aimlessly drove off, leaving him there. Later in the day she pulled in to pick him up. The berry patch was greatly diminished, revealing an identically rusty tractor, and Cowboy has a several rusty hunks of metal to load in the back of the truck. Back at the ranch he unloaded the parts and thanked her profusely for the entertaining ride. Babe said that they probably exchanged 25 words that day.

A couple weeks later, she is in the kitchen when she heard this odd noise: he was driving the tractor up the road to the house.  The tractor was a Fordson or Farmzall or Allis, dating from the early 20’s. To him that was familiar technology, it would have been brand new when he was in his 30’s, and he had probably spent hundreds of hours driving and tinkering tractors like that. The tractor had rear wheels that were about shoulder high and maybe 18” wide with big metal cleats. The front wheels were spoked cast iron, about knee high and 6” wide. I think the tractor idled at about 50 rpm and turned about 200 rpm at full power. Sitting there it would go “Chuff, Chuff, Chuff, Chuff”.  Looking back, with my Model A Ford experience, much of that old equipment used such thick oil, and so much of it, that it wouldn’t freeze up solid with rust, every thing that moved was coated. The starter was a front hand crank and Red wisely left that up to Cowboy.

tractor sideRed suddenly had a tractor, which made short work of the stumps and some other projects. In the spring, after Cowboy left, Red sold the tractor. A prosperous potential horse customer came to the ranch to discuss the acquisition of an Appaloosa, and he made what Red considered a ridiculous offer for the tractor. He was not interested in horses once he spied the tractor. Unbeknownst to Red, gentlemen farmers were beginning to collect tractors and related farm memorabilia. After the tractor was loaded and the deal consummated, Red felt a bit of guilt about the sale. He got a certified check for $100 made out to Cowboy and sent it will-call to his last known address in Wyoming.  He never could know if Cowboy got it.

During the Tractor Time, Red’s son suddenly showed up. Red had been in a disastrous and brief marriage which lead to a child that she claimed was his which was born after they had split up. He got stuck paying alimony and child support, but he had figured out how to pay just the minimum amount to keep himself out of court. She had moved to California and eventually remarried. He hadn’t seen his son for 12 or 15 years. Bob will do for a name. Red was always uncertain if Bob was in fact his son, but Bob looked as much like as him as any other man, so what the hell. This was long before DNA testing. Bob had drifted into some sort of trouble and was ordered to either join the Navy or go to jail, which was a common sentence at the time. While in the Navy he had been involved in some sort of ‘accident’ and lost a bunch of teeth. Red suspected that the little bastard had been in a fight. Whatever the truth of the matter, Bob came up from California to see Red and get some dental work done. Red figured the faster he did the work the sooner the little bastard would leave.

Bob was living the California style dream. He was tall, lean, with a wonderfully sculpted DA hairstyle, leather jacket, ‘pegged’ pants, white ‘loafers’ and a ‘pachuco’ tattoo on the web of the thumb. No one in rural Kitsap County had seen anyone like that. This was in 54 or 55 and Elvis, Carl Perkins, Little Richard and the like were just breaking into public consciousness. The Elvis southern trucker and LA hotrod rebel style was in its infancy.

the caddyHe was driving a ’48 Caddy Fastback coupe, with rudimentarily shaved styling and about 6” ground clearance. The black primered car looked great from 20’. It was a lumpy mess up close, the bodywork clumsily executed.  The doors didn’t latch properly; the windows no longer went up or down, the interior had dangling wires under the dash. It had one of the so-called nail valve V-8’s with tri-power (3 carburetors). Neither he nor anyone else knew how to tune that engine properly so it ran like stink.

Bob was on the ranch for about two weeks. Cowboy took an immediate dislike to him, declaring him to be a worthless little fucking shit kicker. Red had suggested that Bob should go down and give Cowboy a hand, and, of course, Bob has no boots, or work clothes and had to borrow from Red. Nothing fit right and Bob certainly doesn’t fit Cowboy’s notion of manhood. Bob ended up tinkering with his car, and sitting in the living room waiting for Red to get home for another fitting of the plate.

I spoke to Bob once. We were visiting for another adjustment for Dad; and Babe, who I sort of adored as a character, gave me a bowl of trimmings to feed the horses. It was carrot and potato peelings, some apple cores and peels, a hunk of turnip etc. She was making stew and pie. Cowboy had half a dozen teeth and liked soft food. I wandered down to the corral, and the horses knew I was carrying drugs. Behind me at the fence was the open barn loading area and Bob’s car was parked there. He was listening to the radio, listening to that ‘gawd dammed rock and roll station’. This would have been ’54 or so and there was one station dedicated to the devil music. Bob was listening with the Caddy hood held up with a stick because he had to use the battery charger to power the radio. My memory is that the tune was Bee Bop A-Loola. I wandered over and he was sanding some Bondo lump on the quarter panel. He was probably 22 or 24 and seemed rather intimidating to me at 14 or so. He commented on how he likes a lot of bass in his music. He was mush-mouthed talking because his bridges were evidently up on the bench. I am bemused to think of this very cool individual enjoying the ‘tenth of a watt’ tube powered car radio with a 4” speaker, in contrast to the amazing sound systems that are common today with I-Pads and an unlimited selection of music of great variety. I used to sneak a listen to the ‘rock and roll’ station at home, in the boy’s house, late at night. A listener could phone in a request and the disc jockey might dedicate the play to friends. I could never do this because it would be a long distance call to Seattle and would be spotted on the phone bill, and, after all, I had no friends in Suquamish. The disc jockey would occasionally play some ‘Negro’ music, I remember hearing Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, which started my interest in music of that sort.

In the spring, Cowboy announced that he needed to catch the bus next week and would need a ride. Cowboy had said he would stay until he felt he had to leave, and would be glad with whatever pay Red thought was fair. Red had not, of course, been setting any money aside, or even thinking of what all this amazing transformation to his ranch was worth. He and Babe had some conversations about what would be the right amount. They eventually settled on a number and Red had to go to the bank and ‘sign his life away’. In those days, there was no Visa, no equity draft accounts etc. I suspect the number was perhaps a thousand or so dollars, which would be over $5,000 in today’s money. On the morning they headed to Bremerton to get the bus (which Red paid for), Red handed Cowboy an envelope with the cash in it. Cowboy just folded it over and put it in his back pocket. Red said, “Is that enough?” and Cowboy said, “You’re a good man and I trust you.” And they shook hands.

Mother talked about how Cowboy reminded her of some of the ‘hands’ they would hire for a day or week to work on the farm in Prosser. Money was desperately tight – the depression was on, so occasionally two or three farmers would pool resources and hire one guy to help on several farms. They had food to spare, but damned little money.

She spoke of a neighboring farm, which took in a relative. People were losing farms and houses all over the country. Not so different from today, but the skill set of the unemployed was different. The neighbors were dismayed when the cousin (as I recall) showed up with her friend, a cowboy. They had ridden the rails from Montana together, hopped off at Prosser, their only possessions in a bedroll and a saddle. The farmers were a very proper family so the cousin could stay in the house, but the cowboy boyfriend was relegated to the barn. Unmarried couples were not to be in the house, sharing a bed.

It was picking and canning season so the help was welcome. In those days in Prosser there would be a rudimentary shed for shade, and an outdoor stove and work area to do all the fruit and vegetable preparation, boiling, scalding, and so on. It was not uncommon for families to gather and put up 200 or 300 quarts to get through the winter, but in Prosser in August and September it could be 110 degrees.

The cowboy she brought along was quickly in demand for miles around. He could fix anything, and knew all manner of little tricks and twists on how to get by, straightening nails, bending a Model T axle for a gate hinge, etc. He was also a bit of a folk style veterinarian as well, particularly cows. They became part of the community. Margaret was in Alaska and the war had started, and it was mentioned in a letter that they had gone to the ‘big city’. There was real money to be made in factories and war work. It would seem that I have drifted a bit from the main thread of the symposium’s topic.

doc Kennedy Nome had a dentist, Doc Kennedy, as I recall. He had a tiny office at the hospital. I remember being sent to the dentist – ‘just walk on over there, he is expecting you, and don’t dawdle on the way’. By today’s standards it was quite plain. Straight back chairs in the waiting area in the hall. The place reeked of what I later came to associate with ether, nitrous oxide, and eucalyptus. The dentist chair resembled what are now antique barber chairs. You may recall that Karen had an old dentist’s chair for a while. The drilling machine was belt driven; the belts were about the diameter of a pencil lead. I remember being given Novocain, also some peppermint mouthwash that numbed a bit, and I was gassed occasionally as well. The drills and tools were not as sharp as today’s and the slower drill speed made it very noisy, and often quite painful. I remember sitting in the hall waiting my turn, and an adult staggered out moaning in pain, sobbing as they went down the hall.

Mother insisted that we go to the dentist, it was important, and the evidence was apparent – many kids had obviously bad teeth, and many adults had missing teeth, Natives that lived in town and ate the White diet that they could barely afford, often had bad teeth and no prospects of repair. Supposedly the Natives that adhered to the traditional diet had better teeth. Who knows at this point?

I guess that Doc Kennedy was the only dentist in the territory. In the Seward Peninsula at that time, not everything was a matter of money. If a person in Shishmareff could get a radio message (Morse Code) to Nome and the weather was fair, the Doc might catch a flight and go do a village worth of work. He could be occasionally stranded in Kotzebue or wherever if the weather closed in. I remember seeing the portable drill set, it reminds me a bit of an old fashioned portable sewing machine. It had a large black leather suitcase with handles on each end on top. The parts of the unit, such as the flex arms, the motor, the clamp mount, would fit in individual green felt lined pockets. The assembled unit could be clamped on a table or bench. There was also another leather case with many slots; one each for dozens of scrapers, cutters etc, and some drawers for injectables, inhalers, bandages, mixing thimbles for the mercury based filling material. This could all be loaded into a plane and he could set up to work in a living room.

When we moved stateside, Mother requested a referral to ‘someone good’ in Seattle. Doc had not been outside in decades, but he referred her to his former professor at dental school; a man that had moved on to specialize in children’s dentistry. It was an amazement when we went there. It was so neat and clean and modern. Mother was concerned about whether we had gotten good care from Doc and was greatly relieved that the new doctor was quite complimentary about the work performed. The concern about quality of medical services was constant in Nome. An acquaintance from the bar had the story about the dental work done in Fairbanks that had been of less than top quality. The stateside dentist inspecting the fillings commented to the patient “Hmmmm, I see that you have been doing your own dental work.”

We were in Suquamish, and Dad was in the Legislature, when he brought back the gossip about a dentist in Nome. It had come to light that this dentist, which we assumed was Doc Kennedy, had his tiny practice closed down. He had been ordering more morphine for his office than the entire rest of the state consumed. He had become addicted to the drug. In Nome the standards of behavior were so loosely defined that no one noticed anything was amiss. Apparently he was supplying a couple other people in town as well. This became apparent once he was hauled off. There were withdrawal problems for a few. Being in the sticks, no one had seen symptoms like that before.

In what must have been the spring my freshman year I was involved in a bit of a motorcycle accident. Margaret was far from pleased. My beautiful face and front tooth ruined. I had a few stitches and some scars, which disappeared in time. Mother got on the phone to the children’s dentist, whom I had outgrown, and got a referral for the front tooth; another UW professor of dentistry. He thought it quite an amusement that I had been in a motorcycle accident and survived. Motorcycles were uncommon in those days, and only damned fools rode them. He put the gold cap on the front tooth, which gave me a somewhat raffish smile. The gold work has gotten compliments at every dental office. They often ask the name of the dentist, which I have long forgotten. Apparently it is a beautiful bit of work in the old school manner.

When I was Longview working for the aluminum plant we had full coverage. The job was hell, but the union had negotiated ok benefits. At the time, Jan was in full boil, in and out of Western State and recently out of shock treatments. We were living in a huge farmhouse for $10 a month, which was way too much. We heated the living room and kitchen, with wood in a leaky cast iron wood stove. We did manage to get some dental work, however. Neither Jan nor I had seen a dentist in years.

At UPS we had a couple of intervals with a dental care insurance program. The insurance inevitably meant mediocre treatment in specific clinics. These were cut-rate little clinics. I recall taking Julie in for some serious tooth pain, and as we sat waiting for our turn, half a dozen chained together prisoners were trouped in to occupy a row of chairs, under guard. The work was done in what had been a bedroom in a double wide manufactured house.

Jan’s repeated hospitalizations, constant psychiatrist sessions and expensive prescriptions kept us flat broke for a long time. The divorce was basically a breakeven deal, the support payments amounted to much the same expense as her medical care, which was suddenly taken care of by the state. It was 5 years of support and then suddenly we had a bit of slack in the budget. Dental care could be fit in more routinely.

Presently we attend a rather well designed dental practice. I am not fond of the dentist, who I see as desperately attempting to be ingratiating and overly friendly. He is a young guy, in his 40’s, which nowadays seems like a kid to me. I feel obliged to put up with him because a couple of years ago I had a tooth/filling suddenly crumble at lunch on the weekend. And I called his office and left a message on the answering device, expecting to hear back on Monday or Tuesday. I was in a lot of discomfort and surprised when a couple hours later he called and subsequently met me at the office for an emergency cap. So it cost a bit over a grand to fix; I was glad to have it promptly taken care of.

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