George R. Frost
Winner in the 2023 General Nonfiction Contest
© Copyright 2023 by George R. Frost
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Two days before I was to report to basic training, otherwise known as bootcamp, at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, I broke a tooth eating ice cream. You heard that right, ice cream, but the ice cream had pecans in it. I bit down and half my molar broke off. Painful enough, but the nerve hung down making breathing a very painful process.
To the emergency room we went. It was a Saturday night in Concord, North Carolina and the ER was full of cases that involved booze and dangerous behavior. You get the picture. Good ol' boys filled with dangerous mind-altering substances that like to play with hazardous toys to show their friends how cool they could be.
The kid on the gurney a few feet from me had a knife wound in his side. Self-inflicted? I really did not care to ask, because he took the two lips of his wound with his fingers and began to play a very perverse puppet show supplying the voice.
"How are you Mr. Cannon?” The white coated doctor asked the wounded man on the gurney.
“I am fine, thank you for asking. I'll be honest, I did not feel the knife at all." He smiled, cluing me in on the fact he was on something where he was feeling no pain whatsoever. At that moment I envied him until he winked at me and pointed to his open knife wound. Seeing him play with the wound as he continued to bleed changed my mind on the matter.
"I want to go home." I was suddenly not feeling so well.
"What about your tooth?" My friend asked me.
"Hurts like hell." I put my hand over my swelling jaw unable to turn my head away from the demonic puppet master who started laughing as he added dialogue. Just then I heard two people talking a few feet away from me.
"We pronounced her deceased an hour ago." a doctor spoke to the uniformed policeman standing next to him. The door to the room was open and the doctor stood in the doorway. Wearing green scrubs and folding his hands under his armpits. He was still wearing his bloody gloves. His facial expression was blank as he spoke.
"Really?" The policeman removed a pad from his jacket pocket. Even from his profile, I could see he was devastated by the news.
"Would you care to see the report?" He asked with a note of sympathy in his voice.
"No, that's alright. There was a hold up at the 7-11. She went to open the cash drawer when the perp pulled the trigger of his shotgun. Christ, she never had a chance. The blast blew half her face off." The policeman shook his head. "There are some things you just can't get over."
"Do you need to talk to someone?" The doctor put his hand on the policeman's shoulder.
"I'm just going to take a few minutes if you don't mind." He tried to smile, but failed, "She was there when I stopped for coffee and a snack in the middle of my shift. Always asked me how I was doing. Asked about my wife and the kids."
The doctor nodded, leaving his hand on the officer's shoulder. Then it hit me like my toothache. I had been a customer in that store a few hours before the robbery. Suddenly I could see her face so clearly as I put the four items I had on the counter.
"Is that all for you?" She said as I put four items on the counter, "Oh this butter pecan is my favorite."
"I'm leaving for basic training in the morning." I said feeling like a big shot. "Air force."
" My uncle Roy was in Korea during the war." She took my cash and gave me my change. "Was in a bomber crew. When the bombs got stuck going out of the chute, he'd kick them out."
"So, what was between him and thirty thousand feet?" I asked.
"Just his life strap. He said it saved his life A few dozen times." She chuckled and then winked at me, "You take care and just do what everyone else is doing. You'll be fine."
Now she was another cadaver lying dead in the room where the officer and doctor stood. I felt a cold chill run up my spine.
"Talk to me, Chester." The patient with the knife wound was making his wound talk like some obscene ventriloquist act. He would say a few words in a falsetto voice as he moved the opening of his wound.
"I want to go home." I told my friend.
"It won't be long now."
My tooth continued to throb.
As I settled into a fetal position, there was an ear-piercing scream. A man in A flannel shirt and grease-stained jeans came running. Even with thick red hair burning out of his face and head, the hysterical look in his hazel eyes was warning enough that he was out of his mind. The blood trail he left in his wake was A Clear warning to stay out of his way as he was fleeing, trailed by A half dozen white coat hospital staff and two uniformed policemen.
"I'm gonna get outta here!" He screamed as he headed for the stairs. He almost made it if it wasn't for the cop who lunged at him. With a desperate grip on the bleeding man's shirt, he turned him around, but then tried to bite the apprehending officer. The officer yelped as the wild bleeding man's teeth brushed against the officer's fingers. "I'm going home!"
"No, you're not." An officer who had snuck up behind the crazy bleeding man, used his nightstick on one of his kidneys, bringing the man to his knees, ending the fiasco.
"He put his handcuffed hands through the window in the holding room." The officer who had grabbed him said out of breath.
Those windows are bullet proof, aren't they?" The officer cuffed the groaning bleeding man.
"I thought so." The huffing and puffing officer shrugged. “But he made it look like child’s play.”
"Kensey, you were lucky you didn't sever an artery." The officer helped the man to his feet, "Looks like you are still going to need a few stitches regardless. What a mess."
"I do NOT give a shit." The suspect growled as the officer led him back to where he had escaped from in the first place.
"Holy mackerel, Kensey, you did quite a number on this." The officer examined the busted window. The suspect just beamed in satisfaction as he disappeared into the holding room.
"I want to go home." I whined.
"What about your tooth?"
"The hell with it. This place is a Saturday Night freak show." I pointed to the trail of blood on the sterile white tile floor.
"Can't say I'm going to argue with you."
Taking more than the recommended dose of Tylenol, I bought some tooth numbing goop I bought at the store, I managed to get some sleep. When I woke up, I realized in less than twenty-four hours, I'd be on my way to San Antonio.
Using the phone book, I did what I could to get a dental appointment.
"Sorry sir, the earliest we can get you in is next week." The woman on the phone said on my last hope using the Yellow Pages.
By some stroke of luck, my friend knew A friend who knew A friend who had an uncle who extracted teeth on the side. Hope had run out and I felt this might be my only shot at redemption.
Basic training would be tough enough without being buried with A toothache.
"I'll do it." I said taking A deep breath.
"Great, his name is Cal Irving."
"Does he have a license?" I asked.
There was a very long pause. A very long, awkward pause.
"Come by and get the address."
The pain had gotten worse throughout the day where even the numbing goop wasn't working. The pain was becoming a full-sized train running through my skull. All I could see was the oncoming light about ready to collide with me. My jaw was also inflamed meaning that a warm breeze would bring to my knees like a bowl full of quivering jelly.
I still had some packing to do to be ready for my life-changing journey. I sat in the only chair I had left looking out the window at the iron rusty sky hovering over Concord. I called this place home for the past three years after immigrating from upstate New York to find myself. I did not find myself. I didn't even come close, but I got in touch with an Air Force recruiter. He did not have to use his best sales pitch; I was ready to sign, and I did. I needed to get out of North Carolina. This place was not for me, and it was not for the lack of trying.
So, with Uncle Cal's address and phone number tucked into my jeans pocket, I made my way down to Railroad Road. The name of the dirt road should have been a clue as to what was waiting for me.
The railroad tracks ran through his parking lot where a sign prominently hung, reading, "Do not park on the tracks." As if to add an exclamation mark as I parked my car, A large engine rumbled down the tracks. The engineer even waved as his abbreviated train rolled past.
Crossing the tracks, I looked both ways in case another engine came rumbling by. All was clear as I walked to the door of the small, dilapidated structure that was painted in a three-tone shade of green as if they had no idea what they were doing. The steps creaked in misery as I scaled the four steps to the porch. Once on the porch, I could see the ground through the gaps in the planks. I had heard of old moonshiner’s hovels that looked like this weather-beaten structure.
Putting my hand on the knob, I pulled the brass fixture that nearly came off in my hand. My second attempt, I used a little less force, afraid I would yank the knob from the door. The heavy door creaked open as I stepped inside.
“Can I help you?” a disembodied voice asked from behind a plexiglass window.
“I’m here for an appointment.” I walked to the desk where a heavy-set woman tastefully dressed sat with a headphone running through her thick brown hair.
“You must be George.” she said with a thick Carolinian accent accompanied by a warm smile.
“Yes ma’am.” I nodded.
“Have a seat over there. The doctor will be with you shortly.” She nodded her head letting me know I was welcome and expected.
Sitting in one of the ripped vinyl chairs with the stuffing trying to escape, I picked up a magazine to calm my nerves and try to soothe my galloping heartbeat. Rustic framed pictures hung from the wallpapered walls reminding me of the beauty of isolated nature. Looking at my magazine, I noticed it was a ten-year-old issue of Popular Mechanics. I am not a mechanic and I do not have a working knowledge of anything with a motor. With women in bikinis smiling at the open maws into a highly polished motor mounted in some hot looking sports car, I immediately lost interest and closed the magazine. Scanning the others on the table next to me, I saw most of the magazines were the same except for the children’s books scattered throughout the pile of popular mechanics.
“George.” a woman standing at the door called out.
“The doctor will see you now.” She smiled much like the woman at the reception desk, but she was dressed in a white lab coat and carrying a clipboard. I stood up and walked toward her. By now the aspirin I had taken earlier was beginning to wear off. The pain began to zero in again making it excruciate just to breathe.
As I crossed into the back, I noticed there was just one ancient dental chair with straps on the arm rests.
“My name is Minnie.” She led me to the single chair. Musac was being piped in from the overhead speakers, but I found it neither soothing or calming as I sat in the chair Minnie had led me to. It was lumpy and somewhat uncomfortable as I moved around to find a more congenial place in the chair for a procedure I was not really looking forward to.
Minnie put the drool bib chain around my neck, asking, “Have you ever been here before.”
“No ma’am.” Thinking as she turned on the spit sink, “And I don’t ever wish to come back. Tomorrow I will be in Texas. Far from this place.”
“Dr. Irving will be in shortly.” Minnie said as she left the room.
Thoughts of running from this confined room raced through my head, but so did the intolerable pain. I wondered if Dr. Irving would have to affix the arm straps. Looking at them, I noted how worn they looked dangling from the arm rest. There was no doubt in my mind these things had been frequently used by former patients.
“Howdy.” His cheerful voice rang out as he entered the room. A small man, Dr. Irving wore an apron covered in blood stains. His wiry hair came from every direction from his head. His mask did a poor job concealing his whiskers and mustache. In his right hand he held a very long needle as he walked bowled legged up to my side. “Gonna numb ya up first.”
His fingers were in my mouth before I could raise an objection. The needle went into the soft tissue in the back of my mouth and some of the vile tasting liquid splashed over my tongue. As he bent in to have a look, I smelled tobacco and some yeast of homemade spirits.
I was going to die one day before reporting to bootcamp.
“Holy mackerel, you gotcha a real infected tooth for sure.” He whistled, “We should have that sucker out pronto.”
“Ahh, haaaggg.” Was all I could say in response.
“That should be all numbed up in a jiffy.” He patted me on the shoulder before skipping out of the room.
Blood dripped down my chin. I deserved this. This was my penance for all of the bad things I had done since moving down to North Carolina. I should have known better. I should have stayed north of the Mason-Dixon Line where I belonged. I wanted to come here where I could earn a living wage, but that did not work out either, so I found the recruiting office and decided to enlist. The war in Vietnam had ended four years before and we had not found another conflict to involve ourselves in. It was safe. It was a steady way of life; the recruiter told me. I needed a steady way of life.
My mother was disappointed that I had not gone to college, but with my dad’s recent passing, she had more important things to concern herself with including raising my two half-brothers. I was an adult. I was supposed to be able to take care of myself. I paid twenty dollars to Dr. Irving for the extraction of this tooth. I could not wait until I saw the Air Force dentist at bootcamp. The pain was just too intense.
He was back with a hoot, “So are we all numbed up?”
“Yeahess.” I managed to respond.
What happened next should not have happened in the twentieth century, but from the back pocket of the Levi jeans he was wearing, he pulled out a pair of pliers. With fingers in my mouth, I felt the cold iron resting on the infected molar. Placing one knee on my chest, I felt the pliers grasp the molar. With a mighty tug, he removed the molar. He held it up for me to see, this bloody trophy pinched between his pliers.
Despite his unorthodox methods that smacked of hillbilly backwoods procedure, my pain was gone.
"Wouldja look at that, there's that nerve right there." He pointed as I gagged trying not to vomit. "Minnie, get this man some gauze. He is bleeding pretty heavily."
I could hear the tearing of paper wrapping followed by A forceful insertion of the soft gauze. My eyes rolled.
"Son, this is the easy part." He chuckled as I tried not to gag.
"Ahggg haaarrrrhhh." Was all I could manage to say. The thick gauze pad felt awkward against my numbed tongue, but his proud smile took up the available space on his face.
"You'll be fine now we got rid of that tooth.' Dr. Irving beamed like A proud father. Most of his physical features were small and stunted for the most part, but his smile was sincere, and the pain was gone. I did not care if he did voodoo during the extraction, the horrible pain was gone. I'd be on my way to boot camp in the morning. "Just pay Lucile on the way out."
He shook my hand. His small hand was covered with calluses.
"Thank you, Dr. Irving." I slurred most of my words, but he got my message.
"My pleasure, young man." He wiped his bloody hands on his already soiled apron, “I was in the army. Vietnam. The fellas called me Jaw-Breaker. Glad that war is all done. Best of luck to you son."
Like the leprechaun he was, he disappeared from the room as Minnie led me to Lucille's desk. I handed her the twenty dollars that covered my treatment.
"Receipt?" She asked, but I just shook my head as I walked out the door. A train was ambling through the parking lot. I had to wait several minutes before I could get to my car. I must admit I was A bit woozy and lightheaded, but I had to get home and finish packing for bootcamp.
I will be leaving North Carolina for good and embark on the next
chapter of my life, one tooth less though it may be.
is a true story about a memorable event in my life before I enlisted
in the Air Force. I hope you enjoy this rather unique chapter
of my life.