In his last decade Dad and I drove every year to the Gippsland Lakes for a few days of sailing. Those lakes are plenished by rivers that flow down from the Great Dividing Range on their way to the sea. In the course of the drive of four hours we had time enough to evoke time remembered. Passing through the township of Trafalgar we’d sight the turnoff to Bruthen, a small town nestled high in those hills. Dad and I remembered Bruthen for our separate reasons, I for the Snowy River – mighty in verse, a miserable trickle in its reduced reality when I found it in 1968. Dad remembered Bruthen for the tooth.
‘I did a locum in Bruthen. It would have been 1935. I was a year or so out of medical school, wandering around the country, working in little towns – like you do, Howard.
I remember the drive up into the hills. I was driving a Sunderland. I remember that car for its unusual transmission: in those days manual transmission was all we had, but the Sunderland had something unique: you pre-selected a gear manually and it would change itself. Strange at first, unfamiliar, but just the thing as I wound up those hills and around those bends.’
Dad smiled as he remembered: ‘Bruthen was a one-doctor town. On my first day there a man came in with a toothache. His face was swollen and he pointed to his upper jaw on the right side. This was the 1930’s; we had no antibiotics the: the man needed a dentist. “Doc,” he said, “I’ve got a tooth for you to pull.”
(I pictured my Dad as I was at that stage – green, keen, torn between the need to be a proper locum tenens, literally, ‘holding the place’ of his absent Principal, while untrained for the task. Where I was timorous and trepid, Dad was fearless as an aspiring surgeon, aware of his solitary state – no colleague to consult, no training beyond seeking and accepting responsibility – and rising to the challenge. Dad would believe he could do the job and he must do so.)
Dad continued: ‘“I’m not a dentist. I can’t do that.”
“Why not, Doc? The regular doctor always pulls teeth.”
“I don’t have any instruments…”
“Yes you do, Doc. In the cupboard, up there.”
He pointed. Hoping he was incorrect I went to the cupboard. He was quite right. I found two pairs of steel dental forceps, half-familiar instruments, a bit sinister-looking.
“See, Doc? You use this pair for lower teeth, and this one for uppers. Mine’s an upper.”
The handles felt alright in my palm. Usable, not impossible…
“Doc, you know the trick to this tooth-pulling business? You have to push downwards to pull a lower tooth and you push upwards for an upper.”’
Dad said: ‘I didn’t know the trick.
The man pointed to the tooth. I applied the forceps, closed my palm, gripping the tooth hard, then I pushed up as the man advised. Nothing happened. I squeezed harder and pushed harder. A crunching sound then all resistance fell away. I looked down at the forceps: the tooth, a molar, sat beneath its roots, which were long and stout, like antlers on a stag.
“See, Doc? Nothing to it.”
The man fingered the cavity where his molar used to sit. He withdrew his finger, bloody and slippery with spit: “Wrong tooth, Doc. It’s this one.” He pointed again.
I said I was sorry: “You really need a dentist”, I said.
“No dentist in Bruthen, Doc. You do it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. You’re good at it. Go ahead.”
It was easier the second time. I looked down at the tooth feeling satisfied with myself.
“Good work, Doc!…but… it’s the wrong tooth.”
Feeling miserable I washed the forceps and placed them in the sterilizer.
The man said: ‘What are you doing, Doc? You haven’t finished.” He pointed to the next tooth along.
“Are you sure this is the one?”
He was sure.
I removed that tooth like its predecessors. Like its predecessors it too was the “wrong one.”
‘We continued, tooth following tooth, until I had cleared all the upper teeth on the right side. Then we agreed to call a halt.’