The Tooth

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.’

Happy Breathing

Earlier this year I wrote of the man who, when a youthful slave in a Nazi slave camp, wished he’d been sent to Auschwitz. He’d been envious at that time of the greater food rations allowed to slaves at Auschwitz. When I met him, seventy years after liberation, the man was shackled to an oxygen cylinder.
We bumped into each other again today. “Where’s the oxygen tank, Jan?” The skull that is Jan’s face split into a grin: “I am supposed to use oxygen sixteen hours a day. Outside of home I am free. I enjoy my free hours. My wife and I will drive sometimes to the city. We walk around, we are away from home longer sometimes than eight hours, sometimes ten.” Big skull-splitting smile. Big lung-filling gulps of ordinary ambient air.
“I see you are watching my breathing, Doctor. I like breathing. It is easier, of course, with oxygen.” Jan leaned forward, confidingly, sharing one of life’s large jokes: “You know, Doctor, oxygen can be addictive…
“I used to smoke, but never heavily, and I stopped many years before now. Yet my lungs are quite wrecked. Our greatest teacher is our body. Of course we ignore it , we abuse it. Of course life is not even. It has its up and its down. But you accept… I have not any complaints.”
“We have our little span of life, we humans. Surprising that we humans rule the planet. Insects of course have been here first, well before the human. The insects are our seniors. They should rule the planet. They would do a better job.” When Jan uses words like ‘job’, he soften the hard letter ’j’ so the word comes out as ‘chob.’ ‘The insects doing a better chob’ – delivered with the Jan smile and punctuated by the heaving of the shattered chest – becomes a fanciful idea of unexpected weight.
‘’First we had ‘The War to End All Wars’. Soon after we finished that one we started to prepare for the next, which was worse. Now of course, we see them preparing for the Third.”
“You think so, Jan?”
“It is inevitable. They are grooming for it. It will happen because Man’s stupidity does not end.”
“How did you come to settle in Australia, Jan?”
“In 1944 I made myself useful to the Americans. I spoke, of course, Czech, and naturally Hungarian, also ‘Cherman’. The Americans in ‘Chermany’ needed intelligence about the Jerries they held. My languages were helpful. And so I improved my English. And the Americans paid me.”
“I returned to my own country, to my city, and the Communists were there. They decided I was interesting to them. Some kind person told the Commies my family used to have shops. So we were Capitalists. I was nineteen and the Commies decided I was an Enemy of the People. This had a familiar look, an uncomfortable look. I had been an enemy before. Also some helpful Jerry told the Commies I was slippery, an escaper. A friend said, ‘They will come for you tomorrow morning at four.’ So I left. I took a train.”
“To Vienna?”
“No, they closed that border. I went East, to Bratislava. From there, west again, to Prague.”
Another grin of bones. Throughout Jan’s discourse, in which his breezy phrases alternated with king tides of respiration, Jan stopped frequently to smile, either at his own serpentine cleverness or at the great joke of existence. “So I made my way from Prague to the border, which of course, our Commie friends patrolled. So I waited until dark and I watched and found a place in the wire furthest from the sentry posts. And I went under the wire.
And I left Comrade Stalin behind me forever. I came to Australia and visited Sydney.”
Jan’s wife, who knows these stories, who has heard them now for longer than the six decades of their marriage, listens actively, nodding, beaming, a happy audience. At this point she reminded Jan: “That’s where we met.”
“Yes, I met this girl but I did not settle then in Sydney. The government was sending men to the Snowy River but I went north and became a cane cutter.”
Jan is short and slight. In his old age he is bent like a banana. Work on the canefields is tough for the most robust and the humid heat is brutal. It is hard to picture Jan at this work.
“On the coast I saw a traditional Pacific Islander sailing boat, hollow, with an outrigger. My own country has no coast. I decided I would learn to sail. With an Aboriginal friend I found a tall straight tree and chopped it down and hollowed it with an axe. I made a boat and I sailed it to Sydney. I stopped here and there to work when I needed money. I stopped further south and there was this same girl and I took her to South Mole Island…”
Jan embarked for Sydney on December 26, 1951. He arrived in Sydney on December 26, 1953. Jan enjoys recalling precise dates. There were newsreel cameramen filming his arrival. “I was quite famous.”
Jan spoke of his work laying railway tracks, of his initiative in reinforcing curved sections to prevent derailments. The smiles flashed, signalling pride in serious work perfomed well. He married ‘the girl’ and they settled in sugar cane country where they raised red pawpaws and four children Jan spoke of his generations, of his ‘tribe of fifty.’
“You have fifty descendants, Jan?”
“Yes, they number fifty; children and grandchildren, and grandgrandchildren. Some from my children, some from step-grandchildren: it is not different, all the same, all my tribe. When we come together, all are the same. All are one.”
As I sat and listened to Jan, our heads bowed close to allow his soft words to breach my hard ears, I tasted his ideas of peace that ends to soon, of insects that should rule; I reflected how a life that started in Old Europe – “I am a relic the old Austro-Hungarian Empire” – flowered in this new country, how a sole person now has a tribe of half an hundred. I thought of my grandchildren and his ‘grandgrandchildren’, all of whom who must grow in this world. I thought of Jan’s eighty-eight years of living and breathing and smiling. Somehow this spirited man radiated a joy that quite defeated glooms past and pushed away gloom to come.