[On December 6, 1999 at a luncheon and round table discussion with four North Vietnamese officials at Brown University in Providence, RI, Professor Porter Halyburton of the Naval War College and a RPOW asked this question: "What caused the change in treatment of the POW’s after Ho Chi Minh’s death in 1969?" Ambassador Huynh responded: "The change was because of the requests from the families of the prisoners and because we have to pay attention to public opinion. Also we knew that the prisoners would be important in negotiations at the end of the war."]
Did you ever have a tooth ache? I mean a real humdinger of a tooth ache that stretched from the point of your head to the tip of your toes. One that gave forth with a pain that throbbed, shot, rocketed and ricocheted all over your ever loving body whether you were vertical, horizontal or in the thumb sucking fetal position you started life in, all day and all night without respite. Picture that pain creeping up on you for two weeks after sitting in a communist prison for three years where torture was a daily event and where medical treatment was only given just prior to propaganda events and then only to parts of you that showed. If there was one thing your captors loved, it was self induced torture - it saved them a lot of work. To ask for help would be to open yourself to "l’adddition", the bill. There was no free lunch in Vietnam.
However, it was time to take risks; this infection was too close to the brain. Things were subtly changing since the big Kahuna, Ho Chi Minh, had gone to his ever loving eternal reward. No one in the prison system knew why the changes, but it was time for us to explore and take the consequences. So we yelled for the duty officer and my cellmate pointed to my swollen and inflamed jaw. I remained silent. The duty officer rousted out the duty Vietnamese medic who looked, poked, prodded, pried, wiggled the tooth and slapped me on the cheek. I made the appropriate noises of anguish. He nodded sagely and observed through the interpreter that there was something wrong with my tooth - a veritable Dick Tracy. He gave my an aspirin and told me to hold it against the gum line of the infected tooth. Each day for a week he would issue one aspirin. Actually, it did provide some relief.
The day of reckoning finally came. A guard opened the cell door, motioned for me to get into my dress prison uniform [striped pajamas] and to follow him. We thought it was going to be another of the interminable interrogations. Half way across the compound we stopped at a little shed and I was motioned to sit in an old beat up captain’s chair that had a very large block of wood nailed to the top of its back cross piece. A venerable old man came in dressed in a white smock and face mask over his mouth. He too poked, prodded, pried, wiggled the offending tooth and slapped me on the cheek. He nodded sagely and observed "ouch" which was apparently the extent of his command of the English language. He and the medic must have gone to the same dental school [Georgetown?].
From behind me they produced a portable foot powered drill that must have been invented by Thomas Edison on a very dull day in Menlo Park. Covered with rust and dust, it did not inspire confidence. The old gent started to drill and got the bit tangled in the cloth he was using to control the saliva. He would take out the drill and with his dirty fingers meticulously pick the lint off the bit and place the drill right back on the offending tooth. Naturally there was no anesthesia. Every time I yelped, my guard would whack me on the top of my head. It was forbidden to make any noise. After a seemingly interminable time, the tooth snapped and the old gent tisk tisked. He reached in with a set of needle nose pliers and started to yank but nothing would give. So he just shook his head, packed up his gear and rambled off into the sunset from whence he had come. The pain had diminished particularly in respect to the knot on the top and back of my head where the guard and the wooden block had a field day with my noggin. I got two aspirin that evening. Woopdie Do!
That night I had a flash back. In 1955 when I took my enlistment physical at NAS Anacostia for entrance into the Naval Aviation Cadet Program, I flunked the dental exam. The examiner told me that I had to have my perfectly healthy wisdom teeth extracted before he would pass me. Being a very obliging young man, I told him to pull them and get on with it. He patiently explained that things didn’t work that way. I would have to go out on the economy and have them pulled at my own expense. This was a great blow since I had next to no money. I was living on White Tower hamburgers (5 for 25 Cents and all the condiments you could splash on them) and peanut butter sandwiches.
So I went out looking for the lowest bidder, my first and bias setting adventure with this exercise in cost effectiveness. With a little effort, I found him in North East Washington, a recent Georgetown Dental School grad and former football player, who would do four wisdom teeth for $100 cash. He got the two uppers out with a minimum of discomfort; but on the next visit, succeed in breaking off the bottom two at the roots. He packed my mouth with gauze, sent me out to the nearby street car stop to wend my way across the District of Columbia to the posh Georgetown/ Wisconsin Av. section where his old Dental School mentor had a practice.
It was cash on the barrel head, $100, right up front; even then prices were steeper on Wisconsin Avenue. "Yes, we’ll take a check since you are a Georgetown Man." It left me with $5 for 25 more days to go in the month before my next payday. They sat me in a comfortable dental chair and I heard the plaintiff cry of the good Doctor from the next room: "Oh no! He did it again!". He came in and poked, prodded, pried, wiggled the offending roots but at least did not slap me on the cheek. He reached over to his tray and pulled our a hammer and chisel - I kid you not. Granted they were diminutive in size but the same bloody things I got from Stanley tools for my tool box. Naively I started laughing and asked him if he was serious. He just curled his lip with exasperation and juiced me up with a generous amount of Novocain. Like a miner forty-niner he chipped and banged away getting the roots out. He stuffed my mouth with cotton and sent me out to the streetcar stop.
On the way out I made a date with his dental assistant who thought that I was something special for laughing at the dental instruments to the discomfiture of her boss. Upon finding out that she was the daughter of the a four star Marine Corps General and I would have to pick her up at dad’s house I decided that cowardice was the better part of valor. The hormones had gotten ahead of the brain cells. After all, I only had five dollars left to my name and the Georgetown dentists were using up all my streetcar tokens.
Back I went to Anacostia to see my friendly examining dentist. I passed my exam with flying colors. So I asked him what all this was about, since I just paid two hundred dollars to have four perfectly well formed and healthy teeth pulled out of my head. If I was a horse and going to pull the SNJ abound with a bit in my mouth, I could see why they might want to make room in the oral cavity, I opined. Kindly he explained that he was an examining physician for the repatriated Korean Prisoners of War. One of the most numerous painful and deadly diseases they experienced were infected and impacted wisdom teeth. So he personally set about making sure that any aviator he examined would get rid of the useless and extraneous (in his opinion) teeth. "Someday, Stratton, you will thank me if you ever become a Prisoner of War." Me a prisoner? No way. Not in my Navy; not on my watch. I’d die like a man first.
Well the wound in the head gradually healed and the pain subsided. About a year later almost to the day the roots of the broken tooth became infected with double the effect, if such a thing were possible, as the pain of the original infection. The same routine was followed: poke & prod, aspirin, wait a week. [There is no complaint about the wait. Today it takes two months to get a dental appointment and three months a doctor’s appointment with the Veterans Administration Clinic in Jacksonville.]
Into the PJ’s, across the yard, and sit in the same chair. In walked the venerable old man even more venerable. He poked, prodded, pried, wiggled the offending roots but this time did not slap me on the cheek. He pulled out a syringe more appropriate for an enema than an anesthetic. He pumped what I imagined to be Novocain into the gum, the lips, the cheek, up my nose, in my eyes and down my neck - to no effect. [The next day we found vials that indicated that the medication from Czechoslovakia was four years out of date.]
Then came the - you guessed it - hammer and chisel; dirty, rusted and diminutive. He would bang on the jaw and my head would hit the block of wood. I’d give a double yelp and the guard would whack me on the top of my head driving my jaw into my collar bone. Bang, yell, whack to a rhythm not unlike the "Anvil Chorus". Eventually, victorious, the old gent gave a big smile at his successful handiwork, packed the mouth with gauze he picked up off the floor, patted me on the shoulder and left the room. Mirabile dictu! The wound did not get infected. The repatriation dentists at Clark AFB said the old gent did a great job.
We kept waiting for the Communists to present the "bill" for the lenient and humane dental treatment. No reciprocity was ever demanded. They certainly weren’t worried about malpractice suites. Times indeed were changing. Torture as a general rule stopped. They would torture newly captured senior officers and electronic warfare officers for military information. But torture for propaganda purposes was a thing of the past. A new day had dawned but we had to find out for ourselves the hard way. - sticking our necks out and taking a chance.
I never did get to thank the Anacostia dentist for his wisdom regarding wisdom teeth; so I’ll thank him now: "Thanks Doc, wherever you are!" The Navy fixed me up with a nifty looking bridge replacement that looks great even today. However, I have a little trouble in the dental chair these days no matter how "painless" the procedures have become. And I do wonder about the similarities in bedside manner and competence between Hanoi and Georgetown.