Sunday, August 28, 2011

Pulling Teeth

Some names changed to protect the accused.

The best thing that can happen to you in boot camp besides being put on double rations, is to be sent to the dentist for a tooth pull. Yes, this sounds counterintuitive, but bear with me. Recruits go to the doctor all the time but mostly for minor complaints, like a nasty cough. If they are lucky the doctor will pity them and give them light duty, while the drill instructors wait patiently to thrash them once again. The dentist is usually for recruits with wisdom teeth poking out which need to be pulled for “combat readiness.” It's not your choice to go, meaning the drill instructors can't call you a malingerer or secretly thrash you later. I spent most waking moments of boot camp hoping to be sent to this magical land. Lo and behold, during roll call one night a few weeks before graduation, I heard the sweet words: “White: OS.”

OS? What is OS? Could it be Oral Surgery? Yes! Yes it could! The drudgery of waking up, being thrashed, yelled at, run around, booted, beaten and blistered would halt for at least half a day, perhaps even—I mustn’t get my hopes up—longer.

The next morning I was lined up and sent out with ten other lucky recruits. Never in my life would I willingly march to the dentist and actually put a spring in my step. I had to slow my pace, in case it was all in error and they sent me back full-mouthed. It was not. The technicians kindly sat me down and explained that my right lower wisdom tooth was impacted and had to be pulled out. I feigned sadness and leisurely lay back in the chair and let them go to work. The worst parts were the shots in the mouth—only a few deep needles—but I would much rather have pricks in my gums than screaming in my face.

The dentists began their work, slicing and sawing and pulling, but all I felt was the jerking of my head. One nurse gasped and said “That doesn’t look good,” but I suspect that was to try and break my cool complexion which I expertly held during the entire procedure.

Afterwards my mouth was jammed with gauze and I could not shout, or speak above a whisper. I was given a prescription (for what I did not know) and sent away. A normal recruit had to lead me back because if an overzealous drill instructor were to confuse my silence for copping an attitude someone could become upset and throw a tantrum. Having returned to my squad bay I gave my prescription to a drill instructor and went on bed rest, donning a shirt and shorts and only moving from the bed for food or the toilet. I was legally obligated to do nothing but “get better.”

The drill instructor returned from the pharmacy with a bag for me containing two rattling bottles. One bottle was Motrin, a paltry pill no better than aspirin found at any drug stone on the outside. The other though, was Vicodin, a sweet opiate which would definitely take away my ache. Granted, the dose was low, but recruits clamber for anything that will either excite or dull their senses. Our mouthwash was nonalcoholic for this very reason (why we had mouthwash when we never saw women is another story).

I am not much of a pill-popper so I mostly stuck to the Motrin, tasting the Vicodin only rarely. After a day observing my platoon go about their business from the great height of my bunk bed, I went on light duty for two days. Sadly, I had to put on my uniform instead of comfortable shorts, swapping tennis shoes for the requisite boots. But I didn't have to march or run or handle my dumb rifle. It was boot camp lite.

All of my pills were stored in my backpack, a big no-no because there was no lock separating them from other hungry recruits. One day I opened my backpack and found the Vicodin bottle was empty! No matter, I still had Motrin and I had avoided the dreaded dry-socket everyone is warned about with wisdom teeth extraction.

A few days later I was put back on full duty. I secretly hoped for them to call me back, slapping themselves for forgetting a compacted tooth. No such call came. I savored my few days of quasi-freedom as perhaps the high (or low) point of boot camp and moved on.

We had just completed marching on the “grinder” (a large slab of flat pavement meant for ceremonies) when an unfamiliar drill instructor walked up and talked to our Staff Sergeant Stahl, a burly Asian with a decided command of psychological torture. They talked quietly and the unfamiliar one took out a piece of paper and showed it to Stahl. He read it and immediately started to freak out.

“Beeman! Beeman! Get the fuck over here!” Beeman came running out of formation and stood at attention in front of Stahl. His face looked as if he knew what was coming next. The unfamiliar drill instructor grinned with recognition.

“Did you write this letter, Beeman?”

“Yes, sir,” Beeman said, his voice quivering.

“Did you write this part right here?”

“Yes, sir,” his voice quivering even more.

“Beeman here got caught writing a letter in dental today,” Stahl announced to the platoon. Writing a letter anywhere other than in your bed at night or on Sunday mornings was not allowed, especially in dental. Any time a recruit is caught the letter is snatched up and read by the drill instructor on the spot. No one ever bothered questioning the legality of such a thing.

“This is what Beeman wrote: 'I took the Vicodins I bought the day before and woke up in the morning all groggy and chink-eyed.'” emphasis Stahl’s. It was hard to decide what was the worst part: that he bought drugs or that he used a racial slur belonging to the drill instructor reading the letter. Many of the drill instructors in my company were minorities. Two of my drill instructors were black, one Latino, and Stahl was Korean. The days of racist slurs being thrown around were gone, and racism was not tolerated by recruit or instructor.

Every drill instructor in the area surrounded Beeman, the bills of their Smoky Bear hats blotting the sun, making his already beet-red face even darker.

“Who'd you buy the Vicodin from, Beeman? Who?!” Stahl screamed. Other unintelligible screams emanated from the circle of drill instructors.

Stahl was screaming in his face with an intensity much stronger than his normally subdued but strangely menacing style. Beeman started to shake and the entire platoon felt the tension build.

“W-w-w-” Beeman stuttered.

What? No! Not me! I didn't sell him anything! He stole it from me! I felt sick. This was a serious offense; I could be sent to jail, never graduate, be a felon for the rest of my life. My parents would be so disappointed. “Our son, the strong Marine, turns to selling drugs to miscreant recruits!”

“W-wiley, sir!” I sighed in relief. Wiley was a good guy, a chef-in-training back home. Our bunks were adjacent and he often tried to explain to me the science behind cooking, but I was unable to progress beyond the five basic sauces. Frankly though, I was glad it was him and not me. He wasn't present at the time, which was good for us because the tension slowly died down.

“Good...” That dreaded word was spoken whenever things were not good. Beeman was whisked away by another drill instructor, and we were all left wondering about his fate.

Wiley and Beeman seemed to have vanished; rumors flew around about their torture by the hands of other drill instructors.

The next day Beeman came into our squad bay in a run. His face was covered with sweat and dirt, so thick it seemed like he was covered with mud. His beet-red face still shone through, his eyes crying out in distress. I saw him only for a moment doing pushups, side-straddle hops (a fancy term for jumping jacks), and yelling before he ran off to another squad bay.

Some recruits said they knew what had happened. They said he was sent room-to-room to every minority drill instructor and was worked mercilessly. One popular story was spread about a particularly fiery drill instruct named Gunnery Sergeant Gonzales, someone I was blessed to not be acquainted with. He had the requisite frog voice (a by-product of near nonstop screaming), but there was something else, a demon in his throat. As Beeman was nearing his millionth pushup for the day, he let slip something in his delirium: “Oh God...” Gonzales perked up at this and bent over to Beeman's ear.

“There is no God,” whispered Gonzales, “only Satan…” Then Gonzales summoned the demon is his throat, and threw up at will right onto Beeman's back. We heard Gonzales had this unique ability and it jived with the demon motif. Anyone who was told this piece of hearsay stared into nothing and was thankful they had only heard this story.

Wiley and Beeman were gone, their things packed up and their beds empty. I saw Wiley later. He was dropped back a few weeks in training, and he declined to say anything else. Things couldn't have gone that badly. He stayed in boot camp and graduated, even after being caught for dealing drugs, which I thought would be a felony offense. During the affair I briefly considered telling my drill instructors that my Vicodin was stolen (by Wiley? Beeman? I don’t care to know) and I may have contributed to this whole mess, but then I returned to reality when I concluded it would only result in more screaming, at me in particular, and I just wasn’t willing to go through with that, especially coming off such a nice vacation.

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