In these times of high-tech entertainment, multi-million dollar movies, and over stimulation, the simple art of storytelling often seems eclipsed; a case of the message being overrun by the medium. However, I have found one place, or should I say one person in my life that I can still hear a story told well. My dentist.
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I have had other dentists, whom I thought well of. Competent, friendly sorts, capable of reversing the damage I did to my teeth due to my inability to floss. They did not, however, personify the art of the story. Or if they did, they declined to use their patients as an audience.
One of my earlier dentists thoughtfully provided headphones that allowed the patient to tune into whatever station they preferred and thereby tune out whatever unpleasantness they were about to endure. I always appreciated this as his banter amounted to whatever he had scribbled down on my chart the first time we met. For years after our first meeting, a time during which I was doing construction to put myself through school, he continued to ask me if I was still laying brick even though I had graduated and was now the Advertising & Promotion Director for a large record company. The headphones, needless to say, were appreciated.
Dr. Tinney is different.
Where other dentists employ assistants to keep them company while they drill and scrape, Dr. Tinney keeps me entertained with his stories. And I don't mean that he merely rambles on to hear the sound of his own voice. That would be enough in itself for me to prefer the sound and fury of the drill. No, Dr. Tinney is actually a good storyteller. And he is a storyteller in the traditional sense. We can't have a traditional conversation, as my mouth is usually full of cotton, metal or his fingers. He talks. Occasionally I grunt a yes, no, or if there's nothing blocking my way, I answer or try to add something. But for the most part, Dr. Tinney performs a constant monologue. And I listen.
On a recent visit, the conversation turned to his days in medical school, where, to help pay his way, he used to work in the anatomy department cleaning up the body parts from the previous semester and setting up the rooms for the following class. It seems he had come upon this strange job because his father had been a mortician and young Dr. Edward Tinney was accustomed to being around cadavers. The man who Ed worked for was an old black man who had also been a mortician as a younger man and was now in charge of, among other things, the bodies. His name was Herman.
Within the dental college at Ed's university was a graduate clinic that dealt with orthodontia, dentures and whatnot. It was called the Herman Clinic named after some benefactor or another, presumably named Herman. Well rather than tell people that he spent his days off carting dead bodies around for an old black man to make ends meet, Ed simply told them that he worked in Herman's Clinic and let them believe he was working in the post graduate clinic.
Now working in Herman's clinic usually just meant gathering the various limbs and body parts, putting them into large gray tubs for Herman to take away. But one day Herman told Ed that his back was bothering him and asked if he would give him a hand carting the bodies to the basement.
Ed agreed and they wheeled the covered tubs into the elevator and made their way to the basement. The basement was of the sort you would expect in an old large institution like a medical school. Dark, full of strange noises and smells. Herman led him down a corridor and into a room that seemed to Ed to have been drug out of a bad horror movie.
In the center of the room was a large furnace. Herman walked to it, put on a thick leather glove and opened the heavy iron door. Then with no further fanfare or eulogy for the deceased, Herman started feeding the body parts into a furnace.
This is not your average dental chair conversation.
But that wasn't the only story I heard about Herman's clinic. On another visit, probably a cavity in my upper bicuspid, Dr. Ed told me about another adventure he and Herman had carting dead bodies around.
It seemed that on one occasion, Herman and young Ed had to transport the newly dead bodies to the Gross Anatomy room so that the incoming class would have something to dissect. They arrived in a truck of some sort with the bodies stacked in the back. It just so happened that there was a new security guard on duty that night, and he was bent on being all that he could be.
The guard insisted on seeing whatever it was that Herman and this young medical student wanted to bring into his building. Herman just shrugged and motioned for the guard to have a look for himself. As the guard stood and pulled up his pants, Herman gave Ed a little wink and followed the guard out to the truck.
Now according to Ed, the guard appeared to have just finished dinner, as there was an empty box of KFC(r) sitting on the guard's desk. They trio walked out to the loading dock and Herman and Ed watched as the guard opened up the back of the truck. The guard pulled his flashlight out of his utility belt and with an air of authority proceeded to pull back the plastic that covered their cargo.
What happened next was inevitable, I guess. This particular guard had not been around long enough to have become accustomed to what exactly goes on at medical school. The guard froze for second as if he could not believe what he was looking at. In fact, according to Dr. Ed, he thought it took awhile for the guard's mind to comprehend what he was looking at. Even at medical school, you really don't expect to see a truckload of dead bodies on your first night of duty.
The guard turned around about as white as the plastic that covered the bodies and proceeded to lose the entirety of his KFC dinner, chicken, biscuits, beans and all.
The drill whined, and I did my best not to laugh, as I was afraid Dr. Ed might put a hole in something other than what he intended. Dr. Ed asked me to sit up and spit, then finished by telling me that they never saw that guard again.
I understand that a lot of people bail out of medical school in the first few weeks. I guess it's no different with the guards.
You either have the stomach for it or you don't.
One other thing I should mention. For the first year or so I never saw what Dr. Ed looked like. He always wore both a mask over his mouth, as well as a clear plastic shield that covered most of his face. I got to thinking of him as the masked storytelling dentist of Cape May County. And that's just what he is.
So if you're ever near South Jersey and feel the need for a story told well, look up the good Dr. Tinney. He'll jab your gums, and drill your teeth, make you spit even though your lips have ceased to function properly, but you'll come away with more than just a healthy set of teeth and gums. Trust me.