That sucking sound

After being home a few short weeks in the summer of 1951, it was time to return to Oregon State for my sophomore year. With enough bags and boxes to last through the school year, I bid the folks goodbye in Hays and settled into a coach on the Union Pacific’s City of St. Louis. We were not out of Kansas when I experienced the first signs of a toothache. It was in a lower molar on the left side of my mouth. As this was my first toothache, I was totally ignorant about what might be done to alleviate the pain. The forty-hour trip to Corvallis was not destined to be a leisurely walk in the park.

As the tooth was in the lower jaw, I made my first startling discovery. The decay was apparently quite substantial, and there was a space between the teeth at the site of the decay. I learned that most of the pain was secondary to saliva, which collected around the tooth. When I parted my lips, and sucked air through the left corner of my mouth, directing as much air as possible through the hole between the teeth, the pain was almost eliminated. The wind sucked the saliva away from the decayed area, and I returned to almost pain-free status for several seconds. This was an exciting initial discovery.

Then I made a second, equally startling discovery. My salivary glands were stuck on maximum output, and produced a flood of fluid on a continuing basis. I would suck the fluid away from the teeth, and my salivary glands would fill the space back up in the next few seconds. I would suck, and it would fill. Suck and fill. Suck and fill. I had become totally obsessed with these chemical, organic, or bodily functions, which were never a part of my conscious state up to that time. I was also painfully aware that this process was destined to continue for the next 35 hours, day and night, until I could get off the train. I was confident the Union Pacific would not stop the train while I visited a dentist. The whole miserable scene was not a pleasant prospect.

While I had never taken a course in chemistry, I became my own test tube, experimenting and recording the results. I was trapped in a process from which I could not extract myself. I concluded that the saliva was a catalyst, which triggered the nerve. Removing the catalyst through a blast of fresh, cool air, had the effect of drying the exposed nerve, and interrupted its message to the brain. Now that I had figured it out, the problem became the myriad of ways to prevent moisture from entering the area. I discovered there are dozens of ways, all of which are temporary. Salivary glands are relentless robot-like workers, and gravity was their co-conspirator in producing my pain. Just what can you do about gravity?

I learned to breathe through my mouth, as the airflow produced a continuous drying effect. It was not as efficient as a forceful sucking, but it prolonged the dry state, delaying the moment required for the next suck. Then I learned that I could use gravity for my own purposes, by cocking my head to the right. This diverted the saliva to the right side of my mouth, leaving the left in a drier state. I learned to lie down on my right side for the same reason. This combination of influences, sucking, breathing through my mouth, and tilting my head to the right allowed me to endure several minutes without sucking. This process of experimentation went on for several hours.

It was at about this point that I became aware of the other people on the train. There were not many, but they seemed to believe that I had a chronic tic, mannerism, or other aberration. They were right. They tried to figure out exactly why I was sucking and tilting my head to the right. They would glance at me, but as soon as I would suck, or tilt, they would look away. There were clearly social consequences from my dilemma. For them, it was the sucking and tilting that called attention to my plight. To minimize this influence, I wanted to suck as little as possible and tilt as little as possible, yet when the pain achieved a certain level, I had to suck again. When they thought I was not looking, they would glance back at me.

My next discovery was that acute conditions, like a toothache, tend to become chronic. What works initially loses its effectiveness, and the acute discomfort returns. I found that I needed to suck harder, and more often. That sucking sound became a pervasive quality of that specific train car, and I was the one doing the sucking. I sucked, and sucked. Every few seconds I sucked. One at a time, the folks on the car migrated to other cars on the train, leaving me to suck and tilt without an audience. At each stop, new folks would settle into the car, and shortly thereafter I would hear someone say, “What’s that sucking sound?” Then they would locate the sound and the curiosity would begin again. As soon as they saw the head tilting with the sucking, they would gather up their things, and move to another car. It was fine with me, as I could then suck and tilt in peace as needed for pain.

Throughout this trip I reviewed why this might have occurred. My dental history was unusual, as I had never previously had a cavity in any tooth. I had arrived in Corvallis a year earlier with perfect teeth, crooked lowers, but perfect. The first year as a student was spent in the fraternity basement, which included a recreation area with couches, chairs, a ping-pong table, and a Coke machine. That was where I did most of my studying. That was where I drank several Cokes every day. I calculated that I had consumed nearly 1000 regular Cokes during my first year at Oregon State. Coke machines at the time dispensed one beverage, in a bottle. I was living on regular Coca Cola, complete with sugar, six ounces at a time. It was not just the drink of choice, it was the only drink dispensed from the machine. It cost a nickel. I had bathed my mouth in nickel Coke for nine months.

I arrived in Corvallis during regular working hours, and checked immediately into a dentist’s office. He said the molar was in an advanced state of decay, and could not be salvaged. He pulled it, root and all. Then he examined the rest of my teeth. He said that 13 additional cavities were all in need of immediate attention. Over the next several weeks, I spent more time in the dentist’s chair than in my entire life prior to that time. In those days, pain-killers had not yet been developed for dentists, requiring that I spend another dozen hours of pain in the dentist’s chair. His bill was several hundred dollars, an amount equal to ten times that spent on coke the previous year. My conclusion was inevitable. For every nickel I spent on coke, I would spend another 50 cents at the dentist’s office, and another minute of pain in his chair. The cumulative effect was a miserable payoff for quenching your thirst.

That 40-hour train ride was the longest seven days of my life, but the sucking and tilting was finally over.


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