Teeth and dynamite

My father, Voitto Pokela
My father, Voitto Pokela

This excerpt is another from Dad’s book Footprints in Australian Sand.  I am in the process of translating it into english.

This is a story of toothaches and communication gone really badly wrong…. ouch !

Grigor was a first class engineer. Before the war in Germany he had completed two university courses. He spoke German well even though his mother tongue was Polish. During the war he had a special commission in the partisan movement. Having been badly wounded he was moved to a veteran’s hospital in England. Eventually he moved to Australia. As with thousands of other Europeans ravaged by war his identity was changed to protect him.

The reality of daily life confronted him in Tasmania. Work for the educated man was  only to be found at the end of a shovel in dam and road works. He had learnt some English in the veteran’s hospital in England but his accent was so heavy that trying to communicate by talking often led him into difficulties. The futility and spiritual vacuum in which he lived was compensated for by an improvement in his physical condition especially when his work was recognised  and he had a bit extra in his pay packet.

Grigor’s life was  unexpectedly turned upside down when he was hit by a terrible toothache whilst working on a large dam in the Tasmanian wilderness. The site had hundreds of workers. A dental clinic had been set up as part of a basic first aid station.  A dentist visited once or twice a month and the resultant treatment was usually restricted to removal of the offending tooth. The days the dentist visited meant long waiting lines right from early morning.

One day Grigor was in line very early. One of his right back teeth had made life hell for several days and nights already. A couple had holes and they had been treated unsuccessfully with every possible pain killer in the first aid station. One night Grigor had got himself rolling drunk and the night had passed pretty well but the next morning he had a terrible hangover on top of the toothache.

Grigor’s toothache became the subject of conversation for the whole work site. There were plenty of willing advisors but the pain did not subside. In the end many of them  were given a speedy  farewell from the barracks where the patient lived. But one smart aleck managed to convince Grigor to try yet another thing which he was sure would work. It could only be tried on the strongest of men and everyone agreed that Grigor fell into this category.

So down to business. Grigor was sat down on a suitable rock with two strong men holding him by the hands as a precaution. Another took a firm hold of his head from behind so the smart aleck could get on with the treatment. In his right hand he had a sharpened, slim twig, in the left a stick of dynamite with the end opened. A fairly large crowd had gathered to watch intently as the smart aleck poked the stick into his victim’s mouth.  He grunted in satisfaction when the patient let out a terrible yell and a mighty string of Polish swear words.

The site of the pain had been established and the rest would be fixed in no time. Sure of himself the smart aleck poked the twig into the dynamite and selected what he thought would be the right amount of this wondrous matter which would chase the toothache to the ends of the world for sure. Before Grigor reluctantly opened his mouth again he had to solemnly swear that he would not poke the stick into the nerve again.

Very carefully the smart aleck was able to fill the offending hole in the aching tooth with the right amount of dynamite. Just to make sure the neighbouring tooth would not start to cause problems he cemented that hole with the same substance as well. Eyeing his work contentedly, he jokingly warned his patient. It would be best, he said, if he did not bite down hard on his teeth, as the dynamite he used contained more than the usual amount of nitroglycerine.

He had barely had time to finish his warning when Grigor let out an even more terrible yell than before and jumped up. But the strong man hanging onto  his arms did not let go. And so the smart aleck, who later became known as the T-therapist, was able to get enough of a head start to disappear off the stage. He had dropped the dynamite stick on the ground in his rush. Grigor  picked it up putting it carefully in his pocket.

He swore he would search for the T-therapist to the ends of the earth. The amused audience standing around grew quiet and soon disappeared. The only ones left were a few Poles. Henry included, and a couple of first aid men who had been in attendance.

Mouth washes, strong pain killers and sleeping tablets settled Grigor enough so that he gave the stick of dynamite into Henry’s care. It was a restless night in the first aid station with Henry and a couple of other Polish men for company. The toothache had settled somewhat but in its place crept a severe headache. The dentist arrived the next day. Henry, who was very worried about his friend, sat in line with him and offered to act as interpreter when his turn came. But the dentist wanted to talk directly with his patient. He had apparently always managed without interpreters.

The dentist did not waste any time. Having looked at his patient’s mouth, he asked the nurse for an injection of  anaesthetic . In his hurry he anaesthetised two teeth on the wrong side as they also had holes. A few minutes later he took a sturdy hold of his instrument. As his pretty assistant smiled encouragingly at the patient the dentist started to jiggle the tooth loose. And of course the tooth came free in the hands of an expert.

Spitting blood the patient tried to say something but to no avail. And so the second tooth was pulled with just one crunch. Later, during the trial, the dentist told  the court it was only then that he realised he had made a human error. The nurse had, however, noticed the same thing after the first tooth had clanged into the bowl. But she had been so shocked that she could not say anything to her boss.

Grigor also had noticed it when the first tooth was pulled. Already at this stage his slow and convoluted brain functioning had decided on what was to be done. Grigor could not remember any of it or the following three months even five years later. However, the events had been etched permanently into the memories of the dentist and the nurse.

Even before the dentist had had time to drop his second human error into the spit bowl both his hands were encased in an iron grip. The patient lightly lifted the dentist into the same chair in which he himself had sat a few moments earlier. Neither the nurse’s sweet smiles nor any struggles were of help at this stage. Instrument firmly held in his right hand and the dentist’s head tightly in the crook of his left arm the former patient Grigor determined to carry out the plan as instructed by his brain.


It was necessary to start with the front teeth so there would be room to work. The first tooth came out easily. And why not –  even though he was no expert, he was strong. As he dropped it into the spit bowl Grigor said, powerfully rolling his r’s, First one! At this stage the nurse recovered enough to dash out to the waiting area for help.

As Henry and three other men rushed to the aid of the dentist, who had suddenly against his wishes become the patient, the third tooth clanged into the spit bowl as Grigor announced Third one, no charge! Help was needed from the three first aid men who arrived on the scene before it was possible to finally wrest Grigor away. Even then he loudly protested for he would have emptied the dentist’s mouth of all teeth without charge.

With the help of two of the first aiders and Henry, Grigor was taken to a psychiatric hospital for assessment. He did not even recognise Henry although they had worked at the same place together for years. The security ward of the psychiatric hospital became Grigor’s home for nearly a year. It would probably have been for life had not the major taken matters into his own hands.

Negotiations with the dentist had proceeded smoothly as the matter was settled between the lawyers. All charges had been dropped on both sides. The dentist had offered to pay for Grigor’s dental care although he did not want to do the work himself. The holes had been filled. In the place of the two human errors which had clanged into the spit bowl Grigor’s mouth shone with two gold plated teeth.

The dentist had visited Grigor in the security ward of the psychiatric hospital in the company of a Polish specialist. He wanted to check out whether his mistake had caused this nervous breakdown. The specialist assured him that the breakdown could have occurred regardless and so the two who had cared for each other’s teeth smiled and shook hands. They would let bygones be bygones although both would seek dental care from objective professionals in the future.

© Raili Tanska

16 thoughts on “Teeth and dynamite

  1. That had me engaged l love reading it, l have loved reading your blog since l discovered it a few weeks ago, your are 1 of my favourite bloggers now

    1. Susan, I am so delighted and honoured 🙂 Thank you for your kind comments, I am always a little taken aback to think that there are wonderful people out there like you who actually like what I have to say! It’s awesome 🙂

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