I was in the military and I’d reported to the Army-run dental clinic which was carved out of a sprawling vintage German complex.  If you signed up, the military sent you a computer punch-card every six months reminding you of your checkup.  And you better show.  Disciplinary action if you didn’t.  This was the military in the late 70s.

My dental health is a priority in my later life.  I brush twice and floss daily.  I can’t not do it.  I may talk dirty sometimes and my teeth are a little raggedy-ass, but clinically, my cake hole is pretty clean.  I didn’t start getting really serious about my dental hygiene until my 20s.  Sure, I brushed every day.  I could sense when my breath was bad and I’d use a mouthwash or chew some gum.  But I didn’t floss.  Key.  Most dentists will tell you that if you’re on a desert island and you have a choice between brushing and flossing, take the floss.  Every time.  Remove that bad-breath-inducing compost from your mouth.

So I’m at the front desk signing in.  The matronly German woman behind the glass slowly drags on a cigarette while she watches me write my name down.  She directs me to a part of the building I’ve never visited before on previous appointments.  The basement.

Like I said, these buildings were vintage.  Heavily used during the second world war.  So the further you probed into the bowels of the place, the darker it got.  As I went lower and lower down to the basement, the more ominous it became.  Then I found the room.  Pretty much bare, except for a solitary dental chair placed precisely in the middle of the room.  Waiting.  For me.

If you’ve never seen the movie Marathon Man, the next time you get situated in a dental chair, ask your dentist if it’s safe.  If they laugh, you know they’ve seen it.  I haven’t met a dentist yet who didn’t know if it was safe or not.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, Laurence Olivier plays one helluva scary ex-Nazi who tortures a tied down Dustin Hoffman by drilling on his teeth without anesthetic.  Between each fresh episode of drilling, the wicked doctor interrogates Hoffman about some missing diamonds and asks, “Is it safe?”  The picture came out in 1976, so it had only been a couple of years since I’d seen it.  And here I was staring at the set imported directly from the movie.  Asking myself, “Is it safe?”

Then Tech Sergeant Pope entered.  He seemed huge to me.  As in massive.  And he was black as coal.  As black as your skin can be.  And he came in wearing a Doug Bari face. Phasers set to kill.

Am I safe?

No.  Definitely not.  I am not safe.

“Sit down,” he commanded and growled at the same time.  I did as told.  Without a peep.  Totally submissive.  Big pussy.

He preps his table of instruments for a minute, then turns to me and hesitates.  Looks at me and sighs heavily.  Across his forehead, I swear I see the words print out like a jumbo-tron:  “Oh, great, I bet this skinny white boy doesn’t even floss.”

And he was right.  The skinny white boy was not flossing.

I can honestly say I’ve never had a cleaning appointment like the one that day, before or since.  TSgt Pope did things to me in that chair that would spur lawsuits in our politically correct society.

But I was scared.  So I kept my mouth shut.  Unless he was ordering me to keep it open.

His first move was quite theatrical.  Using the metal explorer hook, he dug out a wedge of greenish crud from between two of my molars.  He held it up in front of me and manifested the most repulsed look one might manifest.

“Oh, this is beautiful,” he cringed.  “What did you, bring me some breakfast or something?  What should I do, put it on a cracker?”

He slowly wiped off his instrument on a sterile napkin and glared.  Back to work.

He ripped me a new asshole in my mouth.  At each new discovery of tooth neglect, he recoiled like he’d smelled shit.  He’d grimace.  “Jeez, man!  Did you even brush before you came in?” interchanged with “This is disgusting!” I repeatedly was allowed to “Please rinse your mouth out!”

I spit out blood.  From the beginning.  And this went on for an hour.

The end of the appointment had the intensity of a religious experience.  He leaned down in my face after the final spitting of blood.  Nose to nose.  Scary as all get out.

“Listen to me,” he lectured.  His black face took on a purplish hue.  Veins popping out on the sides.  “The next time you come in here, you want me to do that to you again?!”

I shook my head no.  No way did I ever want to go through something like that again.

And this is where the religious part comes in.  Sergeant Pope’s face softened in front of my eyes.  While we were still nose to nose.  He was all of a sudden gentle.  Almost with love in his eyes.  I can’t explain it any other way.  Not scary.  He really cared about the skinny white boy.

“Listen, man,” he pleaded.  “Help yourself out.  If you start flossing, it’s the best thing you can do for yourself.  Just do it.  Look, your gums are gonna bleed for a couple of weeks, but that’ll stop.  Think about it.  Less cavities.  Fresher breath.  Just do it.  Teeth are meant to last a lifetime.  Please.  For me.”

And with that, my appointment was done.

Some might contact an attorney.  Or file an IG complaint.  But I didn’t go that route.  I started flossing.  Immediately.  I did exactly as that big scary black guy commanded.  It didn’t take two weeks for my gums to stop bleeding.  That was over in a week and a half.  Since that time, nearly 40 years ago, I have had one single cavity that was a minor pin-prick.  And that cavity was not between my teeth.  And my breath is not too bad.

Ever since the skinny white boy listened to the scary black guy.

Tech Sergeant Pope knew something about me the moment I stepped into his chamber.  He knew I was an asshole.  And that it takes an asshole to put an asshole into his place.  He took his job seriously.  And I’m glad he did.

One of my favorite dentists had a cartoon panel displayed prominently in his waiting room.  The patient asks the dentist if they have to floss all their teeth.  The dentist smiles and replies, “Only the ones you want to keep.”

I hadn’t met her yet, but my wife Judy worked as a dental assistant at the same clinic during the time Pope was working.  She told me he’d been relegated to the basement because he scared people.  But she added that when you got to know him, he was a teddy bear.  He was a nice guy who cared about his family.

Mr. Pope.

Wherever you are.

I floss every day.

So there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of you.

We’re cool.