Back When I Was in Oklahoma

Looks like a twofer kind of day. I just finished going through all the boxes of stuff we had shipped to Mexico. And I’m on Day Two of my No Fumar Permitido program. I haven’t killed anyone or anything yet, but I’ve been damn close. I need this to preserve my sanity.

Unlike Captain Ken, when I was in the Army I wasn’t stationed outside the US, and I didn’t really spend a whole lot of time with my commanding officer.

I was called into my CO’s office several times so he could scream at me. You may find this hard to believe, but I wasn’t the best soldier to ever serve this country. I didn’t like being in the Army all that much.

I joined the Army because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life after I graduated from high school. I had a vague idea of becoming a dentist, maybe, someday. So I enlisted in the Army to become a dental technician.

In retrospect, I should’ve given a bit more thought to becoming a dentist, and I sure as hell should’ve given a whole lot more thought about joining the Army as a means to an end. But I didn’t, and this would be my first serious journey down a road less traveled.

When I arrived at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, which was my permanent duty station, the last thing they needed was another goddamn dental tech, so I became whatever the Army needed me to become, unless you count that whole good soldier thing…

I drove a truck. I took x-rays. I drove a different truck. I worked in the Ortho lab. I worked in the Dental lab. I took more x-rays. I drove yet another truck. I was a company clerk. And, I took even more x-rays. The Army loved me, except my attitude–but they were never able to rehab it the way Barb Hansmeier would.

I had been in the Army for roughly two and a half years, and I was on CQ duty at Dental Clinic #2, which was attached to the front of Reynolds Army Hospital. The Army takes care of its own, and the Army required a 24 hour clinic for dental emergencies. And the person that handled these emergencies was called the CQ, Charge of Quarters.

Most of the time there were no emergencies, and CQ duty was a piece of cake. Most of the dentists I worked with weren’t all that thrilled about having to come into the clinic in the middle of the night. Many of them would pre-write prescriptions for 3-5 Percocets or something like that, and have the person follow up with them the next day during regular clinic hours.

It was close to a perfect system. I rarely had to call the docs and disturb them. If anyone came in with a toothache, I’d offer them a prescription, and nine times out of ten they’d take it and make a follow up appointment. It was an incredible rarity that one of the doctors would ever have to actually come in to the clinic to handle an emergency. That more than one doctor would have to come in was unheard of.

It was Christmas Eve, 1976. While everyone else was snuggled in bed with visions of dancing sugar plums in their heads, I was listening to Christmas carols at the clinic and randomly waking friends and family members up by calling them to wish them a Merry Christmas at three or four or five in the morning.

My CQ shift was drawing to a close. The sun was starting to lighten the eastern horizon, when a guy walked into the clinic with his wife and two small children. He was a young officer, first lieutenant or a captain. Good looking guy, his wife was some kind of supermodel or something. She was entertaining one of their children, the youngest was asleep in her arms. The guy didn’t have a toothache. He wanted me to look at a sore in his mouth.

“Do you know what it is?” he asked. I did not, I only knew what I’d seen did not look good.

I called the Dentist on Duty. He came into the clinic, took a look in the guy’s mouth, and called the Oral Surgeon on Duty. He came in, took a look in the guy’s mouth and called his boss, the Chief of Oral Surgery. Colonel Kleehammer came in. I had worked with him a lot over my time at Fort Sill. He was probably the only high ranking officer on base that wasn’t concerned about my indifference toward being a good soldier. I took really good x-rays, and that was all he cared about.

I had pulled a lots of CQ duties during the time I’d been in the Army and I had never seen anything like this in my life. I was talking to the guy that was going to relieve me on CQ duty, the dentist that I’d called in, and the oral surgeon that the dentist had called in. The two doctors were tense, and they didn’t want to say what they’d seen, and that’s when I knew they’d seen the same thing I had.

Colonel Kleehammer joined us after he completed his exam. If there had been any snow on the ground that Christmas morning in Oklahoma, his visage would’ve been whiter than that.

“Thank you for coming in, all of you. You can go home now. But I have to figure out how I’m going to tell this young man and his family that he has cancer.”

I’ve had to have some tough talks with family members over the years. It’s incredibly difficult to deliver bad news to someone, and to have to do it on Christmas Day…

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