This is the first in a bimonthly series of articles by Capt. Lou Boudreau, who went to sea with his family at the age of 1, when they started a business running schooner charters in the West Indies. He spent much of his life at sea, sailing aboard Ramona, Bluenose II and Le Voyageur and skippering Atlanta and Mariette. Boudreau is the author of The Man Who Loved Schooners and other books available at caribeebooks.com.
Port Castries in St. Lucia was a bustling seaport in the 1960s. A wonderful harbor on the western side of the island, it was well protected from the northeast trade winds and big enough for the sailing craft of the day to tack into the harbor if needed. A number of big former Nova Scotia fishing schooners were often in port. These magnificent vessels, after a hard life fishing for cod on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, often ended their days as cargo carriers in the islands. Smaller, locally built schooners came and went as well, busy with their missions of the day.
Two tall spars that frequented Castries were those of my father’s 138-foot steel Herreshoff charter schooner, Ramona. She was the magic carpet that transported my siblings and me to the bays and hidden lagoons of the Windward Islands. I have vivid memories of hot, balmy afternoons when the white-hulled schooner lay alongside the Castries docks.
There were no marinas in those days, and we would stop there for provisioning, water and fuel before leaving on a charter cruise. The docks were always a hive of activity as the colorful characters who made a living on the wharf conducted business. There was the professional rat catcher who put his struggling prey into a chicken-wire cage before tossing it into the harbor to drown them. Muscular stevedores chanted and sang as they pushed their loads along the quay in big two-wheeled carts. The local trading schooners loaded and unloaded fish, oil drums, rum in barrels, cattle and any other cargo running between the islands. There was the self-important customs agent, whose favorite word was tomorrow; farther along, colorfully attired women in madras headdresses hawked beads and straw hats to tourists.
And there was the “Teef Pullin’ Man.”
We had heard stories about the dentist who frequented the docks, attending to the teeth of native seamen, but we had never seen him. To us, his basis in reality was tenuous at best — until one morning when I was about 10 years old.
As Ramona lay alongside the Castries wharf filling her water tanks, my brother Peter, sister Janene and I were perched on the furled headsails out on the bowsprit, monitoring the activity ashore. It was a good vantage point, providing excellent views of all that was going on along the wharf.
A peculiar-looking fellow emerged from a small group near the town gate, which was close to us. Short and with white frizzy hair, he wore a white shirt and frayed black suit. Small round spectacles perched on his nose, and although he presented an almost comical caricature, the expression on his face was serious and confident, befitting the importance of his profession. Below his short trousers he sported a pair of lace-up dress shoes, which, in keeping with the custom of the islands, had been lovingly preserved with many layers of white paint.
“Look!” I exclaimed in awe. “It’s him, the Teef Pullin’ Man!”
The little man paused for a moment to scan the waterfront, as if assessing the number of prospective clients, and then, with a purposeful air, he squared his shoulders and swaggered down the dock in our direction. In one hand he carried a black satchel containing the tools of his trade, in the other a small wooden box. Passing our perch, he paused at the trading schooner moored just ahead of us to offer his services.
“Teef pullin’, teef pullin’. All you ain’t have no teef to pull?” he called to the men working on the vessel’s deck.
Schoonerman Fish Cakes Ingredients 4 cups freshly mashed potatoes 4 cups prepared salt cod 1 large onion, finely chopped 4 eggs, slightly beaten Coarse black pepper Curry powder to taste Bacon fat, for frying (serves six) Preparing the cod Once a cheap staple in the islands, salt cod is now expensive. Wash the dried cod thoroughly, removing as much salt as possible. Put the fish in a pot of water and place in the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours, preferably overnight, changing the water once or twice. Boil the cod in fresh water for at least 35 minutes, changing the water once. This eliminates most of the salt. Drain and cool. Remove the skin and bones, and shred the flesh. The cod is now ready to add to the recipe. Combine the potatoes, onion and salt cod. If you don’t like salt cod, use another flaky white fish. Stir in the eggs. Add coarse black pepper and curry powder to taste. Shape into cakes and fry in bacon fat until golden brown on both sides.
A strong-looking seaman paused on the stern. Looking toward the man on shore, he rubbed his jaw. A moment later he vaulted the rail. After a brief consultation, the dentist placed his wooden box on the stone wharf near the schooner’s stern.
“Sit dung heh an’ open you mout,” he ordered. The seaman obeyed.
A swift preliminary examination ensued. The Teef Pullin’ Man unceremoniously bent the sailor’s head back and proceeded to have a good look inside his mouth. Above the bustle of the dock noise, we heard him say, “It rotten, yes, got to come out.”
The patient nodded resignedly. The Teef Pullin’ Man reached into his satchel, pulled out a bottle of the liquid he used as anesthetic and handed it to the sailor.
“Drink lil’ bit o’ dis,” he instructed.
The burly seaman took more than a little bit, causing him to shake his head violently. A moment later the unmistakable smell of high-octane Jack Iron white rum wafted over the bowsprit. Then it was down to business. Taking a large pair of rusty pliers from the black bag, the Teef Pullin’ Man held them away from his side and poured rum over the end.
“To disinfek,” he told the sailor.
The patient leaned his head back and opened his mouth as wide as he could. The dentist made a quick sign of the cross and, with great purpose, went in with the pliers. In our eagerness to watch, my sister almost fell from her perch into the dirty harbor, but the bowsprit net caught her.
“Is he doing it?” she asked, unable to watch.
“Yes, look quick. He’s doing it to him with the big pliers,” I replied.
My sister covered her eyes.
The poor seaman began to struggle, but the Teef Pullin’ Man was strong, despite his diminutive stature. Putting an arm around the sailor’s throat, he continued. A small crowd had gathered, and they all had advice to offer.
“Give de po’ man some mo’ rum nuh — you can’t see him in pain?” the rat catcher said.
“But wait, you pullin’ de wrong toof, you know,” a stevedore said.
The captain of the trading schooner came ashore and took hold of the seaman’s shoulders from behind, helping to hold him still. “What you waitin’ for nuh? Pull de damn toof out,” he urged the dentist.
The potbellied cook from the schooner had come ashore, too, and he stood by in his soiled apron, waving his arms above his head. “All you ain’t know what de hell you doin’,” he shouted excitedly. “You got to give de man a good blow in de back of he head for de toof to come out.”
Several swarthy-faced fellows volunteered to do the job, but the Teef Pullin’ Man staved them off with his pliers, and the merciless surgery continued. I held my breath as the dentist worked his elbow vigorously back and forth, and suddenly the little crowd surrounding the seaman erupted in loud applause.
“Look de toof, de toof, it out, it out,” they chanted.
The Teef Pullin’ Man’s hand flew triumphantly upward, brandishing an impossibly large tooth in the jaws of the pliers. He flourished it above his head like a prize for all to see before tossing it into the harbor, where it fell with a tiny plop. The seaman availed himself of another ample shot of the Jack Iron and, after paying the dentist $3, climbed unsteadily back aboard the schooner to resume his work.
Washing the pliers in the harbor in front of the Ramona’s bowsprit, the Toof Pullin’ Man noticed us for the first time and smiled. “Hello chil’rens. All you ain’t have any toof-aches?” he asked.
Terror-stricken, we edged toward the bow.
“No, our teeth are good, real good,” I replied, shaking my head.
“Yes, we brush them every day,” my sister added, nodding.
“Wif toot’ paste,” my 6-year-old brother assured him.
“Ah, very good then, per’aps a nudder time.”
Bidding us goodbye, he squared his shoulders and moved off in the direction of the next trading schooner, calling out the chant of his trade. “Teef pullin’, teef pullin’, all you ain’t have no teef to pull?”