Ronnie Dennis, Vincent Lopez, and I were returning from another day in the bush dropping trees for timber or road access, when someone shouted my name. I turned to see Ruth and a couple of her friends coming toward me. She held her hand in front of her mouth while she scurried over to us, and as she got closer I could see that her neck and face were blushed a bright pink. Her adorably unique seal-bark laugh kept escaping around the hand at her mouth. She walked half-bent and sideways up to me and put her free hand on my shoulder and started rocking to and fro. She continued to guffaw as she turned away from me, then turned back, then turned away, while continuing to hold her other hand to her mouth. I was chuckling with her by then, but just as persistently asking what was going on. She might have danced her embarrassment for some time if one of her companions hadn’t threatened to tell me herself. At first, all Ruth could muster through her upheld hand was that she needed my help, I answered “Okay,” which is how I often respond to a request for help, usually before I know what’s required, especially from someone who is as helpful, kind, and unassuming as Ruth was. Mom – and Dad in his way – taught me to be willing to help. Whether or not I actually can help comes out later.
Ruth gathered herself enough to stay in front of me, but she kept wriggling her mortification. I wanted to ask her why she kept her hand poised at her mouth like she was about to start tapping it to her face while giving it her best “woo, woo, woo…” but as she explained her situation, I got my answer:
Ruth had been very sick earlier that day. Nothing new there. Many of us had been sick on more than one occasion in Jonestown. Anyway, something she’d ingested had not wanted to stick around, and after a mad dash to the outhouse, Ruth had hurled the contents of her stomach into the human waste pit. Her two front teeth had gone along with it.
There were no dentists in Jonestown, no one even close. Given whom we were trying to pass off as a doctor, my guess is that if we had had so much as a dental hygienist in our ranks, he or she would have been set up to work on our teeth. But we had no one. We certainly didn’t have the skill, materials, or equipment to manufacture orthodontic replacements. Such capability would’ve been hard to come by in all of Guyana. So the two fake teeth floating atop waste from both ends of the human body were the only thing keeping young and vibrant Ruth from a six-month-old – or eighty-six-year-old – grin.
I told her not to worry, that we would get her teeth back, and I didn’t hesitate in telling her. I thought the cost was too great for us to fail. I envisioned the teeth perched serenely nine or ten feet down whatever hole Ruth had chosen. I found something very different when Ruth took us to the spot.
The outhouse was a fifteen-by-twelve structure built over a fifteen-foot deep pit. It was divided down the middle into two seven-by-twelve rooms, one for men and one for women, each with their own door to the outside. Running the full length of either side of the dividing wall was an enclosed bench along the top of which was cut six toilet-sized ovals holes for people to send their business through.
But if their business was vomiting, most people would have done it in the bushes. Not Ruth, though. Even in her distress, I imagine she probably considered what was the most sanitary thing for her fellow Jonestownites, and public vomiting was probably not something that was attractive to her. Sticking my face where hundreds of butts had been and leaning over the putrid muck while I got sick is definitely not something I would have done.She had and, thank God for small mercies, she chose a hole in the middle, as far away from the slimed walls as possible.
I was already thinking about what we could rig up to a string and lower through the hole to scoop up the teeth when Ruth shined the flashlight through the hole. Not straight down, though. At an angle, toward the back. In my imaginings I hadn’t taken into consideration the violence of Ruth’s purging. The flashlight beam bored in on the red and ivory of the bridge more than six feet to the rear of the toilet hole, and nine feet down. Suddenly things felt more like an expedition than a favor.
Okay, I thought as I knelt there alongside Ruth, so the idea of rigging some scooping or hooking contraption on the end of a string was out. We couldn’t risk knocking the teeth beneath the more solid top layer with some kind of toss and snag method. Even if we could have pitched something out and around the teeth, by the time we dragged it back over the swamp and up to butt-seat level the teeth would surely have been lost. The only sure way to get those teeth was to pluck them from their precarious spot. The best method for this presented itself to me instantly and perfectly. I returned to upright and looked directly at Ronnie. He glanced over at me to see that I was suddenly very interested in him, and his look revealed his suspicion that whatever was turning in my head would not be good for him. While I was mentally comparing his 5’6” and 150 pounds to my 6’4” and 175, and the specific abilities that each had demonstrated, Ronnie gave an exaggerated look over his shoulder as if to see if I might be looking at someone or something behind him, then angled a glanced out of the corner of his eye at me, and with a fought-off smile said, “What?” But he knew what. One of us was going to have to go in and get those teeth. He saw the feasibility of my plan when I explained it, and after a drawn out “Aw, Steve” accompanied by the appropriate body language, agreed that my assignment of roles was the best.
I sent Vincent to ask Mike Touchette for two strong thirty-foot long ropes and the best respirator he had available. Ronnie and I went to get a pry-bar and hammer. By the time Vincent returned with the rope and mask, Ronnie and I had removed enough of the top boards from the shared throne to create a two-by-five foot opening. Ronnie’s body was still well protected by his jungle garb. The long sleeves and pants, headscarf, and high boots meant to keep bugs and snakes at bay would now serve as a barrier to unspeakable bodily fluids. He would put on the mask at the last minute because it was hot, cumbersome, and suffocating. Mike also provided some goggles because, as he warned, the methane would burn the eyes just as easily as the lungs.
Like all structures in Jonestown, the ceilings of the outhouse were peaked and the beams and rafters exposed. We threw one end of each rope over the crossbeam directly above the opening. The other two ends we tied to Ronnie. I looped and tied one around his torso, beneath his armpits. Then I had Ronnie get up on what remained of the toilet seat before I tied the other rope around his ankles. I then yanked and tugged hard on both. Vincent, and another man we’d called in to help, and I pulled on the torso rope hard enough to lift Ronnie off the bench and, while he was suspended, I hung from him for a moment. This was all very uncomfortable for Ronnie, but he did not complain. He was glad for the precaution. Finally, he put on the respirator and goggles.
When we were done, Ronnie looked a bit like a cross between a fly and a pig dressed like a pirate on safari. From that point till we lowered him into the pit, he didn’t say a word. He nodded to all of my readiness questions, so we slid both ropes along the beam to a point above the target, pulled them taut, and then focused all our attention and strength on the torso rope. I asked Ruth to stand ready to stabilize and swing Ronnie out over the opening. She kept her hands on him, turning him as he hung so he would face the teeth, and in this position we lowered him feet first into the hole, with him dragging the ankle rope along, kept taut by the coiled weight of its unused length.
With the friction of the rope angling over the crossbeam, any one of us could have lowered Ronnie, but we all stayed with it until we had his shoes within a couple of feet of the nastiness. Then I left my rear position, looped the rope around the back of the guy who would be assuming the rear-strength spot, and moved over to the ankle rope. I asked Ronnie, whose head was now five feet beneath toilet seat level, if he was okay. He mumbled, “Just beautiful.” It took everything I had not to laugh. I did admonish him not to say anything to piss me off, and spent a moment trying to think of any agreements I might like to extract from him in that moment of great leverage, but only while I busied myself with preparing for what was next.
Once I was sure everyone was ready, I told Ronnie we were going to rotate, then immediately started pulling on the ankle rope while instructing the others to let out on the torso rope at a rate matching mine. Ronnie bent, twisted, and turned his gymnast’s body to facilitate the heels-over-head maneuver. In no more than fifteen seconds, we had his head pointing down, less than a foot from the six-foot-deep shitmire, and facing away from Ruth’s teeth
Before Ronnie had a chance to contemplate his predicament, I shifted the guys to take my place at the ankle rope and then grabbed it at the point where it entered the opening. I pulled the crackling rope toward me and away from the teeth, swinging Ronnie about six inches, then pushed the rope away from me the same. I pulled then pushed, pulled then pushed, gradually increasing the arc of Ronnie’s swing until he could point his face at the teeth on the “to” and his head was within a foot of the wall on the “fro”. It was a now-or-never moment of breath-taking proportions. Just before the penultimate swing I shouted, “Now Ronnie!” and on his next swoop for the teeth he bellowed, “Only for yoouuu, Steeeve!” swung out his arm and plucked them from the muck at the end of his reach. I immediately hit the rope low to prevent a head planting on the swing back, quickly stopped the human pendulum, jumped onto the bench, and heaved upward on the rope. The other two dragged it over the rafter till Ronnie’s head cleared seat level and the girls could swing him clear enough for us to lower him to the ground with a blood-rushed head, sweaty body, and a tiny bit of green and brown on the ends of the fingers that were deathgripping Ruth’s teeth.
This is what I know still: Ronnie was a black kid from East LA who, prior to the Temple, had known no one of Ruth’s pale complexion and suburban background, and if she, in the very next instant, had somehow dropped those teeth back in, he would not have hesitated to go right back after them.