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Swingin’ with Dr. Tichenor

tichenor1Is Dr. Tichenor’s the new crack?

On a recent visit to a CVS drugstore to replenish my stash of Dr. Tichenor’s Peppermint Mouthwash Concentrate & First Aid Antiseptic — as the colorful label reads these days, it was nowhere to be found.

“We keep it behind the counter,” a chipper lady in CVS red smock responded to my enquiry.

“Like Sudafed?” I asked in disbelief.

“Dunno — but that’s where it is,” she replied, shaking her head.

For decades, I — like the company’s mid-20th-century pitchman, “Cajun Pete” — have extolled the virtues of this multipurpose liquid, invented by New Orleans’ own Dr. George H. Tichenor back in Civil War days.

The good doctor, so the story goes, was seriously wounded on the battlefield. A military physician was preparing to amputate one of his legs.

Fortunately, Tichnor had sequestered in his knapsack a supply of his miracle elixir. He cleansed the wound himself and walked straight into medical history, allegedly saving the limbs of other wounded soldiers with what would become, as Cajun Pete would crow, “that good ole Dr. Tichenor’s — best antiseptics in town.”

Tichenor was one of the notables immortalized in the 1905 publication Notable Men of New Orleans, “portraits of men who, by their ability and energy have largely contributed to making Crescent City pre-eminent in the South and set a pace for advancement, which must place her in the lead.”

Even today, owners of the company trumpet the various uses of the product. As Cajun Pete was parodied, “Jus’ wrench yo’ mouth wif Tichenor’s, you’ll have the happiest feet in town.”

I assume it’s because it feels so good to rub on your feet that the label warns, “DO NOT USE FULL STRENGTH AS MOUTHWASH.” I have. And lived to beg others to follow their advice.

The label continues, “For external use only.”

And, more frighteningly, “Flammable, keep away from fire or flame.”

Good God! Of course it should be kept behind the counter. In a vault. Locked.

But at 70% alcohol, with 1% peppermint oil — it feels really good.

I can testify to its recreational efficacy. Decades ago, on an eight-hour train trip — in July, in an un-air-conditional coach, traveling from Milan to Florence during a restaurant strike that nixed beverages aboard — I was parched and beginning to hallucinate giant Saguaro cactuses in the broad expanses of passing vineyards.

I opened my small case, and there was my trusty bottle of Dr. Tichenor’s. Peppermint oil. Alcohol. Water, and a few oddities.

I don’t recall reading anything about external use only. I took a sip. It was like opening a refrigerator door into my innards. Then another, till the bottle was empty.

I staggered off the train in Florence, fell onto a bench in the station, and took a nap.

Now that summer’s here, I’ll pat my face, neck and shoulders with Tichenor’s after working in the garden. I’ve been known on scorching days in August to empty an entire bottle over my head and enjoy the refrigerating effect as it flows downward. (A note of caution: There are places where full-strength Tichenor’s should never be applied.)

My Cajun barber, LeRoy LaRive — of Roosevelt and Royal Orleans barbershops fame — had perfected the most invigorating facial imaginable. He’d soak a small towel in Tichenor’s and wrap it around my face. Then he’d place a steaming-hot towel directly over the first and let the combined pack sit for ten minutes. Bliss.

Dr. Tichenor’s turned out to be a cousin’s last request, a suitable New Orleans substitute for Last Rites.

Just before dawn, Cousin Cecilia, in her early 90s, was awake and ornery. Her daughter tried to give her the prescribed medication with a glass of water, which Cele knocked out of her hand.

“Just get me some Dr. Tichenor’s,” she demanded; and off her daughter went to fetch the bottle from the medicine cabinet.

“When I got back with the Tichenor’s, Mother was dead,” she recalled.

New Orleans to the end.


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