“ I told my dentist I had yellow teeth. He told me to buy a brown tie” – R.Dangerfield
I have certain nightmares that reoccur with bizarre frequency. Stress, tight deadlines or being asked to clean out the kitty litter box can trigger the same dream where I awaken back in college, minutes before all my final exams and I have not attended a class all semester. To my father’s chagrin, this dream is not too far from what actually happened my sophomore year, but the nightmare is nevertheless unnerving at 49 years old. A rarer nocturnal gem, arrives without warning and involves having my teeth literally falling out as I am eating or speaking.
I am certain this relates to my lifelong phobia of the dentist. This irrational fear plagues most people except masochists and hillbillies and certainly was a burden carried by our ancestors. Ancient dentistry was at best, primitive. The term “Pearly Gates” must have its roots based in dental hygiene. Heaven on earth meant clean pearly whites devoid of pain. Hell was the frequent need of the farrier/cobbler/dentist who would use the same rasp to file a hoof and then extract your aching bicuspid. Pain was character building and penance for decay. Medieval dentists yanked anything that even looked like it was thinking about decay. Decay, whether it be moral or oral, was to be rooted out.
April, 1968. The blue postcard would arrive in the mail like the sinister letter filled with orange seeds in Sherlock Holmes and the Five Orange Pips. It was a death notice. My reaction was akin to the four phases of dying – disbelief, anger, bargaining and acceptance, usually all within about 12 minutes. The author of the invitation from the House of Pain was Dr Allen, our dentist and a certain descendent of the Marquis De’Sade.
Our dentist sported an army crew cut and looked like an evil ventriloquist — grinning and flirting with our mother while saying under his breath…”You may feel a little sting”. This Dr Jekyl would paternally put his arm around us and lead us into the dungeon while my Mom sat down to her Redbook. Once in the chair, Dr Jekyl became Mr. Hyde DDS.
XRAYS were achieved by jamming into your cheek a T shaped piece of reinforced white cardboard the size of a shoe tree that caused immediate pain and involuntary tearing. Then, came the probing of your teeth with a sharp pointed instrument to see if he could make you leap to the ceiling. A mark on the wall presumably indicated the record for the longest jump once a nerve had been hit. It was held by a fourth grader from Alhambra.. If he found an actual cavity, Dr Allen acted as if he had caught you stealing money from the orphans fund at church. The greatest fear and loathing was just prior to a cavity being filled.
“You know, Debbie, I don’t think we need any Novocain, it’s a small cavity.”
At this point, my eyes would bug out of my head like a cartoon character and I would furiously tap an S-O-S with my hand, hoping my mother knew Morse code. I had no voice – – my mouth was full of cotton and my throat dryer than an Arizona rain culvert in July. ” Almoooost done” he would say absentmindedly, dismissing my protests and shooting a wink at lithe, little Debbie, his twenty five year old hygienist who was clearly not the sharpest instrument on the table. I expect she thought a molar was an animal that lived underground inside the Arctic circle.
The dental trauma train just kept chugging along when in young adulthood I was told that I needed extraction of my wisdom teeth. My oral surgeon did not feel general anesthetic was required so he instead shot me up with a quart of Novocain. At this point my eyes were frozen in place. I could only stare, dead from the neck up. He clamped my back teeth and literally put his knee on my chest as he yanked out and broke off each of my four wisdom teeth. Suffering from extraction trauma disorder, I decided to boycott the dentist for several years which proved to be a very bad idea. The day of reckoning resulted in five cavities and a near root canal. I chose a new age, roller-blading, Dead Head dentist with a pony tail, who gave me headphones to wear during the drilling and enough anesthetic to numb every beaver in North America. Yes, it was an expensive lesson but I was relieved that dentistry had advanced since the Dark Ages of Dr Allen.
What a difference a few years can make. My kids actually look forward to the dentist. It is not fair. Their pitted teeth are treated with the equivalent of Kevlar to prevent any attack from plaque. They can eat sugar. Today’s pediatric dentists are child psychologists and pain free practitioners. “Where the heck was I”, I thought when my son needed emergency dental work after cracking his eye teeth. The office had flat screens in front of each chair with head phones piping in Nickelodeon cartoons and what seemed like 12 hygienists – one to wipe my son’s nose, hold his hand and another to tell the pediatric dentist what fine work he was delivering to this very lucky boy. Excuse me? What about the leather strap and the glowing, red hot knife to dig out his broken tooth?
I have to admit, it is easier for me as well. Nowadays, my wonderfully reassuring hygienist Donna coaxes me with regularity back into her dental chair. This particular visit, she asks me if I have ever worn braces. Given that my “use it or lose” flexible spending account was over funded, I decided to take the plunge and get adult braces. A day after getting fitted with my new acrylic tracks, I happened upon a group of my son’s 12 year old friends and showed them my recent dental work. I got head nods and sympathy. Everyone in this posse had braces and they immediately accepted me as an honorary member of the brace face home boys. “Don’t kiss any girls (with braces) and check the mirror because gross junk will be stuck in your teeth all the time. No tootsie rolls, Airheads, gum, or Salt Water Taffy.” They shook their heads in solidarity. “Got it” I said, “especially about the girls.”
That night, I dreamt a bizarre Kafkaesque nightmare where I was transforming into a horse with huge eye teeth, sort of like old Lampwick when he goes to Pleasure Island with Pinocchio. Intellectually, I was completely prepared for the braces. Emotionally, my tongue and lips kept sending my brain signals that the Watts Towers had been constructed inside my mouth. Somewhere, Dr Allen was laughing at me.
So aside from the sensation that the Metro North spur line is cutting across my gums, life marches on. I mumble more, smile less and vainly try to perfect a laugh that completely disguises my tin grin. It’s a lot of work. My wife tells me it could be worse. “Look on the bright side” she says, with her disgustingly perfect teeth, “you could have to wear a head gear.”
She’s got a point.