Last week, I woke up out of a dead sleep with the world’s worst toothache. It felt as if someone had taken a metal spike, heated it to 1,000 degrees and rammed it into my tooth…and then twisted it. The pain shot into my ear and then into my eye. Unfortunately, for my entire life, my mouth always has lived by one specific rule: toothaches, especially really bad ones, must strike only on weekends, when dentists are closed.
So I suffered all weekend, counting the minutes until Monday morning…and eating all of my meals from a blender because it hurt so much to chew. Believe me, chicken and potatoes pureed in a blender weren’t exactly what I’d call gourmet fare. In fact, the end result was a cross between wallpaper paste and pudding…chicken pudding.
Excuse me…I had to pause for a moment there to gag.
Last Monday, as I was lying in the dentist's chair, awaiting the results of my x-rays, I couldn't help but think back to the days when dentistry was downright barbaric, and I silently thanked my lucky stars I wasn't having my toothache taken care of back in the early 1900s.
I can remember my grandmother telling me stories about her dentist, whose cure for everything was to just yank the tooth. She said he would sit her down, wedge his knee somewhere between her ribs, and then reach into her mouth and yank. If the pain became too unbearable and she cried out, he kept a bottle of something about 80-proof handy to help ease the pain (or to make his patients too "happy" to care about it).
Funny, but back in the 1960s, I regularly went to a dentist who must have trained at the same school as my grandmother's dentist. Actually, he said he'd learned dentistry in the navy years before, during the war. He never said which war, but considering his techniques, I'm pretty sure it was the Civil War.
For one thing, he kept a bottle of whiskey in a cabinet near the examining chair (he had three dental chairs in his office: one for examinations and cleaning, another for x-rays, and a third one for the actual dental work). He often showed me the bottle, which was covered with dust, and told me it was the first Novocain ever invented...and the best.
He was a sociable guy, who loved to talk. Unfortunately, he usually spent more time talking than actually working on my teeth. Even a small filling was guaranteed to take about two hours. He'd pause about 20 times during the procedure to tell his old navy stories, complete with exaggerated hand gestures. The filling probably would have taken only about 10 minutes if he had stopped talking long enough to actually work on it. And he always worked alone when fixing teeth. Dental assistants, he said, just got in his way (and probably would have quit anyway, after hearing his same old navy stories four or five hundred times). He did have a secretary/bookkeeper, though.
This dentist had some unusual habits, which, because I didn't know any better, thought were perfectly normal. For example, after he filled a tooth, he would press his finger on the filling until it set. And while he was pressing it, he would sit there and read the morning newspaper.
He also had a habit of disappearing in the middle of a dental procedure. He suddenly would set down the drill and say, "Hang on a minute, I'll be right back." Then, a few minutes later, through the window in front of the chair, which faced the street, I would see him, bundled up in his hat and coat, walking his dog. Sometimes he wouldn't return for a half-hour. And one time, when my mother was in the chair, the dentist took off with his dog, ended up meeting some old buddies, and forgot all about her.
The incident that still stands out the most in my mind, however, occurred on the day the dentist brought his new puppy to work. He kept the dog in a storage room out back, which contained a blanket, dog food, water, and puppy toys, but still, the dog howled so much, it disturbed not only the patients, but also just about every tenant in the building.
As I sat in the dental chair, waiting for yet another dreaded filling, because my voracious penny-candy addiction back then caused me to sprout a constant crop of fresh cavities, the dentist walked in with the puppy slung underneath his arm. "Here," he said, thrusting the dog at me. "You like animals, don't you? Can you hold him and keep him quiet while I work on your teeth?"
Naturally, being a kid, I was thrilled to death, even though now that I think back to that day, I'm sure the Board of Health would have slapped him with every violation known to man, had an inspector popped in and spotted the puppy sitting on my lap and sniffing the spit drain.
Anyway, I sat there happily clutching the puppy and feeling as if maybe the dentist's office wasn't the worst place in the world to be forced to spend a perfectly good summer morning after all, when suddenly the dentist fired up the old drill. The sound of it startled the puppy...and it promptly wet all over my lap.
When I cried out in surprise, the dentist looked down at my wet lap, frowned, and calmly said, "I won't charge you anything for your filling today."
I remember how, when I told my dad about it, he’d laughed and said, “Too bad the dog didn’t poop on you – you might have been able to get free dental work for a year!”
And I'll never forget when, in later years, the dentist first learned a brand new dental procedure called bonding. My mother was one of the first people he tried it on, and he proceeded to bond her two front teeth together. When she got home, she smiled at me and said, "How do they look?"
"Like you have a big clump of white bread stuck to your front teeth," I said. "Aren't you supposed to have a line separating your teeth?"
My mother rushed to the nearest mirror and gasped. "My two front teeth have been turned into one giant tooth! What am I going to do? I look like a beaver!"
She returned to the dentist's office and he, using a strip of something that looked like heavy-duty sandpaper, tried to "saw" a space between her two front teeth. My poor mother said that having her toenails ripped off with pliers would have been less painful.
So why did we go to this dentist? Because he was cheap. In fact, he was so cheap, no other dentist in town could compete with his rates. And in the days when dental insurance virtually was unheard of, cheap was important. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. I eventually needed a root canal in just about every tooth he ever filled because he was so "drill happy," he drilled right into the pulp of every one of them.
A few years ago, I was telling my current dentist about my old dentist and his antics. He listened, smiling politely and nodding, then finally shook his head and said, "You don't really expect me to believe any of this, do you?"
"She's telling the truth," his secretary, who, unbeknownst to us, had been listening to every word, cut in. "I don't usually admit this, but back when I was in high school, I worked for the guy she's talking about. She's not exaggerating at all. In fact, I could tell you a few stories about him that would beat hers by a mile."
So now, years later, as I’m sitting here still feeling the effects of my most recent toothache and all of the pain – and money – it ended up costing me, I'm thinking that maybe a couple swigs of whiskey, a knee in my stomach, and a swift, forceful yank on that tooth really might not have been so barbaric after all.
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