I went to the dentist last week to have a broken tooth fixed. It was an upper incisor so full of old fillings that two sides of it had broken away. Fortunately the root was not exposed so there was no pain. My dentist informed me that it would require at the very least a cap, or crown, and possibly a root canal with a metal rod screwed into the canal to provide a secure attachment for the artificial tooth. At one time in my life, hearing this would have put me into shock. However, after seventy years of experiencing what this world has had to throw at me, it didn’t scare me in the least. I knew it would not hurt. This is the age of “painless dentistry.” It wasn’t always this way.
Some of my worst childhood memories involve visits to the dentist. There were always cavities to be drilled and filled, which to me, was the most excruciating torture imaginable at the time. To me, the toothpaste commercial where the kid says, "Look ma, no cavities!" was the stuff of pure fiction and Bucky "Brusha, Brusha, Brusha" Beaver was simply a pawn used by Ipana to fool kids into thinking it would prevent them from undergoing torture at the dentist.
My first warning of an upcoming torture session was the so-called “appointment reminder” postcard that would show up in the mail every six months. Then for the next couple of weeks the fear and dread would build until it was time to make the short trip. My siblings and I would get in my mother’s Buick and she would drive us to Dawson, a small southwest Georgia town about 20 miles from our home of Cuthbert. The torture chamber was on the second floor of an old two-story brick office building. If I had known at the time how Mayan captives were once led up the pyramid steps before being sacrificed by the high priest I could have identified with them as I walked up the creaky wooden steps to the dentist’s office.
The dentist was a distant cousin with whom I shared the same last name. Because of this relationship and what my father (an M.D.) called “professional courtesy” (a term heard very little these days), there was never any charge for the torture that I would learn to endure. The dentist’s first name was Fain, somewhat Dickinsonian sounding, but my siblings and I called him “Dr. Pain,” not to his face, of course.
His dental assistant/hygienist’s name was Ruby. She was not related to us; however, I do believe that she may have been kin to Vlad the Impaler. Before Dr. Pain was allowed to do his evil work, Ruby would first prepare me by “cleaning” my teeth. She would place my head in a hammerlock, squeezing one side of it head into her ample bosom in order to hold me still. Once she was done chiseling and picking at my teeth with her metal implements of torture she would use an old cable-driven drill (only 30,000 rpm vs. todays pneumatic drills at 300,000 rpm) and “polish” my teeth with an abrasive substance. After rinsing and spitting out the blood, my teeth and mouth would be sprayed with a most vile tasting fluoride solution (this was before it was put in the drinking water).
After Ruby had softened me up and broken my spirit, the grinning Dr. Pain would enter the room, wash his hands (there were no gloves), and examine the tray of sharp metal instruments, which had been placed in front of me in order to scare me. After deciding which one to use first,
Ruby would hold my head, Dr. Pain would say “Open,” and the torture would begin
with the sharp metal probes. When he located a sensitive spot (he knew because
I would stiffen and pop-out in a sweat) he would push the sharp metal probe deeper
and wiggle it around, sending even more sharp, electric-like pain throughout my
entire body. I would have immediately confessed had I only known what he wanted
me to say. Once Dr. Pain had found all of the sensitive sites in my mouth he would say, “This will not take long, so we will not waste
use Novacaine.” A Kleenex tissue would be placed in my hands (had it not
gotten in his way, it would have been a bullet between my teeth) and the
drilling would begin. After he was satisfied that he had induced all the pain
possible, he would hide the drill and attempt to cover the evidence of his
dirty work by filling up the holes he had created in my teeth with some type of “cement,” as he called it. White (if it would
“show”) or a poisonous mercury compound (if it would not “show”).
When he finally tired, my mother would be called into the chamber. Dr. Pain would tell my mother, “He has soft teeth,” after which she would thank him for “taking care” of me. I have often wondered if she would have continued to take me to him every six months if she had known what was actually going on. I would like to think she would have not.
Thankfully, my last trip to the dentist didn’t require the root canal or titanium rod. Just because I no longer have to endure the pain doesn’t mean I like it.