Tuesday, May 24, 2011



 I had a tooth pulled yesterday. . . .

As I sat in the chair nervously awaiting the doc, I listened to the jokes and laughter in the other rooms. Jokes and laughter? Those sounds, I thought to myself, were a far cry from way back in the stone age some fifty years ago when screams and shrieks filled dental torture chambers and not jokes and laughter. Yesterday, I hardly had time to get scared before the anesthetic wore on, the tooth was popped from my head and as big as you please I was out the door and standing under the blazing sun once again. Fact is, in the half hour I was there I felt hardly a thing. But old horrors die hard.

Mein Gott, as a kid there were few terrors greater than a trip to the dentist. Suck it up and act like a man? Ha! Nine-tenths of the “man” battle was already lost well before my trembling butt reached the dentist’s execution chair. Just the thought of that horrible place sucked all faux bravery from me—the horrible bright lights, the terrible smells of novocaine and singed tooth marrow (odor like burning hair, only more intense), the shrill sounds of those tiny devil drills and the unforgettable screams of another kid in the torture room next door. All that was a perfect build-up to the king of terrors, the needle.

“It won’t hurt a bit,” adults lied. Hell, even the dentists admitted, “Now this may sting a little.” Those words were too horrible to contemplate. If the pain-bearer himself—the sadist in white who did Satan’s work while he hummed or whistled--admitted that the shot would sting “a little,” that meant it actually would sting a whole lot. Even a child at that age knows that a dentist is just trying to placate him, if for no better reason than to make the job easier. By far, the most painful was the needle in the front gums. That really brought tears to one’s eyes and, since the dentist always had to shoot you two or more times, it seemed that the party of pain just went on and on and on

Thank God, such desperate fear was fairly universal among all kids back then or I would have been shamed and stunted for the rest of my life. Once a year we grade school kids were marched across the street to the high school and forced to get our annual shots down in the home economics room. Most of us had no idea what horrible pox the shots were meant to prevent, nor did we care. If left to a vote, not one of us man-children would have voted for the needle, regardless of what terrible diseases lay ahead. Surprisingly, the girls seemed to have no problem with shots. None were nuts to get them, of course, but they didn’t seem to go through the trial of fire that the boys did. Standing in line out the door and down the hall, like sheep, pale as sheets, terror really took hold when we smelled that awful smell of the stuff they dobbed on your arm just prior to the needle.

“Born on a mountain top in Tennessee,
Greenest state in the land of the free,
Killed him a bar when he was only three,
Blah, blah, blah,

Singing our brains out in an attempt to make time fly didn’t work either. At best, we were merely one or two victims closer to the terror that lay somewhere up ahead. Horribly, we watched those who had already got their shots walk by holding their arms and crying.  With such sights and sounds, the slow-moving line was almost impossible to bear. In fact, for one of our number the slow-moving line WAS impossible to bear.

Let’s call him Jerry. Jerry was a kid who came and went to our school, and came and went some more. Every year, it seemed, Jerry showed up in our class only to disappear later when some divorce, separation or whatever occurred in his life. Jerry was a bit older than most of us, a bit more mature, a bit more of a menace, something of a bully. Jerry had issues. Jerry's dad was a jet fighter pilot. Jerry's dad was also an admiral. Jerry drove a car.  Jerry drove a tank. Jerry had seen with his own eyes an air craft carrier parked at a nearby city (in Kansas, no less!). And so on.

Well, as it turns out, me and my peers fears of shots paled to that of Jerry’s and although he was a tough guy on the playground, Jerry was a cringing coward on the “Day of the Needle.” No doubt he, like the rest of us boys, was electrified when the announcement was suddenly made that this particular day was shot day (teachers wisely did not reveal this fact until the very moment we were to make our death march across the street—had they done so the previous day, there would have been a lot of seats empty in school). It was probably the wave of terror among the rest of us that Jerry sensed which stoked his fear to such a degree. As I remember, we were all standing there in line, looking pale as sheets, loudly mouthing “Davy Crockett,” when suddenly, just like that, Jerry was gone. Some teachers attempted to grab him but they might as well have tried to catch a wild rabbit. And I never saw Jerry again, ever.

That’s how terrifying the needle was back in the stone age! The needles were really long, really painful and it seemed that the shot just went on and on and on. Thus, just imagine such shots in the mouth and one can pretty clearly understand why to this day I am always nervous at the dentist’s, no matter how painless it has become.

I come by my pathological fear honestly. My dad dreaded the dentist so much that he let his teeth rot right down to the nub and my Missouri farmer grandpa cut the middleman out of the deal altogether by pulling his own teeth with a pair of pliers. Now, that’s some real fear for you!


Caricature of the Day