The circular powder-blue porcelain cuspidor, just to the left of my armrest, awaited my periodic mouth-watering projectiles. To this day it is an indelible vision bordering on nightmarish.
Dutifully yet reluctantly, my mother began dragging me to those regularly-scheduled visits at the dentist’s office. The whir of the drill is permanently etched in my fragile psyche.
The collateral damage was predictable with frequent breakfasts of rice crispies covered with sugar or my sweet-tooth favorite of straight-up frosted flakes. Fluoridation alone could not defeat such forces.
My unquestioned lack of discipline in proper daily dental hygiene did not give my molars much of a chance. Early on I developed a secret aversion to brushing after meals and before bedtime that rivaled only my fierce avoidance of mandatory piano practice.
If novocaine had been invented back then, it was not in use by our masked doctor of dentistry. Any use of “laughing gas” was just a joke. When drilling out cavities, the depth and extent of exploration were in direct proportion to the combination of how contorted my body could become reclining in a dental chair, how bulging the veins running down my neck, how intense my death-grip upon both armrests, and finally, how large the tear rolling down my cheek.
Time passed, and gradually my mouth became filled with fillings. Still said to have had “nice teeth” by my mother, all plaudits came to an abrupt halt at the church Sunday school picnic before my freshman year in high school.
Oblivious to any perilous consequence, I joined an impromptu game of softball on the church lawn, securing the critical position of shortstop to evidence my athletic superiority. It was a popup just over my head that forced me to turn and run. With my eye keenly focused on making a grab suitable for ESPN’s “plays of the week,” I took no notice of the hard-charging Robert from center field. The abruptness of our collision was cataclysmic. Being the taller of the two, my mouth violently met his forehead, and nearly half of my front tooth went sailing.
He was the kind of kid who was able to break his arm when he tripped over a giant mushroom at Santa’s Village, so I knew who was to blame.
I saw Robert a few days later with a head swollen-up like a pumpkin due, I was told, to an infection I had likely inflicted. My father half-heartedly pronounced, “This just goes to show, Kenny, you have a dirty mouth!” I decided that wasn’t funny.
I didn’t smile for the next three years as the dentist thought it best to leave the tooth alone until I aged a bit more. If I ever truly had “a great smile,” it was now hidden behind closed lips.
All I wanted for Christmas my senior year were my two front teeth as opposed to only one and a half. A low-budget mold was glued and shaped over my tooth in lieu of the typical cap. Fifty dollars later, and voila!
The repair worked until I ran into Jim Hammers at basketball practice going for a loose ball. My tooth came loose with it. There was no smiling after practice that day.
I demanded an immediate replacement, which sadly didn’t even last the day. Once again, at practice, while innocently flashing across the lane against a zone defense, my mouth hit an outstretched teammate’s arm and, expletive deleted, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.
A parental-dental decision was made to wait for the season’s end for a third fix. That postseason repair lasted just a couple months until I chomped on a taco during a lunch break at work and crunched on something “funny!” I managed to salvage the fracture and literally pressed it back into duty. As long as I took it out at meal time, I could still manage a cautious smile without “losing it.”
I remember as if it were yesterday. It was my first day on campus at the University of Missouri, and I wanted nothing but to make a good impression, especially upon any campus coeds. Prepping for the evening’s possibilities, I took my first shower in the dorm. As I washed my face, in an instant, I dislodged my most temporary tooth. Before I could rinse the soap off my eyes to see anything, the errant tooth clinked down the drain.
To my surprise, I learned the basketball team had a dentist, and though the break didn’t happen while on scholarship, the head basketball coach still gave me a free pass. Now more than 40 years later, they must have got it right, as I’m still smiling!
Far from regularly-scheduled for the past 40 years, and with my share of cavities and chips to prove it, my wife has encouraged me to get back on track, and so I have with Doctor Joe and his fine staff here in Ottawa. They treat me like royalty every time I take a seat on the throne. Of course, the recent “coronations” had to do with the multiple “crowns” inside my mouth and not any atop my head.
Ken Pollitz moved to Ottawa in 1991 as mission-developer/pastor of New Creation Lutheran Church. His biweekly column provides insights and viewpoints from Putnam County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org