Somehow, I still have most of my original teeth. There is no reasonable explanation for this. You’ve heard of the kid in the candy store? That was me. I grew up in one. Okay, it wasn’t exactly a candy store, but my family’s general store had a huge candy counter. Or at least it sure seemed that way when I was six years old.
As soon as I was tall enough to operate the cash register, I went to work. Sure, I could have been doing regular kid stuff, but I learned pretty quickly that when my parents were busy, it was real easy to grab a Tootsie Roll or some bubble gum. Too easy.
Throughout my childhood, my mom took me to Trenton, Georgia for annual visits to Dr. Ray Ridge. He was a kind fellow, with an assistant named Hester, who loved to kid around with me. I actually looked forward to those dental visits, and each year, Hester and Dr. Ridge would somehow scrape away the effects of my daily sugar intake.
When I got old enough to drive, I switched to a dentist in Scottsboro, Alabama, named Dr. Ralph Sheppard. He too was a nice guy, but my visits to his office concealed an ulterior motive. I was then obsessed with becoming a radio announcer, and he owned the local FM radio station. Somewhere in my dreams, I imagined him looking deep into my mouth proclaiming, “This is the throat of a disc jockey! Put him on the radio, now!” Despite my dental chair auditions, he only seemed interested in cleaning, filling, and flossing.
Then came the dark years. As I hit my twenties, and got out from under my parents’ watchful eyes, I avoided the dentist. Any dentist. For about ten years, I made excuses and told outright lies when questioned about dental care. After all, I was young, my teeth seemed fine, and I had other ideas on how to spend my money. And, “like the feller says,” if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
Around the time I hit thirty, it was broke. Lots of teeth needed “fixin,” and my gums were not in such great shape either. Suddenly it occurred to me that a couple of daily “hurry up and finish” brushing sessions were no longer getting it done.
My dear mother had gotten to that point in her life where she was totally honest: there was no filter. You know how it goes. For most of the early part of your life, your mom is totally positive. “You look so handsome today!” “Look at that wavy hair!” And then one day, the truth comes out. “Why aren’t your teeth straight anymore?” I looked in the mirror that night. She was right.
So I shopped around. “Know any painless dentists?” I asked a few co-workers. One nearby dentist came highly recommended, and he soon began salvaging the wreckage of my mouth. Mom was on target about those crooked teeth. At the age of 35, I was wearing braces. My new dentist was laying down the law. “You’re on TV, right?” “Yes sir, I am.” “Then, let’s start taking care of your teeth!” It made sense.
For some reason, I later switched to an older dentist. Miraculously, it seemed, for many years, my check-ups were joyous occasions. An assistant would clean my teeth, and the elderly doc would come in, take a quick look inside, and mumble, “Everything looks good.” And I was free to go.
Unfortunately, things weren’t good. I switched dentists again, and it turns out the old fellow had neglected some problem areas. It was back to the grind.
Even now, it’s a thrice-yearly round of poking and prodding. Occasionally, my dentist will lean in quietly to his assistant, whisper something about a maxillary axial occlusion on the first cousin molar, twice removed, and then say, “I’ve never seen anything like that one, have you?” And I just know those x-rays will soon be published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
As for the pain, when it comes time to crown that tooth, they don’t even ask anymore. “Give him the gas,” the dentist says. While still partially coherent, I say, “Yeah. And I want high-test, not that low-lead stuff.” For the next hour, I’m in toe-tingling heaven, under the influence of nitrous oxide, while two people play tug of war inside my mouth.
The last time I was in his office, I asked the lady, “Why am I not getting the gas?” She looked up and said, “You’re only here to pay your bill.”
Someone asked me recently, “Have you ever had TMJ?” Nope, but I’m pretty sure I’ve helped several dentists buy a new BMW.