Dentistry was different in my day, I tell my kids. Really that means it was different in that time, place, and at my mother’s income level. Cavities were removed with a melon baller and packed with lead ingots the size of an ice cube. A crown was made with an angle grinder borrowed from the body shop and a smear of Bondo on the dentist’s thumb. Very few people I knew growing up had braces, but most of us just gnawed the trees as we were designed by nature to do.
Or so I remember it. There was nothing unusual or shameful in crooked teeth or crude fillings, because most of us were in the same shape. (My cousin was an army dentist in World War One, and my mother had memories of him working his treadle drill with his foot and putting his knee on patients’ chests for extractions.) Most people I knew had fears of dental work and of the teeth—that they would get loose, and come out while chewing state fair taffy. My friend Sam still remembers dental work tasting and having a texture different from anything in her mouth, and how it was a direct conduit from cold or heat to the brain. Tin foil or the metal end of a pencil eraser in contact with the work created galvanic shock.
For me, the Army Dental Corps took over from there. It was an improvement, but by the time I was thirty and living near Chicago, my much-improved civilian dentist had to run a floor buffer between my teeth and gums to catch me up to the century’s progress.
Since then, of course, things have continued to change for the better, including new processes and materials for filling cavities, and advances in orthodontia and oral surgeries. But the old ways still make themselves known. Amalgam fillings—we used to call them “silver fillings,” but they are mostly elemental mercury, mixed with silver, tin, and copper—that we always got are still used, but they are so hard that over time they act as wedges in the teeth and can split them in two. That is not an experience I want to have walking the old pilgrimage trail to Canterbury.
My dentist here in the St. Louis Metro area recommended I replace, with crowns, three fillings from possibly the ’70s that were splitting my molars like firewood. She has all the new imaging devices and the technology to 3D-mill crowns onsite, so there is none of the horror of having to wait hours or days with exposed tooth-nubbins for the crowns to be made. Best of all, she offers twilight anesthesia. Due to my training as a military diver, I have a special anxiety of drowning in my juices while lying head-down, my mouth propped open wide. She offered to do the job much more cheaply with only local anesthetic, but who could take all the grinding, noise, and smell? It is literally torture.
It all worked out in the end, as they say. Before they started, a nurse put a wand in my mouth and captured hundreds of digital images of the teeth for the machine to mill crowns that would be exactly like them. The IV went in my arm; the woman rubbed my leg comfortingly. I do remember being awake in the procedure and seeing the big light and beyond it the TV on the ceiling. I was just about to say something when I woke up numb and chewed. It was all done but the fitting of the caps. One of the caps faithfully reproduces the shape of a molar that was ground down long ago in an irregular shape and smeared with putty. Sins of the fathers.
Sometimes the new crowns are still sore—when I chew taffy, corn nuts, and jawbreakers, for instance—and they feel under the tongue more marble than tooth. But all that is over except for the bills. Somewhere in my mind something goes looking with a lantern for evidence that the body remembers the tremendous hurt it experienced during the procedure, while the mind was asleep at the switch.