When I was at school our main concern was that we might die before we got laid. That would have been true tragedy.
Brush your teeth, use fluoride toothpaste and don’t eat too many sweets. That’s good advice. Unfortunately, not advice I was given as a child.
My teeth are not too good, all capped and filled, but I rarely get any decay these days. That’s because I brush regularly twice a day. Most of my dental problems occurred when I was a kid.
My mum was not too hot on teeth. She tried to pretend they didn’t exist. She made half-hearted attempts to get me to brush my teeth regularly but eventually gave up, so I didn’t bother brushing. I was always in too much of a rush.
My Mum was also pretty keen on sweets. I think that was a hangover from sweet rationing in the war. When she was a girl sweets were a rare treat. Mum and her friends would have died for a bag of liquorice allsorts. Consequently, after the war she went a bit mad and completely over the top and indulged us. She reckoned that sweets were a necessity of childhood. We always had sweets in the house and I never went short.
That combination of sweets and no brushing meant that my teeth soon became badly decayed. It was not nice. They hurt.
The only dentist available was the school dentist. He was an old guy who was not very up to date with the latest developments. I suspect that he was hopelessly underfunded and overworked. His equipment was probably rescued from the stone-age – all old, rattly and excruciatingly slow and painful.
I hated the dentist. He always found something wrong to get to work on with his old ramshackle drill (none of this fancy high-speed drill that we have these days). He’d probe around with that sharp metal prod and jam it into a cavity and you’d nearly jump out the chair as electricity shot through your body like a bolt of lightning. It always seemed to jolt out of your tooth and right down to the tips of your toes like your tooth had been plugged in to the mains.
He’d chuckle and prepare his drill. Our school dentist used none of those painkilling injections. He’d crank up the old grinder and slowly bore his way into your tooth while you clung on to the arms of the seat in sheer terror, agony and desperation, willing it to be over quickly. It never was. When it all became too much you tried shrieking but to no avail. He had the nurse grip your head tight while he applied the drill. You dug your nails into the armrests and tensed up while he slowly ground your tooth away and seemed to be hitting every nerve on the way. He could have got a job in a concentration camp!
What made it worse was my mum had this phobia of dentists and couldn’t go near them, and my dad was always at work, which meant that I always had to go on my own. It felt like visiting the executioner. Looking back I can’t actually believe that I used to go.
Before I had my second set of teeth I actually had four teeth out because they were too rotten to fix.
In my teens I had a tooth with a big abscess on it. It made the whole side of my head swell up and was agony. I actually wanted to go to the dentists and get it sorted. The dentist, in his white coat, looked at it, prodded around, tutted, and said it had to come out. I didn’t care. It hurt too much I just wanted it dealt with. I wanted someone to make it better. I didn’t care what they did.
It was a big back molar and not the easiest to extract. He gave me an injection for that. At that point in time, I don’t think I really cared he could have pulled it out without any pain relief. I can remember him yanking it this way and that with this pair of pliers. The nurse was holding my head and he was putting all his weight behind it as he gripped the tooth and forced it one way and another with all these crunching noises sounding like he was doing serious damage. The force was tremendous. I imagined him crunching up my jawbone. The nurse and dentist held my head so hard I thought he’d crush my skull. Then he finally triumphantly pulled it out. It came with a squelching, crackling noise. He held it up for me to see and there was a big yellow bag of pus dangling from it. What a relief.
That wasn’t the end of it though. It seemed that he’d left a root in. The wound healed and about a year later it all swelled up again. All pus oozed out of the socket, my face swelled up again and my breath stank. The root that he had broken off had developed an abscess on it. I had to go back for a second bout. He gave me another injection and this time had to cut into the gum and crunch the jaw-bone up to get at the root. He deployed a device like a long silver pair of pliers. Having lanced the gum and mangled half my jawbone he eventually managed to prise the festering root out.
I don’t think that the school dentist was the most expert or caring of individuals. But then it was probably not a highly sought-after occupation. The private dentists with their fancy high-speed drills were probably making ten times what he earnt. We weren’t able to afford such luxury. I can understand why my mother developed such a phobia. Back then dentistry was one step removed from torture.
The next time I had to have a tooth out it was under gas. They put this rubber mask over my face and the dentist and nurse held it firmly in place. The gas didn’t smell but the rubber did! It was a horrible sensation. They forcefully held me down so that it felt like I was being smothered! It was really claustrophobic and I panicked a thrashed around but they kept hold of me until the nitrous oxide did its job. After that they pulled the tooth out and I never felt a thing!
Both experiences were equally horrendous. If I had to choose I’m not sure which I would opt for.
Thankfully dentistry has moved on. It’s nowhere near as much of an ordeal.
Rationing and the war was to blame. Shortages seem to induce more desire. Sweets have a lot to answer for – but in some ways I was one of the lucky ones.
Gary was in my year. He’d never once brushed his teeth and he constantly had a gob-stopper in his mouth. Through judicious use of truancy he had managed to avoid the school dentist for all of his life, but when he was twelve he was caught. By this time he had a mouth that Shane McGowan and Johnny Rotten would have been proud of. His teeth had gone through their green years and emerged into a terminal condition. They were now black and many of them were mouldy stumps, the crowns having completely crumbled away. If he’d have had a nervous system he would have been in excruciating pain. Fortunately he did not seem to suffer. Heaven knows how he hadn’t poisoned his entire bloodstream though. Most probably no self-respecting bacterium would dare set up home in such a disgusting pit as existed in Gary’s mouth.
Gary was a lesson to us all. At twelve years old he had to have all his teeth removed except for three – and they all had to be filled. He had dentures fitted!
We all took up brushing!
When you’re young looking ahead means the weekend. The distant future, adulthood, careers, marriage, is too far away to contemplate. Time travels slowly. You’re obviously never going to get there.