Monday, July 19, 2004

It's HAMMER TIME! (Part I)

Fear Factor
Fear is something we all know well, some more so than others. As a child, chances are you were scared of something, either because of an encounter with it, or perhaps because you were instilled with that fear by your parents. Now as far as the latter condition is concerned, I can't say that was ever really an issue for me, since I grew up largely unsupervised, without parents to tell me what I should or shouldn't be afraid of. I pretty much learned on my own when to be afraid and when I should just roll my eyes and go on.

However the number one fear of my youth was one that completely took me by surprise. I was in the 4th grade when it crept up from behind me and seized me by the throat. And even though its control over me has lessened over the years, I can still feel the grip of its icy fingers even today — about every six months, as a matter of fact.

Damn — that reminds me — I'm overdue for a cleaning.

That's right. I have seen fear. And his name is dentist. More specifically, his name was James R. Hammer, D.D.S.

Being the good sheep that I am, I was inspired to tell this story by a blog entry on the same topic by my favorite blogger of the woolly persuasion, Fleece. Reading her brief story of horror that is a child's first encounter with the dentist brought back my own horrific memories. I actually think about it often, so I wanted to write about it.

Fleece didn't go into enough detail in her story to reveal whether or not she had any preconceived notions about dentists prior to visiting one, but as for me, I did not. In fact, the only knowledge I can remember even having about what a toothache was came from various old Three Stooges episodes in which toothaches seemed to be a recurring theme. In those stories the painful tooth is somehow extracted, and the afflicted character who was previously writhing in agony exclaims, "The pain is gone!" No muss, no fuss.

If you ever had any doubts as to the power of television on young minds, believe this; I was honestly convinced that tooth extraction was a painless procedure — from watching The Three Stooges.

The genesis of my predicament was a predictable one. My Mother became ill when I was around four years old. Due to the circumstances surrounding that, as I previously mentioned, I was allowed to spend a number of my formative years either un-or-under-supervised. Oh sure I didn't get to stay up until the wee hours of the morning on a school night, but essentially in most areas of my life I was on my own. I fed myself two out of three times a day, I dressed and bathed myself as well, although I'm sure it wasn't always a pretty sight. But it wasn't like I was an urchin or anything. My Dad and older brothers did their best to keep me in clean clothes and check to see if I'd washed behind my ears. But as you might guess, some things just simply fell through the cracks — like oral hygiene. I know it sounds gross and it is — I have never been able to conjure up a single memory of seeing myself in the mirror, brushing my teeth, until after my first trip to the dentist. Not to say that it never happened, but I'm certain it wasn't anything I did on a regular basis That's nine-plus years, boys and girls, before a toothbrush was ever regularly introduced to my pearly yellows.

At the time of my first toothache, I obviously didn't see it coming. In retrospect, it was obvious that oral hygiene wasn't a high priority in my family. I'm sure it wasn't completely disregarded, but I sure don't remember anything ever being said about it. We had no local family dentist. We had moved from Anderson, IN, where we were all born, to a small (I mean tiny) neighboring town of Middletown, five miles due east. I don't know where he went to get the work done, but around that same time, my eldest brother Jack was getting dentures at age nineteen. Yes, I said nineteen. Perhaps there was something in the water — or missing from the water — like fluoride?

But I digress...

One day I walked to school as per usual. That was the great thing about growing up back then. There were no Soccer Moms hauling the kiddies back and forth to school in some gas guzzling SUV. Nah — either you walked, rode you bike or rode the bus — to do anything or go anywhere. Even years later in SoCal, it was absolutely no big deal to see little kids in the 3rd or 4th grade out walking six blocks to school. Nowadays, people can live across the street and Momma will still drive them. Granted, it's a different world now, but it's really sad to see it change as it has.

Didn't someone once say that digression is the better part of valor? Oh...oh yeah. That was discretion. On with the story.

Almost as soon as I got to school that morning I began to feel this tightness in my jaw. I'd never felt this before. What was happening to me? It began to ache, radiating pain throughout the entire side of my face! Oh god, make it stop!

Wait! I must have a toothache! That's it! I'll just call Dad and have him take me to the dentist! The dentist will tie one end of a string to my tooth, and the other end to a doorknob, and BOOM! the tooth will come flying out of my mouth, I'll say "The pain is GONE," and that'll be it! Just like on the Stooges, except that nobody will try to poke me in the eye or hit me over the head with a monkey wrench!

My teacher released me to leave to go to the dentist and I ran home, crying out one side of my face and laughing out the other. If I just could go to the dentist, I would feel so much better.

I got home and ran to the phone to call my Dad. Of course there was nobody else at home to take me to the dentist, so my Dad was stuck between a rock and a hard place because it wasn't exactly easy for him to up and leave work in the middle of the morning. He of course worked on the far side of Anderson, at least 15-20 miles away. Although he initially said he couldn't, I pleaded with him to come home, crying my eyes out in pain.

So being the great Dad that he is, he rushed home to take me to the dentist. I was so relieved to know that my pain would soon be relieved. But the fact was, quite the opposite was about to happen — my encounter with pain was really just beginning.

There was one dentist in out little town. Dr. Hammer's office was on Locust Street, downtown. And you need to understand that when I say downtown I use the term loosely. Downtown Middletown consisted of three blocks of the main drag, Locust Street, beginning at 5th Street and ending at 8th Street. The buildings were all old, early 1900s brick structures.

On the corner of 5th and Locust was my Uncle’s grocery store, my best-friend cousin and I spent a lot of time there, darting in and out, stepping inside the big walk-in freezer in the back to cool off after playing outside in the sweltering summer sun.

At the opposite end of Locust, at the intersection of 8th Street, a short right turn brought you to the hot spot on Friday and Saturday Nights for all the kids in the area, the Van Noy Theater, Middletown's only movie theater. Old man Van Noy used to sell the tickets himself from the little booth out in front of the old movie house, which has long since been closed. He was nice enough, but would always deliver a stern look as he slid your ticket under the glass window, to serve as a warning to behave in the theater.

Further down 8th, adjacent to the theater was the city’s one park, where the Little League ballfields could be found, and where the Henry County Fair was held each summer. Fair Week was always one of the highlights of my existence in those years of my youth (and should likely be the subject of a future blog). Those carnies use to scare the hell outta me though…yikes!

Downtown was a clean, inviting place for me as a kid. I have a boatload of wonderful memories of that place. However this story isn’t one of them. Can you tell I’m avoiding the subject here?

House of pain
As I recall, Dr. Hammer’s office was in a building on Locust Street, right in the middle of the downtown stretch, between 6th and 7th Streets. As my Dad and I walked into the office waiting room, I remember thinking how old everything looked, like it was straight out of a 1930s gangster movie. A warm, dusky smell of old cigarette smoke filled the outer-office, while the low, bassy sound of an AM radio, playing what would now be dubbed “easy-listening” music, reverberated from a wooden console in the corner. I don’t remember if Dr. Hammer had a receptionist, but if he did, she didn’t work full-time, because there would be several occasions later in which I would come in for an appointment and be the only person in that tiny room. I believe there was in fact someone behind the half-wall at the sign-in counter that day but I really can’t be sure — since I was just barely tall enough to see over it. However I was in so much pain that Marilyn Monroe could have been working behind the counter and I might not have noticed. Well…maybe I would have noticed, but I think that must have been Norma Jean’s day off.

I have a lasting image of Dr. Hammer as a tall, stout older man with a barrel chest and round coke bottle-bottom glasses. His once light blonde hair was now wiry and thin; it was more white than blonde. He wore a classic white tab-collar dentist’s smock, its short sleeves revealing his muscular forearms, covered in that same wiry blonde hair. I would become well acquainted with those hairy forearms over the next six weeks.

Next: The fun begins
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