Wednesday, December 12, 2012

To Tell the Tooth

by Jim Reed

My late Dad made this funny sound with his teeth after every meal, thfttt! It was annoying and funny and, ultimately, quite meaningful. Ask me to send you the story.

I used to write a column for the University of Alabama at Birmingham Dental School, called, “To Tell the Tooth” (actually, the final name was “The Wisdom Tooth,” but I always liked this one better). This was way before you were conscious (in the early 1970s). It was a Q&A column in the Birmingham News. Since apparently no-one ever read it, I didn’t receive any Qs, so I made up the questions myself, then conferred with dental faculty to provide answers.

Toothpicks are a way of life in my South, so they provide great spectator sport. My brother Tim and I used to love watching poofed-hair women at Red Lobster pick up toothpicks at the cash register and walk out making our Dad’s sound. Sometimes, to make gentle fun of them, we’d stick five or six picks between our teeth and make a great show of sauntering out, pretending to be the good ol’ boys we never were. thfttt!

Almost everyone lies to dental hygienists about how often flossing occurs. I like Jay Leno’s approach. Right before his teeth-cleansing session, he eats a couple of Oreo cookies. He would have enjoyed my and Tim’s company, had he been our buddy back in the day.

I used to be a Mad Man (a public relations practitioner) forty years ago. First thing I learned was how to show more teeth than I could possibly possess, when smiling at clients. We had to act nice all the time. I still wish that just once, I’d had the courage to stuff my mouth with Oreos before one of my client meetings.

The most excruciatingly painful fun I ever had was having my teeth worked on by dental students—it was cheap but time-consuming, since each step of the process had to be double-checked by dental faculty. Way back then, I lay there, a prisoner of the torture chair, mouth filled with gauze and cotton, observing the students’ gaffs. One self-confident student would carefully wash his hands, then poke them in his pocket, rattling change and keys, while he tried to figure out what to do next. Then, he’d wipe his nose, run fingers through hair, cough into his hands and jam them into my mouth. My gutteral protests were never heard…Besides, I wanted to make no enemies, since I’d be seeing him and his fellow students several more times.

As a kid, the scariest thing I ever read about teeth was a passage in the book Diary of an Unknown Aviator. It described how the earliest parachutists (imagine being the first person ever to use a parachute!) learned their skills. It was important to be able to find the ripcord instinctively, once you leapt from the plane. Someone suggested that no matter how dark it is, no matter how stressed or disoriented you are, you can always find your mouth with your hand…thus jumpers would bite down on the ripcord, confident that at the right time, they’d be able to grab the cord and make a safe landing. What they had not anticipated was the missing teeth that resulted.

The most honest observation I ever heard about teeth came from my then-early-teen daughter Margaret, after she and her friend Jessica returned from their first trip to the Alabama State Fair: “Dad, I’ve never seen so many toothless people!”

Assuming that you and I can only deal with so much tooth at one time, I’ll stop here and urge my Muse to take a nap. If she doesn’t obey, I’ll get her back by writing a story about how she takes her teeth out just before each naptime.

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