Wildwood, NJ – Summer – 1974
We spent our summers in Wildwood, since 1970 when my dad bought a house there. On Wednesday nights the old school at 10th and Central Avenues would show cartoons in the playground.
The kids would play on the swings and jungle gyms, etc. I was climbing on the monkey bars and some random girl who appeared to be a little older than me started making fun of my oversized, protruding central incisors.
“Hey, bucky. Look at his buck teeth.”
This would be the first of many times I would be verbally abused in my life as a kid.
While watching the lame cartoons on a small movie screen while a projector ran, I told my mother about it. She said she understood that kids can be mean. My older sister already had braces to fix her naturally crossed front teeth that came in exactly like my father’s. Funny, my father had such a big personality and presence I never really noticed his crossed teeth. It was just how he looked and I never thought it detracted from his looks. He was probably more self-conscious about losing his hair in his twenties. But that’s why he probably never smiled in photographs and thought it was dumb. Because he was self-conscious about his teeth. He could have paid to have his teeth fixed but he spent thousands of dollars in the 70s paying for his kid’s teeth to be straightened. All four kids!
Anyway, I needed help, and when we got back to Philadelphia in the Fall, and I got braces. I remember the whole process as barbaric and bordering on medieval. I suppose technology was so primitive back then. I think dentistry only began to really evolve in the 80s.
I remember when I was 6 I needed to get some fillings in my teeth for cavities. It was a grueling experience. I could smell my teeth burning as the drill vaporized the enamel on my molars. It was such a long and painful process it almost felt as though the dentist was pedaling the machine to make the drill spin.
But braces were going to be a long and painful process. First, I had to go to the dentist and have FOUR perfectly good teeth pulled from my jaw to make room for my teeth to be pulled back by the future braces. I was with my mother, and we had to take the bus to the dentist’s office. They put a mask over my nose and mouth and gave me sleeping gas so they could mutilate me while I was unconscious. I know this was all so I wouldn’t have buck teeth anymore but I didn’t like the idea of any of this. It just didn’t make sense to me. I wondered why they had to take four things from me that were perfectly healthy and functioning just to give me a pretty smile. It didn’t make sense to try to alter my whole mouth and jaws to straighten my teeth. Why rip out good healthy teeth? Why not come up with a different process? Examine some other options. I used to think about things like this, even at 11 years old. What if they could somehow, simply widen my bridge? Figure out a way to widen my mouth so that the front teeth moved back as the bridge expanded. But, when you’re a kid, you don’t question because you’re basically an inmate to your parents and teachers. Adults know best. Sadly, we all know now that simply isn’t true. I knew this could have some long-term effect on my body in general.
But they ripped out four teeth and in an hour or so, the process was over. My mother and I got back on the bus and headed home. I remember when we got off the bus I threw up in the grass at the side of the road. The gas they had given me had made me terribly nauseous.
So then I got braces. The office was up on Castor Avenue in Northeast Philly. Far from the house by today’s standards, but back then we walked everywhere. Everything was in walking or biking distance if you had the time. I was old enough to know where it was and how to get there, so I could go on my own to fulfill my quarterly appointments.
The man that did the work on my sister and me was named Dr. Beiler. I don’t know if he was a good orthodontist or not, but he didn’t seem all that great. But what did I know about dentistry? I do remember him having halitosis though. I used to think if anybody should have healthy oral hygiene, it would be a guy that specialized in matters of the mouth. That’s his job!
I remember he would have two fingers in my mouth and then ask me a question while he walked around the head of the chair. So I would try to answer him, while I choked on his fat fingers that stirred in my mouth while he walked around the chair. It was awkward and dumb.
But what could I do? It was a necessary evil so the kids would have one less thing to make fun of me about my physical appearance. I remember them giving me a little packet of soft wax when I first got the braces. You were to rip off a tiny bit of the wax and put it over the front clasps of braces where they ran the wires through. They were square and had sharp edges, so it hurt the inside of your upper lip. The wax was used to cover them until your inner lip toughened up to adapt to the metal in your mouth.
Metal mouth, tinsel teeth, chrome dome were just some of the delightful taunts from the children in school.
Then they give you a bag of tiny rubber bands you have to wear. top… front to back. Top to bottom, and another pair from front to back on the bottom. So at any given time, you’d have six rubber bands in your mouth. It was like some sort of oral slingshot!
I once yawned in science class and a rubber band shot out of my mouth and hit the blackboard next to my teacher’s head.
It was a tough four years, but it paid off.
To be continued tomorrow!
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