For most of my forty plus years in Tucson I went to the same dentist, along with the rest of my family. He was, until my mid thirties, the only dentist I had ever been to; I saw him faithfully twice a year (mommy made me). He was a nice enough guy; I remember as a child him giving me rides in his dune buggy in the parking lot behind his office. He always seemed genuinely pleased to see me (I was money in the bank), was always fairly engaging and never failed to ask about the rest of my family. A few things bothered me about him, though. He had a way of speaking that just struck me as kind of creepy; it was a cross between Peter Lorre, Liberace and the bad guy with the glasses who burns his hand with the medallion in Raiders of the Lost Ark (come on, you know the guy). He also had bad teeth; it seemed more than a little hypocritical to be extolling the virtues of good dental hygiene through a couple of rows of crooked, yellowed ivories. Worst of all, though, was his subtle, yet definable predilection for torture. By my teens I no longer referred to him by name, but rather as Dr. Josef Mengele, D.D.S (google if you must, minus the D.D.S. part).
Each visit began with a full on assault upon my gums and teeth with a sharpened hook-like instrument (I later saw a similar device when I visited a torture museum in Germany). To help him more accurately inflict pain, he also employed a mirror which he bounced along my teeth like they were bars on a xylophone. Through it all, he enjoyed conversing while his arms were in my mouth to the hilt.
“Your gums are bleeding, Richie. How often does that happen?”
“Aah aah huur. He hi euah hi aah.” Translation: “I’m not sure. Seems like every six months.”
Whenever I went to visit him I always seemed to have a cavity or two (a dune buggy can be an expensive hobby). On most occasions he would administer a local anaesthetic, but he always made sure I got a good look at the needle( have you ever seen one? It’s huge, like a jousting lance) first. Now that I’ve been to other dentists, I know it’s common practice to use a topical anaesthetic on the gum before administering the shot, so it didn’t hurt going in; Dr. Mengele apparently felt this was an unnecessary step. The pain of the needle piercing the gum and jaw made whatever came next almost pleasant by comparison. Once he gave me a shot in the same spot three times( I honestly think he forgot the first two); though I felt none of the drilling that followed, I looked like Bill Murray in Caddyshack the rest of the day and drooled so much it looked as though my right nipple was lactating.
Often though, he would forego the shot, saying instead the following words that would have me tingling with fear, originating testicularly and running up my spine like a forest fire up a dry pine.
“Richie, it’s a small cavity, so let’s skip the shot; we’ll be done in no time, and I’ll be very gentle. Just tell me if it hurts.”
“Ohaay…aaaay. Aaagh?” (“Okay…wait. What?”). If you haven’t experienced it, let me tell you now that the feeling of a drill bit on an exposed, raw nerve in your tooth is unlike any other; I have experienced pain in many forms, but this one is the worst (so far). Still, I would naively take him at his word and so let him know whenever it hurt.
“Aaaaah!! Kaaahoe, yaa ooh haa!” This was hairy-hand-in-the-mouth speak for “Owww! Careful, you old fart!”
“Yeah, that hurt, huh, Richie?” Well, he certainly spoke gently, like Lorre Liberace Raider’s Bad Guy talking a kitten down a tree; but he never stopped drilling. I honestly think he just wanted to know whether it hurt. I remember during these Inquisition sessions staring at his wallpaper, which depicted an old medieval town seen through a stone archway. I tried to imagine myself there, but failed to do so without also adding a large, jackhammer-wielding bubonic rat whose tail hung from my mouth as I strolled through the idyllic town. Often I would try to think of a few of my favorite things, but then the Julie Andrews song of the same name from The Sound of Music would invade my skull and add to my growing misery.
Eventually, the session would mercifully end. Dr. Mengele always showed me my bloody bib before discarding it, as though that might motivate me in the future to do something other than never return. As I exited the torture chamber back into the waiting room, I always considered warning people with widened, fearful eyes of the nightmare that awaited them, but no one hot ever went to my dentist so I didn’t bother.
A most bizarre, almost unbelievable encounter with my dentist occurred away from his office one summer evening in 1983; it placed its indelible print upon my soul and, as a single event, may have impacted my life more than any other. I will share it with you in my next post, Dr. Josef Mengele, D.D.S., Part II, coming sooner or later.