Pulling Teeth.

I was a Navy brat who moved from base to base, as military kids do. Medical and dental care was often spotty. My medical records were often lost when we were transferred, so no physical history followed me around the country. This, in fact, led to a scarlet fever rash being misdiagnosed as measles by a Navy doc who could only condescend to my 23 year old mother when I was 6.

My mom kept saying, “No, she’s had measles,” but that doctor was too special to listen to a high school drop-out and her ragamuffin kid.

Fortunately a civilian ear-nose-throat doctor spotted the mistake, a few months later, when the pain of scarlet fever had shut me away so deep inside myself that my mother feared I was going deaf, and she overrode my dad’s objections and took me off base for a less arrogant exam.

The civilian doctor was good-looking and focused on me in a way that I wasn’t used to but mightily appreciated. I responded to one of his quiet, kind questions with a gesture of my palms toward him. That doctor just about leapt out of his shoes. He grabbed me by the wrists and ran me into the waiting room, hollering, “Has this child had a rash?”

My hands were peeling in great sheaths of skin, which is a sign of scarlet fever. My mom had been right all along.

And so I ended up with an intensive series of antibiotic injections, which probably saved me from rheumatic fever and heart problems and a whole raft of nasty eventualities, perhaps even death.

Dental care was equally spotty. Sometimes it was good. Sometimes not so much. Sometimes it was irregular fun.

When I was about 10, some molars started growing in the back of my mouth, and my teeth started jamming up together. My dad, the cheapest sociopath who ever lived, grew nervous that he might have to pay for braces. I was duly taken to a dentist, who took a good look in my mouth.

“She’s got a small mouth, but I think if I pull a molar on each side, the teeth won’t crowd each other. She can avoid braces.”

My mother repeated that to my father that night.

My dad smiled. We all knew that he was now going to be funny, and we braced ourselves. He didn’t actually have a sense of humor unless he was drunk, and then that particular brand of mirth could best be described, charitably, as ‘mean.’ Which kind of downplays how awful it was, by several orders of magnitude.

But now he was smiling, so we got scared. “If the dentist pulls her teeth, the tooth fairy doesn’t come,” he pronounced.

So there we had it. He wasn’t going to be funny; he was happy that he was going to save himself $2.00. Not only would he be spared the expense of orthodontia, but he was also going to save $2.

I knew there was no such thing as a tooth fairy. I wasn’t stupid. But, you know, at that time, paperback books cost $1.25, and $2.00 meant one whole book plus change toward the next one. So I wasn’t going to give up on the tooth fairy so easily. I lived for books.

We returned to the dentist and he took me back to the exam room. “Okay,” he said, “I’m pulling some teeth.”

“Oh no,” I said. “I’m pulling the teeth.”

He looked at me.

“You can place the instrument, but I’m pulling the teeth,” I said. I looked him dead in the eye like I meant business. Because I did.

He burst into guffaws and staggered back to the waiting room to speak with my mother. He came back shaking his head. “Okay, you’re pulling the teeth.”

He placed the instruments and I pulled the teeth.

My mother reported to that bastard my father that the dentist had NOT pulled my teeth. I had. The rule of the tooth fairy still applied.

I think my mom may have, for once, strenuously put her foot down with my dad. For sure, he didn’t want to part with $2.00. But that night $2.00 appeared under my pillow.

I think of this incident sometimes. Usually when I have to deal with something awful. Something I don’t want to do, something dreadful. Those events turn up regularly, because that’s life, isn’t it? Bittersweet, and brimming over with both sorrow and joy.

So when I’ve got to suck it up and deal, I remember that I was a little kid who made it through a tough childhood. I was a little kid who sat in a dentist’s chair and yanked her own teeth out so she could buy books, which she loved. And still does.

Traci L. Slatton


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