My apologies to any orthodontists who may be reading.
During my final month of elementary school, I went from an extreme high to an extreme low.
The week after returning from a fantastic four-day excursion to Washington, D.C., with my fellow School Safety Patrol Boys, it was time to visit my dentist for a check-up.
Hoping not to hear those horrible words that “there’s a small cavity that needs to be filled,” instead I heard Dr. Gaither tell my Mom, “It might be a good idea if Little Mikey sees an orthodontist.”
My permanent teeth had all come in straight as they were supposed to. But it seemed I had somewhat of an overbite that should be addressed.
Back when all this came down, Statesville had self-imposed itself as “The City of Progress.” Horses and buggies no longer traveled down dirt streets (at least uptown), but we hadn’t progressed to the point there was a full-time practicing orthodontist in the entire county.
Dr. Gaither referred us to an orthodontist in Winston-Salem. As it turned out, this big city doctor had a satellite office he maintained in my hometown one Wednesday each month. Here he saw all his local patients for monthly check-ups and any adjustments necessary during their orthodontic ordeals. Initial referral visits were conducted at this office as well. But all patients had to drive to Winston-Salem for the installation of the “appliances.”
His name was Dr. Jackson. He never referred to what he did as putting braces on teeth. He always called them appliances. Maybe braces sounded too negative or unpleasant. But appliances? What kid wants an oven or refrigerator put in his mouth?
So, I was dragged (literally) to my “get acquainted” meeting with Dr. Jackson, who, when asked by my mother if her baby needed braces, answered, “Definitely.” I wonder if he ever said no.
A week or so later, she and I, along with an aunt, hit the non-interstate highway to Winston-Salem. I’m pretty sure it was my first trip there. The highlight of the day (besides missing school) was seeing the towering Wachovia Bank skyscraper. It would have to suffice until two years later when I finally visited the Empire State Building, where King Kong had died.
What I most remember about being in the chair was that Dr. Jackson himself did not put the metal bands on each tooth. He had an assistant who told me to call him “Charlie,” even though he was a fully-grown man.
When Charlie was finished installing the appliances, my face was wet with tears, and my mouth hurt like a son-of-a-gun. “I hope I didn’t hurt you,” Charlie said to me, handing me tissues to wipe my soaking face. I probably wanted him to fall over dead.
A little while later, Dr. Jackson arrived to inspect Charlie’s work and to finish the job by running the wires through the bands on each tooth.
When I heard the good doctor tell Charlie, “You put all the bottom bands on upside-down,” I immediately busted out crying because I knew every one of those devils, now cemented to my lower teeth, had to be pulled off and then put back on.
Now, I’m sure, I yearned for Charlie’s demise.
After probably another hour of pure torture, Dr. Jackson returned, smiled at me, said, “almost done,” and installed the wires.
The greatest thing he could have told me as I left the chair was, “Your mouth won’t hurt a bit, and I’m going to fire Charlie.” Instead I heard, “See you in Statesville in a couple of weeks.”
When I found the waiting room, my mother paid the receptionist the required $150 for the installation job.
She looked at me and asked, “Have you been crying?” Was she kidding!
I told her my mouth was killing me, so she asked the receptionist what to do about the pain. “Give him a baby aspirin. That should take care of it.”
A baby aspirin! A shot of morphine might not have done the job. I drank Campbell’s soup and milk for a week. I screamed when I tried brushing my teeth. And my mouth looked like a barb wire fence in a cowboy movie.
As it turned out, I was stuck with these appliances for three full years. My entire span of junior high school (grades 7-8-9 back then). Braces, goofed-up hormones and zits. Add those to a few other experiences I endured during that time made for many unpleasant memories I have to this day.
One Wednesday every month, there was a line out the principal’s office door of kids getting their orthodontist excuses approved. My sneaky mother always included in my note (unless my appointment was after 2 p.m.) that Mike will return to school after his appointment.
I then rode my bicycle uptown with a $20 bill in my shoe to the satellite office to hear Dr. Jackson say, “Just keep wearing those rubber bands. You’re doing fine.”
I became very defiant when I told the good doctor that I wanted the braces removed for good before I started high school. Fortunately, that worked out, and I bid Dr. Jackson adieu during that summer. Maybe that’s what being granted parole is like.
Flash forwarding to about ten years ago, my current dentist told me that due to the aging process, a couple of my teeth had shifted a bit, but that the situation could easily be corrected with orthodontics. I told him as soon as I returned from riding a pig to the moon, I might consider it.
My daughter wore braces a decade ago and seemed to have a much easier time than I. Today’s orthodontic procedures are probably much better now, or she’s a better man than I, Gunga Din.
Mike Cline’s website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” documents the movies played in Rowan County theaters from 1920 through 1979.