On the Subject of Teeth and Dentistry
This is a lovely time to drag out of cold storage a humor column I wrote in 1996, entitled “Drill, Sergeant”.
My wife played softball on Saturday and spent Sunday wobbling around the house like Weeble. She had odd-shaped bruises in weird places (a thin, streaky one on her ankle, a splotchy Rorschach blotch on her shoulder and small but nevertheless real bruise in the cleft of her chin — the Kirk Douglas special) and stiffness in her joints. Lactic acid, produced in bursting moments of athletic activity, leaked through her muscles, making them achy and sore. She debated whether or not to be fed intravenously.
Don’t feel too bad for her. The pain my wife was feeling was brought about by her own doing. It’s a subset of the entire “Feel the Burn” philosophy that dictates that unless you exercise your body until your neurons misfire, you’re not really exercising at all. This is in turn a subset of a larger philosophy that embraces pain, and how much of it you can take, as an indication of character and internal makeup (Not REAL pain, mind you. Real pain is brought on by circumstances that you cannot control, like car wrecks, or food poisoning, or Charlie Sheen popping up in a movie you’re watching. Real pain is random. Real pain is scary. Real pain hurts).
On one end of this philosophy, you’ve got my wife and her softball aches. On the other end you’ve got G. Gordon Liddy barbecuing his hand, taking “Feel The Burn” rather too literally. Somewhere beyond Liddy’s finger food, however, is a story that my dentist told me earlier in the week, while he was shaving down my teeth.
My dentist had his medical schooling paid for by the Navy, and in return was stationed at Parris Island, tending to the dental needs of the Marines there. In all respects, my dentist said, the Marines were fine, upstanding men, both officers and gentlemen.
But the Marine officers also had this thing about anesthesia: they didn’t want any. They would come in to his office, salute and say “Sir, I request not to have Novocain. I would like to test my endurance to pain.” Then they would sit down in his chair, their uniforms neat and freshly pressed, to await the dentist’s ministrations.
This freaked out my dentist for a while, until he was pulled aside by some of the other dentists who had worked on the base longer than he. “Look,” they said, “If they’re dumb enough to ask, you might as well give them what they want. Just tell them not to move.” He did. They didn’t. After the work was done, my dentist said, the backs of the Marine officers’ neatly-pressed uniforms would be drenched with sweat from collar to seat.
The payoff for the Marine officers (other than quality dental care) were the bragging rights they got out of it: someone was tooling around in their mouth with a high speed drill, and they TOOK it. Like a MAN. Like a MARINE. At social functions on base, my dentist would be approached by his patients, who would have a friend in tow. “Sir,” they would say, “Please communicate to my colleague here how much pain I endured in your chair.”
“We drilled right on the nerve,” my dentist would invariably reply. Everybody went away happy.
If I were a dentist, I don’t know that I would want to have a reputation as a master of nerve pain, but my dentist didn’t seem to mind, and now we have a corps of Marines ready for whatever feats of dental malice our enemies may hurl against us. As an American, I sleep better at nights knowing this.
How do I feel about this “No Pain, No Gain” philosophy? Well, ask my dentist. He drilled right on the nerve, and I didn’t flinch once. It’s because he numbed my face so thoroughly there are parts of it I still can’t feel.