I was talking to my dad a couple of weeks ago. He’s a very healthy and fit 79. He’s always taken good care of himself and is always on the go. He spent a lot of his childhood on a farm in rural Ireland and the work ethic never left him.
Like many men of his age, he’s got a few, stock one-liners that he likes to wheel out. One of his is to grab his front tooth and say,
“Look at that, strong as a rock. I’ve not had one filling in my life.”
I’m always impressed when he says it. To live eight decades without any sort of dental problem is something to be envied. But underneath this admiration, I harbour a bit of resentment and think,
‘Yep, they look great, Dad. Just one question. Why didn’t you ever bother making me brush my teeth?’
When he grew up, if people had bad teeth, they had ‘comedy’ bad teeth. Massive gaps, punctuated by the occasional, outsized gnasher, suitable only for punching a hole in a can of evaporated milk.
The picture below is of a group of British soldiers in 1944. They were just about to set off for France. I include the photo, because an Army dentist noted on the back that the entire group had eighteen teeth between them.
They were a more stoic generation. Extraction was a simpler affair. If someone was walking to work with a toothache, they’d just stop the nearest passer by, exchange pleasantries, point to the offending tooth and ask them to knock it out with a right hook.
By the time my generation starting growing teeth, dentistry techniques had advanced and we were living in a nation that had excellent access to useful information about the benefits of dental hygiene.
Unfortunately, we were also living in a nation with unprecedented access to fang melting sweets. That, combined with my dad’s rather lax enforcement, has meant that I’ve got so much metalwork in my mouth, I feel a strange, tugging sensation in my head whenever I walk past a scrapyard.
When it was bedtime, my dad would usually be watching the news, usually remarking that computers or CDs would never catch on. He’d shout upstairs,
“Charlie, have you brushed your teeth?”
and I would reply,
That was it. The information that wasn’t being passed in this brief exchange was how exactly I was brushing my teeth. I’d be using the sherbet from a sherbet dip dab as my toothpaste with the lolly as a brush.
Once I’d brushed my teeth, I’d rinse with some neat Kia-Ora, the only drink capable of making your voice change so that you sounded like Phyllis from Coronation Street.
We had so many fillings, that it was the ultimate hard man test in our gang to bite on a piece of tinfoil. Our most metal-mouthed member could pick up Piccadilly Radio on his molars. We’d seek out and buy only the most tooth damaging sweets. We’d put pear drops in our mouths and crunch them immediately so that our back teeth would be surrounded by a three millimetre thick, sugar shell for the entire day. A quarter of chewing nuts on the way to school would ensure that you had a smile like a panto witch all morning.
I started looking after them when I was sixteen, but as I explain to my kids whilst brushing their teeth (see that, Dad? brushing their teeth), once the damage is done, it’s an exercise in damage limitation from that day on.
I had one pulled out in June. The dentist had done everything to save it. Scraped it, filled it, did root canal work on it and had even shoehorned a Kola Kube out of the cavity that had been in there since 1982. But we’d reached the end of the road. With a solemn shake of the head, he declared that it’s time had come. It was almost refreshing to find out that some elements of the dentist’s art haven’t moved on since the middle ages. I’ve still got the imprint of one of his trainers on my chest. When he eventually got the thing out and showed it to me, it was the same size as my mobile phone. I’d put it through some tough times.
Throughout his assault, I had the mental image of my dad rapping on his front teeth like he was knocking on a door, saying,
“Look at that, you could make piano out of these when I’m gone!”