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Feather's Miscellany: Dentists

"When I meet him socially, you couldn’t wish to meet a nicer fellow, but meeting him professionally is quite another matter, for I’ve been terrified of dentists since childhood,'' writes John Waddington-Feather.

Two people I dread meeting most are my funeral director and my dentist. One I’ve yet to meet (and I won’t know much about him when I do); but the other I meet regularly once or twice a year. Now I’m nearing eighty, the former is still hiding somewhere in Time’s shadows, waiting, waiting with his sad satisfied smile and sombre dress, ready to welcome me into his ice-cold parlour. But my dentist, God bless him, is very much in the here and now waiting, too, in his surgery and that’s what terrifies me also.

When I meet him socially, you couldn’t wish to meet a nicer fellow, but meeting him professionally is quite another matter, for I’ve been terrified of dentists since childhood. Yet it’s the care they’ve lavished on my teeth all my life which has left me with a good set of gnashers now I’m approaching my four score years.

I can still bite an apple and chew a steak; and when needed I can raise a toothy smile as good as any politician; but the times I smile are rare indeed. Yorkshiremen are very tight with their smiles; something to do with the climate up there, I think. Coming from Keighley, a Victorian textile and engineering town set in the bleak Pennines and surrounded by grim moors, I don’t smile readily. ‘Grim’ describes the moors if not the town, and ‘grim’ describes my face, though more polite people may say it’s ‘dour’; and it was once described in “The Yorkshire Post” after a poetry-reading as being ‘gritty’. The womenfolk up there fare much better than the menfolk for they’re fairer of face and complexion; indeed, their fair complexion is heightened by the very lack of sunshine, a scarce commodity in Keighley even at the height of summer.

So, with such a grim, dour face and a modicum of courage, it’s strange I’m scared of visiting my dentist, yet scared I am. So scared I wear my airborne forces tie from my time in the army to bolster up my courage when I visit him. And there’s really no need to be frightened because my visits are usually only for routine examinations to check for minor fillings if they’re needed. Yet even that is nerve-wracking as he picks his way through my gums with his probe; poking into every cranny of my teeth, searching, it seems, for a bare nerve-ending which he inevitably finds.

And what makes it worse is that he rarely speaks when he’s fishing about my mouth. You see, he’s a fellow Yorkshirman and his chill silence speaks louder than any pleasant conversation. Perhaps I should be grateful that he’s concentrating on his work and not indulging in idle gossip, which might distract him into sending me through the roof when he touches a raw nerve.

.Nevertheless, his fiddling around with that cold steel probe and mirror, before finally getting to work with his confounded drill, delving deeper and deeper into the tooth, sends shivers down my back and sets my imagination working overtime. I shut my eyes tightly while I keep my mouth open wide and try to pretend I’m not there.

Yet ironically I have much to thank dentists for. They’ve looked after my teeth well since the 1940s when the school dentist regularly paid visits to my primary school along with the school nurse. Youngsters were well looked after in health as well as in education in Keighley in the 1940s. Many children in other parts of the country didn’t have the same health-care at school, as I discovered later.

When I was a paratrooper during my National Service in the 1950s, several of my fellow paratroopers had no teeth and they were barely twenty years of age. They’d followed the example of their parents (and my parents) and had all their teeth taken out in their late teens to save any expense or trouble later in life. Before we made our drops, they’d place their false teeth in little containers attached to their parachute harness. When they’d landed and dealt with their canopies, they’d put their teeth back in.

It was then I realised what good dental treatment I’d had from the start, and sensible parents who’d made me clean my teeth daily, morning and night. So, although I’m still scared stiff when I visit the dentist, I’m also grateful to him despite all the pain I endure; and it isn’t much compared with the old days of mechanical, foot-driven drills. What’s more, I don’t have to put my teeth in a tumbler of water each night.

John Waddington-Feather ©


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