When I was 7 years old, my mother took me to a dentist named Marvin Wenneman, who gave me this big, phony smile the minute I sat in his chair.
"How are you, little boy?" he asked.
"Not so well," I said. "I've got a headache and my stomach is k. . ."
"Good, good," he said, yanking my mouth open.
"You're going to hurt me, aren't you?" I said.
"No," he said. "I'm your friend."
Then he reached overhead and grabbed this huge drill and stuck in my mouth. The drill was silver and shiny and, this being the late '50s, about the size of a whaling harpoon. I screamed and cried for the next 45 minutes.
After the visit was over, Dr. Wenneman told my mother that unless I stopped screaming and crying, he could not have me as a patient.
On the way home, I said: "Let me get this straight. When he takes that drill and jabs my tooth and the pain rockets to the top of my head, I'm not supposed to scream and cry?"
That's right, my mother said. Screaming and crying upsets the doctor. Plus it tends to frighten the other patients.
"Screaming and crying upsets me, too," I said. "All things considered, I'd prefer not to do it."
This marked the beginning of my morbid fear of dentists.
From that point on, everything about them scared me: the vicious way they probed my teeth with their cold metal instruments. The needle they jabbed into my gums to numb my mouth. The way their Nazi hygienists would come goose-stepping into the room and bark: "ARE YOU FLOSSING?! ANSWER ME, WORM! YOU'RE NOT FLOSSING, ARE YOU?!"
But mostly what scared me was the drill.
I hated the noise. I hated the vibrations. I hated the pain.
Through childhood and adolescence and into adulthood, it was the drill, above all else, that gave me nightmares.
Then last week, during a visit to my dentist, an amazing thing happened.
"We're filling a cavity today," the dentist said casually. "But we're not drilling."
Suddenly, golden shafts of sunlight seemed to fill the room. Somewhere above my head a harp was playing. Outside the window, birds were chirping and squirrels and lambs and bunny rabbits were gathering, and children of all races were playing peacefully.
I . . . I think I even saw a rainbow.
"No drilling?" I said.
"No," he said. "We're using a new procedure."
These, of course, were words I'd been waiting to hear for years and years.
Still, I was cautious. I've been hurt by too many dentists. I've been hurt by dentists in Maryland, New York and New Jersey. I had some quack in Florida chip my tooth with a drill and yell "Oops!" as part of the tooth went flying onto the floor.
And almost every new procedure these dentists used hurt me worse than the old procedure.
"Let's not beat around the bush here," I said. "This new procedure: what's the pain factor?"
"There shouldn't be any pain," the dentist said.
At this point, of course, it was all I could do not to kiss the guy.
The procedure, he explained, involved the use of something called a KCP machine, which stands for kinetic cavity preparation.
The machine works a little like a sandblaster. An air compressor shoots out a stream of fine particles, known as alpha alumina, that dissolves decay.
The reason you don't need anesthesia with the procedure, he said, is that it doesn't create the heat friction that causes pain, as drilling does.
By now, of course, I was so overcome with joy that my eyes were misting over.
"God, this is a great country!" I cried. And with that, the dentist went to work.
Sure enough, the procedure was painless. In addition, the whining of the drill was replaced by a soft, humming sound.
If there is any negative at all to using the KCP machine, it's that your mouth gets dusty from all these particles being sprayed. But you ask me, dust is a small price to pay for the elimination of pain.
When it was all over, I stood and grasped the dentist by the shoulders and said: "You're a great, great man."
As I walked out to my car, I wondered what old Doc Wenneman would make of this new procedure.
Not too much, probably. Because he's dead now.
Me, I never felt better.