I’m recovering from a recent visit to the dentist to take care of a cavity lurking underneath an already-existing filling. That’s like going into the assessor’s office to pay your vehicle tax and coming out to find your car’s been ticketed for an expired registration.

My first few childhood visits to the dentist were memorable. Perhaps “infamous” is the more appropriate adjective. One morning my dad said he would pick me up after school and we would “do something special together – it’s a surprise!” I was beside myself with anticipation all day, telling classmates my dad and I were going on an adventure that afternoon. When the dismissal bell rang I ran to meet my dad and it was a surprise all right — we crossed the street and entered a dental office in the basement of a neighboring house. Dr. Smith was an energetic man with big hands and highly-corrected vision who initially overwhelmed me with his outsized persona. While I eventually became quite fond of him, his dexterity and visual acuity were… not ideally suited for his chosen profession. Many dentists craft jewelry as a hobby, a natural extension of their skill set. I think Dr. Smith pounded out anvils in his spare time.

While perhaps not at the top of his profession he was certainly competent, and I continued to see him until I graduated from high school, coinciding with his retirement. But back to that first visit: I sat in the waiting room, not really sure what to expect. A bear of a man wearing a white smock and thick glasses with an additional set of magnifying lenses attached poked his head through the doorway, saying, “C’mon back here with me, Big John!” I walked into the examination room with all its unsettling equipment: consoles with dials, devices attached to long hoses, the overhead light that always blinds you while being adjusted into position. Dr. Smith helped me into the long, contoured lounge chair and said he was going to take a look at my teeth to make sure they were healthy. He asked if that was OK with me and I nodded my head “Yes”. He replied, “Great! Now let’s open up,” and I vigorously shook my head “NO”. In the space of two seconds I decided to adopt an adversarial position for the remainder of the visit, refusing to open my mouth. He asked again, then cajoled, then insisted, then called my father into the room to help out. My dad grabbed my nose and chin to pry my jaw open so Dr. Smith could insert a clamp to prevent me from closing it again. Strangely, I made no attempt to escape the confines of the chair or office; I sat there throughout the entire ordeal but just refused to cooperate in any way.

After looking with the mirror and running the various picks around my teeth and gums, Dr. Smith removed the clamp, permitting me to again intractably clench my jaw shut. He noodled around behind me for a few moments and then told me to open up again. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it… After calling on my dad for another assist Dr, Smith prepared to x-ray my teeth. He inserted a holder with a small square of film attached into my forcibly-opened mandible and then told me to bite down. This was a poor choice of words since I nearly took his finger off when I did so.

During my most recent visit to the dentist it was time for that same “full series”, and the modern method is truly out of science fiction; I stood stock-still at a mark on the floor while a series of cameras attached to flexible tracks traced trajectories all around my head. The x-ray machine Dr. Smith used all those decades ago, while no doubt state-of-the-art for its time, was still quite large and clunky to operate. A huge articulated arm dropped from the ceiling and held a radiation-generating head, about the size of a portable television set, with handles on either side to maneuver it into place, and coming to a cone-shaped point on the side closest to my face. It looked like a space-age weapon to me. Then Dr. Smith said something regrettable: “I’m gonna shoot some x-rays.” In the context of having this “weapon” pointed at my head, I understood him to say, “I’m gonna shoot a ray gun…” I interpreted the unstated but implied outcome of this action to be, “… in order to zap a gaping hole right through your little head.”

He slowly worked the ungainly device closer and closer to the film holder; the closer it got, the more panic-stricken I became. While zeroing in on the targeted spot he unfortunately made contact with my face — the tip of the cone-shaped end brushed against my cheek. By that point my eyes could not bug any further out of my head, so I communicated my fear in the only method left to me — I lurched to my left and vomited all over the floor. Dr. Smith stood there, surveying the scene. After exhaling a long breath he quietly said, “That’s what the sink’s for, son.”

The release of fear via hurling had exhausted me and I put up no further fight as he finished. The film indicated there were several cavities to deal with. As I continued to recline, flaccid and spent, I heard him tell my father: “He needs some fillings, Howard — but I just don’t have it in me to do anything else with him today.” We made an appointment to return in another week. Despite my abysmal behavior and the mess I’d made, Dr. Smith remained courteous and upbeat as I was leaving and directed me to his “treasure chest” — a collection of cheap plastic trinkets from which I could choose anything I wanted. This unexpected bounty completely changed my feelings about the whole experience; if only someone had told me this was the planned denouement before I’d climbed into the chair, I would have been much more complicit.

I came back the next week, excited by the prospect of getting to choose another toy when these “fillings” were over with. I sat back in the chair and when Dr. Smith asked me to “open up” I did so enthusiastically, unhinging my jaw so wide you could see clear down to my stomach. I was completely cooperative, opening and closing and turning this way and that right up until the moment he presented a needle full of Novocain that looked to be a foot long and started to jab at my tender gums. (This was before the practice of “pre-numbing” with a swab soaked in lidocaine.) Familiar with the look on my face, and how I expressed feelings of panic, he withdrew the needle and reminded me where the sink was. I managed to get past the fear that visit without further incident. However, right through my final visit with Dr. Smith many years later, I refused injections any time drilling was required.

At last week’s appointment for the subterranean cavity removal the dentist numbed me up real good (pre-numbing completely changed my feelings about needles); I was without feeling from ear to nose and jaw to left eyebrow. He applied the drill to my tooth and… I felt every bit of it. I’m fairly certain Dr. Smith’s spirit was in the room that day, working through this new dentist to extract his revenge against me.

I know the correct phrase is exact revenge; I used “extract” in that previous sentence as a meager attempt at a play on words. But it does remind me of when I had all four of my wisdom teeth pulled during my college years and, for a brief moment, was convinced the oral surgeon had broken my jaw. I didn’t know where the sink was in his office, either.