It is said with some truth that first impressions are lasting. And one element of same is the general appearance of someone in terms of the usual checklist of sagging skin, vibrancy, color, wrinkles, hair loss, and the condition of teeth. No one is consciously aware of this sort of mental checklist of course, unless it is brought up and judiciously tested in everyday life. The fact of the world is that we are and remain animals ever on the hunt mightily aware of the possibilities of danger and opportunities for procreating ourselves. This has always been and despite the brain in a Petri dish social theories of the current day, it will most likely persist for some time to come. In my own case I can recall the lessons of preadolescence invoked by my parents, my father in particular, of proper care of one’s physical mainframe. He was a post-WWII man who had been accustomed by his experience as soldier and subsequently, as a salesman, to maintain his appearance at the highest state of readiness. Of course men of that era involved themselves in the use of strange products like Wildroot hair tonic and cheerfully submitted to a friendly fragrant slap on both cheeks of Barbasol by his favorite barber. Standard issue for any overnight journey involved the marshaling of a Dopp kit replete with a chrome double edge safety razor, shaving creme, cologne, toothbrush, tube of toothpaste, soap dish, and accompanying small plastic repository case to safely store the used blades until disposal. On numerous occasions I can recall edging my way into the bathroom beside him and staring up at wonder at the precision of his morning ritual of making himself presentable to the world outside our home.
My own rite of passage into this world was not as one might immediately imagine it to be the appearance of some overly aggressive peach fuzz on my own chin heralding the entrance into puberty. But, in developing a ritual or regular brushing of my teeth that had matured past the childhood cycle of expected tooth loss. The tooth fairy having collected his due from my mouth since the age of six, it was impressed upon me that the newly formed ‘dents’ would have to last me far past the then hoary age of my father in his latter thirties. The vagaries of memory preventing me from recalling the sequence of events in detail, the parental crackdown upon my lackadaisical attitude to this necessary canon of behavior coming in an even that left its stamp fresh in my recollection even today some five plus decades later. The was, the chart! My parents generation having grown up in that era of constant want termed today as, The Depression, had become addicted to the opposite world of “New” and “Improved” as constantly promised in the post war era! With Edward Bernays as their unattributed anonymous patron saint, they were ever quick to embark on the latest advice as offered through the Reader’s Digest on smart methods of effective parenting. In this case, of turning errant child enthusiasm for moment into regularly observed habit a chart of basic tasks posed across a daily calendar had been prescribed. Thus my father the frustrated draftsman endeavored with pen and rectangular shirt cardboard to fashion an instrument with which to ennoble me into a similar sense of pattern behavior much in a similar manner to his own forced education in the Marine Corp.
The functional aspect of this process being to meet the requirements of each task with religious devotion at the start of each day and be rewarded by a gold star for successful completion of same throughout an entire week. This unwelcome totem hung high up on the bathroom wall next to the door like a gargoyle’s ever-present leering stare cast down over the sinful from a church steeple. The desired effect of participation that might have been inspired by that inexplicable childhood urge to emulate my daddy in every way dashed by this silent demanding interloper who had to be supplicated by the sacrifice of my strict adherence each day like some insatiable ancient idol of old. I hate it! I wanted to teat the cursed thing from the wall after the first week! I felt betrayed by my father as if he had chosen a graven idol to intercede over me. An institutional wedge that took all the wonder out of trying to be like him. Needless to say, within the month as a result of my determined resistance to comply that damn thing was magically disposed of suddenly without comment halfway through the succeeding month.
As, I stare at my teeth in the mirror in a characteristic snarl of inspection I note that though the gums have receded and the individual ‘dents’ that remain relatively undamaged by six decades of use still stand at the ready each morning roll call. The well-worn habit of the three S’s observed the fourth part of the ritual observed being brushing them. So many of my peers sporting darkly stained gaps filled by dentures, my own mouth still able to make a reasonable claim to having a reasonable usable set of teeth that have managed to weather the storm. All under the still very palpable threat of the ever-present danger of that chart and its ethereal presence of that damnable gold paper star.