Sometimes the things that happen to us that seem the most trivial end up being some of the most significant, with repercussions that last years, even decades.


Something as simple as a fourteen year old boy not wanting to trouble himself with wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle to school can reach out and be felt by the same person, fifteen years later, as he sits in a chair at a dentist waiting to get work that wouldn’t have been at all necessary had he put on a helmet so long ago.

Of course, I was that boy. It was the fall of 1991 and the home where I lived with my parents was, in my mind, within spitting distance of the high school. I was only riding on residential streets and so I didn’t see any real need to wear the heavy helmet that my parents had so lovingly purchased for me.

How could I have possibly known the dangers laying before me? I had no problem getting to school that day, as I hadn’t been having problems getting to and from school every day since I started riding the bicycle to school. On the way home, however, things all fell apart. I rode up to one of the intersections near the school where a crossing guard was helping people get from one side of the street to the other without getting hit. I slowly rode across the street and she urged me to slow down and for some reason I needed to come to a complete stop.

That’s when it happened – I lost my balance and the bicycle toppled over to the right and I went down with it… face first.

When I got up and looked at the crossing guard she had an expression that one
normally sees in the audience of the average horror film. It wasn’t until I caught a glimpse of myself in the side mirror of a car that had stopped to see what was going on that I realized what had happened. My two front teeth were cracked in the middle and were missing their bottom halves. I very nearly screamed but I couldn’t as it was all too much for me. Needless to say, an emergency trip to the dentist was in order.

A friend of the family was nearby and she helped take me to the dentist and suddenly I found that I was perfectly able to talk as some of the most vile words came out of my mouth – the kind of language one generally avoids using around children and babies. She talked me down off the ledge, so to speak, and soon I was in a chair for the first of what was to be a long series of dentist appointments.

One such appointment ended up being more fun than I was anticipating it to be. I had to go in at one point to get a root canal – I just know you can feel the excitement in the air at the very sound of those words. It was an evening appointment and I had just watched the new episode of Star Trek – The Next Generation.

When I sat down in the chair the first thing I told the dentist was that very fact and he told me that he was a huge fan of the show.

What could have been a miserable experience turned pleasant as I spent the entire time telling him what happened during the episode. It happened to be the episode where everyone is brainwashed by a new virtual reality game and it is up to Wesley to save everyone. I wonder now to what extent the dentist was really interested in my analysis of the show and how much he just wanted to distract me from the fact that he was performing a root canal.

Naturally, I asked to keep it. I didn’t end up getting it.

As a result of the accident I had to get crowns for my teeth and I had to wear braces on my upper row for over a year. That meant that I also had to periodically go in to get the braces tightened, which was never a pleasant experience. Every time I sat in the chair of the orthodontist the same thought inevitably came to me at some point – if only I had put on a helmet that day, I wouldn’t be sitting here now.

The same thought would enter my mind sometimes when I would be carefully cleaning my teeth, ensuring that nothing was stuck in the braces. I had to replace my toothbrushes more often because the metal grill really tore up the bristles of the toothbrush.

Even after I was done with braces, I had to wear a retainer for my top row – all because of a choice that I made on one day. All of it could have been prevented with a decision that would have taken all of thirty seconds to implement.

The repercussions that landed me in the dentist chair fifteen years later were all down to a bad habit that I had developed of biting my thumb when I would get upset to avoid yelling. On one particular Friday (the worst time for such a thing to happen) I was really upset by a soup commercial of all things and I bit down on my thumb and watched as one of my lovely crowns broke off of my teeth. I ran into the bathroom and was confronted with years of decay under the crown.

Though I was furious at myself for letting such a daft thing happen, I directed some of my anger at my fourteen year old self – the one that made it all come to pass so many years earlier.

I was comforted by my dentist a few days later when he told me that even permanent crowns can sometimes break and it wasn’t entirely my fault.

Between the time I got a temporary crown and the time I was finally fitted with a permanent crown it was another year – another year of waiting and wondering how things could have been so much better if I had only put a helmet on that fateful day when I was fourteen.

11 Comments

  1. Fine article, Gordon!
    You reminded me of the time I went sledding at a young age and knocked out a front tooth. I still suffer from that moment today.
    I wonder if people have more “broken teeth” or “broken bones” stories from their childhoods?
    When I was young no one wore helmets for biking or sledding or skateboarding. We just risked it bare-headed and none of us — including our parents — knew the risks we were taking.

  2. The idea of the inevitability of human construction is something that is lost and wasted on the young. Some argue it is that very youthful immortality that allows them to be used on the battlefield as infantry fodders in wars throughout our world history.

  3. It reminds me of the film Born on the 4th of July where the protagonist desperately wants to fight in the war because his parents and the parents of his friends fought so bravely in the second World War and they too want to be brave like their parents.

  4. Military families are a powerful force, Gordon. There is a lot of pride and history that goes there and they share in the sacrifices and the horrors of the war.
    Many more wounded soldiers are kept alive today than in any other way — only time will tell if those lives are truly saved and enjoyed, though.
    My feeling is a large number of severely wounded soldiers in Iraq might begin to believe they would be better off dead.

  5. It was that very anonymity, Gordon — plus the last couple of sentences — that made me think “fake” because it’s so easy to make up anything you like on the Internet and pretend it’s fact if you can hide your identity so people can’t check you out.