Column: A fettered boy with fettered teeth


“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
—Charles Dickens

My dad used to say, “The more keys a man has, the more worries.” Then, for emphasis, he’d shake his vast key collection at me, filling my hearing with its soul-stirring sound, sending metallic smells rushing up my nose. The acrid keys seemed alive, angry, a voodoo death rattle.

His keychain held at least 50 keys, different sizes, shapes and colors, imprinted with tiny numbers, most meant to penetrate mysterious locks at an aluminum plant where he worked in maintenance and the machine shop. He returned home after each shift with metal shavings clinging to the soles of his steel-toed boots, leaving silvery, teeth-like paths on our carpet. Going barefooted was dangerous in our house, a regular tetanus trap.

Apparently dad was a man with many keys, many worries. The keys clattered with his every footstep. He was like Marley’s Ghost. I secretly called him Jangles.

“Are you fettered father?” I so wanted to cry out in a Dickensian street urchin accent, adding a pathetic tuberculosis tremor to my voice, but didn’t, worried my wise-ass nature might finally make old Jangles snap.

Why did his keys bring such worry? Did each represent added responsibility, a new worry to unlock? Did he fear getting fired if he lost the weighty key set?

Perhaps the rattle mere inches from my face was a symbolic gesture — by virtue of firstborn son status, I was yet another responsibility, another worry.

Apparently my crooked teeth (or the cost to straighten them) were one of his worries, for in early middle school, the taste of metal was a constant dentist-induced discomfort for me. No, I’m not talking braces. What I’m referring to was a bizarre kind of pre-braces procedure resulting in two giant silver thingamajigs being sealed over my two top central incisors, sealing the enamel surface from the outside world, like iron lungs for teeth.

I don’t recall any other kid being subjected to this dastardly dental procedure. It was as if I had been a test dummy strapped into the dental chair of the damned, my metallic mouth the result of some evil dentist’s experiment gone awry.

The silver things that devoured my teeth were called “teeth shoes.” What the hell? Who knows, maybe it was the precursor to those grill things that are now a hip-hop culture craze. I could be the uncelebrated grandpop of hip-hop. Flava Flav Scott.

My “teeth shoes” were so big that I couldn’t close my mouth. Classmates called me Bugs Bunny. They’d chant, “Hi ho Silver away” behind my back. I sucked at hide-and-seek; I was easily found with a metal detector. I feared giant magnets and rogue lightning.

I have recounted this metallic memory to people in the dental profession only to face looks of perplexity and disbelief. Apparently, my dentist took our “teeth shoes” secret to his grave.

To compound my embarrassment, each “shoe” had a very visible serial number on front. The only logical reason: the numbers enabled authorities to be more expedient in the whole “dental records” step to identifying a corpse; however, the serial numbers were unnecessary since I was the only kid in the world wearing teeth shoes!!! Of course that silver-toothed corpse was mine!

No childhood pictures of me sporting my “teeth shoes” exist. I’m the only kid in history whose mother wrote a note excusing her child from class picture day. The reflection of the photographer’s flash from my two teeth would likely have blinded him.

Is it my imagination or did dad make me stand near the TV and order me to turn my head “north … now slightly to the west … just a bit more … now cock your head 20 degrees…” just to pick up a TV station not originating from Evansville? You’d think working at an aluminum plant would’ve given him easy access to plenty of free aluminum foil to wrap around the TV’s rabbit ears; however, my satellite-dish-sized “teeth shoes” clearly generated more conductivity than mere foil, converting me into being dad’s personal mid-1970s cable converter box . . . “…now, look down … up a bit … lean in … hold steady…”

The more keys a man has, the more worries. I wanted to say, “Don’t tell me about worries, dad, until you get your own pair of teeth shoes.”

Perhaps what dad actually meant was: “Don’t set your life up for too many keys, son.”

Apparently I took his advice. My current keychain merely contains a key fob to open car doors with and a key card to enter the gym. I’m rattle-free.

I am fond of the lack of locks I must unlock, thankful for my lack of worry over lost keys and the collective responsibilities they represent. I am a man unfettered.

I’m also quite fond of my teeth. Eventually, the “teeth shoes” were replaced by traditional orthodontics, my braces bringing me to an equal standing with my metal-mouthed peers. We all smiled full-mouthed silver back then.

At 53, my teeth remain passably straight — thank you, mom and dad for worrying about my appearance, though I’m still not sure the “teeth shoes” played a significant role in anything other than setting me up for social shunning and better TV reception for dad. My only regret is never finding some mad dentist to put “teeth shoes” on my own kids — just think of the money I would’ve saved not paying for cable.

Scott’s new collection of essays and columns, “Mr. Serious,” is available at Finishing Touches and Mad Batter Bakery. Or order by contacting him at The book is $10.

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