No matter how many Fourth of July’s I celebrate, my mind is always drawn back to our nation’s Bicentennial. July 4, 1976. While Americans celebrated 200 years of freedom, my mouth was adapting to the installation of barbed-wire on my teeth. Yes, that adolescent rite-of-passage, braces. To add insult to injury, my orthodontist, Dr. George Diament, gave all of his silver-mouthed patients tee-shirts with the iconic 1970’s Smiley Face wearing braces. The braces-wearing Smiley Face shouted, “BRACES ARE BEAUTIFUL!” The unwritten subtext was, “But I’m Not!”
Only God knows why I was compelled to wear that shirt on July 4th, 1976 as my family trekked down the one thousand crudely carved bluestone steps of the Palisades (hauling coolers of salami sandwiches, Lays Potato Chips, little neck Rolling Rock ale, a cylindrical blue plastic thermos of gin and tonics, and cans of ShopRite grape soda) to join the rest of old Fort Lee and Edgewater down at the base of the Hudson River at Bunty’s Dock to watch the regatta of ships afloat in “Operation Sail.” Looking at photographs from that day, the shirt truly enhanced my je ne sais quoi? Geekiness. I mean, really, what was I thinking? “Braces are Beautiful” was an oxymoron to the moron (moi) wearing the shirt.
Middle School is traumatic enough, so it makes no sense to slap your smile with braces at that precise moment when your inner-dork decides to become an outie. And it wasn’t just the braces that you had to contend with, but the goody bag of accessories that came with it. The rubberbands, the ball of wax, the hooked toothpick, the headgear. Hands down, the worst part for me was the “headgear.” Remember that pinkish-beige neck strap-on that was the height of fashion circa-anytime 1970’s? It connected an external vise-like semi-circular wire to your braces, the purpose of which was to use the sheer force of excruciating pain to shift your entire jaw into the next room.
On the cutting edge of orthodontistry, Dr. Diament took the headgear to a new level. His headgear not only included the snazzy neck brace, but a plastic skull cap. Together, the neck brace and the skull cap cleaved themselves to the parenthetical wire protruding from your grossly deformed mouth. While the neck brace yanked your molars into the back of your skull, the mental-patient helmet wrenched your misaligned eyeteeth (and your eyebrows) down to your toes. To take one look at me was to think that one of my ancestors mated with a rabid Schnauzer.
Added to this wretched scene were rubberbands. Those mini Campbell-soup-like rings-o’s housed in a small mustard-colored mailing envelope you kept in your pocket. Not only couldn’t you open your mouth, but how many of you got shot in the eye with one of them when your friend yawned? Talk about bringing weapons to school! I can still feel the breaking sting of the rubberband against my gums before it ricocheted directly into Mary Lutz’s face. She never complained because her rubberbands snapped me more than a few times.
The braces shredded the inside of my cheeks tingeing everything I ate with the taste of blood. Every time I smiled my cheeks got impaled on the wire! (I can still feel the scars.) The only relief came from covering the wires with wax which inevitably led to bartering with the person who sat in front of you in class for a piece of their wax because you either used yours all up or, more likely, left it home. Depending on your desperation, these transactions could be shadowy and costly. I think I promised my first-born to George Frangos. (By the way George, I’m ready to make good on that delivery!)
Now, my husband and his brother and sister never wore braces. (Ah, the aristocrats of Abbott Boulevard!) Not because their teeth were necessarily straight. I’m certain it’s because their mother loved her children too much to put them through that physical pain and psychological degradation. My husband possesses an uncannily undisturbed sense of confidence that I attribute to his not having had to suffer through the social suicide of braces and headgear. Me, and all my braced head-gear-wearing compatriots, are still trying to unearth the remains of our dignity buried by braces somewhere back in the ‘70’s. Alcohol helps.