from the upcoming and untitled book about The Texas Hill Country
The Basement Dentist
By Peter Writer of New Braunfels, Texas
My wife and I live in New Braunfels, Texas and consider ourselves Texans. The incidents I speak of here occurred in the old family house in Nyack, New York. I grew up with my father and mother, two brothers, grandfather and grandmother, and Fuzzy, our Chow dog. These stories could have taken place anywhere, including the Texas Hill Country town of New Braunfels.
My grandfather built the house in the early 1900s. It had a cellar, two main stories, and a third story, which was an unfinished attic. My grandfather was a prominent figure in town and known to enjoy his scotch and whisky. Doctor Writer or Doc, as he was called, had been the first dentist in town and was liked and respected for doing pro bono dental work for people who couldn’t afford to pay and there were lots of them in the early 1900’s.
Doctor Writer’s father, my great-grandfather, had owned a saloon before he died. My grandmother Ida Mae however was a strict Methodist and active in the Ladies Temperance Movement of the day. Mother Mae, as she was called, was also a member of the Anti-Saloon League, and her father was a fire and brimstone preaching Methodist minister and prohibitionist. The Reverend did not approve of his daughter’s marriage to my grandfather and many others wondered why the daughter of a prohibition preaching Methodist minister would marry the son of a saloon owner.
When the 18th amendment passed and Prohibition came in the 1920’s, my grandfather converted the cellar of his house into a speak-easy complete with billiard table, a wet bars, and cartoon murals on the walls. He even painted the windows black so nobody could see in. According to family gossip, there were some wild parties that happened in our speak-easy cellar during the “roaring twenties” before the 21st amendment ended the Prohibition Era.
My grandfather was determined to make sure none of his grandchildren had crooked teeth and he worked incessantly trying to install braces on my brothers, cousins, and me. To everyone’s horror, when he retired he moved the dental chair, the drill, and the rest of his equipment to the speak-easy decorated basement of our house. He continued working on our braces as well as other pro bono work on his old friends and patients. Grandpa could grab us at any time and take us down to the cellar and start drilling on our teeth. When I came home from school I always looked to see if grandpa was around and if he was I’d sneak out until it was safe to come home. One day he heard me come in and caught me, saying he needed to take some impressions for my braces. I couldn’t escape so off we went to the cellar chair. The next thing I knew he had my mouth so filled with plaster gunk that I could barely breathe and thought I’d gag and choke to death. Then, unbelievably, he walked away to let the plaster dry and set up. Grandpa was a great tinkerer and he wondered over to his workbench and started working on some unfinished project while I sat gagging in the chair. Finally, he returned and tried to remove the solid plaster impression from my mouth, but to my dismay, he couldn’t get it out. I knew he left it in for too long and it hardened like cement on my teeth. Cursing the plaster, he held up a hammer and chisel and began banging away on the impression. At last, the plaster crumbled and he removed the ruined mess from my sore mouth. The last thing I heard him say as I ran away was, “This blankety-blank new-fangled plaster’s not worth a tinker’s damn.” He later found me hiding and tried to get me back in the cellar to do another impression, but I wouldn’t go.
When I was a young boy, I shared a small bedroom with my brothers. I wanted my own room and asked my father if I could move to the tiny room in the attic. He said he’d lived there as a boy and I could too if that’s what I wanted. Happily, I moved up the 10 rickety steps to the musty attic and down the long creaky hall to my tiny room. There was just one bare bulb to light the outer part of the dark attic. Long strings with weights attached hung at both ends to pull the light on before walking up the stairs and off at my bedroom door at the end of the hall. There were holes in the old wooden floor planks and both sides of the hallway were filled with mysterious old family trunks and clutter. The secret treasures hidden in the dark corners and spaces under the eaves were reachable only by balancing on the bare floor joists. My sparse room had a small closet and dresser, a desk, a lamp, a bed, and best of all, my Emerson radio. At night, I liked to get in bed and listen to the old radio programs, The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, Dragnet, Amos and Andy, Fibber Magee and Molly, Jack Benney, and others I cannot even remember. My favorite was The Voice in the Night. The program came on at midnight with narrators reading scary stores like: The Monkey’s Paw, The Telltale Heart, The Pit, and The Pendulum with realistic sound effects. I’d get under the covers and listen, too scared to move. I remember one story about a monster from outer space named Drill. The monster was coming to get a boy who was hiding in his bedroom alone at night. I listened, terrified, as Drill the monster, slowly walked down the creaky hall toward my bedroom. I cringed under my covers waiting for the slow, heavy footsteps to reach my door. I heard the monster breathing just outside my room and saw my doorknob turn. Did my door open? Was there a monster there? I’ll never know because at that instant I sprang out of bed turning the radio off and the light on. I spent the rest of the night hiding under my bed, too scared to open my door and see if anything was there. When morning dawned at last, I found the courage to open my door and walk downstairs. I don’t think there was a monster there, but I couldn’t be sure. I always wondered if Drill the monster was hiding among the family rubbish stored under the attic eaves. I never looked though.
We had running water in our old house but not in my attic room. I had a chamber pot that I was supposed to use and carry down to the bathroom every morning and empty. Soon I found it easier to open the window at night and relieve myself. After a few years of this procedure, my father noticed a tree that was growing up toward my window was dying. He asked me if I was doing anything to the tree and I said, “Just watering it at night dad.” Smiling, he replied, “I did the same thing when I lived in that room as a boy.”
In 1954, Hurricane Carol came and uprooted many trees and caused a lot of damage. During the storm, I called my neighbor friend and asked if he wanted to play a board game like monopoly. We decided that I’d walk over to his house with the game, without telling anyone. I got the game and started for my friend’s house. As soon as I walked out the door the powerful wind blew the board game out of my hands and after a few more steps, it caught me and lifted me up and away. Luckily, there was an apple tree in the backyard and I managed to grab onto it before blowing off to Oz. I held on to the tree for dear life until my father finally saw me blowing in the wind and came out and saved me.
Fuzzy wuzzy was a bear, fuzzy wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he? Fuzzy was our family dog. He was a big red Chow and looked a lot meaner than he was. There was a dog ordinance in town so when Fuzzy was outside he had to be tied up. Rope didn’t work because he’d snap it when chasing after a cat or squirrel or most any other critter he saw. We secured him with a long ox chain and he’d usually just lie in the sun, but occasionally Fuzzy would take off like a shot after a squirrel. The squirrel would run up the butternut tree and Fuzzy would chase him until the chain jerked him up on his hind legs, barking and straining and trying to climb the tree in pursuit of the squirrel. It was a funny sight to see, three or four squirrels sitting safely in a row on the branch directly above Fuzzy, twittering and dropping butternuts on his head while he helplessly barked and tried to climb the tree after them.
Fuzzy would attack any male dog that infringed on his territory, but he was nice to his dog girlfriend, Donna. Donna was a brown Doberman Pinscher and she was equally mean to all other dogs, except Fuzzy who she would nuzzle and play with. Whenever Fuzzy escaped from the house, it was my job to go out and find him before the dogcatcher got him. I knew where Fuzzy liked to go and when I found him, I’d chuck rocks at him and he’d come to me with his head down and tail between his legs. Sometimes I’d hit him with the rocks, but usually I just had to pretend to throw and call him and he’d obey. If I didn’t find him right away, I’d go to Donna’s house and he’d be there playing with her in the front yard. I’d pretend to chuck a rock at him and call him and he’d come to me. Donna wouldn’t like it and she’d snarl and bare her teeth at me, but Fuzzy came anyway. Donna only liked Fuzzy and Fuzzy only liked Donna and me. I wondered if Fuzzy would protect me if Donna ever attacked.