Here's a short story for this summer:
A Visit to the Dentist
When the three o’clock bell rang, I grabbed my books and ran out of my fifth-grade classroom at P.S. 96, Queens, and didn’t stop running until I got home, seven blocks and seven minutes later. I tore open the side door of my house and ran into the kitchen shouting, “Hi, Mom,” as I headed for the living room and our new television set. I turned it on and took my shoes off as I waited for it to warm up. Finally, the picture came on and I rotated the large tuning knob – clunk, clunk, clunk – until the channel I wanted appeared. And there they were, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants in black and white miniature on our brand-new, first-ever, Zenith television set with a twelve-inch round screen.
In the early fall of 1951, I was ten years old, and I was watching the third and final playoff game between those two teams. And this one was for all the marbles. The winner would be crowned the champions of the National League, and the losers would face a long winter of the second-place blues muttering, “Wait’ll next year…”
On the first game of the series, the Giants beat the Dodgers 3-1. The next day the Dodgers walloped them by a score of 10-0. Today, Wednesday, October 3, at the Polo Grounds, the teams were 1-1 after seven complete innings when my mother entered the living room and tapped me on the shoulder. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, about a foot in front of the TV set, and I figured she’d say one of two things. “How many times have I told you not to sit so close to that thing, Joseph? You’ll ruin your eyesight.” Or, “It’s a beautiful day. You should be outside playing in the fresh air, not watching baseball on this…this contraption.”
But to my everlasting horror, she said neither of those things. She said something that would deprive me of seeing one of the most thrilling moments – if not the most thrilling moment – in baseball history. A moment that has since not been equaled. She said, “Don’t you have a dentist appointment at four o’clock?”
Oh, no! “But Ma –”
“No buts. It’s a quarter to four. Get going!”
“But Ma, it’s only a five-minute walk and –”
“It’s a ten-minute walk, and you should be a few minutes early anyway.”
“But it’s the eighth inning –”
With that she turned off the TV and said, “Put your shoes on and go. Now.”
* * *
Head down, totally dejected, I walked the two blocks to the dentist’s office. Down 134th Street to Rockaway Boulevard, along the boulevard, across 135th Street, to the entrance door. The doorway to doom as my sister and I called it. I opened the door and faced the stairway to the execution chamber. I trudged slowly up the cracked linoleum- covered stairs as the familiar odors of pipe tobacco and peppermint life-savers assaulted my nostrils. The dentist would chew the life-savers to mask the odor of the tobacco on his breath, so he wouldn’t offend his patients. It didn’t work, but I, for one, was never offended by the unusual mixture of smells.
I reached the top of the stairs and walked into the waiting room. It was empty. I was no doubt the last victim of the day and would be in the chair of pain right on time. Then a miracle happened. Doctor Diamond came out of his small kitchen, puffing away on his pipe, his white dentist’s smock unbuttoned at the neck, and said, “Joey, would you mind coming into the kitchen to listen to the end of the ballgame with me?”
Would I mind? I was struck dumb for a few seconds and then stammered, “S-s-sure, sir, that would be fine with me.”
As I followed him into the room, the sudden realization that the stern, square-jawed, no-nonsense dentist was an actual human being, who actually liked baseball, was a revelation of biblical proportions. We sat at the small wooden table on the old wood chairs, hunched over an old Philco radio. He fiddled with the tuning dial and the announcer’s voice became a bit clearer. He turned the volume up a bit too loud and said in his slight Eastern European accent, “Vun inning to go.”
“It was one to one when I left home,” I said.
“The Dodgers got three in the eighth. That should do it.”
The way he said it made me believe he was a Dodger fan. I said nothing as the Dodgers went down one-two-three in the top of the ninth. The dentist re-lit his pipe and chewed nervously on the stem as the Giants came up in the bottom of the ninth inning.
* * *
Simon Bernard Diamond, a Rumanian Jew, came to America in the early thirties, thankfully getting out before Hitler’s rise to power and the attempted annihilation of Europe’s Jews in what later became known as the Holocaust. He was my dentist because he was my parents’ dentist, and like my parents’ and my sister’s teeth, mine were soft and chalky resulting in many visits to his office. The memories flooded back of drilling, filling, extractions, and root canals. He did them all, and I had them all. He was a one-man show and a perfectionist with his slow-speed, belt-driven, electric drill. Many years later, a dentist I was “visiting” said in admiration, “Whoever did your fillings was an Old-World craftsman.”
Dr. Diamond also took impressions and made false teeth – a complete set of dentures for my Dad and an upper plate for my Mom – and I figured that would someday be my destiny as well, but fortunately that never happened. Dentistry soon advanced into the modern age of crowns and implants, saving me from the task of putting my teeth in a glass of water every night at bedtime.
* * *
Alvin Dark led off the inning for the Giants with a single. Don Mueller followed with another single. Dr. Diamond gripped the edge of the table and his pipe moved in his mouth from side to side. He relaxed a bit when Monte Irvin popped out, but then Whitey Lockman doubled home a run and it was now 4-2 with runners on second and third. The Dodger’s manager brought in Ralph Branca to pitch to Bobby Thomson. A sensational rookie named Willie Mays took his position in the on-deck circle. On Branca’s second pitch Thomson blasted a home run to left field winning the game 5-4, in what was to become known as the “Shot Heard Round the World.” As the announcer screamed, “The Giants win the pennant” over and over, Dr. Diamond slapped his powerful hand on the table muttering some unintelligible words, probably a curse or two in Yiddish, then viciously turned the knob on the radio to the off position. He stood up and said, “Let’s go. Get in the chair.”
Uh, oh. He was a Dodger’s fan, all right. Wisely, I had not said a word. I was neither a Dodgers fan nor a Giants fan – I was a Yankees fan, from the first moment I saw Joe DiMaggio gracefully running down fly balls in centerfield with a kid named Mickey Mantle waiting in the wings to replace him. But on the way to the chair I said, “What a shame for that to happen.”
He sort of grunted and mumbled something about “lucky” and “impossible” as I sat down and he got out the big needle to numb the molar he would drill and fill. An hour later, relieved it was over, I walked out of there onto Rockaway Blvd. and ran into a friend whose father owned the hardware store over which Dr. Diamond’s office was located. He said, “Didja see it, Joey!”
“You mean the home run?” I said to Neil Hamilton as spit drooled out of the numb side of my mouth.
“Yeah! Wasn’t that great? I hate the Dodgers.”
“Don’t tell that to the old guy up there,” I said, pointing above the store. “I didn’t see it, but he had the game on the radio.”
“Too bad, guess you’ll have to wait until the newsreel at the movies comes out. They’ll have it for sure.”
* * *
The years passed by and my visits to the dentist became more than for tooth repair. In addition to being an Old-World craftsman, he was a New-World philosopher. We discussed many topics of interest besides baseball – science, nature, politics, culture, and religion, and on that last topic he startled my sixteen-year old self when he said, “You know, Joseph, I don’t believe in God.”
Now I had always believed Dr. Diamond to be a devout Jew, and I was shocked at his statement of non-belief. I said, “Really? Why?”
“If there was a God, he would not have let six million of his chosen people die in the gas chambers.”
That statement hit me right between my devout Roman Catholic eyes and I said, “But you believed in God before that?”
“And you reasoned that if God saved the Jews from the wrath of the Pharaoh, He should have intervened during the war?”
“Correct, but He chose not to, because I have concluded He does not exist.”
“You do know I was taught to believe in both the Old Testament of Moses, as well as the New Testament of Jesus?” I said as I tried to comprehend his loss of faith.
“And you still believe in them both?”
I took a deep breath and said, “I sure do.”
He smiled and said, “Good for you. I hope your beliefs are correct and will sustain you. I hope you never conclude, as I have, that they are two beautifully written books of myths and fables. Enough of this now. Get in the chair.”
Later that year, at the end of the 1957 baseball season, Dr. Diamond’s Brooklyn Dodgers – and the New York Giants – announced they would leave the city of New York for the golden sunshine of California. His lack of faith in God had been tempered by his faith in the Brooklyn Dodgers, and now that also was taken from him. He was not quite the same after that. Or maybe it was his age creeping up on him, his hair grayer and thinner, stooping over a bit, and mumbling to himself on occasion.
When I was eighteen years old, I informed Dr. Diamond we were moving out of the neighborhood, but not that far away. I said, “It’s only about ten miles. I’ll still come back for my appointments.”
He said, “Good, but I’m thinking of retiring soon. Did you hear the National League may be getting us a team in New York soon?”
“To replace your beloved Bums?”
“No vun can ever replace them. Even you – a verdammen Yankee fan – know that.”
“So you’ll sit on your porch, puff away on your pipe, and watch this new team on your color TV as you while away your retirement years?”
“Yes. Can you think of anything better?”
I smiled and said, “No, Dr. Diamond. Not at all.”
In the intervening years I saw the clip of the Thomson “Shot” dozens of times and each time I think of where I was when it happened, and of that Old-World craftsman banging his hand on the table in disgust. As they would say in Yiddish, “He was truly a mensch.” And every time the sweet odor of burning pipe tobacco or peppermint life-savers passes my nose, I smile and remember this good man. I miss his talent, his knowledge, and his wisdom, and yes, I miss his Brooklyn Dodgers, too. But please don’t tell anyone I said that.