I don’t notice people’s physical characteristics much, but there is one thing my eyes always seem to gravitate towards: people’s teeth. I think it’s because my parents were always real big on tooth maintenance. I have been happily going to Dr. O’Dell’s in Charleston for over thirty years, twice a year like clockwork, right up until COVID 2020. They keep my teeth sparkling, my cavities to a bare minimum, and are totally skilled at the dentist-specific dance of being able to hold a full conversation with someone while that someone has a mouth full of teeth-cleaning tools.

Now, I do not have perfect teeth, and getting them to “healthy and acceptable” took some work. When my permanent teeth came in, I had a gap between my two front teeth so large my dad said you could run a tug boat rope through it, so like 90 percent of my fellow teens, I got a set of braces. But before I could do that, I had to get The Appliance.

I just made about a thousand of you shudder when I wrote that.

What’s the Appliance, you ask? Well it can be a lot of different things, but the one most people get is used to expand the roof of your mouth (yeah readers, there was in fact a time when someone thought my mouth wasn’t big enough. Ponder on that.). In simple terms for those of you who don’t know, it’s column of metal that fits up into the roof of your mouth, hooks on to molars on either side of your mouth, and pushes your teeth out so your palate expands to hold your teeth comfortably. And after your dental professional has installed it, he hands your mom a tiny key and tells her she’ll need to insert the key into a tiny hole in the Appliance and crank that bad boy up every day for the next month. But we of the Appliance generation lived to tell that tale, and walked away with functional and healthy teeth (and a functional and healthy fear of tiny silver objects jabbing into our gums when our parents hands slipped while turning the key).

Since then, it’s been a steady stream of cleaning and maintenance (and one very interesting wisdom-tooth extraction, where I woke up right as they were pulling a tooth and had to be given additional anesthesia), and I’ve been lucky that even though I don’t have dental insurance, I can afford to keep up on my tooth care.

But I’m an exception, not a rule. It’s not that routine dental care is horribly expensive (I pay less out of pocket for a cleaning than I would for a year of dental insurance premiums), it’s that, just like all insurable items, if disaster happens, most of us don’t have the spare cash to handle a dental emergency without insurance. Fixing a cavity costs about the same as a basic set of new tires, and if you’re forced to pick one or the other, you’re going to pick the one that gets you to work on time, and you’ll just use an old-fashioned toothache remedy to alleviate suffering (they say bourbon on a cotton ball does the trick, although I think you could probably leave out the cotton ball).

I want to give a shout-out to The Pilot Club. I know you know them, or if you don’t know as a club, you do know a Pilot-person. Typically, you can find them with a set of raffle tickets in hand for a really good prize basket (my life goal is to win one), or putting together the year’s best BINGO game, or participating in a pole decorating contest (the fall one is happening now, so contact Main Street Ripley!), where they put up some truly beautiful designs (with some help from Mr. Waybright), and generally just go around being really helpful to just about everyone in the JCO.

But what the Pilot Club does that’s really important to our community is the funding of their dental program. They raise money to help people who desperately need dental work, from dentures to oral surgery, and they help them get a better smile, which helps them lead healthier lives, and often times, better lives.

Because when you have healthy teeth, you don’t realize what it is to have “bad teeth.” You don’t realize how tough it is to chew your food properly when your teeth hurt or are missing. You don’t realize that it’s affecting your job prospects because your smile doesn’t look “right” and people judge you every time you open your mouth. And you don’t realize that it isn’t just your mouth that’s being affected: having bad teeth can affect your whole body’s health.

That’s where Pilot steps in: when they have the adequate resources, they (and their blue-winged Tooth Fairy), help kids get free teeth cleanings (thanks to our local dental offices who participate!), but they also help adults who need major dental help. They raise thousands of dollars so someone can finally chew properly, or get a good set of dentures that fit, and that someone can go on to smile, really smile, for the first time in a long time. That’s the kind of thing that can change a person’s life, not just on the outside, but on the inside. They’re giving people back their confidence, and that’s as valuable as the dental services provided.

So if you find yourself in the giving spirit, and you want to make a donation to a cause that really can change someone’s life, donate to the Pilot Club’s dental fund. If you’ve been a recipient of a set of Pilot Club-funded dentures, make sure and have a little fun with them, like my Grandma Kate once did with hers. It was Halloween night, and my baby cousins had stopped by her house to see her on their way to Trick or Treat. They were dressed in adorable kid costumes, including one as a vampire. He was so proud, showing off his Dracula costume to Grandma Kate, including his vampire teeth. “Look Grandma,” he said, as he pulled his plastic teeth out of his mouth, “they come out!”

Without missing a beat, my grandma said, “Mine too!” and pulled her dentures right out of her mouth.

Y’all, those kids FLEW out of my grandma’s room, screaming like they were being chased in a haunted house by Bram Stoker himself. And my grandma just laughed and laughed, then popped her teeth back in and went on about her night.

So let’s remember to give back to the organizations who makes it possible for the needy in our community to get back a winning smile, because your teeth affect more of your life than you realize. Keep them clean, keep them maintenanced, and above all else, if you have the opportunity and a set of dentures to do it with: scar some small children for life. You’ll get a good laugh, and they’ll never forget to brush their teeth, I promise you that.