During the 1960s, a trip to the ‘murder house’ was a mandatory requirement for primary school-aged children. The state of children’s poor dental health had become a national concern which caused the government to build school dental clinics on many school grounds. Christchurch had a plentiful water supply but it was not fluoridated. Most children of that era had a fairly plain and basic diet, but we all managed to get our fair share of cavities in our teeth.
Usually isolated well away from the main buildings these buildings often looked spooky and mysterious. We believed that they were far away so nobody could hear the children scream. Children would disappear in through the doors escorted by a stern-faced dental nurse in a starched white uniform. If the child looked pale and worried as they entered those doors, then they would often look worse when they emerged half an hour later – often clutching their poor, tender jaws and trembling from the stress of it all. They would stagger back to their classroom glad it was over for the next six months.
Many of us boomers will remember the school milk program which was instigated to help the dental health of young children. Tolerable on a chilly morning this became a nauseating torture when the milk had been sitting in the sun. We were forced to drink it, by black-garbed nuns with stern faces. The best way was to hold your nose and skull it down – and try not to vomit it up again. I still can’t stomach warm milk. All of that forced calcium consumption sadly didn’t seem to help my teeth at all.
But back to the ‘murder house’. It smelt strongly of chemicals and was full of strange equipment which clanged and buzzed. A shiny and well-polished vinyl floor made the dental nurses’ rubber-soled shoes squeak. Once ensconced in a special chair the poor child would be closely examined by a dental nurse who might or might not suffer from halitoses. I would wriggle and squirm to get away, but she would get me in a sort of firm headlock and clasp me against her starched bosom and start poking away with a shiny instrument of torture. My eyes would roll in panic and fear – but I was a prisoner. I could not getaway.
With my mouth forced painfully open by a mirror contraption she would start buzzing away with the drill. No anaesthetic in those dark days. She would drill away while my eyes watered with pain. Stabs of pain would shoot through my poor traumatised little gob while she muttered dire warnings about the state of my crooked and hole-ridden teeth. Stern warnings followed about the necessity of teeth cleaning twice daily. Fillings were plugged with poisonous mercury while my mouth would be stuffed with cotton wool cylinders. Finally, it was over. I could spit into a funny little basin with running water and sigh a breath of relief.
If you were lucky the kinder dental nurses would make you a butterfly or bee out of one of the cotton wool swabs with dental floss and gauze. These were considered adequate compensation for half an hour of pain. With relief, we would stagger down from the chair back to the classroom to inform the next poor kid that they were to report to the dental nurse.
It took me years to get over a trip to the ‘murder house’, though in these days of aesthetic and ambient music and flat-screen televisions on the ceiling the ‘murder’ usually occurs on the contents of your bank account. Sometimes a clinical or chemical smell will propel me back into those school days.