War, Gold and False Teeth: A Love Story

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My mother was a June bride in 1943.  Widowed, by dad’s sudden death in 1971, she lived on forty more years; mentioning him every day as if her recollections could recall him from his grave.

As part of the greatest generation during World War II, Mom took a secretarial position with the US Army in California while my father served at the Needles Army Airfield in San Bernardino.  The result was something of a miracle, since Dad was a medic in the dental corps, my mom was able to work nearby, secure an apartment and enjoy dinners with her new husband.  My father could luxuriate in hot private showers and the loving arms of his wife throughout the duration.  They were very well aware that he could be shipped out at any time, which probably made their uncommon war experience even sweeter.

In the dental lab, Dad learned to clean teeth and fill cavities.  He also made fittings for tooth crowns and filled molds with impressions for false teeth.  Daily, he smoothed the rough gold crowns with fine and coarse emeries.  The gold dust rained down on paper mats to be brushed onto the floor when his work was done.  My father grew up a street smart Bronx boy; he knew gold was gold whether in bars or dust.  He asked his commanding officer if he could save the dust to make a gift for my mom.  The officer who had been enchanted by his corporal’s pretty wife, gave his permission.  Each night that followed, my father scraped the gold dross from his work and softened into a ball.  He hid the ball at the top of a closet in my parents’ bedroom with a plan to surprise her with a one of a kind ring for their first anniversary.

There were thousands of draftees who went through Needles getting ready to fight in the Pacific Theater; the gold ball grew from a dot to a pea.  By the time it was ping pong ball size, my dad was transferred to a new base.  He called mom to tell her to pack up everything and meet him.  A few days later, he came to help her dust and vacuum their newest apartment.  “Jeannie,” he asked while lifting up a box labeled BEDROOM.  “When you emptied out the closet, did you put everything in here?”  She answered yes, but after a moment, remembered a metal lump she had found on the top shelf.  “You’re not looking for the thing behind my hat box, are you?”  She pulled linens from the box. 

“Where did you pack the thing?” he asked.  Mom shook out a folded quilt over the bed.  The dust in the room quivered above them before settling down on the quilt.  Dad had already guessed what was coming.  Mom tucked the quilt corners, “Oh, I threw it away.”

At his new base, my father cleaned and filled teeth, but he never collected gold shavings again.  One morning, while watching a bridge made for a soldier, he found a new outlet for his creativity.  Pink goo was poured into a mold taken of the young man’s gums.  When it hardened, false teeth were popped into the measured spaces and the poor country boy from Arkansas was given a perfect smile.  That night, my father created his own molds in the shapes of picture frames.  He slipped the picture of mom and him from his wallet and sealed the frame.  He made another one for his parents.

My mother adored jewelry.  Much later in their life together, my dad bought her rings and bracelets, necklaces and earrings.  She loved them all, but eventually she grew tired of them.  When they had gone out of fashion, mom would trade them in.  I’m sure she would have redesigned my dad’s gold ball ring many times had it been made.  The pink picture frames that remained near her bedside until her death, still survive.