Tall tales of teeth and smiles
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As I drove back to London last week after taking my daughter to start her big adventure — university — I thought back to her batmitzvah speech when she’d revealed that when she was a little girl, every day when she came home from school her mother had asked her the same question: “Did you make the right choices today?”
I started thinking about some of the choices I’ve made in my life.
One good choice I made was when, aged 20, I volunteered for the Six Day War in June 1967. I’d dropped into my local war travel agents. “I’ve got a week off... what have you got on ?” I asked. “No, not Vietnam — it could go on for years. Have you got anything a little shorter?”
I got to Tel Aviv on the Thursday — it was half-day closing in the war — and it was all over by Saturday.
Arriving at a kibbutz by the Gaza Strip we were greeted by a red-bearded giant with an Uzi in one hand, a pistol in the other, bandoliers of bullets across his chest and a hand-grenade gripped between his teeth.
“Great! The new Jew!” I thought.
He took the grenade out of his mouth. “Hello, I’m Sean Armstrong from Dublin. Welcome.”
I washed up in the kitchen for a month. If the Arabs came, I was going to throw dishes at them, which is how I invented the frisbee.
In 1968 I made another choice: London was full of beautiful Scandinavian girls, so naturally I got a job as a DJ in a Soho club that was only for au pairs. One night I gave a girl called Annika a lift home; I thought she lived in Stanmore. Two days later I was on a small island off the coast of Sweden. My father, a busy London GP, wasn’t exactly delighted as I’d borrowed his car for the night.
Another big choice I’d made early on was to be a dentist . “Peter Pumpkin,” my mother had whispered into my pram, “be a dentist”.
“Why, Mummy?” I’d asked, taking the cigar out of my mouth. “Does it offer good career prospects, security and a final salary pension scheme?”
“You’ll work office hours and make more money than your father,” she said. It sounded good to me.
It wasn’t until I finally got to the Royal Dental Hospital, above the Golden Egg restaurant in Leicester Square (not exactly the hallowed halls of Oxbridge) — that I realised it had anything to do with teeth. I immediately resigned, writing to the Dean that I felt it was the best thing for everyone concerned, as clearly I would destroy some of the finest mouths of my generation.
As I finally pulled up outside my house, I knew that easily the best choice I’d ever made, was 20 years ago, when I’d married the beautiful young woman who — as I’d earlier unloaded the car that was full to the roof with seemingly all my daughter’s worldly belongings, outside the hallowed halls of her almost 700-year-old college — had made me the proudest father in the world.