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The Observer and Missions of Mercy 

Going to the dentist would have to be one of The Observer's biggest phobias. We have what's known in more scientific circles as dentophobia or odontophobia. And if you believe the Internet, 75 percent of Americans do too, in some form or fashion. That's one reason we've been walking around with a chipped molar for about a year now. It doesn't hurt; it's just a bit of a nuisance. Definitely not worth having someone shove their latex-covered fists in our mouths and undergo shots, drilling, filling and whatever that suction-thing is, in our opinion.

Dental work is expensive too, and we have an equally persistent fear of spending money. What would you call that? Cheapophobia? Thriftophobia? Too: Journalism ain't exactly the path to wealth and riches.

When we heard that the Arkansas State Dental Association and the Arkansas Mission of Mercy were putting on a free clinic in Little Rock over the weekend, our reluctance to spend money beat out our fear of dental work and we decided it was time to get that tooth filled after all.

The free clinic was open Friday and Saturday. Doors opened at 6 a.m. both days and on Saturday morning a line stretched a full block away from the Statehouse Convention Center doors. Those at the front must have arrived at 4:30 a.m. Dentists who volunteered their time treated over 1,875 patients over two days and gave away over $1 million in free dental work, performing everything from X-rays and extractions to fillings and teeth-cleanings.

Most of the people that came were probably middle-to-low income. Let's just say there weren't a lot of Beamers parked in the lots nearby. Some brought their kids, their elderly parents, but most just brought themselves, thankful for a free clinic on a day they didn't have to work, spending one of their only days of brief respite standing in line to get something they desperately needed but could not afford.

A woman sitting next to The Observer had four teeth pulled the day before and came back on Saturday to get fillings for three others. A man who had already been through the line came back to tell his mother, through cotton-ball stuffed cheeks, he had just had four teeth pulled and received two fillings. These weren't folks who simply forgot to brush their teeth a couple of times. Some had not, for whatever reason, seen a dentist in years or maybe even decades.

One thing that struck The Observer as we looked around was how a number of people gathered at the convention center that Saturday — no matter how dirty their work boots — dressed up for the occasion, wearing nice jeans or khaki pants with shirt tails tucked in. They figured the least they could do was dress up the best they could.

Over the weekend, The Observer got cajoled into being the designated driver for our cousin J and our friend, S. We used to fancy a night on the town back in our youth, but these days we're happier to do our drinkin' at home, thanks. The Observer rarely darkens the door of a bar anymore, except when it's to do a clandestine, Deep Throat-style meeting with a double-secret source, so Saturday night was a rare foray into the wild for us.

We visited four bars stone sober on Saturday night, with our Miss Daisys getting progressively more potted as we went along. The most depressing was a club on the freeway near Jacksonville, where everybody seemed to be 24 years old, the music sounded like someone beating a hippopotamus to death with a drum kit, and all the shots were served in little plastic cups like Robitussin. Back in The Observer's day, kids, whiskey was served in containers made of a hard, transparent substance created by melting sand. Look it up on Wikipedia.

We ended up the night at our cuz's favorite watering hole, Jimmy Doyle's Country Club out on I-40. It's straight out of "Urban Cowboy," with a clientele pushing the same vintage — a big, open hall full of a scuffed dance floor and neon. It's either in serious need of a remodel, or perfect just the way it is, depending on your tolerance for dive-bar patina. While The Observer didn't expect much, it turned out to be considerably better than we'd hoped. The band was great (the guitar player — a bearded man-mountain who looked like Bigfoot in a mortician's suit — pulled off the best cover of "Blue Spanish Eyes" we've ever heard, including the high notes), the dance floor was usually full, the drinks were cheap, and there was a pronounced lack of pretension on the part of all involved.

All that, and the whiskey came in glass.

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