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Interview with Richard C. Conrad, December 4, 2004 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Richard C. Conrad, December 4, 2004
December 4, 2004
Well organized and presented "coming of age in North Carolina" during Depression years. Interviewee is a highly skilled musician and pilot who enjoyed chemistry courses as electives. Decided to be a dentist so he could enjoy using chemistry, playing in a band, and flying. A top notch story teller.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Conrad, C. Richard Interviewer: Zarbock, Paul Date of Interview: 12/4/2004 Series: Southeast North Carolina (SENC) Length 60 minutes

Zarbock: Good morning. My name is Paul Zarbock, staff person with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s university library. Today is December the 4thin the year of 2004 and we’re videotaping in Southport North Carolina, specifically with Dr. C. Richard Conrad, who is a dentist in practice here in Southport. Good morning sir, how are you?

Conrad: Well, considering how long I’ve been in this world, I think I’m going pretty good.

Zarbock: And how long have you been in this world?

Conrad: Seventy-five years, seventy-six come March.

Zarbock: Well, let’s…let’s go back a…seventy some years…where did you start off? Where…where…what are you…where are you native of?

Conrad: I was born in a house in Greensboro North Carolina and I think the doctor that delivered me was a little bit drunk because he didn’t file my birth certificate until the next day and when I started to get my social security it took a while to get that straightened out. But it was really March the 26th, rather than March the 27th. And I grew up in Greensboro. Went to elementary school, having been born in 1929, I was a depression baby and I think my most vivid recollection of the depression is that when the…when the sole of my shoe wore through, my folks didn’t have enough money to buy me any new shoes or even to have it half soled. So we cut some pieces out of the Post Toasties box and put it inside and I wore ‘em to school that way.

That kinda…kinda tickles me. I think today kid’s idea of…of poverty is when they don’t have remote control, their own computer and their own car…that sort of thing. But be that as it may, it’s…it was…people were a lot closer then. We…everybody had a front porch and everybody visited back and forth. We didn’t have an automobile until I was in, I would say, the second grade. My dad had an old…old truck that was made…with a homemade body that was made from an automobile that he used to go out to the lumbar yards. In those days, the first cut slab they threw away. He was sort of one of the avant garde recyclers. He took the…he would take those, and he came home, and had a little jerry-rig thing that he could set the back wheels of his truck up on and start the truck.

In those days they had a throttle so you could set your RPM…and he had a cradle on there and he would take these slabs that he had picked up…otherwise they would have been burned…and sawed ‘em up in stove wood lengths and split ‘em up and…everybody had a garden then because they needed it to eat, and he would split ‘em up, and everybody had the burlap bags around from buying their seed and fertilizer…fill em up with the little pieces of wood and then go around and sell that to people to burn in their wood burning stoves.

And…but, like I say, there was…there were very few nursing homes…people took care of their old people as best they could. Which wasn’t near what we get today, and, but, still there was that bond and that closeness that I don’t seen in the world today. And then, my grammar school was two blocks from my house. There was two little mom and pop grocery stores, and a Piggly Wiggly all within easy walking distance. I could walk to the corner and you could ride the city bus for seven cents or you could buy free tokens for twenty cents.

And you could ride all over town and a bus or a trolley came by every fifteen or twenty minutes and people didn’t need cars like they do now. There were no such things as shopping centers and Wal-Mart. And there was a Sears & Roebuck downtown, but rather than go down, there were a lot of Sears & Roebuck catalogues. And…which, in these days of the shopping centers, has I think finally just about gone by the wayside.

The…in my grammar school…my mother was only seventeen and five days old when I was born…so two of my teachers, my first and fifth grade teachers, had been her teachers. And I still remember all the ladies names and it was…it was…like I say, it was the best of times and the worst of times. But everything has its…everything in life is a two sided coin.

Zarbock: Do…do you have brothers and sisters?

Conrad: No, I’m an only child. My…my parents would loved to have had other children but essentially, I think, I don’t know what the medical term would be, but I think essentially my mother was just about allergic to being pregnant. She had to stay in bed and I barely got here…by the skin of my teeth, which as been the story of my life. I’ve always gotten everywhere I wanted to be, but usually just by the skin of my teeth.

Zarbock: Is that a little dental…dental joke there?

Conrad: (Laughing) But, she…she had to have…she had like two or three abortions, back in the days when they just were not done. It was a matter of either…either she and the baby died or they took the baby. It was that simple. So I’m an only child and people say that, you know, if you’re an only child you’re spoiled, and all this, that and the other. But I’ll tell you something, if you’ve got a conscious…when I was about twelve or thirteen years old, I realized that I was my parent’s whole life and if I screwed up, I had ruined their life, and that’s a hell of a responsibility to put on a kid at that age.

Zarbock: And this came to you spontaneously?

Conrad: I mean I just realized that. It’s…so…I never got any real…in any real serious trouble…and then…

Zarbock: Tell me about your high school years, that when people begin to get frolic…

Conrad: Well, I’m…I’m…I’m getting to that. The…then we had junior high school. Elementary was one through six. Junior high was seventh through eighth. While I was…we lived in the house with my grandmother and granddad. As a matter of fact, we lived in their house during the depression because my dad and granddad were both railroad engineers. He was a…he was an engineer, my dad was a fireman. In the twenties they were the economic and social equivalent of an airline pilot and a copilot because railroad…the railroads were king then.

My dad was cut off from 1929 to 1936 or seven. And my granddad had to go…he moved to Danville and went back to being a fireman, because that’s the only place in the Danville division he stood for a job. And he had a little two-room apartment over there. And so we lived in his house and kept the fire going so the pipes wouldn’t freeze and…and he…he did some work in a bakery…he did…he did the recycling thing like I said, and then later he drove a delivery truck for a bakery. He did what he could.

I don’t ever remember not knowing where the next meal was coming from, but I remember having sincere doubts about where next week’s was coming from. But we got through all that and during the sixth grade we moved out to the first…well, we had moved over to an apartment when I was, along about in the fourth or fifth grade, and then in the middle of the sixth grade they managed to buy a little house and I moved to another area of town. So, I didn’t tell the people at the school that we had moved because I wanted to finish the sixth grade where I was. And in the seventh grade I’m in an entirely new neighborhood.

And when I got to the new neighborhood, the…all the…all the kids…anybody who was anybody played in the band, especially all the good looking girls in the neighborhood. And I had always kinda thought you had to have some special dispen…dispensation from God, or gift, to be able to do these wonderful things. And I realized, well, hell, these are kids just like me. And so I…and most of them had been playing since the fourth and fifth grade. My band teacher there…his claim to fame was he was the first teacher to ever have a complete band with all the instruments in an elementary school in the United States. And so most of these kids in this neighborhood, had come from that elementary school, and they’d been playing since the fourth and fifth grade.

And so, I begged my dad for a horn, and he says, “Oh no, you’ll play it a couple weeks and put it down and that’ll be the end of it.” And, I stayed with my granddad after school…after school every day until they got off work, and he was as much like a father to me as my own father. Matter of fact my own father was only twenty years older than I was so he was, in some ways, like a big brother. And anyway, I kept begging and begging, and so my granddad said, “Well, son if you’ll make the honor roll all through the seventh grade, I’ll buy you a horn.”

So I did, and he did, and after that, I think that was the last time I ever made the honor roll, cause all I wanted to do was play the horn. And I would…I would get up…I was never a morning person, but when I got that horn, it came with six easy lessons, and I got it in June, and so I took my lessons once a week, and at the end of the six weeks I got me a…I started mowing lawns and paid for my lessons for the remaining six weeks of the summer. And that fall, I was not quite good enough to play in the big band, but I…so I had to start over again in the beginner’s band. But having worked on it all summer, I was kind of a big fish in a very little pond. And, like I say, all these other kids had been playing so long, and I would get up in the morning and be at school when the door opened, rehearsed until the bell rang.

We had band period at eleven o’clock, just before lunch, after…and then we had a forty-minute lunch…I would stay in the band room for thirty minutes and run up and gobble my lunch down in ten minutes, and then stay after school until the janitor ran me out. And it was kind of like the story of the guy who…if he doesn’t exercise, he’s gonna loose his leg and winds up being a track star. I started with the band at school in the eighth grade.

Zarbock: Now about what year was this?

Conrad: Okay, let me see, that was the eighth grade, I would have been four…well, I was thirteen years old when I started. And so, that would have been ‘42.

Zarbock: The war is on.

Conrad: The war is on. And so, in other words…and like I say…I practiced so hard that I…the…the band teacher at the end of the…at the end of the…my second year, moved me to…to the first clarinet section. But the thing I’m most proud of is, I was doing my…in that first fall there…I was doing my usual practice routine at lunch, the band room was in the basement, and they were gonna have an all city junior high school band, gonna give a Christmas concert.

And I’m there practicing. And he had picked out, you know, all of the apple dumpling gang there, in the…in the band, to play in it…probably five or six players, you know, from each school in town, maybe…maybe a…maybe a dozen, I don’t know…anyway, he went up the stairs and I’m sitting there practicing, and he came back down and he stuck his head in and he said, “Dick, you’ve been working awfully hard, why don’t you come over and play in that band.” Boom! And I have a picture of that. I’m last chair, third clarinet, but by God I was there! And that was…that was Christmas in 1942. And so I’d say I worked at it real hard.

The war is still going on and…’44…I’d been playing two years…and the clarinet is made out of granadilla wood…see the…the black…very black, very dense wood, that grows in Africa. And it’s one…it’s the only wood that’s so dense it won’t float. And the…they…with the war going on, they didn’t have a whole lot of interest in hauling granadilla wood in from Africa. Everything was, you know, hauling…hauling gasoline, and ammunition, and…and food and things to…to England, to fight off the Germans and…and of course shipping stuff to all of our troops in the pacific, which at that time was more of a holding action, because they wanted to finish the European theater first.

But anyway, the first clari…plastic clarinet ever I saw was clear plastic because that’s all they had then. And it was kind of gross cause you could see stuff on the inside of it. But anyway, it was in the music store, and I went in there, and the music store manager said, “Dick, how about playing this clarinet and see what it sounds like.” So I’m sitting there and I’m playing “Sunny Side of the Street.” And this fellow walks in, he’s…he’s tall and kind of gangly, and he had a cleft lip that hadn’t been repaired the best in the world…they didn’t have the plastic surgeons that we have now…and he kind of stuttered.

And he came in and he said, “D-d-d-did you p-p-p-pick that out by ear?” and I said, “Well yes”, and he said, “p-p-p-play it for me.” And I played the whole thing. And he says, “W-w-w-well do you p-p-p-play in a band?” and I said, “I play in the junior high school band, and I’ll be in high school next year.” And he says, “No, I mean the-the-the dance band.” And I said, “No, I never have but I would like to,” and he says, “Would you like to p-p-p-play in my band?” And I said, “well, probably so.” And he said, “W-w-w-well let’s…let’s go down here.” Well, the place he played was only about a block away from the music store and at that time the population of Greensboro was 40,000.

There was…they put a military base inside the city limits of Greensboro…a hundred thousand GI’s there. The only one like it in the United States. It’s…oh…it was…I’m sure it was a political deal. And what they did…they took this guy’s swampy, uncleared land, drained it, put in streets, power, and…and it’s called ORD. The people in town still re…still refer to it as ORD, but they don’t have the foggiest idea what it means. It…it stood for overseas replacement depot. And needless to say, the…all these little honkytonks sprang up all over town.

And the place that we…the placed we played was essentially a beer joint so the GI’s could get these old bags beered up before they tried their hand. And…but we went down there, the place was locked, and it was an art deco building, and everything was one floor except this one thing sticking up…and they had some jalousie windows open. Well, we went up and the door was locked. And so we went around to the fire escape and it was locked too.

And…if they put this in a movie, it’d probably, somebody’d say somebody made this up…so anyway, there was railing about this high there, and it was about five or six feet over the roof. I said, “Jack, if you’ll just help steady me there, I can jump over there and go in that jalousie window”… “Oh, no you’ll fall,” and I said, “No,” you know, I was…I was fourteen, indestructible, immortal! I leaped across there, went around, opened it up, went in, got out my clarinet, we sat there and played for two or three hours. And then that night I…

Zarbock: What instrument did he play?

Conrad: He played piano. Couldn’t read a note…played the hell out of the thing! And he also had…he was first cousin to a gentleman named Tal Farlow, who, in ‘53, was voted the number one newcomer on the jazz guitar scene by Metronome Magazine. And his…Tal went on with…and is very…very respected in the business. Everything…he was never a household name, but everybody in the business…as a matter of fact, at our own jazz festival down here, I told a guy, I said, “I know…we had a guitar player Becky Pizzarelli who you’ve seen on…with the Boston Pops and his son too, and he’s…Bucky’s played with everybody…”and I said, “I know a pretty fair guitar player, used to come in and sit in the first gig I ever played” and…and he said, “Who’s that?” and I said, “Tal Farlow.”

And he said, “Oh hell, he’s the greatest!” And…but, anyway, getting…getting back to that thing…I had…I had all these excuses, you know, why I ought to be able to play with this band…to go home and talk with my dad. And I walked in and I said, “Daddy, I got a job with a dance band.” He was reading the paper and said, “Okay.” So I’m fourteen, I’ve never seen a drunk to know it in my life. The first night I was there, we had…we had two fights, one with a broken beer bottle, and they had an old gal in there that was…they were having a farewell party.

Farewell to Greensboro. And she…they came in and arrested her for living in town for a year and a half with no visible means of support. You could do that then, they don’t do it now, but you could do it then. But two policemen tried to get her out of there and he’d wrap her…wrap her arms and hands around the support pole. And they when they’d get her to the door, she’d spread her legs if they had her arms, she’d spread her arms if they had her legs, and they had to call back up…it took for of ‘em to get her out of there. And you would’ve thought from what she said, that those policemen had a very strange family tree. (Laughing)

And it went on from there. And then when I was in high school we…at that time, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro was an all girl’s school, WCUNC. And most of the boys that played…most of the clarinet players were boys then. We had inspiration, you know, rebel Benny Goodman, and stud Arty Shaw, who of course married Ava Gardner, and…and Lana Turner, and Catherine Windsor, and a whole bunch of Hollywood beauties down the line.

And so, you know, we boys had…had…had, you know, a motivation. You learn to play the clarinet good and maybe you’ll wind up in the sack with Ava Gardner! But anyway, this guy came there as a teacher, and he took four high school students on Saturday mornings. And he…he had just come back from Austria where he had studied under a man by the name of Gustav Langenus who was one of the two premier clarinet teachers in the world.

Zarbock: How do you spell his name, do you know?

Conrad: Langenus?

Zarbock: Yea.

Conrad: L-A-N-G-E-N-U-S. And in later years I met Buddy DeFranco when he was…when he was fronting the Glenn Miller Band. And I was talking horns and he said, “You’re obviously a clarinet player,” he said, “What’s your background?” And I said, “Well, I guess my most fortunate thing was I got to study two years under a student of Langenus.” And his eyebrows went up about three inches. And when you impress Buddy DeFranco, you have…you have done something!

And then another facet of it was, we had a gentleman there in the music store who played saxophone and clarinet, and he had a little band and he took a lot of us high school kids and…I took some private lessons from him…but he taught me jazz phrasing, which is an entirely different animal from the classical music and it’s about as much difference as there is between basketball and golf, you know, but was very lucky to have him. And this led to…and some of the guys from Greensboro had gone to the University of North Carolina proceeded me, and so when I got there, there was an opening on one of the big bands and they had told the guy that I could fill the bill, so I had a job waiting for me on a big band when I got to college.

And I almost didn’t take it and I look back and realize how stupid that would’ve been. But…and also, the teacher that I mentioned, he did not have a girl…that’s a point I was getting to…he did not have a girl that was good enough to play with the college orchestra. So as a junior and senior in high school, I get to sit beside this student of Langenus, playing with the college orchestra, for two years. I didn’t think it was such a wonderful big deal then, but I look back now and realize kids couldn’t buy experience like that at the time.

And…and when I did get to the university, I was a music major the first year and a half. I…a music education major. My original goal was to be a high school music teacher. But the last exam I took on clarinet, the band director told me, he says, “Dick, that is the prettiest sound I’ve ever heard come out of a clarinet at the University of North Carolina.” And I almost felt guilty when I changed my major and so I’m gonna digress to some of the things that led to that, and go back to the childhood.

When I was a kid, the only thing I ever wanted to do was fly for, what we as kids called, the Army Air Corps. And I later…I later did learn to fly. I had my own airplane, but my…somebody asked me, said, “When did you first become interested in it?” I said, “The first time I ever looked up and saw one.” And I always liked things…like things mechanical. When I was…I was always small for my age. When I graduated from high school, I weighed a hundred and thirty-two pounds wringing wet. I was too little to do sports, so I did other things.

And when I was a little fellow, you couldn’t go buy a plastic model airplane and pop it together. You got a box with some balsa wood, some strips, some…a couple of wheels were made for you, and some tissue paper, and some glue, and you put it together and I…I…I put my first one together when I was five or six years old. And anything mechanical…give me an old alarm clock, a screwdriver, and a pair of pliers…I’d be happy for a week. And when I got my first erector set, I thought it had died and gone to heaven. And so I always like things mechanical and was fascinated with the airplanes, but I thought you had to be filthy rich to be able to learn to fly an airplane, same thing with the music when I was young.

We’d have one of those little PhilCo radios like this, with the little square dial, and at that time cigarettes were not a dirty word. And if I was a good kid, they’d let me stay up on Wednesday night, and Glenn Miller came on live at ten o’clock for Chesterfield’s and Benny Goodman came on live at 10:30 for Camels. And the sound of that clarinet always fascinated me. So, when I did…did get later in school, and did want to play, there was no…no choice but the clarinet. So I was…my high school band teacher was a real role model for me and I decided that that’s what I wanted to be. And it was…I made all state high school band a couple times playing…playing clarinet.

And then when I was a senior, I guess it was middle of my junior year…I had a very good buddy who had moved there from High Point-Thomasville area…area, named Swanson Pore. We’re still very good friends. And he and I had a friendly competition for first chair clarinet. He didn’t have the formal training that I did, but he was just a lot of raw talent. And…and…and very smart boy. And we’re…we’re still good friends. I went to see him not to recently…and he’s…he’s rebuilding his second antique Beechcraft airplane, the Staggerwing.

And he’d already built…took two and made one out of it and he had all the hardware from the other one, and he got the…he got the dies and everything from the factory, and has remade all the wooden parts himself. And he’s still doing it. He’s same age I am. And he…so anyway, we had this friendly competition. Well, about Christmastime in my junior year the…we had one oboe player who thought he was indispensable…and he got so irritating that the…and of course, the oboe belonged to the school…he got so irritating that the high school band teacher had to kick him out of the band…said, “Give me the oboe and get out!”

And in the…in the storeroom there, they had an old English horn, which is sort of a king sized o…it’s an alto oboe is what it is, and it’s right up there in that cabinet. And it had a very primitive fingering system, called a military system. And I think they stopped printing fingering charts for it before World War…at the end of World War I. But I just kind of figured out how to play the thing and I’d been doodling with it and the teacher called me in and said, “Conrad, said, if…” he said, “we don’t have an oboe when we go to the music contest…” he said, “…they’ll mark us down.” And we’ve always…we’ve always gotten a perfect grade, cause this guy was some kind of teacher.

He’s…he’s still a legend among the…the high school band teachers. He was the first high school band teacher to ever be president of the American Bandmasters Association. And he’s 93. I called him a couple of months ago, he’s still just a sharp as a tack. But anyway, he said, “Do you think…would you consider playing oboe, and do you think you could play it well enough to do it…to play it in the music contest?” He says, “I’ll make sure we don’t get anything that has any difficult oboe parts in it.” I said, “Well I’ll give it the old college try,” and so I took it home and I squeaked and I squawked…drove my parents crazy.

And…and actually by the time I was…this was the junior year…by the time I was a senior they had…at that time they had two all state bands, we used to have just one, but there’s getting to be so many kids, they had two…so I went to the…and so I was still playing clarinet in the school orchestra, and oboe in the school band, and the eastern all state band was at…it was in ECTC…now ECU at Greenville. And I went there, and of course, they only had two oboes, and so I was the first chair oboe player in the east all state band. Well, then when they had the…and Swanson went along, he made first chair clarinet.

And so when the western one came along, he says well…he says “Well Dick, you’ve been serving as my oboe player, if you want to go to the western all state band as a clarinet player”. And so I made first chair clarinet in the western all state band. And Herb is the kind of guy who likes to break it off in people…he’d go around saying, “Oh this is the kid that made first chair clarinet, he’s my oboe player!” But he was that kind of guy. He…he…he should’ve been a jazz musician because they love to stick in people and turn the blade. When I have a new girl come work for me in the office, I’d say, “There’s three prime rules in the office. We don’t chew gum in the office, we don’t wear sandals to work, and never, never, ever, give an old jazz musician a straight line, we can’t help it, we just gotta jump up it.”

But any-who…I…I started…like I say, I was a music education major the first year and a half in college and my original game plan was to go out and play on the road with a band for four or five years and get it out of my system and settle down and be a high school band teacher somewhere. God let me see soon enough that I loved working with the kids. I actually taught private lessons to clarinet students…to middle school students…in Chapel Hill for a year. I loved working with the kids, but I could see the thing of having to deal with politics and bureaucracies and the little cliques that form among the school faculties and all that, and as I say, God let me see soon enough that I probably couldn’t cope with all of that.

And I had…when I was little, my grandmother had what the called the ‘doctor book’, and I would sit for hours and hours and look through that thing, and read about this, that, and the other…and always in the back of my mind, I’d had the…had the idea that I might like to be a physician, and yet, I knew that if you had…if you were a physician, you had to be married to it. You wouldn’t have time to do other things in life.

And so while I was at the university they were starting to build the dental school, and I had had two or three dentists who were…they were more than just my dentist, they were friends. And when I was in high school, one of my dentists…I was asking him about something he was putting in my tooth, and it was…he was a former high school chemistry teacher, and the stuff was phenol. And they used to wipe out all the cavities with it…to…to supposedly sterilize it and kill any decay germs that might be in there. And I said…I asked him what it was and…and he told me.

He said it’s a very interesting thing, because we have a way of measuring the efficacy and efficiency of disinfectants by what we call the phenol coefficient. In other words, how does it do in comparison to phenol? And I said, “Well, you know, that’s very interesting,” and he just looked at me and said, “Dick have you ever thought about being a dentist?” And I guess that planted the seed. So when they started the dental school, I thought, “Well, I could be a dentist”…and at that time, we didn’t have OSHA, we didn’t have ERISHA, we didn’t have HIPPA, all these alphabet things where we have to fill out ten thousand forms, which is…as far as I’m concerned.

Well, there was an article in the paper the other day, about one of the nurses, she says, “All I do is fill forms, that’s not what I went to school for, I want to help patients, and all I do is government paperwork.” And if…if I ever…if I ever quit, other than…for reasons other than health, it will be because I’m fed up with all the paperwork that goes with it. But any-who, they were building the dental school and so I thought, well you know, this way I can…I can be a health professional, but I can still have time to do other things in my life.

Zarbock: The year is what, and how old are you?

Conrad: Okay. I’m…I’m twenty years old; I’m a sophomore in college. And so…and then I remember when I absolutely decided not to be a music major because I…I was…let’s say I had this plan to maybe be…go on the road for a few years. It just took one summer to cure that. And I remember very well, we were…we had…he had…we played Friday night in Chapel Hill, Saturday night in Savannah Georgia, Sunday night in Panama City Florida, and we rolled back in to Chapel Hill about three or four o’clock in the afternoon like a bunch of zombies.

And by the time I’d paid for a couple of motel rooms and probably bought a bottle of booze, and some meals, and one thing and another, I laid my pocketbook down and I looked and I had twenty-seven dollars in it. And I said, “Richard, this is not the life for you son.” So…so I went out forthwith the next day and changed my major to pre-dental. I was not your average…I was not your average music major because I had had a wonderful high school chemistry teacher.

And so during my freshman year I took chemistry as an elective because I thought it was fun. I didn’t make particularly good grades in it, but…but it was my elective and I was enjoying it. And I still had this thing in the back of my mind that I…just a possibility I might go into medicine. And…so, when I made the switch, it wasn’t that big a thing. And I already had a year of the sciences behind me. And…so that…that…I went back to summer school that summer and…

Zarbock: This is probably around 1949, 1950, something like that?

Conrad: Ah, this is, yea, ‘49. And that…that’s another banner year, we’ll…we’ll hop back to the music in a few minutes. And so…so anyway, I started following that path and was winding down as a music major, and incidentally I was taking piano from a little lady, Jean Fornall. She was a little skinny Yankee girl and she had another piano student who…who went on to be come fairly well known, Andy Griffith. And, I remember very well one day…Jean got us in there, and she was a little bitty thing, got the two of us by the collar and says, “You guys driving me crazy,” said, “both of you got more time on your little finger than all the rest of my students put together and you’re a couple of goof-offs!”

But like I say, I was winding down as being a music major and I was doing this Debussy thing, and the first part and the last part were very similar, and there was a middle part that was quite different and rather difficult. And I was goofing off, which is one of…one of my regrets in life, is that I didn’t work harder on the piano when I was taking it because I still…well, last night I couldn’t sleep, so I’m sitting in here at one…one o’clock in the morning banging on the piano by myself for my own amusement.

And…but…anyway, she says, “I put you on student recital in two weeks,” and I said, “Jean, I can’t do that in two weeks.” “Well, I hope you mess up and you’re embarrassed and all that cause you’ve been goofing off so long.” And so, I…being the old jazz musician and the improviser that I was, I played what I knew, and I just improvised some nice little Debussy sounding stuff for two or three, or four minutes, modulated back in to what I didn’t do and finished it up. And she came…she came…and she was sitting out front, and the head of the piano department was sitting behind her…Dr. Shunnon from Austria.

And Dr. Shunnon was one of these people, probably photographic memory, perfect pitch, and God knows what all, and he…of course he knew the thing intimately and in his mind knew every note, and he was back there saying, “Dos is awful, awful, dos is awful.” But nobody else in the house knew about it. She came back and she says, “You, you, you.” I said, “What’s the matter Jean?” She said, “If I had done what you did, I would’ve left the stage in tears.” I said, “Well, Jean, you know, you do whatcha gotta do.” She says…she says, “Not only did most of the people in there have no idea what you did, but then you had the audacity to stand up and bow and smirk at the audience as if to say oh you lucky people you.”

But…but when…when I did…I did get…I did get serious about it and, like is say, I took qualitative analysis and that spring when I…when I decided on the chemistry course, which…which…when I had made the decision…so I had essentially the first two years. So in my junior year I took organic chemistry and by this time I’m ready to settle…settle into it. And…and then you could make app…applications. So I made an application to the first year dental school. And of course they only had forty.

At that time the dental school consisted of two kwansit huts and…and various rooms scattered around in the med school. One of the rooms had ten bodies in it and there were four people to each body. And the other one had…had forty dental lab desks. We had an engine and…and air supply…Bunsen…gas supply, and there were four drawers. And the freshmen got two drawers and the seniors got drawers. Being the…being the freshmen, naturally, we got the two bottom drawers.

So…so anyway…and the first year I was not…I was not accepted. And I got a…I got a letter from ‘em and they…they suggested that I go ahead and complete my senior year and reapply, which I did. And I’m really glad that it turned out that way because some of the stuff I took as a senior was absolutely fascinating. I took physical chemistry and up until then you’d been studying what happens. You get into physical chemistry and you begin to understand why it happens. I also took a course in comparative anatomy, which is essentially the anatomy of evolution. One of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen in my life.

I mean, the things that stand out, like for instance, if you…if you dissect a porpoise’s flippers…and they think actually the porpoise evolved onto land and then back into the water…but you dissect one of those flippers…it’s got every bony element that’s in your arm and hand in it. The pterodactyl had the same…the embryo of the pterodactyl looks very much like ours, but these bones…this bone here is…is fifteen to twenty feet long. And the little claw out on the wing of the heron is like our thumb, and the wings are the other four fingers like that. But the…but…and they showed us that the embryo of a human, a bat, a cat, and I forget what the fourth one…but in other words, when the embryo is about that long they all look just alike.

But then they go in different directions. And then this…this is…this is just fascinating stuff and it’s…when these…when these religious fundamentalists come in, I…I sometimes can’t resist just picking ‘em apart. And one of ‘em says, “Well the bible says it was in…the Earth was made in seven days.” I said, “What is seven days…what’s a day to God?” I said, “Can you…can you tell me what is a day to God? Is it one spoon of our little insignificant planet that’s out here among millions of and billions of stars that God created? Well what is a day to God? Maybe it’s a million years, maybe it’s ten million years.”

And I said…I said, “I’ve…I’ve studied evolution and to me it’s much more fascinating than some magician created us in a puff of smoke. It took God four, you know, three or four billion years to make us. But you know, He’s in no hurry. He’s got forever.” But, any-who, when I did…I did…I did apply to dental school. And I had gone up to…this time I had gone up and I was interviewed by the Dean of Admissions, Dr. Stur…Roger Sturdevant …and his son is still a professor emeritus at the university…and so I went in and Dr. Sturdevant said, he said, “Conrad, we don’t understand you.”

I said, “Well Dr. Sturdevant, that make you a member of a very large club.” And I said, “If there’s anything I could do to illustrate, I’ll be glad to.” And he says, “Well”…he said…he said, “the first thing is…,” he said, “you took freshman chemistry and you made C’s, you took qualitative analysis, you made a C, but…and then you get up to organic chemistry and physical chemistry and you just keep puckalucking along with your gentleman’s grade of C.” And he says, “Can you explain that?”

And is said, “Yes sir, I certainly can Dr. Sturdevant,” I said, “when I was taking freshman chemistry, I was a music major. I was taking chemistry just because I liked it and I thought it was fun. I had a wonderful high school chemistry teacher.” And I said, “I wasn’t all that serious about it.” I said…I said, “by the time I took organic, I decided I wanted to get in dental school, and I was buckling down.” He says, “Well, you know, we have a lot of boys that make straight A’s on…on freshman, and qual and quan, and they get to organic and physical and they’re cut down like weeds, but we just couldn’t understand why you kept puckalucking along.” I said, “Well, it was just a matter of…of…of perspective and…and whatever.” And so…but I said, “I was a music major when I was taking that first chemistry.”

And he said, “Well you know, I had my own dance band when I was in college.” And I said “bingo!” I don’t know how much influence I had, but at the moment I thought it did. And he said…he said, “Well, said your other grades are not all that impressive,” and he said, “Do you have an explanation for that?” I said, “Well, yes sir I do.” I said, “You being a teacher, I’m sure you know better than I, sir, that one of the most difficult jobs a preacher…excuse me, a teacher has is concocting a test that will truly test…test the knowledge of the student, a hopefully teach him something while he’s taking it.”

He said, “Well, you’re a very perceptive young man.” I said, “Well if you…if you deign to admit me to dental school, I may…I may want to teach in dental school someday.” I said, “You know I taught clarinet, and I was on my way to be a high school band teacher, and I love teaching, and so I may be after your job some day if you let me in.” And I said, “But on the other hand…” and I said, “I’m sure you know that some very unimaginative teachers will give you questions something out of a…like a table, that if you ever use…need it again, you’re not gonna depend on your memory, you’re gonna look it up.”

And he says, “Well, I’ll have to admit we’re sometime guilty of that.” And I said, “I just never had the mental discipline to make myself learn something to spit out on a test the next day and forget it,” but I said, “I think I carried away the…the basic principles and the stuff that you really need to know, the stuff that you’re gonna have to carry with you.” He says, “Well, you must have kept something,” he said, “you made the second highest grade of all the applicants on the comprehensive scientific knowledge test, even though your grades don’t show it.” And so…and then we also had an aptitude test.

And one of the things they gave us was something like somebody that…it was to test your abilities and…oh I’m trying to come up with the word – having a senior moment here…special relationships. And what it was, was somebody was gonna take up origami. They have like an eight-sided pyramid, and there’d be four things over here, and one of ‘em folded up would make that. And there was forty five of ‘em and I’m…I’m sitting there going ch, ch, ch, ch, ch, ch, ch, ch, ch, and I look around and people are…and I can look back, you know, this gets back to building model airplanes.

And then one of the things they gave us was digital dexterity and they gave us a one-inch round piece of chalk, a little millimeter gauge, and a knife, and a piece of sandpaper. We had to go to one end of that and make a perfect hemisphere. The other end, we had to go X number of millimeters down here and then cut in and make a triangle, and then…and square that part up where it went in and square the end up. And it had to be a certain length to where it went in and a certain length at the end, and do not let those ridges get below the outside of the diameter of the thing. Well, I had gotten honorable mention in the state art contest when I was in junior high school for a little plaster of paris stature I had made. So…so this is…with building the airplanes, having worked with the plaster, and that sort of thing, this was a piece of cake to me.

And I will always believe that they took me in just to see how damn good their aptitude test was. Because there were guys that were turned down that had higher grades than I did. But I…I feel like I turned out to be pretty darn good at what I’ve got. And, matter of fact, one of my former employees who worked for several other dentists told one of my present employees, said, “I’ve worked in several offices and two specialists offices, and I’ve seen everybody’s work in this area, and when I want…and when I want my teeth worked on, I’m coming back to Dr. Conrad.” So…

Zarbock: Have the…have the entrance exams to dental schools remained the same or have they changed?

Conrad: I have no idea. I know what they teach has changed a lot and I don’t like it. When I was in school, we actually had to make, from scratch, a partial denture. Cast the framework, finish it down, process it, process the acrylic to make a denture. We actually made a porcelain crown ourselves. We…we made…we made our metal…metal bridges. We did not have the porcelain fuse to metal then. That came along in the late fifties and so…

Zarbock: Well, what was the advantage of having to do construction?

Conrad: Because…because now when you…when the lab man calls up and says…I say, “Why didn’t you do so and so on my…on my crown, or whatever?” “Well, I did it for so and so.” And I just look at ‘em and I say, “bull stuff, you did it to take a shortcut because you didn’t want to do so and so because…” I said, “You’re talking to one of the old boys.” I said, “I can do anything you can do if I wanted…if I wanted to get the equipment back in here and do it.”

As a matter of fact, I still have the stuff under a little hidden compartment in there. The girls didn’t even know I had it until a couple of weeks ago. And I’ve still got a…the torch and the casting machine and all…I could do a gold crown tomorrow if I wanted to.

Zarbock: Have anesthetics changed?

Conrad: Yes. We used to use the Novocain which is a…the generic name is procaine. And about…in the fifties, they came out with stuff, Xylocaine. And it’s…it spread through the tissue a whole lot better. But with Novocain, you had to get it right at the nerve. Xylocaine, you can be maybe half a centimeter or so away and it…it will still work a lot.

Zarbock: Half a centimeter is not a football field for heaven’s sakes!

Conrad: No, no, um um. And…and…

Zarbock: You also…as…as my dentist, you…we had a conversation, you were mentioning the new bonding agents.

Conrad: Oh yes, that’s…that’s my…Dr. Clifford Sturdevant, the son of Dr. Roger, who’s…he’s written several books on operative dentistry…and four to five years ago, and since I was in the second class of the dental school, you know, we go way back, and…and, like I say, he’s professor emeritus now, he says, “We’re not even dentists anymore, we’re bondadontists!” But, we used to have to depend on a mechanical lock to hold everything in that we did. And…and the bridges that we made then…back then, you’d see a lot of people with a little…little light rim of gold around their tooth.

And what that was…that was…that was the stop…stopping point, the sealing point for it. But in side of it, you…you cut two little…you had the burrs that tapered and you cut two little grooves that tapered and you had to have ‘em…you had to have ‘em parallel with each other so the thing would slide on. And as a matter of fact, I have a patient…I made one last week, and he just likes to have the gold showing around, not the whole tooth, but just around the edge, so I made him some three quarter crowns and…and if he’d gone to a young kid, he wouldn’t have know how to make ‘em. They don’t make ‘em any more. Because now…now they just reduce the whole tooth and put the…the…the cast gold frame under it and then the porcelain is both mechanically and chemically fused to the outside of it.

Zarbock: That…Dr. Conrad, when you started off in practice, what was the use of mercury?

Conrad: Well, we still use mercury. Mercury is…is one of the…one of the ingredients in the silver amalgam filling which…which they keep trying to put down. And the manufacturers are…as one of our recent clinicians said, “We’re letting our directions be influenced too much by the manufactures.” I get these articles every month about how to take the ugly old silver amalgam fillings out and put in a nice pretty white one. Also, not too many weeks go by that I don’t take one of the damn things out of a back tooth.

And …because they do…simply do not stand-up back there, they shrink a little bit, and they always…and if a filling that goes in between the teeth is gonna fail, it’s a that little bottom corner. Well, when that stuff shrinks that’s the first place it pulls away. A decay germ is only four microns, that’s four millionths of an inch in diameter. If you’ve got an opening down there that’s…that’s a thousandth of an inch, it’s like a…it’s like a sixteen lane superhighway to a…to a decay germ to come in there. And I take the things out all the time.

And one of the nice things about the silver amalgam is…it’s like a stress link in a piece of machinery…and a…and a piece of machinery that’s under a lot of strain…they’ll have like a chain in there, and there’ll be one link in it that’s a little bit weaker than all the rest. And that…that link will break, rather than ruin the whole machine. Well… with the silver amalgam, it has enough strength that it does everything you want it to do, but if you get a little decay under it, it breaks off. Just like if something happened to the mudding behind the tile wall, the tile would fall in. And, matter fact, I tell people that teeth are very much like a tile wall.

That the enamel on the outside is very, very hard, and the dentin behind it is like a…a…a…very, very, very firm rosin. But you have to have it to hold the enamel, just like you have to have it to hold the tile on your wall. And when the…something becomes weakened under there, the enamel which is pilings of little six sided crystals, held together with…with the…like the grout, and the…and the tiles…the little six sided tiles on the bathroom of every…floor of every bathroom of every theater that was built in the nineteen fifties…but getting back to it, the silver amalgam has saved more teeth than all the other fancy materials put together.

Zarbock: What was it like when fluoridation took place…we were living in east Tennessee, and there was more insanity about fluoridating the water supply than…

Conrad: Well, we had an assistant dean who was…had a real perspective on life. He was one of my favorite people in the whole world. And I went in and I said, “Dr. Demerit…” well, if they…if the water does not have natural fluoridation…they way they found out about it was a little town in Texas, where the kids had very little decay…and they…it took ‘em years, and they finally figured out that in that water there was seven tenths of one part per million fluoride. And this helped, when the teeth were forming, it helped ‘em to be more cavity resistant.

There is natural fluoride in a lot of places. For instance there’s an aquifer that runs from Ash down here to Conway. There’s too much…too much fluoride in the water there, in people’s well water, and they have what we call mottled enamel. They get little eggshell splotches on their teeth, but they don’t have any damn cavities! And…but…what it was, it got to be…and I asked Dr. Demerit, I said…I said, “the Dental Association approve…approves it, but they…at the National Institute, the AMA, you know, the FDA, everybody approves it, who could possibly be against it?” He said, “Oh, that’s simple, the health food people.”

He said, “That’s a four billion dollar a year business.” Now, I’m talking in the 1950s. Four billion dollars a year and it’s…they’re afraid that if people think the fluoride is going to keep their bones and teeth healthy, they won’t buy their crap. I said, “Well, I knew it has to be money somewhere.” So they put all these scare articles out, like, well, fluoride is used in rat poison. Sure it is, it’s twenty percent fluoride, but there’s a big difference between twenty percent and seven-tenths of one part per million. And another thing…they were saying it’s part of a communist…communist plot.

And they had a…had a hearing in Greensboro, and this guys sitting there with no teeth, and cross eyed, and holding his twenty dollar gold leaf edition of the bible and… “Well, what if the Russians come in and put that fluoride in our water?” He said…he said, “they could poison the water supply of Greensboro with fluoride, it would take approximately forty dump truck loads to do it.” He said, “If they really wanted…the communists wanted to poison the water supply in Greensboro, one little…one little…one little drop of botchulinum toxin in the city water supply would wipe out the whole town.”

Zarbock: I got…I got two questions in conclusion. Would you do it again? Dentistry.

Conrad: If…under the conditions that I went into it in nineteen…in 1955, absolutely yes. With…with the…with the bureaucracy and the politics and the…and the…the legal eagles, the vultures circling, I…I would have some doubts. I love what I do, I really love a lot of my patients, they’re like a family. But if, like I say, other than health, the aforementioned things are the things that would keep me from…

Zarbock: And the last question. Have you got your clarinet handy?

Conrad: Yes.

Zarbock: How about…how about leading this…

Conrad: Alrighty.

Zarbock: At the end…

Conrad: I have a friend who plays piano on one of the love boats, and after the movie Harry Met Sally came out, it…for several weeks after that, some kid would come in and say, “Hey mister, do you know that new song by Harry Connick, Jr. called It Had To Be You?” He says, “Yea, I’m hip, I know that new song.” And so, we’ll do that one. (Clarinet playing)

Zarbock: Thank you for a wonderful hour.

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