Isaac Yankem wanted to give to others what he never had. One of two sons of a broken family in Tennessee, Isaac grew up without many of the comforts of modern life. The Yankems never went to Disneyland or ate at Ruth’s Chris. They didn’t even buy Kraft-brand mac-n-cheese. It should come as no surprise, then, that dentistry was not in either parent’s budget.
As the years passed, Isaac and his brother grew. Grew they did — by adulthood, both would eclipse seven feet tall. Such a pituitary gift makes for an imposing man. Adolescence, however, brought that lanky awkwardness that any tall teenager must suffer. At 15, Isaac was six-foot-four; his teeth were untended and yellowing, his hair bushy and oily. Because his family budgeted every penny even down to the water bill, he was allowed to bathe only twice per school week. Isaac was not the prom king.
A life of awkwardness brought unpleasant stares from pretty girls, jeers from halfwitted boys. Like many such teens, Isaac grew angry. He was angry that he was so different from all the other kids. He was angry at his off-brand, ill-fitting jeans and the musty, bargain-basement warehouse it came from. He was angry at his father, who seemed to take a shine to his brother (actually half-brother, he liked to remind himself). This anger manifested in the usual ways: fights in school, truancy, a taste for underground punk music. Then came May 19.
The authorities never determined what caused the fire. Isaac himself would be blamed on several occasions, but he denies it to this day. It didn’t help that in the aftermath, neighbors would see him playing with fire — patterns in lighter fluid on the driveway sparked by a leaf and a magnifying glass. Had he been able to afford a therapist, he would be told that this is a natural element of grief — the desire to understand what went so, so wrong. Whether or not he was to blame, all the world knew was that young Isaac would have to go on without his mother and stepfather. Only the father who never cared for him and the rival half-brother remained.
Weeks later, Isaac looked into his bathroom mirror, eyes still red with grief. He took stock of what he had lost and what he had left. Realizing that the scales tipped sharply toward the “lost”, he knew something had to change. He laughed at the absurdity of it all when he caught a glimpse of his stained, rotting teeth. This will be the way out, he thought. I shall fix in others what is broken in me.
Upon graduating high school, Isaac enrolled in dental school. He was a star student, though he frequently got low marks for not using enough novocaine. His classmates bristled whenever Isaac would laugh at a patient’s fear of the drill. Still, bedside manner was not emphasized in this particular dental academy, so Isaac soon earned the title, Dr. Isaac Yankem, DDS.
He opened a practice in Memphis, hoping to give his home state the gift of oral hygiene. The plan was to practice dentistry for good; along the way, he would pay off his student loans and eventually be able to afford to fix his own teeth. Having such horrendous chompers was bad for business, so patients and referrals were few and far between.
Dr. Yankem’s story could have ended there — a failed dentist unable to get his feet underneath him, finally breathes a bag of laughing gas until he reunites with his mother. But a patient came who changed everything.
“Hi, I’m Jerry,” said the patient as he removed his crown. “Thanks for taking my appointment on such short notice. I do a lot of traveling and today’s the only day I could come in.”
“Happy to help,” said Dr. Yankem. “Now let’s take a look at that tooth.”
The check-up went well. Such a slow office was to the patient’s benefit, for he was able to get his procedure done right then and there. Before he left, the patient had a question. “Doctor, I’m not sure if you know me, but my name’s Jerry Lawler and I’m a professional wrestler.”
Dr. Yankem spluttered, “Of course I know who you are. This is Tennessee. You’re wearing a crown, and I don’t mean the temporary one I glued to your jaw.”
“OK, OK, good. Listen, I’ve been having some trouble with Bret Hart of late. You’re a big guy and, with respect, you like dealing out pain.”
Dr. Yankem could only chuckle at that. “What are you proposing, Mr. Lawler?” A star was to be born.
Part 2 of 2 can be found here.