I spent more than 20 years working on a variety of aircraft, from two-man OV-10s to C-141 transports. OV-10s were like young children. When they’d run up the engines, they had a high-pitched whine. The transporters had four very large engines, and when they prepared for takeoff, you’d better hold onto your hat and plug your ears. Which I did not, but I kept my hat.
The true demon that contributed to the development of my ringing ears was the helicopter. I worked with every version the Air Force had at the time, and the biggest monster of all was the H-53 rescue helicopter, which only became airborne because it beat the air into submission.
I first noticed the tinnitus while at a movie—“The Empire Strikes Back”—and I thought it was just a passing thing. But then I started noticing that every time the kids were in bed and my wife and I would be sitting and reading or watching TV, I could still hear the ringing. I asked my doctor what the deal was, and he said it should pass but to try something called “ear defenders” (ear muffs) that were worn over your ears. I did. But they only muted the sound.
As I got older and the ringing got worse, I found I had to listen intently during dinner conversations and at meetings (sometimes a blessing). People around me started noticing I was asking them to repeat things. I would tell them “Quasimodo” was acting up. I tried ignoring it, thinking it was just a fact of life.
But sleeping really got to be a problem. My wife is a goddess for putting up with me plugging in ear buds to listen to the radio to drown out the ringing. Music didn’t help, so I listened to sports talk or any talk show. (Eventually I decided on-air psychologists needed to be put in a very large room to analyze one another.) To this day I still use the radio overnight.
Then about a year ago my wife heard a radio ad for a hearing center that offered the potential of alleviating tinnitus. I made an appointment, had the hearing test, and discussed the use of devices that I wear for about 45 minutes a day. These ear-level devices have three settings that offer some relaxing tones. (They are bell sounds—a ringing sound to take care of my ringing sound!) The theory is the brain does not like “dead zones” in the frequencies our ears can hear, so the devices are intended to rewire the brain. I have had the devices now for some months, and there are days they do make a difference. Other days, not so much. I get frustrated and think, to heck with the ringing—let’s listen to Led Zeppelin!
I have had others who suffer from Quasimodo tell me that you get used to it. Right—like getting used to the annoying neighbor who mows the lawn at the crack of dawn on the weekend. (Hope he gets tinnitus.) My real hope is that as technology advances, we will find a cure or at least some relief. Now, where did I put the Fender…?
A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and former magazine editor, Roger Lesser lives with his family in Colorado.