I’ve been to the Persian Gulf more times than I can remember.  That’s not a lot, it’s just that my memory craps out after three or four in most cases.  I was there during the original gulf war back in 90/91/92 and I was back again for OIF/OEF.  I even have a combat action ribbon, though I honestly didn’t do much to earn it.  I’ve done some crazy things in my life without much thought about the danger.  Point is, I’ve been around and I’ve seen things (Deniro voice).  Not much rattles me or gets me upset any more.

Except for one thing.  One thing I thought I was done with when I got out of the Navy, but thanks to my civil service job working on a flightline, I have to face this fear every year in the month of my birth: the annual hearing exam.  Damn thing ties me in knots of worry.

Let me explain for you non-military/government types.  The military branches have a hearing conservation program that requires a baseline examination and then hearing checks every year after that to monitor hearing loss.  You go into a soundproof booth and put on a pair of thick yet small headphones (red on left ear, blue on right) and hold a push-button on your hand.  Then a voice comes through the phones that tells you to press the button as soon as you hear a tone.  Easy, right?

The tones vary in frequency and volume, from completely audible to did I just hear that?  Once that doubt creeps in, you’re screwed.  If your exam determines you’ve had a “major shift” in hearing then you have to come back in a few days and get retested.  If you’re still deaf, you get tested one last time to try to save your bacon from the fire.  I’ve been to this step many times.  After this step comes…I don’t know what is next, I’ve always managed to slip by at this point.  From what the docs and medical assistants tell me, it means a bunch more appointments and general humiliation.  I don’t want to get to that step.

Thing is, I kinda screwed myself on the exam that is my baseline, which is why I suffer on every exam now.  My baseline was taken 11 years ago, and I got to wait outside the booth before my exam and see somebody else getting checked.  I saw the pattern of lights on the machine which corresponded to the noises being made and I remembered it when I got tested, so my baseline isn’t accurate.  Boy, talk about cheating not paying off!  So, now every time I’m in that booth it’s the same thing.  It goes like this…

I put the headphones on and grab the pushbutton.  The first few series of beeps are easy to hear.  Then it gets harder, and I think I’m hearing phantom noises but not entirely sure.  I guess on a few clicks and everything is going well, and then a voice comes over the headphones saying “Push the button as soon as you hear a tone, no matter how faint.”  Fuck, I’m missing the tones.  Now I’m more nervous.  I do a val salva to pop my ears, I close my eyes and open my mouth to hone my hearing (as if it helps).  I start to get into a good rhythm.  The tones switch from the left ear to the right.  I’m jamming.  Voice on the headphones again: “You are guessing.  Do not press the button until you hear a tone.”  FUCK!  I wasn’t guessing!  Well, not all the time.  Now I don’t know what to do.  Pop the ears again, close the mouth, stop breathing.  Then the tones go back to the left ear and then back to the right, and I know I’m screwed.  With no warning – remember, my eyes are closed – the door opens.  The technician gives me that look and says “come over here and we’ll talk about your results.”  Third verse, same as the first.

So today I had to see a doctor again.  I was in an exam room waiting, and I hear a voice from the hall coming in saying “Hey, Mr. McKee, how was your year?”  Yep, I got to see the same doc from last year and he remembered me; a rarity in the military, that.  He reassured me things weren’t that bad.  I’m still worried.  I go back first thing Monday morning for a re-exam.  I’ll forget about it until then, and then the worry will kick in.  Before I know it, I’ll be hearing those voices again.  DON’T PRESS THE BUTTON.  PRESS THE BUTTON.  DUDE, YOU’RE SCREWED.

Moral of the story: double-bag your ears, use that hearing protection x2.


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