As noted elsewhere in this blog, one of the outcomes of surviving the fall of Saigon, as recounted in Last of the Annamese, was physical damage to my body. Not severe enough to be called “wounds,” the ill effects I suffered were nevertheless serious. I had amoebic dysentery and pneumonia due to inadequate diet, insufficient rest, and muscle fatigue. But the most lasting was ear damage.
Starting on 28 April 1975, Bob, Gary, and I—the last three of the forty-four NSA employees manning my office in Saigon—were subjected to rocket barrages and artillery fire. Several incoming shells hit close enough to me that my hearing was permanently impaired. Ever since, I’ve worn hearing aids and struggled to understand people talking on the telephone.
I taught myself to read lips early on, so that most of my face-to-face conversations with a single person go smoothly. I have more trouble hearing women than men because the pitch of their voices is higher, (the major hearing loss is in the higher frequencies), and they tend to speak more softly. I have the most trouble in groups of three or more people and in noisy settings.
People’s reactions to my inability to hear what they’re saying sometimes amuses me and often irritates me. I’m surprised by the very large number of people who are annoyed when I ask them to repeat or speak more slowly or articulate more distinctly or speak louder or face me when they’re talking. It is as though my deafness were an imposition on them. As a result, since the advent of email, I most often opt to use that means of communication to avoid painful telephone calls where I constantly ask my interlocuter to repeat.
The positive side of my deafness is the peacefulness that comes from the escape from noise. I simply can’t hear so many irksome sounds of modern life. I live not far from Interstate 70, a major highway that generates plenty of traffic noise, including engine racket and sirens. Without my hearing aids, I’m blissfully immune to all that. But I also miss some of the lovely sounds of nature—as I discovered long ago, without my hearing aids, I can’t hear cricket stridulation.
Like all curses, deafness has its upsides and downsides.