Leon SmithContributing columnist

I first had my ears tested 10 years ago, after becoming worn out with their constant ringing from a condition called tinnitus. At the time, I thought I caused my own tinnitus, because after 1981, I spent 15 years chain-sawing firewood weekly, with no ear plugs. Now, I am not so sure, because my I noticed my hearing problems about the same time I started chain-sawing.

Here’s how I know. A visiting teacher from China told me his daughter was studying violin. I said I was taking Suzuki violin, learning to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

“Suzuki method?” the teacher said. “Might I ask what is your age?”

“It’s 40,” I said.

“Ah,” he replied. “You are most brave to begin violin at age 40.”

Perhaps. But I was 40 when I noticed the ringing in my ears: playing “Twinkle” very slowly, I heard not one, but two sounds when I bowed a certain note. Stranger than the sound coming from under my chin was the note playing in my head, which did not blend with the violin at all. But now, as I do doctor-mandated exercise and watch my diet, I don’t notice the tinnitus often, even when playing the violin. But tinnitus often travels with another inner-ear complaint, for that organ of hearing can not only create sounds which don’t exist, it can cause distortions of vision, which make you dizzy.

My inner-ear drunkenness becomes worse if my head gets too hot. The next morning, when I open my eyes, I see the ceiling light fixture rotating in a 12-inch circle, my head becomes dizzy, and my stomach feels sick, so that I have to close my eyes to defend myself. Those days I was not able to walk a straight line and would have to plead “nolo contendere” if I were charged with reckless walking.

When I talked to my physician, he said he suspected vertigo, perhaps from damage to my inner ear which caused tiny crystals to precipitate out of the inner-ear fluid. The crystals shaking around in the fluid tricks the brain into thinking still objects are moving. Doc said I would have to undergo a test to know if I had vertigo, and if so, to make sure the vertigo was not caused by a tumor on the nerve which carries hearing and balance information to the brain.

When I came for the test, the technician connected my ears to a machine which pumped hot, then cold air into each ear canal. Once I had the probes in my ears, she asked me to tell her if I got dizzy, then began the test.

The hot air test made me skunk-drunk on the first puff, whereas the cold air test took several more puffs to inebriate me. From the tests, the physician said the good news was the vertigo was not caused by a tumor on the vestibular nerve. The bad news was that there is no cure for the vertigo caused by crystals in the fluid of the inner ear.

I did not use my hearing well when Doc told me there was no cure for my vertigo, instead I ignored his opinion, finding a procedure on the internet which might just prove him wrong. So I paid my $19 and downloaded the instructions. The treatment used quick side-to-side head movement to move the crystals around in the inner ear so that somehow, perhaps homeopathically, shaking crystals around might cure vertigo.

As soon as I printed out the instructions, Patsy helped me carry them out. I sat down on the bed and violently turned my head to the right, then she helped me ease my head down and support it as it hung over the end of the bed. Then we tried the same exercise, turning my head to the left. The cure did not come about, but rather the worst case of vertigo I have ever had, for I could not walk in a straight line for five whole days. Now I have learned to manage the vertigo by making sure I do not get over-heated or over-chilled, as I did in the vertigo test, and by walking several miles every day, which improved my general health and must have diminished the number of vertigo attacks.

Years ago, I heard of the “ear wick” in country parlance —“earwig” in townie talk— which might get into a child’s ear. This must have been only a legend, for I never got an ear wick in my ear as a child, but I may have gotten his cousin as an adult. I was working outdoors when I felt an insect buzz my left ear, then slapped at it and thought the thing “finis.” Then I heard a fluttering in my ear, but when it stopped, I shrugged, and kept on working. When I came in at dark, I asked Patsy to get the flashlight and peek in, but she saw no bug.

So, I forgot about the matter until about two weeks later, when I walked into CVS to pick up a prescription, and took the opportunity of speaking with the pharmacist on duty.

“Doc,” I said. “I think I may have a bug in my ear.”

“Oh?” he answered. “That’s not uncommon.”


“Let me put one in your ear,” he chuckled. “Buy a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and pour some in. If there’s an insect there, the peroxide will wash it out.”

“Can you pour peroxide in your ear?” I asked my wife.

“Yes, you can,” said the pharmacist. “Hydrogen-peroxide won’t injure your ear.”

So I thanked him and picked up a brown plastic bottle from the shelf. When we got home, I laid my head on a towel and Patsy poured peroxide into the canal of my left ear. When she topped the fluid off, I covered the opening with my finger and shook my head side to side, in a “no” motion, then in a “yes” one. When I laid my head back on the towel, a bug washed out. Dead, in one piece, and much bigger than I thought could hole up on my ear. The grey-colored pest was 5/8ths inch long, and 1/8th inch in diameter. I concluded the proceeding by dumping his carcasss in the garbage can.

Today, I find I have to listen to the telephone with my right ear, because the sounds are too faint in my left. When I went to get another hearing test, it bore scientific credence to what I already knew. The hearing loss is greater in my left ear, which the bug invaded some years ago. Any connection? I don’t know.

The audiologist determined my condition from a hearing test in her audio booth, where I responded to various tones and sounds. From the graph of my hearing loss, the audiologist said the solution was simple, for I qualified for a hearing aid, which would help my ears to hear the frequencies I had lost.

Simple hearing amplification — in this age where technology is rampant and simplicity eschewed? Not exactly.

There’s the rub, and perhaps another story.

Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.