Most of you who know me from these pages or my working days know I’m hearing challenged. It’s a life-long disability that’s gotten worse over the years. At this point, hearing in my right ear is all but gone. I still have about fifty percent hearing in my left ear — with hearing aids.
I’ve had a bittersweet relationship with hearing aids. I hated them as a teenager. These were the primitive “portable radio receiver in a pocket with a cord in your ear” hearing aids. It was worse than being called “four eyes” when I wore the aids. There were lots of jokes, smirks and knowing winks at me. Oh, right, I also wore glasses.
I was short, wore glasses and hearing aids — and was one of a handful of black kids in my classes. I was also painfully shy.
Fast forward to college and my discovery of radio. College radio would lead to a wonderful career and brand new alter ego, the familiar TV News Guy. I turned my hearing disability into an asset. Friends pointed out diction problems, and speech therapy followed. Presto, I became the black guy with great diction. Amazing!
A few awkward social encounters convinced me to wear my hearing aids regularly. The new models were smaller and less conspicuous. Eventually, they would be invisible, all inside the ear.
My hearing problems gave me certain advantages. Court clerks would make sure I had a good seat for cases I covered. Judges would admonish lawyers to speak clearly so that all could hear. Ironically, I understood more testimony in some cases than my peers with normal hearing. Yes!
My disability provided many laughs in my career.
In the early 70’s, Boston Mayor “Kevin from Heaven” White started a new program to assist senior citizens. It was called “M.O.B.”. Forgive me, I forget what the acronym exactly meant, but it was a PR blitz for seniors. They needed a spokesman for MOB. Someone who senior citizens would easily recognize.
MOB? How about George Raft??
I got the call to interview the legendary old-time star of gangster movies on Boston City Hall Plaza. We met just after Raft had a liquid lunch with the Mayor’s people. The veteran actor, wearing his trademark fedora, greeted me with a grunt. A brief exchange about the interview, then we rolled cameras. I asked the questions. Raft grunted.
I asked Raft about “Bolero,” a film where he displayed tango expertise which earned his keep before he was called to Hollywood. “Call me George, pal” he rasped with a smile.
I called him George and he said “What”?
I figured he was kidding with me. I tried it again.
“What, kid?” was the reply. Back and forth several times. I could hear the cameraman giggling.
“George”, I tried again, pointing to my hearing aids.
“What’s up, kid”? Then, it slowly dawned on him. Raft pointed to his ears and gestured. Cautiously, I took a look. I thought for a long moment before speaking.
“George”, I said slowly and carefully, “You need to turn on your hearing aids.”
Raft gave me a long look, then that familiar smile which typically preceded him mowing down guys with a machine gun. He snapped his fingers. A crony walked over, reached in and turned on his hearing aids.
“Thanks, Pal”, George Raft smiled with relief.
I couldn’t resist the moment. I pulled out a coin and began tossing it in the air and catching it. Raft stared. We shook hands. He smiled over his shoulders as he walked away.
Just so you know, I was half an inch taller than the guy who used to duke it out with Bogie and Cagney.