Personal Story From Longtime BFL Supporter

A human interest story written by a dear friend and Backpacks For Life supporter for many years, Jack Kemp. A man who is always on the pulse with veteran news, historical tales of value, random interesting facts about the military and a genuine care for our work with veterans.


The Hearing Aid Wars

Jack Kemp

            My father Simon had hearing problems ever since he was in his forties. They were partially related to his falling off a Nazi work detail truck while a Polish Army prisoner of war in WW II. He had fought in the initial combat as a heavy machine gunner when Germany invaded in 1939. As a lean, energetic man in his eighties, living as a widower in Florida, he went with determination to three different hearing aid dealers looking for the perfect solution to his impairment, but his efforts seemed to leave him incomplete. One store owner even took my dad on his repeated car trips from West Palm Beach to the manufacturer's factory just north of Miami. On one of my visits to Florida, I accompanied them on this drive south to the headquarters building. There, the manufacturer took new molds of my dad's ears and promised to make a technical adjustment to the hearing aids before sending them back to the retailer. It all seemed to be more of a social trip than anything else, a guys' outing for ex-New York seniors who didn't like to fish or play golf, just do some task oriented project. Despite the repeated car trips and extra service, in the end my father sued the hearing aid dealer in Small Claims Court, but never received the settlement he "won." The opening battle of the Hearing Aid Wars resulted in a "moral victory," but the campaigns continued on other fronts.

            On one of my later trips to Florida, my dad took me with him to a second local dealer who advertised a new hearing aid offer. Under Florida law, a customer could return within thirty days any such device if they weren't satisfied. I cringed as I saw a replay of my dad’s self-perpetuating dissatisfaction continue as he made a halfhearted purchase of a low cost pair. His attempts at hearing satisfaction seemed doomed to failure from the start, partially because he would not be seen in public with a larger, behind the ear device. My then eighty-five year old dad also didn’t want to look like an old man in public who was dependent on big hearing aids that everyone could see. 


            My dad made the dealer waste time and expense that day before returning the hearing aids a few weeks later. Being there was like watching a dramatization of Lincoln going to Ford’s Theater. You knew in advance it would end badly. But I could not bring myself to accuse my dad of bad faith with that dealer in a store that day. Or, in truth, any other day.  And this second store owner had experience with enough customers to sense Simon might be wasting his time and asked me, during the store visit, for my New York phone number. After I returned home and my dad returned the hearing aids, the store owner called me in New York to ask for a check of around $70 for his lost expenses. I replied that I was just about to offer such a check in our phone conversation, and then sent him the money. I now thought the battles with this dealer would end as my dad had tasted the “victory” of getting his refund and could write off future contact with this dealer. Little did I know that this was actually the opening skirmish in the decisive battle of my dad's Hearing Aid Wars. 

            You see, the real reason things weren't over was that all this mental dueling between my dad and hearing aid dealers wasn't just about electronic sound devices. It was about getting control of his life in a changing and overwhelming world, being treated with respect and basically being treated as a worthy human being, despite his personal shortcomings, lack of formal education, and a slight foreign accent. My dad didn't want his parking validated at the hearing aid stores. He had never learned to drive. He wanted his life validated. 

            Some readers, at this point, may be asking how did I become so involved in my dad's hearing aid dramas. My father had no other living relatives in the United States to come visit and help him. Typically, such a task and others that followed would be the task of a daughter or cousin, but no such Other existed. Being self-employed, the responsibility fell to me, and I chose to do what I could to see it through to the end. When you are faced with an aging parent losing their ability to cope with life's challenges, your mind and heart do a calculation that can be found in no computer. You are forced to quickly answer what does that parent mean -- and has meant -- to you. 

            I could also see both sides of my dad's arguments with the hearing aid dealers, alternatively feeling sympathy for him and the retailers. In a later visit to Florida, I went on an errand/minor skirmish in the Hearing Aid wars, to see a third hearing aid dealer named Paul who had now become my dad's supplier of batteries. Paul was someone my dad never previously had any significant dispute with in earlier purchases. Jokingly, I told him that I was going to nominate him to be one of the Lamid Vav Tzaikim. That is a Jewish religious term for the hidden Thirty-Six Righteous Souls who uphold the world by the merit of their acts. He smiled broadly in response. Paul had the patience of two saints, not just one.

            My dad's next battleground was, surprisingly, at the sight of the previous skirmish, the office of the hearing aid dealer that I sent the $70 check for incidental expenses. My dad now purchased from him a pair of small Starkey digital (in the ear canal) hearing aids, the best and most expensive model they made. As luck - or karma - would have it, they were not adjusted well by this dealer and my dad couldn't use them at all. And Simon, my dad, was (surprise, surprise) greatly angered and now involved in yet another dispute which I would best not discuss in too much detail, frankly because of possible legal repercussions. But by this time, August 2002, my dad was diagnosed with bladder cancer. That was followed by an operation and two months of radiation treatments, both of which I attended at his side. All this made hearing aids a secondary issue for a while, but when the first weeks of radiation treatments gave him greater strength, he returned to the Hearing Aid Wars, his continuing struggle to hear and be heard. 

            With my dad's increasing strength from the radiation treatments and his improved ability to move, eat with good appetite, it was easy to believe that he was in a true remission. And he felt strong enough to talk of contacting another lawyer about his hearing aid problems. He had even surprised me by saying that he took his retirement community's short bus one morning to go vote in the November 2002 elections while I was away shopping. Later in November, he started to shop for himself and walk long distances for recreation. And he was paying all his monthly personal bills by himself, regaining control of his life. Things were looking better for him – or so it appeared. 

            Near the end of November, I decided to go back to New York do some vital paperwork and await tax-related 2003 mailings. Having scheduled a return flight to Florida in early March, I figured that after a break, I could be with my dad for the rest of that coming year. I also told him before I left that I would fly back to be at his side in one day, if needed. 

            But by now the germ of an idea for winning the Hearing Aid Wars had occurred to me: an airlift assault to a distant headquarters. I first got the idea of using the internet to check out the Starkey company, the makers of the now useless digital hearing aids, just before I left for New York. While looking online for other company authorized dealers near him in Florida (no others existed), I noticed that Starkey had their headquarters and factory in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, a suburb of the Twin Cities. This was near a couple I had known for years, Dana and his wife Martha, whom I had also visited a number of times. Could I and my dad possibly fly to Minnesota together, visit Starkey and even say hello to my friends? 


          In the years before my dad’s illness, I had driven him by car from his place in West Palm Beach to Cape Canaveral, to the first few easternmost islands of the Florida Keys and to Ft. Meyers to see Thomas Edison’s winter home. Around five years before, we had also taken a car, at his insistence, from New York to a small college in Massachusetts to donate a collection of Yiddish books to their library. He wanted to do this at a time he was still a healthy 81 year old, but clearly thinking this was getting his house in order in the last part of his life. On the way back to New York, I had us stop at Mark Twain’s house in Hartford. After taking the tour in the late afternoon, as we drove away, I pointed out Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house next door and learned for the first time that my dad had read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in Polish, as a boy. So we were used to being on the road together, exploring America. But now, with my dad very ill and 86 years old, traveling to Minnesota to fix his hearing aids was admittedly a fanciful, perhaps "crazy" idea. But the truth was that we were all out of sane ones.

            In New York, I called Starkey and found out they were a company that had made hearing aids for politicians and celebrities - and donated thousands of these devices to poor people around the US and the entire world each year. With such kind and generous people, I proposed to my dad a trip to Minnesota, who liked the idea of going directly to the top, the owners (the enemy commanders, as it were). I also figured that he would benefit from being with decent, more laid back folks from the Midwest rather than the mini-New York City outpost that is a retirement community West Palm Beach. I wrote a formal email letter to Starkey, explaining our problems, requesting that we come to Minnesota to repair the devices at their factory. I mentioned my dad being a Holocaust survivor - figured it would help. Starkey not only agreed, but also approved an extension of my dad's warrantee so we could come to Minnesota in mid-April instead of January (brrrr).

            Now my father started to change his mind in phone conversations. First he sent the hearing aids to New York by mail, suggesting that either I go alone to Minnesota to adjust them or I just send them to Starkey where they would magically be fixed without any fine tuning while in his ears. This was not stupidity, but his way of telling me he didn't feel well enough for the trip. And it also may have been his way of expressing fear that no one would respect him in far away Minnesota.

            "The hearings aids can't be fixed. They are too small and need a larger battery. They aren't powerful enough," my dad said. 

            My response was to ask him where he studied engineering (he didn't) and to say that a repair or adjustment was possible. Once again, the real issue was not about hearing aid electronic design, but about my dad being heard, in the greater meaning of the term.

            We argued back and forth about Hearing Aid War strategies into March, when I got a call very early on a Friday morning, two days before my scheduled flight to Florida. My dad, in a weakened voice, asked, "I don't feel good. I want to go to the emergency room. Should I take an ambulance?" 

            My answer was, "Why don't you call a cab? It will be simpler and quicker." 

            My dad agreed and went to the emergency room, to the same hospital where he had his bladder cancer operation. The doctors there now stabilized his situation, giving him some mild painkillers and sent him home that afternoon, also in a cab. Two days later, I arrived at his Florida apartment, minus the hearing aids, figuring they were the least of our concerns. I would now be with my dad, no matter what, for that final year.

            In New York, I had been reading about anticancer nutrition on the internet. When I got to Florida, I put my dad on a health food regimen, and he rallied his strength somewhat.  Still openly upset about his hearing aid purchase, he fluctuated almost every day between wanting to send me to Starkey headquarters alone and wanting to go with me to Minnesota. After a number of sit down strategy sessions in the Hearing Aid Wars, he decided that I should go alone to Minnesota. But on the evening in his living room when I was logging onto the internet to actually buy airline tickets for solo flights to New York and Minnesota, the full repercussions of the situation sunk in for him. My dad realized – and said – and feared -- that he didn't now want to be alone for two weeks. He did not suggest we call off the trip to Starkey headquarters altogether because of his cancer and its' priorities. Wanting to hear and be heard was a cause that energized him, gave him purpose, a challenge that he could face with a chance of victory, more likely than his other problem. Despite his misgivings about the company's ability to fix his in-the-ear hearing aids, my dad finally agreed to go on our last adventure together to the Middle of America.

            We first flew to New York to pick up the hearing aids, allowing a week for rest at home before going further. Simon was strong enough to walk through the airports and drag his wheeled, half-empty suitcase behind him. We then flew to Minnesota and I drove him to a motel near the Mall of America, our local command post for the Hearing Aid Wars. There he rested the weekend and even met my Twin Cites friends briefly before preparing for our Monday morning appointment at Starkey headquarters. 

            My father was still repeating his main complaint about the hearing aids not being large and powerful enough and so they could not be fixed. As we were getting dressed, readying to leave for Starkey headquarters that Monday morning, he turned to me and said, "You know this whole trip is shit." 

            From somewhere inside myself, I found the presence of mind to reply, "I'm not as smart as you. I say it's 50-50 they can fix them. Let's give them a chance." Despite our differing opinions, we were now ready to face the conclusion of our quest.

            The moment of truth loomed at Starkey headquarters, making both of us apprehensive. After wanting little or no breakfast in the hotel room, my dad got hungry as we started to drive. We got off the highway where a diner provided us with some comfort food. It was still early as we returned to the highway, but after getting to Eden Prairie, we couldn't find the street number for Starkey. I then realized the mistake I made weeks ago. At that time, I had plugged the wrong street name and number into an internet map program to produce a printed map. In my hand were perfect computer-generated driving instructions on how to get lost in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Fortunately, I also had a second store-bought Twin Cites map and some papers from Starkey with the exact address we needed. But none of this was registering in my racing, confused mind. Pulling into a gas station, which also had a surrounding area street map on its office wall, someone explained to me that the crossroad outside the front door would lead to the Starkey headquarters address. As I calmed down enough to listen to good advice from a local resident, we took that road and were able to find the right industrial park and arrive at Starkey's front door only fifteen minutes late. We had made it to our goal, despite all the fears and misgivings.   

            My dad and I walked into the Starkey headquarters building and were directed to towards the back where the walls were covered with of pictures of celebrities who were their customers: actor Kirk Douglas, former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos, former Sec. of Defense William Cohen, Grandpa Jones of the country music television show Hee Haw, Lou Ferrigno (he played the Incredible Hulk on television), etc. It was a cross section of America and the world and I sensed we had come to the right place, that we would get what we were looking for. We then met Mr. Greg Austin, the son of the president and founder of Starkey, Bill Austin. Like his father, Greg is a tall Midwesterner with glasses and a calm disposition. He was personally handling customer repairs that day and he treated my dad like royalty - Minnesota royalty. After finishing with another client, Mr. Austin examined my dad and his hearing aids. Putting them aside, he took new wax impressions of my dad's ears. As the technicians in the back worked on "rebuilding" them, we waited in chairs and talked. I now saw that my dad was probably right about the old ones not being able to be fixed because I strongly suspect Starkey replaced them entirely, perhaps salvaging some technical parts for both the rebuilding and later use with others.    

            We spent the whole day at Starkey. Greg Austin even was kind enough to let us have lunch, without charge, in the employee's cafeteria, rather than having us wander the local roads looking for a diner. The fine tuning of the digital components were not complete by the end of the first day and we were told to return the next morning. We did just so, and Mr. Austin got the hearing aids in working order by around noon. My dad thanked him for all that he did. Although he didn't say much, my dad lost the bitterness in his voice when talking about his hearing aid problems and the people who sold them. We left Eden Prairie and returned to our motel room where we booked a flight back to Florida and soon checked out. 

            After returning from that trip to Eden Prairie, my dad never voiced another complaint about his hearing aids. He found some peace, wearing his new pair for the remaining months of his life. The Hearing Aid Wars were over and he got what he wanted. My father could hear and was definitely well heard - and respected – in a part of  America he had never known. A few weeks later, I wrote Mr. Austin an email, concluding by thanking him "for giving my dad back a great part of his dignity." 

            My dad's given first and middle names from Europe were "Joseph" and "Simon." He was called the Hebrew/Yiddish "Josef Shimon" as a boy. In adulthood, he dropped the use of his first name and everyone called him "Simon," including his family. The name "Simon" derives from the Hebrew verb "to hear" and my worn Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary’s (1961 ed.) Naming Guide says it means "hearing." The name "Joseph," according to that same dictionary, means "to add." So my dad's true given names translate into English as "to add hearing." 

            Did my dad know the legacy of his given names, as he sought satisfaction from various hearing aid sellers towards the end of his life?  He may have, but I will never know.