In 1999, Kokomo resident Diane Anton heard a hum, a phantom noise that some believe can stop your heart, collapse your trachea, give you cancer, bloody your nose, cause you stroke, freeze your wheelchair, fry your pacemaker, “zap” your eye, cook you in your sleep and drive you insane with migraines. To others, the Kokomo Hum just sounds crazy.
Indianapolis Monthly | December 2002
2003 Third Place, Environmental Reporting—Indiana Chapter of Society of Professional Journalists
The road to Kokomo is paved with good intentions, tears, and corn. Along the drive south out of Peru, vast fields of Indiana maize gradually succumb to strip development flanking Highway 31, itself a 10-mile cornrow of commerce sucking life from the Kokomo town square one mile west, just beyond the ancient checkered gas tower. With its fast-food joints, gas ‘n go stations, malls and factories, greater Kokomo is not an especially inviting place. But for local expatriate Diane Anton, there is no more pleasant wish than to someday return to her modest little dream house in the City of Firsts and once again live in peace and hard-won quiet.
“One day, I will be exonerated for what I was trying to tell everybody. But the way I’m feeling right now, I don’t think I will ever see it. I don’t think I will see the justice,” says Anton, a 52-year-old divorcee driven into exile by a simple noise that few in Kokomo have ever heard, but which everyone in town has heard about: the Kokomo Hum.
Tooling her white Malibu toward the place that would be home, Anton is by turns casual and catastrophically sad, sometimes finding words only after they have swum up her throat through a river of anguish. A self-described introvert, she has been crying in fits and starts for the last hour, ever since I met her and a fellow Hum sufferer, Jeff Symmes, at the Lincoln Square Restaurant well north of Kokomo, away from the raised eyebrows and forked tongues of a town that quite possibly thinks her mad. Symmes, a neatly bearded journeyman electrician in his forties, himself twice broke down in tears while describing their shared torment. “Once you’re affected by this stuff, the general pleasures of life don’t exist anymore,” he said, as tremors from his hands resonated through the mug and into his coffee.
Before Anton and I drove on south to visit the house she built six years ago, and which has stood abandoned for more than three, the pair spun incredible tales of a mysterious sonic force stalking the good people of Kokomo. It deprives the afflicted of sleep, they say, like an invisible serpent vibrating along the ground in the wee hours to strike their walls, rattle their furniture, and poison the body and mind. At other times it is a low and maddening buzz drilling the ear, a humming poltergeist with evil fingers that thump the temple and clutch the bowels, stirring them to nausea. It has the power, I have been warned by those who hear it, to drive me insane with migraines, stop my heart, collapse my trachea, give me cancer, bloody my nose, cause me stroke, start a car, stop a wheelchair, fry a pacemaker, “zap” my eye, jolt me out of bed, cook me in my sleep and relieve me of my brains via my basement.
For some of the most sensitized Hearers—who are also known in the acoustics field as Hummers—the words used to describe its effect could not be more harsh. For its victims, this… this thing is nothing short of “torture,” “terrorism” and “murder.” Citing what she believes to be an unacknowledged human health crisis in this country, Anton calls it “a holocaust.”
In this otherwise workaday industrial town, the quest to identify and silence an endlessly droning foe that has become known worldwide causes the fight-weary to cast frightened glances in their rearview mirrors and enter their homes on high alert. To seethe under the alleged surveillance of an ominous and provocative “They” who snaps their pictures and taps their phones. Who steals their research and threatens their lives. Who doesn’t want this story told.
“Who are ‘They’?” I have repeatedly asked several of the most skittish Hearers.
“Whoever,” I am always told.
Anton has offered me a key to her empty house, the tidy brick bungalow on Kingston Road where the story of the Kokomo Hum begins, and which still stands musty but furnished, awaiting her return from far-off South Bend, where she now lives on disability. She says it’s best to stay in her house when the Hum is supposedly at its worst so that I, too, might understand what she claims to understand. So that I might hear, feel, and know.
“Can you hear it now?” I ask as we enter the Kokomo city limits.
“Yes, but it’s not too bad today. It’s more of a feeling. My whole body,” she says, letting go the wheel and holding up her right hand, palm down, fingers spread like a dowsing rod. I press the back of my hand against her upper arm. The skin is fleshy, cold and vibrating. At least I think it is vibrating, or want to think it so.
It would not be overstating the case to say that this gentle-seeming former factory worker has caused a roar in the quiet union town of Kokomo, where the deteriorating city gas tower is a subject of architectural dismay to some and local pride to others, where an ice-cream stand near the center drag is as busy as any bar on Friday nights, where the Lord’s Prayer can be recited before a Kokomo Mustangs semi-pro football game at a local high school and no one files a lawsuit. It is a community bonded by good wages for a good day’s work at the Chrysler plant or at Delphi Delco Electronics Systems, at Haynes International or the plethora of other industries concentrated around the Howard County seat. Walking the uncrowded streets framing Kokomo’s monolithic county courthouse—standing square and plain as a barn dance—it is clear that this is not a town given to great flights of fancy.
Yet, over the last three-and-a-half years, a relative handful of its citizens, perhaps 60 or 70, have consistently and with extreme urgency related woes of a mysterious low-frequency noise that they believe is making them sick. While they can hear or feel it much of the time, most of the 45,000 or so other residents never have. While the vast majority of Kokomoans live carefree of any hum, the most acute Hearers believe the rampaging sound wave is killing them.
When their story broke in the Kokomo Tribune last year, it spawned follow-up reports from National Public Radio, the Associated Press, The New York Times, the Today show and numerous other media outlets as far away as Singapore and Australia. The result is a town now looking into itself not simply for an answer to the Hum, but perhaps for its own identity: either as a toxin-soiled remnant of the rust belt that spawns kooks with auditory hallucinations, or a struggling but still vital industrial town that cleans up its messes and takes care of its own.
THE HUM, AS IT turns out, is nothing new. Kokomo is only its latest manifestation, and in fact there is little doubt that hums do exist—both natural and manmade. Of course, whether low-frequency noise can send one person into suicidal fits of depression or cause another to inexplicably wreck her car, as some Hearers believe, is another matter altogether. But in general it is accepted that hums abound in one form or another and, at the very least, can aggravate the hell out of some people.
“I don’t know that the case has been made for human health effects of the hum in Kokomo,” says Ken Ferries, who as the city’s corporation counsel has found himself squarely in the middle of Kokomo’s biggest story since AIDS victim Ryan White was barred from local schools. “But we’re trying to approach it with an open mind, no preconceptions.” Accordingly, Ferries spent time this year plowing through bids to study the Hum based on a $100,000 allocation proposed by Mayor Jim Trobaugh in February. In October, the city awarded the job to Acentech, an acoustical consulting firm with offices in Massachusetts and California. “Some people say, well, it’s only 60 or 70 people claiming to be affected,” says Ferries. “But if 60 or 70 people were suffering from West Nile virus, we’d find out where the mosquitoes were and go spray the pond.”
Such willingness to investigate what others might like to write off as the ravings of a few hypersensitive fussbudgets is predicated on several factors. First, there is the gravity of the accusations: namely, that the Hum has the power to kill and maim, and that its source can perhaps be traced to one local industry. Second, there is the consistency of the grievances, with as many as 60 to 100 Kokomoans openly complaining of a humming sound that abruptly began in 1999 and has since caused a raft of shared symptoms. The most common include chronic headaches, nausea, diarrhea, insomnia, depression, fatigue and mental confusion; pressure in the ears and eyes; a sense of vibration in the body and in physical surroundings; interference with household electrical devices such as televisions and microwaves—all observed most keenly late at night and on weekends, and all attributed to a hum that operates on a somewhat regular timetable, as if controlled by a switch.
Third, and most perplexing, is the fact that this seemingly outlandish phenomenon has cropped up numerous times around the world. The most famous case is the Taos Hum, which stirred to life in the New Mexico mountain town of Taos around 1990, when residents began complaining of a sporadic low-frequency noise that was disrupting sleep and sapping their health. As in Kokomo, many likened the noise to “a diesel truck idling in the driveway,” a description now so ubiquitous in Hum lore that it is both disturbing for its consistency and suspicious in its copycat connotations.
Adding to the confusion is the vigorous fringe element in Hum culture. Taos Hum legend is rife with theories about alien visitation, government mind-control experiments and even “the voice of god demanding attention.” Other Hearers have focused on the federal government’s high-powered radio array in Alaska, known as HAARP, or on Navy radar installations using low-frequency sound to communicate with global submarine fleets.
Lying somewhere between absurdity and reality is the fact that the U.S. and other governments have long studied non-lethal acoustic weapons that use extremely low-frequency sound—known as infrasound—to potentially incapacitate an enemy, subdue a riot, or cast a sonic shield around, say, an embassy building. Though there has been evidence of such devices for decades, there is little hard proof that acoustic weapons live up to their sinister promise, all of which seems to both support and undermine Hearers’ contention that infrasound could be the most dangerous environmental plague since aerosol sprays and chainsaws.
Indeed, from Copenhagen, Denmark to Inkom, Idaho, it’s not hard to find complaints of a hum that people believe is making them ill. England’s Bristol Hum is but one of many that inhabit Great Britain, which even has an official Low-Frequency Noise Sufferers Association. When the Kokomo Tribune ran a five-part series on Anton and other Hearers last June, reporters unexpectedly fielded dozens of calls from around the country describing similar situations. Corporation counsel Ferries received an article about Allegheny, Pennsylvania, relating that town’s hum woes in eerily familiar terms. He also got a call from a man who claimed the Hum was coming from the federal government building “tunnels beneath Kokomo,” and a letter from a self-proclaimed hum expert in San Francisco who said he knew the source of the noise and would divulge the answer for $100,000 in small, unmarked bills.
Notwithstanding the crackpots, serious concerns about hums have maintained momentum for decades. Lane Ralph, deputy state director for Senator Richard Lugar, has investigated Kokomo’s Hum for nearly three years and says, “Infrasound has been a problem around the country. The reason you’re hearing about it in Kokomo is that the people there have just been more determined to find the answer.” Occasionally, an answer is found, as was the case recently in Portage, Indiana, where residents complained of noise-induced insomnia and headaches. Sound engineers tracked the Portage Hum to a local plastics plant, where a new storage warehouse had been constructed and, most likely, was ricocheting sound waves from the plant’s exhaust fans into a nearby neighborhood.
In Kokomo, Hum theorists include everyone from the mayor to “Stump Daddy,” the fry cook at Louie’s Coney Island restaurant.
Most low-frequency hums whose origins are pinpointed are eventually traced back to an industrial source, but infrasound can also be the byproduct of earthquakes, thunder, volcanoes, waterfalls, wind and ocean waves. Running produces infrasound, as does swimming and even the human heartbeat.
Of course, the most obvious possible source of a hum is low-frequency tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. But some studies, such as a 1983 project involving 2,000 British “Hummers” that was published in the Journal of Low Frequency Noise & Vibration, do evince that a small minority of people can detect hums outside their own bodies. Unfortunately, environmental infrasound’s long wavelength enables it to travel long distances and penetrate physical structures. Thus it can be especially difficult to track down, and in the most sensational cases, such as Kokomo and Taos, the cause of the hum often remains a mystery.
THREE SUMMERS AGO, Diane Anton was living a well-blueprinted life influenced by stalwart Polish-Catholic parents who embraced hard work, honesty and simple pleasures. Her dad was a carpenter, her mom a homemaker, and Anton revered them both. Twice divorced and childless, she had worked for Kokomo’s largest employer, Delco Electronics (now Delphi), for nearly three decades, in later years living alone in an eclectic post-war neighborhood on the west side of town. Her small, white clapboard house of 10 years stood just two streets east of the vacant Kingston Road lot on which she would eventually build her dream home—and her nightmare.
At first, many of her co-workers and acquaintances couldn’t believe she could afford the new brick house with its marble fireplace, hardwood floors and modern appliances. “I saved for years for that place. My parents taught me to be frugal,” says Anton. “I kept a scrapbook, and every time I found something I wanted, like a light fixture or a sink, I cut out the picture and pasted it into the book.” She went over every detail with a draftsman, from the location of her laundry room to the last tongue-and-groove board in the screened-porch ceiling.
Finally, in 1996, she moved in. Anton can’t recall the exact day the Hum first appeared, but she remembers noticing chronic headaches and fatigue in the summer of 1999, about the same time that she first became aware of the low-pitched noise. “When I first heard it, I said, ‘What is that?’ I shut off the water and the breaker box, but it wasn’t there.” After an extensive process of elimination, Anton decided the noise was coming from outside the house, and more than once woke up to look out her window for the truck idling in her empty driveway. By then, the sound had also become a feeling, a vibration that left her mind dazed and her body bruised from bumping into walls. Once, while in her basement, the humming sensation and pressure were accompanied by a profuse nosebleed. The droning sound, she came to believe, inexplicably exploded light bulbs and caused the lights to dim and then gradually brighten, rudely flipped the channels on her TV, vibrated her walls, and even fired up her car’s remote-controlled ignition device. Sometimes, Anton claims, her dog Sadie would wake her in the night to let her know that the car was running in the garage. Anton was growing depressed, overweight, achy and uncharacteristically aggressive.
As her health worsened, she had MRIs, CAT scans and blood and hearing tests, none of which offered a diagnosis. A foreman at Delco who was also an electrical engineer suggested to Anton that, based on her description, low-frequency radiation might be vibrating her brain. At the behest of acquaintances to whom she tried to convey the experience, she underwent psychological testing.
She also began contacting local industries and acoustics experts, and gradually educated herself on infrasound and its potential health effects. Eventually she began looking into Haynes International, a nickel-and-cobalt-alloys mill located about a half-mile from her neighborhood. Haynes sent representatives to Anton’s house—one of whom, she claims, confirmed hearing the noise, a point that Haynes disputes. During this period, Anton also hired a series of three engineers to take acoustic measurements. All three measured 10 hertz—at which or below is the range considered most likely to affect human health—and all three cited Haynes International as a possible source. A fourth acoustician hired by Fox News out of Chicago later measured 10 Hz at another Hearer’s house but offered no source.
In September 1999, Anton says, she was jolted clear out of bed by a sound wave peaking directly under her house, a wave that she believes was somehow transmitting electromagnetic radiation from Haynes’ enormous power draw during a late-night melt. “I felt like I had stuck my finger in a light socket,” Anton says, likening it to having a heart defibrillator attached to her chest. “I knew that one more hit like that, and I would not live through it.”
That was the last night she spent in her house.
FOR KATHIE SICKLES, it was spiders. “Like a herd of spiders starting at my toes and forming a blanket over my entire body,” she says. “And then by the time it gets to your stomach, you get up to go vomit and realize you can’t even get to the bathroom. This happened many nights. You could time it.”
Sickles, also a retiree from Delco who now works part-time at a local Speedway gas station, says that one night in late 1999 the feeling was so intense, she drove up the road looking for its source, struggling to steer her truck while puking into a garbage pail. She says she tracked the Hum by feel to the vicinity of a strip-mall parking lot where the vibration was especially strong. She has no explanation for why there, and in fact says that since about January 2000 the Hum has lessened, become more subtle and “gone underground.” But her efforts to root it out have not.
In 2000, she and others formed a group called Our Environment, largely based on the original outcry of Diane Anton, whom Sickles had vaguely known at Delco. For a while the two women had worked closely together to track the Hum, sharing resources, comparing notes and holding meetings in Anton’s new house, where both say attendees often fell ill with vomiting and headaches. But at some point, the two parted ways—and not on the best terms. Although still the two highest-profile Kokomo Hum activists, they have not spoken to each other in nearly two years. Neither will discuss the other in detail, though one Anton supporter describes Sickles as brash and abusive, an “asshole” who tried to control meetings and browbeat Hearers into action when what they really wanted, at first, was simply to be heard.
Some in Sickles’ camp have described Anton as gullible, a “piss ant” who talked of a class-action lawsuit against Haynes and thereby alienated those who might have helped them, including Haynes itself. They say (though it’s a point Anton disputes) that Anton called for a shutdown at Haynes until the problem is solved, and circulated a petition among already edgy Hearers—only driving the wedge deeper. “She can’t keep her finger out of a phone,” says Sickles, though she admits that when it comes right down to it, “Diane made a righteous call. If it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t know why we were sick.” But eventually, she adds, Anton’s public wailing on such a strange-sounding issue began to work against her.
“They know how to push the buttons of people who are getting sick,” Sickles says. “She got set up.”
By the same “whomever,” presumably, that allegedly creeps into activists’ homes and unscrews all the light bulbs and sets them on the floor. The same “They” who supposedly sneaks in and out of Sickles’ house, or has stood outside Hum meetings with a video camera to record those in attendance, or who sits in trucks behind dark-tinted windows, climbs telephone poles and knocks on doors to snap pictures before quickly scampering away.
“They might slash my tires,” says Sickles, “but you just let one of these motherfuckers follow me around and I’ve got a side-by-side shotgun and six boxes of 16-gauge shells, and some son-of-a-bitch isn’t gonna drive home.”
It might sound like paranoid ranting were it not fairly easy to find others saying the same thing, including, at the moment, a Howard County Councilman named Les Ellison, who has joined Sickles and her closest fellow activist, LaQuita Zimmerman, for an interview at Applebee’s off the Highway 31 strip.
Zimmerman, 56, has known Sickles since kindergarten and refers to herself and her old acquaintance as “Grandmother One and Grandmother Two.” Councilman Ellison, a former Haynes employee and the women’s closest ally in local government, attributes his wife’s stroke, at age 48, and his own angina, migraines, diarrhea and memory loss to the Hum. And, yes, he believes he is the target of spook tactics. “I’m affected now too. You remember my two missing wallets?” he asks the women. “One of them mysteriously returned today. Right there on the seat of my car.”
“Why not go to the police?” I ask.
“You don’t go to the police in this town,” says Grandmother One.
“Let’s put it this way,” says Grandmother Two. “If we were to call the police every time something strange happens, that’s exactly what They want us to do.”
“So you’ll start to look crazy?”
“Right,” she says. “So we just bide our time.”
But what would be the point of mind-frying two grandmothers, a small-town councilman, Diane Anton, or anyone else who made some noise about some noise? According to Sickles, it’s because “the government” doesn’t want the public educated on the effects of low-frequency sound and other widespread forms of radiation, from microwaves to radar. Sickles points to closure of the U.S. Office of Noise Abatement and Control during the Reagan administration, to that fact that Indiana companies plan to build several new power plants (a long-suspected source of infrasound) around the state, and to the reality that in the United States, few federal laws govern exposure to extremely low-frequency noise. And the government doesn’t want laws, Sickles claims, lest American industry suffer the inevitable repercussions.
“We’re accused of being baby-killers and causing cancer. How do you respond to something like that?”
It’s the kind of talk that operates somewhere between probability and paranoia—and can, out of the tangled web of fact and fancy breed obsession. But by approaching the issue as a human-health rather than a noise problem, Sickles, Anton and others have convinced representatives from both Senator Evan Bayh’s and Senator Lugar’s offices, as well as Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer, to investigate the Kokomo Hum. Lugar’s office asked for a review from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, resulting in perhaps the most comprehensive analysis to date of scientific experiments on the biological effects of infrasound. The report, completed in September 2001, cites almost 100 relevant studies that range from the sensible, such as evaluating infrasound’s effect on airline pilots and truckers, to the bizarre, such as administering alcohol to mice, zapping them with infrasound, then forcing them to swim to see how long it takes before they begin to drown.
Some experiments analyzed in the NIH report, which digs into 30-plus years of research, state flatly that the dangers of infrasound are “much over-rated” and “exaggerated,” having “no effect on humans.” Yet it is just as easy to dredge up conflicting studies. For instance, long-term exposure to high-decibel levels of infrasound can potentially lead to a condition known as Vibroacoustic Disease (VAD). One 1999 survey by Portuguese researchers and Philadelphia’s Drexel University cited numerous scientific studies suggesting VAD can precipitate heart attack, cancer, epilepsy, rage reactions and suicide. Other infrasound studies analyzed in the NIH report noted effects that range from changes in blood pressure, respiratory rate and balance in humans to testicular shrinkage in rats. NIH authors offered that such variability in the research “limits the conclusions that can be drawn” about the health effects of infrasound, but noted that the Institute was eager to assist in addressing concerns in Kokomo. In other words, the Hum warrants further study.
“A lot of people want to throw these folks in the nut category so they can go home and sleep at night,” says Lane Ralph of Senator Lugar’s office. “But the subject has not gone away and the question remains: Is infrasound present in Kokomo, and is it causing health problems? That’s where the rubber meets the road.”
DIANE ANTON KEEPS her eyes hidden behind dark Jackie O glasses, masking halos of sadness that have grown wrinkled and muddied from sleep deprivation. They are eyes that seem not only to reflect grief, but to absorb it from her surroundings. Before pulling into her driveway for instance, Anton has toured me through the little neighborhood around Kingston Road, a half-mile northeast of Haynes, pointing out the holocaust: a cancer in this house, a heart attack in that one, a sick dog over here, a Hum-crazed woman over there whom, Anton says, she once witnessed stumbling around her yard in a negligee. She saw another lady, she tells me, brandishing sticks at passing cars.
Standing in her garage, Anton says she can hear it even now. She makes the noise for me, contorting her face into a glazed and terrified stare accompanied by an electrical-sounding moo.
Mwhoooooooam, mwhooooooooooawm, mwhoooooooooooooooawm.
Inside her home, which stands neatly tucked among hostas, tall spruce and buckeyes, she tells me I can leave the windows open to vent the sewer gas that has built up to nauseating levels. She flushes the toilet to confirm that the water is running, telling me she has had her utilities turned on in case I “get hit by this stuff” and have a sudden case of diarrhea or vomiting. Even if I don’t hear it, she and other Hearers have warned me, the effects can still be devastating. “The noise part of it is just an annoyance,” said Zimmerman. “It’s the inaudible part that is so dangerous.” Earlier, Symmes had cautioned me that his friend Anton was “not liable” if I stayed at her house and wound up being sick for the rest of my life. Like them.
Anton’s home is strewn with the evidence of hasty departure: a closet full of sensible shoes and knee-length dresses, furniture still arranged for living, legal and medical papers scattered across the dining-room table. In the basement, which is cluttered with open boxes never fully unpacked, she makes the noise again, transformer-like, urging me to listen. Because Hum theorists (who in Kokomo include everyone from the mayor to “Stump Daddy,” the fry cook at Louie’s Coney Island restaurant) claim that certain structures, such as basements or underground caverns, can amplify ground-hugging low frequencies, we press our ears to the poured-concrete foundation. It would help, says Anton, if we had a glass to hold up to the wall, which we don’t, and at first I hear nothing. Then, suddenly, I detect my first hum.
“If you can—”
She goes silent, casting me a flat look as I follow the noise to her water conditioner.
“It’s the water purifier,” I say.
“Unplug it,” she challenges, and I comply.
“I don’t hear anything.”
Anton still hears it, she says, but nonetheless seems to gladden at the familiarity of the basement and its assortment of family treasures.
“My grandfather made those,” she says, pointing to a set of elaborately inlaid chess boards. In another moment, wading serenely among the boxes while commenting that she believes the Hum has been destroying her mind, she dredges up a Barbie doll that her aunt bought for her at the Kresge dime store long ago. Digging around for the matching wardrobe that a neighbor lady hand-stitched for her doll, she says, “I’m looking for a memory of mine.”
The sheer extravagance of Anton’s misery seems enough to cast doubt on whether her only torment is some phantom noise—until, perhaps, you sit on her porch at midnight, bored enough to smoke a cigar, and listen to it.
There are other memories, too, upstairs in the bedroom. “For some reason, it’s really strong coming from that corner,” she says, gesturing to the stark white walls beside her four-poster bed, sheetless but still topped with a mattress pad. There is a distinct sound in this room as well—a ringing, higher-pitched and louder than the noise made by the water purifier.
“It changes,” Anton declares, and we both fall silent. Eventually I suggest that I am only hearing crickets outside, and she shrugs.
“Is that your mother?” I ask, referring to a framed photo on a small drop-leaf desk. Anton called her “The Polish Philosopher” because of her ability to distill essential truths. ‘“Money can’t buy a life that’s been lost,’ she used to tell me. And, ‘Money can’t buy a clear conscience.’” When her mother was dying, Anton went to see her in the nursing home and told her what was happening with the Hum.
“She told me, ‘Fight it, Diane. You fight it.’”
Next to her mother’s photo is a framed picture of Anton as a rosy-faced child with golden hair and a broad, dumpling smile. Anton placed her portrait on the desk with her mother’s, she says, “when people started picking on me. I told myself there is still a little girl in me and I am going to protect that girl.” In one especially hurtful incident, the Kokomo Perspective, a nay-saying alternative rival of the Tribune, ran an editorial cartoon of a woman holding her ears amongst a crowd of passersby, crying: “Am I the only one who hears it?”
Before heading back to South Bend, Anton gives me a single key on a piece of gold lace, asking nothing more than that I be careful, and to please lock all the doors when I leave.
Outside, I ask her what I should do if the neighbors ask why I’m here. “That’s none of their damn business!” she says.
“Do your neighbors know that this is where it started? Do they know that Diane Anton lives here?”
“They know,” she says, breaking into tears yet again. “That… that’s where the nut lives.” She wilts against the brick wall, forehead first. “Oh, God. This is so hard for me.”
“WE’RE ACCUSED OF being baby-killers and causing cancer. How do you respond to something like that?” asks Jean Neel, a spokesperson for Haynes International, the Kokomo-based metal-alloys plant that has become the focus of Hum complaints. Neel has reluctantly granted me an interview the day after my meeting with Anton. “Now are you going to ask Chrysler and GM for a tour of their plants, too?” she says, staring hard across a conference table.
According to Neel, Haynes does not dispute that Kokomo may be home to a low-frequency hum. It is a factory town, after all, and factories make noise. Haynes’ gripe is with being singled out on the basis of a few independent measurements—measurements paid for by one person, Anton, who Neel believes had the answers before she even asked the questions.
“It’s baffling to me that there can be only one source of noise in this community, yet she can supposedly hear it in South Bend? Now is that one source of noise, or is that multiple sources we can’t describe?” Neel points out that when Haynes locked out union workers over a contract dispute this summer, many Hearers contacted the Tribune to say that the Hum had gone away. In that case, says Neel, Haynes would appear not to be the problem, because the plant never actually shut down; it continued to operate with non-union employees. Sickles, Symmes and others, however, are adamant that they did continue to hear or feel the Hum.
And if Haynes were the problem, asks Neel, why aren’t Haynes workers getting sick? “Nobody is coming to us and saying, ‘We are sick.’ In fact, they’re coming to us and asking, ‘Why are they saying this about us?”’
Neel would probably rather walk into a slag furnace than escort another journalist through the Haynes plant, but in the end, clear on the implications of not letting a reporter in, she tracks down a tour guide, some ear plugs, and another fricking hardhat, and summons Steve Fischer, Haynes manager of safety, security and medical, to lead the two of us through the plant’s many buildings.
Fischer is one of the representatives originally dispatched to Anton’s house in the fall of 1999, at which time, he says, he heard nothing unusual. He takes us through the Forge Shop in all its grinding, spark-casting fury, then past the Vacuum Melt Shop, which is currently silent, and into the 4-Hi Rolling Mill, the loudest part of the factory. It too is inactive.
In the Pickle Line, long sheets of finished metals receive a blasting and chemical curing to produce the extremely heat-and-corrosion—resistant alloys required for the aerospace industry, a major market for Haynes. This includes work for NASA, an ominous presence in Hearer scuttlebutt. In the Cold Strip Mill, laborers churn out 10,000-pound coils of ultra-hard alloy under an American flag and a hand-painted banner sporting the slogan: “Let’s Roll, Mill Billys!”
In the Electro-Slag Remelt area of the Vacuum building, where 10,000-pound ingots are immersed in glowing crucibles heated to more than 2,300 degrees, there is a distinct and vibratory hum—the sound of molten metal. But it is the only hum going today, and, frankly, a bit of a letdown. Haynes’ aged electric-arc furnace, subject of great speculation among Hearers, is also down for “rebricking.”
“It’ll start back up Sunday at midnight,” says Fischer. Many Kokomo Hearers believe the reason the Hum is loudest at night, and so bedeviling of sleep, is that Haynes does most of its hardest melts in the early morning hours when it can pull more power off the local electrical grid.
If you believe the Hearers, the reason so many plant operations were idle during my visit is that Haynes knew a reporter was coming. If you believe Neel, it’s because I came in the middle of a shift break, and because business is slow throughout their industry. Noting that Haynes recently laid off about 40 of its 500-plus workers, Neel says: “If we were operating at peak, you’d really see this place humming,” a faux pas that, after I point it out, leaves her shaking her head in frustration.
But the fact is, mills of this sort do hum, just like an ironsmith’s handheld arc welder would hum. And many Kokomoans say that hums have existed in this town for decades. “Continental Steel used to have a big electric-arc furnace,” says corporation counsel Ferries. “And when I was a kid I used to sleep with my window open. You want to talk about a hum. But now it’s just a matter of what people are willing to tolerate.”
Anton herself says, “I think this has been going on for longer than 1999. But that is when I first noticed it, when I first started feeling the vibration. Something changed.” Haynes insists that it made no plant alterations during that time that would explain the Hum’s sudden appearance, and there is little evidence to the contrary.
In fact, at its core, the Hum story may not be about noise at all. In their zeal to locate a single tree on which to pin blame for local health problems, Hearers may be missing the whole forest. Even Hum activist Sickles admits: “The Hum is just the fuse that has brought it all around. We have monumental environmental problems in Kokomo.”
For instance, Continental Steel, which one former employee described as so loud it used to drown out Haynes, is now a federal Superfund site, one of many unpleasant legacies of Kokomo’s industrial heritage. Recent Perspective articles have identified secret toxic dumping grounds exposed by former Continental Steel employees. Kokomo’s principal watershed, Wildcat Creek, suffers from long abuse to the extent that parents worry if their kids even wade in it. Two Chrysler employees were recently fired and fined for dumping solvents directly into the city’s storm drains. Haynes has been cited numerous times for noncompliance with environmental regulations.
The environmental Web site Scorecard.org, which rates communities according to local toxic-release data, ranks Kokomo’s two main ZIP codes as among the worst 10 and 30 percent in the nation for elevated risk of cancer. People on the street will flat-out tell you that Kokomo is toxic, and that if anything is making people sick, it’s life in a factory town.
“Not too many people around here enjoy their retirement in terms of health,” says resident Ramona Madden, whose father retired from local industry and died of liver cancer. “They’ll pay you to do the dirty work so long as you don’t mind getting a little more exposure than most people.”
Elizabeth Graves, a Hearer and retired factory worker who once lived near Haynes but has since lost her home because of health-related financial problems, says, “They [the factories] will pay you $21 an hour to do chimpanzee work, but there’s a reason for that.”
Graves now lives in a trailer north of town, where the only hum she hears is from the electrical transformer outside her bedroom window, she says, and where she can better manage the effects of her fibromyalgia, chronic headaches, asthma, bronchitis and bouts of pneumonia, her heart murmur, the cyst on her ovary and the three cysts on her kidney. None of which makes caring for her epileptic daughter any easier.
Toward the end of another long and weepy conversation, she listens patiently to my suggestion that perhaps it is more comforting to have a single explanation for the myriad horrors in life than to dissect life’s complexities. That it’s simpler to blame a mysterious Hum than to examine the consequences of smoking for 30 years, or to face the possibility that the same factory that built your house and sent the kids to college and is paying a pension might also have been poisoning you.
“None of that vibrated my house and shook the pictures off the wall,” she says, wiping away tears as her daughter sits passively on the sofa, listening. Graves apologizes for her fragile state, tells me that she had always been so strong, come what may, until she moved over by Haynes.
Until she heard the Hum.
“It’s like—it’s like someone painting you into a corner of a room,” she says. “And that room keeps getting smaller and smaller and smaller.”
“THERE’S A HUM down here all right,” says the man walking his dog past the little brick house on Kingston Road. “A humdinger.” He won’t tell me his name for fear of being sued by Diane Anton, but as a neighbor for more than 10 years, he assures me that he does know her.
“I think she thought she was going to pin something on a local industry and get that house for free,” he says, pointing out that neither Anton nor her home is a stranger to the court system. As a member of the United Auto Workers when she was employed at Delco, Anton received discounted and sometimes free legal services, and court records indicate that since 1997 she has filed no fewer than five lawsuits involving construction of her home. By February 2000, she had been awarded at least $105,000 in actual, emotional and punitive damages, though she says she has received only about $400 to date.
When I had first spoken to her about a possible Hum lawsuit a month earlier, she said, “It’s not what I want.” Later, when asked what she might consider fair restitution, she said she wanted compensation from the U.S. government for all medical bills past and future (both for her and for the community), and for the nearly $75,000 she says she has spent bringing the alleged dangers of the Hum to public attention. In a different conversation, the figure was closer to $100,000. “I’m not looking to rape anybody, but by God nobody has the right to take everything from me, either.” Beyond that, says Anton, she wants “a public apology” and then to be left in peace, in Kokomo, and in good health.
However, another nearby resident, who worked with Anton at Delco but likewise refused to be identified, wonders about past erratic behavior, such as the time a next-door neighbor held a backyard auction and Anton, perturbed by the auctioneer’s loudspeaker, supposedly turned a garden hose on him. Anton vehemently denies this story. But in any case, both neighbors ask, why here? Why in this house and not in Anton’s previous house two blocks away? Why did no one complain about the Hum until Diane Anton complained? And why did Diane Anton not complain about the Hum until she built her new home?
Did something change out there in the world, or in her dream?
Inside, the stench of sewer gas has finally abated to tolerable levels, and as evening settles I try to listen. Following a bee-buzz along her kitchen counter, past the half-full bottles of prescription Zoloft, Claritin, Cytotec and Ultram—Anton has been prescribed many medications for her various health problems but says she doesn’t like taking pills—I track down a hum coming from the microwave. In the basement, I am fooled once again by the water conditioner, and in her bedroom the whir of a ceiling fan mingles with a riot of crickets, slamming porch doors and kids making their way home by nightfall.
From her ghostly perch on the drop-leaf desk, The Polish Philosopher beams motherly goodness into an abandoned room, a sweetness evident in her smile and eyes before diabetes cut off her leg. Suffering, and with Anton emotionally unable to terminate life support, she died in January 2001. Around that same time, Anton traveled to Poland for special testing, where she was told that “low-frequency elastic waves” had “altered [her] Alpha brain waves.”
On the nightstand lies a jumble of papers, including several large Post-It Notes scribbled with names and phone numbers in a loopy, girlish script, along with the words HUMMING NOISE, NOISE and VIBRATION. The highboy dresser is scattered with small volumes of faith and inspiration, a loose snapshot of Anton’s mother, a box of Kleenex and an old copy of Reader’s Digest. The cover model’s eyes have been circled and circled to the point of darkness. Embedded in Anton’s black-ink doodlings are the words CONTROL, CONTROL and CDC, the latter presumably a reference to the Centers for Disease Control.
On the living-room table is a dictionary, which a relative gave to Anton after she began her letter-writing campaign. Anton’s failing ability to read and write as well as she used to is another effect of the Hum, she believes. Two of the dictionary’s pages are tabbed, book-marking the underlined words “noxious” and “pernicious.”
Earlier, as we sat talking in the car, I had asked her what she thought the final outcome of all this would be. “I’m gonna die,” she wailed, bumping her face against the steering wheel. “I’m gonna die. I’m gonna die soon!
In all honesty, the sheer extravagance of Anton’s misery seems enough to cast doubt on whether her only torment is some phantom noise—until, perhaps, you sit on her porch at midnight, bored enough to smoke a cigar, and listen to it. Or what I suppose could be it: a low whir coming from the west that begins, almost imperceptibly, around midnight Sunday. Two nights earlier, I spent a similar evening in her house, experiencing nothing unusual save a disturbing dream while sleeping atop her sheetless four-poster bed—a nightmare in which I was pinned to the mattress by an electric, vibrating sensation. It took me until the middle of the next day to convince myself it was only a dream.
But this is different. At 12:30 a.m. I drive over to the Haynes parking lot, where a similar noise is noticeable but less than significant. It’s the first of two trips I’ll make over the next four hours, during which time I drive the streets, walk the neighborhood and sit in the middle of Anton’s house, in her basement, in the driveway and on the stoop, always listening for the Hum.
At 3 a.m. I stroll the quaint neighborhood with its lawn lamps and picket fences, one by one sorting the world of crickets, noisy air conditioners, unmufflered trucks, distant highways and Aeolian voices. By 4 a.m. I have formed a mild obsession, born of exhaustion, with that which I cannot hear in front of Anton’s old house a quarter-mile away, but can hear at another house in between, and then not at all once back at Anton’s dream home.
Until, that is, it starts up again.
Sitting on the porch, arms folded around my knees, I suddenly notice that my whole body is rocking. Anton had told me that some Hearers describe a sensation similar to being on a boat, and it’s quite startling to think I’m acting like a true Hearer—until I realize that in this cramped position, my own heartbeat (and the power of suggestion) have created the wave-like sensation.
Inside, I shut the bedroom window and the noise abates. I open a side window, and it pounces in, apparently reverberating off a nearby wood fence. At times it is strong. At others it is faint. By twists it hums and by turns it moans, and by dawn it is nothing but the whine of a weed-eater blasting me out of short and gusty sleep.
“She’s nuts,” said the man walking his dog in front of her house, the man who wouldn’t give me his name. But by morning so am I, and one can only imagine what several months of this would do, no matter whether the noise comes from outside the head or from within. No matter whether the Kokomo Hum is the sigh of molten metal, a train on a far-off track, or the sometimes noisome trials of living.
Sound is a trickster, and so is the mind. But even though Diane Anton was the first and loudest to cry out, she hasn’t been the last. Her story may be the most vivid, but it isn’t the only tale in town. And if the Hearers sometimes sound a note of hysteria, plenty of lucid accounts of the Hum exist too. As Ken Ferries says, “There are people out there arguing calmly and persuasively that they are having problems with this.”
It’s the kind of reminder that Hum chasers keep coming back to when they ask themselves who is crazy, and who is just crazy enough to fight. When they ask who is really hearing, and who, if anyone, is listening. ✦