First it was Owen Bennion’s two front teeth vs. a steel basketball pole. Then it was Matt Ungaro’s left ear vs. a moth of undetermined species.
It’s been an eventful summer already for the Vineyard Sound, the college a cappella group now singing to sold out houses in Oak Bluffs, Chilmark and Edgartown. In the 16 summers in which the Vineyard Sound has performed on the Island, there’s been nothing to match the oral — and now aural — calamities suffered and overcome by veteran and rookie members of a group that depends mightily on both.
On the morning of the first two shows of the season – the date was Friday, the 13th of June — Owen Bennion, the first-year music director, crashed uppers-first into the pole during a three-on-three game at the Edgartown School basketball court. By 7:15 that evening, with the goodwill and help of a nervous ensemble of 10 guys who knew they badly needed him on deck for opening night, the splinters of Owen’s two front teeth were capped, the Novocain was wearing off around his mouth and nose and Owen was leading the group at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, singing backup in the first show and even carrying off his two leads (Southern Cross and Cupid) at the 9 p.m. show.
Things played out rather differently for Matt Ungaro, a rookie tenor with the Vineyard Sound, sometime after one o’clock last Tuesday morning. Matt, 20, will be a junior this fall at Skidmore College, where he sings with the Bandersnatchers, an all-male a cappella group, and studies political economy with a possible minor in music.
That Tuesday night, Matt was sitting at the table on the rear deck of the Vineyard Sound house with the rest of the singers, who were taking their ease after a show at Trinity Methodist Church on the Camp Ground of Oak Bluffs. A few friends of the group were also there.
The house is located near scrubby wilderness off the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. The deck lights were on. “There’s moths everywhere, obviously,” said Matt on Friday. “I feel [one of them] hit my outer ear. I tried swatting it away and it goes, like, into my ear — deep in there, moving around.” Matt rose from the table and began running around the porch, jumping up and down and banging his temple with the heel of his hand to try to dislodge it. “I can hear it fluttering its wings in my head” — here he made a noise that sounded like paper striking the blades of a running fan — “and you can feel it and hear it at the same time.”
Perhaps because the pressures of opening night were now more than two weeks behind them, perhaps because his fellow singers were in a merry mood after midnight, or perhaps just because he was a rookie rather than their music director, the witnesses were far less impressed with Matt’s improbable, self-described ear crisis than they were with Owen’s obvious mouth crash 18 days before. “Who gets a moth in their head?” asked Dan Carroll, the business manager and vocal percussionist, looking back on the events on Friday. “You’re designed so that things can’t get in there.”
“Everyone’s, like, ‘Oh, you’re crazy. There’s no bug in your head. That’s impossible,’” said Matt, who after his St. Vitus’s Dance on the porch then headed for the bathroom with Tatsuya Adachi, a second-year bass, and Dan. Dan brought along his cell-phone camera and for the next 11 1/2 minutes recorded Matt trying to irrigate the moth out of his ear by twisting his head under the spigot to the sink; excavate it with a Q-tip, which only jammed it in more; pop it loose by plugging his nose and blowing through his ear canals; and hopping around, pounding the side of his head and yelling like a wounded character in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. “I’m panicked. I’m thinking, number one, this is going to affect my hearing permanently, this bug in there, deep in my ear. It might mess with my eardrum or something.” But each attempt to flood, pry, or blow the moth loose “would irritate it, so it would irritate me more.”
As he videotaped the bathroom agonies, Dan gave the moth a voice and dramatized it whispering to Matt some months later from the depths of his ear canal: “Psst, are you sleeping?” Tatsuya advised Matt to “get used to it” and improvised the rah-rah opening jingle to a sitcom out of the 1970s entitled Matt and the Moth. Over and over bystanders came into the bathroom and asked Matt to explain just what the problem was exactly, which also seemed to irritate both Matt and the moth more.
As with Owen and his shattered teeth, there was a show ahead of Matt and the Vineyard Sound. In about 19 hours, he would be expected to sing backup to songs such as Runaround Sue, Change in My Life and Fly Me to the Moon at the Chilmark Community Church (Matt will start singing the lead to God Only Knows in a couple of weeks). At 1:30 a.m., Tatsuya offered to drive Matt to the emergency room. Dan went with them so he could get more pictures.
Things were quiet at the hospital. Fearing that the nurse on duty would be as skeptical as the group had been, Matt explained that he’d been sitting on a porch and a bug had gotten stuck in his ear. “And she said, ‘You know, it happens a lot.’” The staff ushered Matt to a bed to wait for a doctor.
“The first thing they do,” said Matt, “is lay me on my side and pour this viscous Linocaine into my ear. The bug is going crazy because it’s drowning in there. They drain my ear out and they have these metal tweezer and scooper things, and a syringe and rubber tube [with which] they squirt, like, two liters of water into my ear. My ear is going through so much abuse.” After an hour of this, “the thing’s alive still. They pour this purple goop — I don’t even know what it was — and it’s pooling up inside of my ear.” For yet another hour, until roughly 4 a.m., the doctors and nurses poured, tweezed, syringed and gooped. But though the moth had long since passed on, the medical team managed to excavate nothing more than a tiny piece of one wing. In the waiting room, they showed it to Tatsuya and Dan, who marveled: “My God, there really is something in there.”
The hospital referred Matt to Dr. Edward Caldwell, an ear, nose and throat specialist in Hyannis. Matt went home, slept until 10 a.m. and awoke to two new disappointments: Medicinal effluent had leaked out of his ear during the night, but from the stuffiness of his hearing, Matt knew the moth had not ridden out on the tide. He drove to the Steamship Authority terminal in Vineyard Haven, where he declared a medical emergency (moth in ear) and was given a space on the next boat; after chuckling a bit, the ticket taker also implied that this sort of thing happens a lot.
At Cape Cod Ear, Nose and Throat, Dr. Caldwell joined the chorus (“This sort of thing happens a lot”) and set up what to Matt looked like a “serious microscope” as well as a “right-angle tool.” Matt felt a rustling in his ear and out came the carcass of the moth — sandy gray, about as long as a penny is wide and missing a wingtip. Dr. Caldwell said, “Man, I can’t imagine how this got into your ear,” wrapped it in gauze, offered it to Matt and Matt decided to bring home as a souvenir.
His hearing much sharper now, Matt drove back to Woods Hole, stopping first to pick up 10 junior bacon cheeseburgers off the dollar menu at Wendy’s. From standby, he caught a late afternoon ferry and reached the Chilmark Community Church at 6:45, a hero to his fellow Vineyard Sound singers, who had not glimpsed a fast-food burger since their arrival on June 1. He also showed them the moth. The response, he felt, mostly boiled down to: “Oh. You had a moth in your ear.”
After the first song, Matt told his story to the crowd. “It got a great laugh,” he said. “And then funnily enough, after the end of the story, some guy in the audience was like, ‘Me too!’” A moth had flown into his ear while he was reading one night, he spent three hours at the Island emergency room, which couldn’t do a full extraction, and referred him to Hyannis to have it removed. Turns out, this sort of thing really does happen a lot.