This Man’s Job is Breathtaking


Back when I was 15 or so, I used to roam the neighborhood on the weekends with a couple of buddies, looking for trouble. I was afraid to try pot, for fear that it might lead to more dangerous things, like Miller Lite. We heard about a thing kids were doing to alter their consciousness, and thought we’d give it a try. We had to do something. Our parents had removed all the Miller Lite from their garage fridges.

The game involved one guy wrapping his arms around the other guy’s chest from behind, and then the guy in front, we’ll call him the “catcher,” would exhale and the guy in back, we’ll call him the “pitcher,” would squeeze the living crap out of the catcher until the catcher lost consciousness. The pitcher would slowly lower him to the ground, and after 30 seconds or so he would come to. It never occurred to us that we were probably shaving points off our IQs and years off our lives by depriving our brains of oxygen until we blacked out.

Should have found some pot.

This memory came to me today as I left the hospital, where I’d gone for a pulmonary function test. I’ve been having trouble breathing since, oh, 2008, and this spring it got pretty bad. I was laid low through most of March with pneumonia, and a guest appearance by the flu. Armloads of modern medicine’s finest offerings eventually nudged me back to the land of the pink-cheeked, but a week ago I started coughing again, with a dry, hacking roar that sounds like I’m trying to dislodge a Brillo pad from my craw. And when I lie down at night to sleep, my lungs immediately start wheezing like a busted calliope in a high school gymnasium.

So it’s time to do something. I called my doctor right away, and he immediately referred me to a pulmonary specialist. I dialed them up, and the receptionist, hearing my short-breathed panic, swiftly booked a visit. “I got you the first available appointment,” she said. “So we’ll see you at 2:00 on August 24th.”

My calliope went into high gear. “Man, lady, I don’t know if I’ll last that long!” She suggested I start out with the pulmonary capacity test, and put me on a waiting list for cancellations. Fine.

So I walked into the reception area at the Judy Martz Tissue and Sample Wing of Missoula General, and told the woman at the computer why I was there. Soon enough, a bespectacled dude with a close-trimmed mustache and a clipboard appeared and called my name.


Hold up, I’m supposed to use this thing ORALLY?!?

“So, am I going to breathe into a balloon or something?” I asked him as we walked along the gleaming linoleum of the Martz Wing’s immaculate halls. “Because I gotta tell you, whenever I blow up a balloon it makes me pee just a little.”

He looked up from his clipboard. “Well, it’s a bit more sophisticated than that. We’ll have you sit in a body plethysmograph and breathe into a spirometer so we can test things like your diffusion capacity.”

“Well, that certainly clears things up.”

We entered a small room that contained what looked like a plexiglass phone booth and a scale with a vertical rule. “Let’s get your height,” said Dr. Puff (not his real name). I kicked off my sneakers and removed my hat, immediately knocking three inches from my stature. He lowered the standard until it touched my head. “Five-six.” He wrote it on the chart.

“What? No, I’ve always been five-seven. When’s the last time you had this ruler calibrated?”

“How about your weight? Okay…one-ninety.”

“What? That’s not right. Do you want me to remove my WWA Championship belt? Should I take all these Krugerrands out of my pocket?”

“Let’s just get started,” he said. “Sit in this booth here, and put your mouth over this mouthpiece like it’s a SCUBA breather.”

I wrapped my lips around the business end of a thing that looked like the old Visible V8 Engine. “You know what SCUBA stands for?” I said, “Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.” Only it sounded like, “Hhnnoo moe muuhh noooha hanh ho? Hneh Nuhaehh Wuhwuhwahwah Eeeick Aahuhahunh.”

Dr. Puff just nodded politely and turned to the computer that was attached to the Self Contained Out of Water Breathing Apparatus. After dialing in some graphy looking things on the screen, he explained that he’d be shutting the door of the soundproof booth so I couldn’t hear the answers given by the other contestants. Or maybe that’s what I was thinking he said. Did I mention I’ve been sick? Anyway, he would have me take a deep breath, followed by a complete exhalation. The exhale was crucial, he said, and I needed to keep pushing, keep blowing into the contraption. This would prove to be my undoing.

“Hno momma,” I said, telling him it would be no problem. He sealed the door and we waited for a couple of minutes for the air pressure to equalize. Then he counted down with his fingers like we were about to go on the air, and at the signal I sucked in a monster lungful of air through the mouthpiece. He showed me his palm and I held the breath in while he followed the numbers on the monitor. Then he motioned for me to exhale, and I blew most of the breath out in a second.

“Keep going,” he said, stirring the air with two fingers. My chest calliope started playing the merry-go-round song at top volume while I compressed my lungs, trying to squeeze out every cubic centimeter of air. I could feel my ribs folding in on themselves, and my vision began to tunnel. Then, nothing.

“Bob? Bob. Bob. Bob.” I could hear him, but I couldn’t move. I felt the drool pooling around the edges of the mouthpiece, then spilling over the flange as he gently removed it from my mouth. I was there, but not there. I could feel my body, but had no control over it. I wanted to answer, but it was impossible. There was only blackness.

I don’t know how long I was out, but when I came to the doctor had grown a full beard and the room had been painted a different color. “I’m okay,” I said from the bottom of a five-hundred foot trash can.

“You blacked out,” he said. “It happens, but it’s rare. You strain so hard to empty your lungs that it steals from the blood flow to your brain. I think you’re okay now.” He patted my shoulder.

“It’s a good thing I had SCUBA,” I said. “That shark was right on top of us.”

“Hmm,” he said. “Maybe that’s enough for today.”

   Check out all of Bob Wire’s posts in his blog archive.


Have an off-white Christmas with Bob Wire.Think of it as Gonzo meets Hee Haw: Missoula honky tonker Bob Wire holds forth on a unique life filled with music, parenthood, drinking, sports, working, marriage, drinking, and just navigating the twisted wreckage of American culture. Plus occasional grooming tips. Like the best humor, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes silly, sometimes surreal, sometimes savage, Bob Wire demands that you possess a good sense of humor and an open mind.

Bob Wire has written more than 500 humor columns for a regional website over the last five years, and his writing has appeared in the Missoulian, the Missoula Independent, Montana Magazine, and his own Bob Wire Has a Point Blog. He is a prolific songwriter, and has recorded three CDs of original material with his Montana band, the Magnificent Bastards. His previous band, the Fencemenders, was a popular fixture at area clubs. They were voted Best Local Band twice by the Missoula Independent readers poll. Bob was voted the Trail 103.3/Missoulian Entertainer of the Year in 2007.

You can hear his music on his website, or download it at iTunes, Amazon, and other online music providers. Follow @Bob_Wire on Twitter.

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