One summer evening in 1983 I was driving through South Dakota when I heard a familiar sound out in the dense, humid darkness. Familiar, but out of place—who would be running weed trimmers at ten o’clock, and why? My wife, who grew up in the Show-me State (Missouri), quickly informed me—that high-pitched droning was made by bugs. Lots of ’em. “You haven’t been this far east before, have you?”
The side windows were cracked open a few inches (The Weenie, our beloved Datsun wagon, didn’t have AC) and at that moment my left hand gripped the radio antenna—it actually improved the reception, which had begun to fade just as the Top Twenty Countdown reached #1. I drove along the interstate that way until Every Breath You Take had concluded, and am back in the moment whenever it’s played.
We have cicadas in Oregon, too, but they’re loners. These were a presence, like a boisterous crowd at a concessions stand, impatient for cold beer. I suppose I wouldn’t have thought about any of this except, tonight, the slight tinnitus I have is ringing, just like those bugs along the highway to Saint Louis. A remembered sound, a mental image.
And this works both ways. Most of us have various media—slides, prints, movies—as evidence of where we’ve been, who we’ve befriended and loved. Yet seldom are there sounds. (Those under 30 years of age won’t understand this.) It’s difficult to recall a voice: some resonate after many years, most fade surprisingly soon. That’s when silent images become the triggers.
The Spearmint advertisement painted across bricks in Butte, Montana, caused my memory to effortlessly cue the song Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On The Bedpost Overnight?), originally released by The Happiness Boys in 1924 (spearmint appeared in the title instead of chewing gum). It was still fun when I heard the 1961 version by Lonnie Donegan, and later, for a brief moment, as I hummed the tune while photographing the old wall. I couldn’t recall all of the lyrics, but it sure sounded better than bugs.