Old advertisement sparks memories of laughter, tears

Bob Chell

I don’t know how long the sign has been gone, certainly not as many years as it towered above the truck stop, that is for sure. Those of us who lived West River mark the trip west with icons common to all; Al’s, the Chamberlain hills, Wall Drug, as well as others known only to ourselves. The sign was one of those for me, a public proclamation of a private memory: I-90, Exit 152, Kadoka. Two words, “Burns Bros.” loomed over the truck stop and cafe it advertised.

Some theorize it is a hit of dopamine, generated by our brain. Whatever it is, it is a feeling common to us all: when a song, a smell or a sign brings us back to another time or place. Memories pull us out of the present and back into that other time, that other place, even as we keep driving with those around us unaware we are no longer present. The sign that hovered over the cafe in Kadoka takes me back to a story from many years past.

Thirty years ago I was leading a book discussion group at James Madison University when a graduate student at the University of Virginia shared her writing with us. There were three stories but the only one I remember is, “The Burn Brothers.” Written in the first person, the narrator was a young girl, seriously, though not critically, ill who was hospitalized, her discomfort aggravated by the rambunctious brothers down the hall.

Though seriously burned, they careened down the halls in their wheel chairs raising havoc with patients and staff alike. The worst though, was in the evenings when she was trying to rest and she could hear them laughing hysterically and incessantly.

The story drew me in. I could sense her frustration and share her growing irritation. The story ended abruptly.

No longer able to contain her anger or disgust at their insensitivity and disregard to others, she asks the nurse to tell them to quit laughing.

“Oh honey,” the nurse responds, “their dressings are being changed, they aren’t laughing.”

It’s been over 30 years and I remember the Burn Brothers even now: two boys whose cries were mistaken for laughter.

It may be, it probably is, dopamine, produced in our brain, which makes the connections and spurs the memories. That explains it, but I don’t experience it as a chemical reaction. Rather, I experience it as a mystery and reminder, a mark of our common humanity and our inability to understand our reach across the chasm that separates us.

More than that, it reminds me this is not an abstract philosophical construct but an opportunity to listen carefully to the laughter, and the cries, of another.