Sunday, August 9, 2015

Can you smell your memories?

I read somewhere that your sense of smell evokes your strongest memories. I believe that! When I look back across my life, I remember smells associated with almost every memory. Also when I encounter certain odors, memories come flooding back.

Take chalk for example. Just one whiff of chalk dust and I am transported back to my elementary school days, standing on the back stoop of the school clapping the dust out of the erasers. Or I am standing at the blackboard trying to work out an algebra problem in front of my high school class. Sometimes I am sitting in my college class while my electro-magnetics professor is demonstrating how to calculate the field strength of a transmitted wave at a given distance. (Just how geeky is that?)

The same is true for the smell of a ditto machine. Memories of sitting down to take a test the teacher has mimeographed. Sometimes the hardest part of the test was not solving the problem but working out what the problem was from the sketchy copy in front of me. I believe to this day, that those of us who were near the end of the alphabet had a much harder time than those whose last names began with “A” or “B” because the quality of the mimeograph copy degraded with the number of copies made. Those were the days when we sat in the classroom in alphabetical order. My suspicions were confirmed when one of my classmates, whose last name began with “Z” asked the teacher to pass out the tests in reverse order. Gazing at the pristine copy of the test in front of me, I almost wanted to frame it more than take it.

There were three fragrances back from my youth that were similar with distinctive nuances; those from automobiles, ships and airplanes. The cars had mixtures of axle grease, gasoline and sun warmed plastic. Everyone loves that “new car” smell. Some smart cookie has even created an aerosol that can refresh that smell in a car that is beginning to lose the bloom of youth.

Boats and ships don’t have gasoline but they do have fuel oil, plastics and lubricants. Add to that the smells of the harbor, lake or the open ocean to complete the bouquet. Most sailboats have fuel for their auxiliary engines, so even if those engines are not used, they still contribute. Often, while at full sail, beating to the wind on my sailboat, with the smell of canvas in the wind, my memory would harken back to days standing on the teak deck of the USS Little Rock under the canvas awnings that were hoisted while we were welcoming guests in Cherbourg, Amsterdam or Portsmouth, England.

The first airplane I flew, a Navy T-34 trainer had a similar bouquet, but with aviation gasoline instead of fuel oil or diesel. There was even a touch of canvas in the cockpit strapping and seat cushions. When I stepped up to the T-34’s working cousins, the Grumman F9F Cougar and the multi-engined Grumman S-2F Tracker, the additional fragrances of armament, gun grease, gun powder and missile fuel were extra spices for my olfactory nerves. Later back in civilian life as a flight instructor I learned that there were subtle differences in the smell of a Piper Cherokee and a Cessna 172. When I had the opportunity to fly a Beechcraft Bonanza and a King Air, I was taken back to a sunny June day in 1965 departing runway 31 at NAS Corpus Christi in Texas with the cockpit slid back, banking slightly right, flying over Ocean Drive and waving to a car full of kids frantically trying to get the attention of my instructor pilot and me. I told my IP that I remembered doing that as a kid on Roosevelt Boulevard to a Navy AD Skyraider departing Runway 28 at NAS Jacksonville. I was rewarded by a vigorous wing rocking that day. He responded that he always waved back. He said it was passing it forward to the next generation.

Airplanes added a new fragrance to the mix, that of avionics. The tubes, capacitors, coils and resisters had a definite nuance to them. I would experience that same distinct smell most of my working life in radio and television. As I got a little closer to the electronic gear there was a whiff of rosin in the air. Rosin was used as a flux to help solder stick to the connection while still in a molten state. I’m sure it wasn’t good for me, but I loved the smell of rosin smoke while soldering new components onto a circuit board.

Alas, with the advent of miniaturized solid state component assemblies and multiple layered circuit boards, the piney smell of rosin is not around much these days. Gone also is the rich smell of vinyl and the tangy odor of acetate recording tape from the radio control room. I miss that. In fact, I miss that so much that I think I will step into the back of the music library at WUSC tomorrow morning where they keep the vinyl collection and take a sweet deep breath of memories. Just for a little while. Oh MY!

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