Thursday, March 29, 2012

Time travel

Going up the steps into the Post Office yesterday I caught a whiff of something and flashed. No, I'm not Chuck, I am not the Intersect. Neither was it the "power surge" flash of folks going through their second puberty, not that I haven't had that "pleasure" - I have. Unfortunately it is age appropriate behavior for one such as I. And yet . . .

No music, no sounds, just a whiff of a smell walking into a small Post Office in Vermont and bang, you're somewhere else completely. In my case, 35 years ago in Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I flashed to an old wooden building on a warm spring day on the distant side of Fort Jackson, SC circa 1977. It was Army Basic Training and we were getting some sort of class, Laws of Land Warfare maybe. I remember the day was warm and the building was old with a broad porch running the length of it, wooden screen doors slamming each time someone went in or out, the exterior coated with faded and peeling yellow paint. We were sitting outside on the ground in the shade of the trees, probably waiting for our Drill Sargent to show up.

For the drills, it was a good time to tend to something besides baby sitting a bunch of knuckleheads, unless we ran short or they ran long. Then we got to sit around and bs for a bit before life returned for what passes as normal in circumstances like that. Waiting for our Drills to pick us up and march us back to our barracks, stopping along the way for some extra training in marching specific maneuvers. Or how to handle our rifles; order arms, present arms, right or left shoulder arms, you know, "Army training sir". Stripes sans SGT Hulka.

In Basic, you marched as a unit most of the time. Everywhere. As a means of training, it is effective since you get plenty of opportunity to practice marching with no surfeit of feedback regarding your performance.

Simon Cowell really is a nice guy, if you get my drift.

For many of us it was a change from our usual lifestyle. All that walking was new for a lot of us used to driving everywhere and within a couple of weeks it had an effect. I'd like to say that we enjoyed the opportunity to walk through the woods. To observe the new flora and fauna we were exposed to after our prior lives in other climes.

I'd like to.

But I can't.

Suffice it to say that while many movies about Basic Training are pure Hollywood, some parts of them are accurate. 'Nuff said. The fatigues that fit us in the beginning got to be a bit baggy on us after a couple of weeks of walking everywhere. I think that may be why they waited a couple of weeks to fit us for our dress uniforms. I remember my dress uniform fitting pretty well at graduation and for many years afterwards. I got over it.

Our barracks sat at the base of Tank Hill, a prominent feature on the post whose notable feature was a couple of silver water tanks located on it. Okay, not guidebook quality, but it's the Army and immediately identifiable when seen. This is where most of the Basic Training units were located, arrayed in ascending rows of wooden, WW II era barracks, rising up the hill like a military housing tract. Most folks that attended Basic Training there usually reference the location of their Basic Training unit in measurements from Tank Hill even if their address wasn't on such tony heights. Immediately adjacent was a large depression that was set up as a training area outfitted with bleachers for seating during our periods of prescribed fun. We did things like marching, first aid, and some extemporaneous boxing on the odd occasion. But that's another story.

Something about smell does this in ways that nothing else seems to match. The smell of JP4 does that to me, bringing me back to times we hot loaded into C-130s, usually in preparation to jump. The hot exhaust from the four turboprop engines blasting over us as we approached from the rear of the bird, walking up the ramp, and on board. Domestic or international, the world was our drop zone and we had the keys to Dad's Herky Bird.

Sounds seem to be strongly evocative like smells and music. Just as the smell of JP4 evokes times in a 130, so too does the very distinctive sound of a 130. Even wafting across the air from afar, just hints of sound from a distant 130 is enough to catch my attention. Those four turboprop engines are a unique sound signature, etched into my memory after many years of hearing them.

And fast movers? I'll probably think of Lex every time I hear one now, more so every time I see a F-18. Definitely every time I see an Israeli Lawn Dart.

I still have no idea what smell it was that triggered the event. Or how that smell came to be at a small, New England Post Office. But I'm back now.

'Til the next trip.

marcus erroneous


  1. The sense of smell is indeed a most powerful trigger. I man I was once on a training course with was a recovering victim of extreme violence. He was coping with the physical side really well considering his injuries. The one thing he couldn't yet manage was getting into a brand new car, with `that smell` only brand new cars seem to have. He was on duty in a brand new car, on a u/c patrol, the day that an IRA team ambushed him and his colleagues and opened up on them with a lorry mounted 12.7mm DsHk. He was an officer in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. You'll guess as to the physical damage.

  2. Unfortunately, I can envision the damage being opened up on by someone with a DsHka would do. Bastards. And over here, the guilty Irish-Americans go to places and give money to support those terrorists. My grandfather was as Irish as Paddy's Pig and I'd never donate to their cause.

    There are no words that I can write that would tell him what I'd like you to express to him for me and those like me regarding his duty and its cost.

    Yeah, smell is a powerful thing and the memories are strong, just not always welcome.


  3. Smell is the trigger for me. I worked for years for a company that manufactures jet engines. (I'm a subcontractor now.) When I was a kid, my Dad was stationed on the Sara. For me, going onto an a/c carrier was visiting Santa below deck, seeing Christmas lights strung across the ship, visiting my Dad's spaces. But every time we'd visit, there was always a distinctive odor. Later he was a navigator on a different carrier, same odor. I just always thought of it as 'ship smell'.

    Flash forward from my childhood, I was now an adult and an engineer at said company and the first time I had to walk through the shop to get across the plant, I nearly froze mid step. It was the smell. They did assembly there so there was jet oil and other odd jet engine smells, that I then realized contributed heavily to 'ship smell'. Suddenly I was below deck with Dad, visiting his workmates and exploring a carrier.

    Crazy stuff, smell memories.

  4. Bou, that truly was an ol`factory moment.
    ( I crack myself up when I come out with this corny s and deserve nothing but pity)