A bolt from the blue, a flash from the past. … whatever you want to call it, it was mighty sweet. I was playing a gig for a Baptist church group in Southern Illinois and being Baptist they were commanded by God to have a potluck after the program. I have absolutely no qualms about these things; no matter how much I need to hurry and get home there’s always time for a Baptist potluck.
Being the speaker they demanded that I go first in the food line and I humbly agreed to that sacrifice. I’d loaded my plate with the obligatory fried chicken, beans, and taters then stepped over to the table holding the drinks. A sweet lady was pouring each one fresh and as she picked up her aluminum pitcher, Bam! It smacked me right in the olfactory glands. I was back at my mother’s lunch table on a hot summer day, just in from bucking bales and she was pouring tea from her aluminum tea pitcher. It was the kind of metal container that gathered the condensation on the outside when filled with delicious iced tea, and there was something about the mixture of real iced tea and aluminum that simply knocked me back fifty years into days back home. Mom would dump the instant tea into the pitcher, pour in some sugar then give it all a brisk stir with a long, wooden-handled spoon complete with a knick out of the bottom where she’d once let it drop into the grinding garbage disposal. The whole thing last maybe three seconds as the little lady poured the tea, but I thought about for my entire two hour drive home that night. God love the senses when they’re working properly.
There’s hardly an ex-farm boy or girl who can pass a cattle lot without the rich aromas of alfalfa hay and fresh manure transporting him or her back to days of long ago. Oh, since we’ve moved to the city we pretend that the smell of cow dung is repulsive but deep down inside us there’s something that wants to take an even deeper sniff and savor the manure memories.
When we bring our Spirit of Peoria riverboat guests downstream they spend one night at the Abraham Lincoln museum in Springfield then rise the next morning to tour the new museum. Once upon a July morning I was standing on the curb with a group from Canada, waiting for the light to turn green when a tour bus passed us spewing a cloud of diesel fumes in its wake. The lady beside me had a fit, coughing and covering her nose, all the while complaining about the pollution in the cities. Since I was playing the part of the friendly tour guide I had to nod my head and sigh in agreement, but deep down inside my soul I was breathing deeply, trying to get one last whiff of those fumes that reminded me of the acrid aroma of a John Deere diesel tractor starting up on cold Pike County morning. The light turned green and we crossed the street to see what was left of Mr. Lincoln, but I secretly wanted to run down the street sniffing the tailpipe of that bus.
I have a friend living on West State who has a fit every time her neighbor cooks on his outdoor grill. He’s the old-fashioned type who uses actual charcoal and the smell of the stuff burning drives her up a wall and into her house. Me? I’d lean on their adjoining fence, close my eyes and sniff deeply as I recalled our family cookouts and Dad’s old grill. Toss it a little whiff of lighter fluid and it would be heaven.
Having done about forty or so years of theatre I’m used to the smell of stage makeup so that’s always a pleasant recollection when walking into a new dressing room, but there’s one part of the process that drives me a little crazy. To “set” the makeup you must apply powder. The fancy theatre folks use specially blended stuff, but us poor kids from the country usually settled for talcum powder, and every time I finished off a young actor’s makeup I’d take a whiff and think of a baby’s butt.
There are few of us who would say that smelling old sweat socks and moldy jockstraps was a pleasant experience but I know more than one former coach and ex-player who stop as they pass a locker room and for just a moment savor the memories that those odors bring back.
Of course there are also a few disadvantages to olfactory recall. Every time I walk into a flower shop I think I’m in a funeral home.