Such is the Power of Smell

by Circe Olson Woessner

This time of year, New Mexico is cloaked in a shroud of hazy wood smoke from hundreds of fireplaces. As I walk by certain houses, I smell creosote, or uncured wood, or the wonderful piñon—this is the smell of winter.

Cocooned under my thick down comforter, the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafting down the hallway is the thing that rousts me out of bed.

Smell is something that can transport us back to a particular space and time—to bad times and good.

When my son was six, we took him to see Jurassic Park at the post movie theater. Later that night, he came screaming into our bed; he was sweaty and trembling—and for the first time, I smelled terror. His entire body oozed it from every pore.

Veterans tell me that they remember vividly the odors of war—even 50 years back. Vietnam had its distinct smell.

A Marine Corps chaplain reminisces about his time in war. “The smell of cigarettes before battle was holy incense. If you don’t think Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan are holy places, you’re wrong. It’s where we die—and receive redemption.”
Many people link smells to good memories —baby powder, puppy breath, vanilla, and cinnamon are common happy triggers. One military dependent listed sandalwood incense, original Jergens hand lotion, percolated coffee, and spray starch as her favorite smells.

Because our family was stationed overseas, I could only visit my grandmother every other year when we went back to the States on “re-employment” leave. To this day, when I smell Oil of Olay, I am right back in her house in Indiana.

I ask some of my friends about what smells they associate with their military life. Here are some responses:

Richard, an Air Force Brat, immediately mentioned jet fuel. Others chimed in, mentioning the smell of diesel from the military busses used to transport them to school. Still others reminisced about running behind spray trucks, breathing in “whatever chemical they used to spray for mosquitoes.”

Other smells associated with military life were Brasso, Aqua Velva, Old Spice, and Phisohex.

Many Brats mentioned shoe polish as a smell that transports them back to their childhood.  Neena explains, “It reminds me of my dad when he would get the polish and cloth and brush out every Sunday evening.”

That shoe-shining ritual played out over and over in military households.

Sharon recalls that when she was five, she would be handed the shoe polish lid to put water in and she would walk “ever so carefully so as to not spill it.” One spouse said that she still recalls the stink from her husband melting the shoe polish to liquefy it. The whole house reeked for days.

A Brat reminisced about his childhood, remembering the “…starched sateen fatigues, saturated with cigarette smoke, when I hugged my dad’s leg when he came home.”

How did home smell? Paul says it smelled like, “Fresh paint–everything in military quarters had 3 layers of paint.” Sue says that the aroma which immediately brings back her childhood is “walking into a closed room that has a window air conditioner. The quarters at Fort Benning did not have central air, but window units were provided to quarters…one unit per quarters. My parents put it in the room we used as the family room…can’t describe it…just know it when I smell it.”

Kathryn says home smelled like, “Old wax which I was given the job of cleaning  out from between the tiles of wood parquet floors in our quarters with a dinner knife before they were re-waxed and buffed for the inspectors, when I was a 5th grader…yuck!”

Army Brat John says, “So, one favorite smell for me is hot duck canvas. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, cheap entertainment was setting up pup tents in the yard, sometimes linking them together to make large tents to shelter my brothers and buddies so we could read comic books, play Army attack plans, marble games, and have camp-outs.”

Vera agrees, “You said it! The tent– even for us Air Force Brats –was the smell of summer.”

Joyce takes it one step further, “I once told someone the tap water tasted like potable water out of an Army khaki canvas bag. They looked at me like I was nuts. We drank from those at Camp WACAYA in Germany!”

40, 50, even 75 years later, a sudden whiff of something can immediately transport someone back to Okinawa, Ramstein or Ft. Sill. Such is the power of smell.





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