Recently, I was cast as an extra in a big budget Hollywood film. I played a marine (it couldn’t be helped). For a few hours, I had to wear fake, pillowy body armor, and a fake, plastic helmet. It looked like the real thing, but without SAPI plates and kevlar, it was only make believe.
Still, wearing the gear, I began to sweat. After a few hours of standing around and doing my best marine impression, I sat down, and as my body armor shifted slightly, it created a small pocket of space between my chest and the armor, forcing up a super-charged hot stream of air that quickly swooped into my nostrils.
For an instant I was whisked away from the comfort of cool, cloudy London to bright and sunny Baghdad. Taking in that smell was like going 88 mph with July 2003 on the time circuits. The smell of body armor, uniform and human perspiration, compressed for hours and suddenly released is unlike anything else. It’s a small cloud of awesome. It’s not a bad smell. It’s hot and only lasts for a moment. It’s hard work. And then it’s gone.
For some, the deep and cutting whoop whoop whoop of a helicopter, or loud, sudden sounds usher in old memories of busy skies and tense moments. Others are reminded of the past by the things they see: garbage, crowds, stillness. Sights and sounds don’t do it for me. Smells, more than the other senses, makes me remember. And I’m grateful for it.
Grateful because it’s not just memory. It’s a small portion of the feeling associated with that time. The smell is familiar, and the brain does quick work, conjuring a host of feelings that have long sat dormant. Not deep, reflective feelings. But bio-chemical feelings. The ones you actually feel, not think. The memory that rests inside of bones, muscles, cells, and blood vessels.
For a moment, that stuff is activated. Not fully. But enough to make you pause to remind yourself where you are. For that instant, dull lightning throbs in the body and turns on things that stopped working, stopped paying attention, long ago.
Smell is primal and chemical. It’s not sound or light waves. You ingest it and it becomes a part of you.
Other smells that trigger memories for me:
Early Morning Urban. The smell of cool air mixed with overnight garbage. Sometimes on the way to the gym in the morning I’ll catch this.
Early Morning Desert. Still air and dust being slowly warmed up by a rising sun. I think it’s mostly the dust. Small particles. You can taste it.