On Tuesday I sat down in the dentist's chair, and suddenly I was at a monastery in upstate New York. Strange as that may be, there is occasionally a wool sweater than takes me from wherever I might be to a concourse waiting area at Orly airport in Paris. Bam. Just like that. And every now and again I step out of my office and I am stepping out of the Cherry Court Hotel near Victoria Station in London. Whammo.
Amazing, aren't they? There is a type of low-lying ground cover that, when it is run over with a mower, will transport my wife from wherever she is back to her grandmother's house. The smell of chlorine takes me back, of course, to high school and the pool that I loved so much. My friend John has the opposite reaction to chlorine: the smell of it can produce a panic attack as it sends him right back to swimming lessons during grammar school - bad memories of some sort rush to the surface and make him sweat, get all cotton-mouthed and start coughing.
I guess we start associating smells as soon as we notice them, and if the emotions or whatnot are strong enough at the time, something sticks. I am obviously not a student of cognitive science or anything close, as you can tell from that description, but I do know this - scent is powerful...
Mike Stencil was about 23 years old when he smelled the burning flesh. "Sweet," he thought to himself. Sweet like a sugary, caramel-ly, sweety meaty stench that nearly made him retch. Not sweet as in "a sweet deal." You know what I mean.
Gasoline and human flesh and hair and vinyl seats and a windy day made for a roaring conflagration. The smoke pouring out from the auto accident carried with it that unmistakable fragrance, and Mike paused to say a Hail Mary. "God," he thought to himself. And that was all this young guy who would one day be a priest could think at that moment, "God."
The smoke seemed a lot thicker than smoke he was used to seeing from barbecues and campfires and it was a lot thicker and sweeter than the smoke that would pour from the incinerator that Mike would have to use to burn rubbish for his boss at the shoe store. Mike didn't know about that smoke yet, though...the shoe store would be ten years off in the future. Today's smoke was thick and dense and sweet as any smoke he'd ever smelled. "...now and at the hour of our death. Amen," concluded Mike, as he sent the Ave wafting heavenward. "God," he repeated in the confines of his thoughts.
It would be just a few months later that Mike would be driving down a country highway in the middle of a beautiful autumn, paying no real attention to what he was doing and loads of attention to the fall colors. As he raced down a long sloping hill, he gave no thought to the oncoming eighteen-wheeler in the distance, and so he was taken quite by surprise at its presence as he skidded into its lane in the low right-hand curve at the bottom of the hill. Wet leaves and loose gravel aided his car in its slide and Mike in his loss of control. "God..." was all he could get out as he faced the oncoming truck, now wildly blowing its horn.
A fortunately-placed dry patch of road that was free of gravel and leaves grabbed Mike's front left tire, and he shot back into his lane, missing the truck by what seemed like feet but were likely yards. He coasted to a stop and sat in the driver's seat, shaking and panting, noting an unfamiliar loose feeling in his bowels. He rolled down the window and took in some air...praying that his heart wasn't going to come pounding right up through his throat. As he breathed in the cool autumn air he noticed he was being watched by a man on the front lawn of a beautiful farm house. The man was burning leaves and looking at Mike. The smoke from the leaf pile was on the breeze and it wafted in through Mike's open window.