The smell of history…

The sense of smell can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back pictures as sharp as photographs of scenes that had left the conscious mind. – Thalassa Cruso

For as long as I can remember, my sense of smell has been quite acute. As for most people, smells can evoke memories for me. Vitamin B tablets immediately transport me to my grandparents kitchen, to the cabinets you can see behind my dad and I in this picture. Dad_and_me_1968ish
It was either in these cabinets or in the ones across from them, to our left in the picture in that half wall, that they kept their vitamins and other assorted pills. The cabinets smelled of the vitamins. Likewise, the smell of toasting raspberry Pop tarts will bring me to this same kitchen as they remind me of the cookies my grandmother would make, which were like a soft sugar cookie filled with raspberry jam. She always made them when we would visit because she knew they were a favorite.

This bloodhound like ability to smell all the smells of the world has its drawbacks. Any form of tobacco smoke sends me into a minor rage. Going into a store like Best Buy nearly makes me pass out from the smell of all the electronics and plastic. Going into the YMCA is all about smelling chlorine and sweat. It is the sweat that makes me want to hold my breathe while I am in there.

This weekend we took Cooper to Battleship Cove in Fall River, MA where you can tour, inside, endlessly, through 5 decks worth in one case, any of 5 Navy vessels used in a number of wars/conflicts, including but not limited to WWII, Korea and Vietnam, as well as in training.

USS Massachusetts Click on any picture to enlarge

This is on the deck of the USS Massachusetts BB59 a battleship used in WWII. This happened to be the last ship we toured, and it was vast. It was like a floating city. One floor was room after room of sleeping racks, as demonstrated by Cooper.

cooper in the racks Cozy, no?

And I am sure there were not even as many racks present now as there were when it was at sea. They would use every possible available space to stick a sailor for sleeping. There was a sick bay wing, with doctors and operating offices, dentists and quiet rooms. We climbed up and down MANY ladders investigating room after room. When we got to the lowest deck, where the engines were, it was phenomenal to me that someone envisioned, created and then maintained this massive feat of engineering that moved this giant floating city around, not to mention the engineering that went into the weapons on the ship. The shells were kept far away from the upper deck, where the guns and cannons were, but there were ammunition shoots that carried the shells from point A decks below to the guns up top.

The two ships which made the most distinct impression on me though, were the USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. DD850, a destroyer, and the USS Lionfish SS298 a submarine.

uss kennedy

These four pictures are from the Kennedy. It was a moderately sized vessel, and moving around in it was not too claustrophobic. Until you got to the engine room. Then all I could imagine was how hot it would have been, especially in the South Pacific, where she served during the Korean war. At one point, in one of the hallways, I stopped in my tracks, completely distracted by the scent. It was the same in the other ships, and the submarine. At some point there would be this perfect combination of metal, old canvas, leather and what I will call antiquity. I cannot adequately describe it, but as I would encounter it, I felt like I could turn and I would see the sailors at their work, like I could almost hear them going about their business. Some of that might have been encouraged by the fact that on some of the ships they had recordings of the whistle piping, that called men to various duties, and you could hear other visitors walking around, their muffled voices echoing in the air.

uss lionfish

uss lionfish inside

The Lionfish pushed even more buttons for me. I am mildly claustrophobic, more so when other people are present. If I am in a space alone, I can usually handle close quarters, but add other bodies and then make it hot, and I am pretty eager to LEAVE THAT PLACE NOW. You can see in the picture where Bob and Cooper are together, that the space is tight. This was in the front of the ship, where they loaded torpedoes. You can just barely see to their left that there were even sleeping racks here, where you could get cozy with a torpedo. While I wanted to get out of it as quickly as possible, the submarine also fascinated me with their use of very tight space. The showers were literally the size of the average high school hall locker. There was an office that had a tiny desk and a chair in which you could just turn in. The engine room was definitely an engineering feat involving both the mechanics of making it go, but getting into the space as efficiently as possible. The galley was tinier than most you see on House Hunters International when they go to any Asian country. I will say though, in every officers mess, on every ship, you dined with fine silver. Because we may be at war, but we are not animals.

battleship cove

I think I was more sweaty after touring the 5 ships than I was after my recent adventure pulling the invasive water chestnut out of the Charles River on a hot sunny afternoon. If I got that sweaty just walking around, how bad was it if you were a sailor on these ships? And WHAT DID THAT SMELL LIKE?

The visions that stuck in my head long after we had returned home were driven by the smell I was sure I wasn’t going to get out of my nose and memory for awhile. Again, it was that smell of old metal, canvas and leather. Of ancient air, dust and history. When we got home and we were sitting on the deck outside, if I closed my eyes I immediately saw and smelled those tight spaces and empty rooms. I still felt like if I could just turn the corner at the right time, I would catch sight of a sailor at a desk reading a map or radio, or eating in the mess hall. It was all so vivid.

I went swimming with Cooper later, driving out those smells with the sent of chlorine, rinsing the sweat off of my skin. I am grateful to those who were/are willing to serve, to put themselves in those situations, to be willing to deal with those discomforts and more, for our freedom. I get to go home with my family, and sit on my deck, swim in my pool. Many of those who served on those ships never went home. I am glad we have these exhibits to see and experience to remind us what has been sacrificed, what has been accomplished.

Pardon me while I go stick my face in some coffee grounds now to cleanse my brain so I think about something else.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The smell of history…

  1. Oh man, as a fellow bloodhound, this post was fascinating!

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