Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Scent of a Memory

I like the way a familiar scent in just the right context can evoke a long forgotten memory and transport me back to another time.

Last weekend, I was in the Wal-Mart parking lot headed toward the store to start the weekly grocery shopping. It was cool but sunny, very mild weather. A two-ton Ford dually motored slowly past, the driver in search of a parking space wide enough to accommodate his rig. As the truck passed by, the oil-laden scent of diesel exhaust was left behind like a boat’s wake.

Immediately, I was reminded of a bus exhaust, which took me back to my youth, to grade-school and a class trip. We went to Chicago that day to see Midway Airport and take a boat ride on the Chicago River.

Midway, I recall, was kind of boring. It was a long drive through heavy traffic on city streets and all of us sitting near the back of the bus, which afforded the least comfortable ride and the one we sought, speculated that our driver was lost and we were only going to Midway because he happened to see it and thought it was ideally suited for a bunch of sixth graders. Midway was the second airport and still is. Low fare airlines serve the field and I remember the terminal at that time being rather run down and few people milled about the ramps, fewer than one would expect for such a large city. It was no O’Hare that was certain.

Why exactly we were at Midway is fuzzy to me. We watched planes come and go and stared at people incessantly and maybe that’s why I don’t remember the reason for our visit. I wasn’t listening. Or maybe our bus banter was correct and we were only there because we were lost. Whatever the reason, we were not there very long before heading deeper into the heart of the city to catch our boat ride.

We were propelled through Chicago on a wide and pristine excursion craft and my first thought was why the city dyed the river green every St. Patrick’s Day. The river’s natural color, it was quite apparent to me, was already green although a sort of dark, thick green that did not match the festive coats and hats worn by St. Patrick’s Day revelers. I wasn’t sure the dye they dumped in during March would cover up the dingy green of that river and make it festive, too.

The cruise wandered its way along waters that flowed between the tall buildings of downtown Chicago like a river cut through a canyon. I remember seeing Marina Towers, fairly new at that time, and was both fascinated and frightened to see cars parked several stories high and right at the edge of the building. I recognized the Tribune Tower and the Mercantile Exchange from photos I had seen but the rest were nameless structures of cold steel and glittering glass, breathtaking yet sterile.

The air temperature dropped quickly as we approached Lake Michigan and the clean scent of cool, fresh water was on the breeze. But before the lake, another first for me as our boat entered a lock that had been put in place years earlier to reverse the flow of the river and keep Chicago’s trash and sewage from contaminating its water supply.

Not a comfortable situation for someone who might be claustrophobic, the boat entered the lock, stopped and we found ourselves several feet below ground level. The gate behind us closed slowly and we were locked in place. The gate in front of us began to open, even more slowly than the one behind us had closed, and our craft started to rise as we watched Lake Michigan pouring into the opening that grew bigger by the second.

At last we were at lake level and our tour boat made way into a wide open expanse of water with Navy Pier to our left and Meigs Field and the museums to our right. Sailboats and pleasure craft scurried about the lake and it was as if we were savoring the sweet taste of freedom after being encased in steel.

But our excursion ended soon enough and we returned to the lock, the canyon of buildings and finally our port. The boat trip lasted about an hour and a half but the memories are still with me all these years. And they were all brought back to mind by the scent of diesel exhaust.