Smoke on the Water

It is one of those smells that you inhale as a young child and never quite forget as an adult.

I remember it, though I am not really quite sure how old I was at the time. I was at my grandparents’ house in the country, and I woke up on one of those very, very cold holiday mornings, close to Christmas, when stepping on the wooden floor of the farmhouse with bare feet was not only uncomfortable, it was painful. The house got so cold at night that I swear I remember seeing my breath in front of me in the morning. Coming out from under the thick, soft, warm blankets took an act of real courage for a small boy used to the comforts of the city (read, mill village).

But get up I did, as I always did, on that cold morning. Soon someone, whether it was my Grandaddy Jack or my Grandma Ursula or some other responsible adult, would come into the den or the living room (I slept in both over several years of visits to the middle Georgia farm) and do that thing which both terrified and saved at the same time.

They lit the little tan box that was a gas heater.

Now, it was a step up from them having to light the fire, the actual wood fire, that had warmed that front room just a little while before, with its smoke and ash and popping embers. That was another smell for another day, to be sure.

This was a little metal box that had a tiny, single metal grate or guard in the front (little good that did, truth be told), a box that they lit with a long match, a little under a foot long, at arm’s length, and it roared to life with a whoosh and a gush of warmth that was welcome and yet singeing at the same time. I swear I think I still have little white marks on my shins from the times that I sat too close to that heat on those cold mornings, almost wanting to suck it into myself without consuming me, to warm me up from the inside out until it was time for a breakfast of sausage, hard yellow-yolked eggs and biscuits that only my Grandma could make.

It was a whooshy, gassy, warming, burning, wonderful smell/feeling on some of the coldest winter mornings of my idyllic childhood visiting my grandparents’ farm.




I was at work that day, making rounds with the residents and the medical students. I was in a comfortable state of drowsiness, even at that barely-caffeinated time of the morning, as some student or another droned on about some patient or another that had been admitted on some day or another. My pager (yes we did not have smart phones, or even dumb phones back in those dark times) went off.

Odd, I thought, for this time of day. I wondered if my very young daughter was okay…

“You need to come quickly. Your house is on fire.”

My house is on…my HOUSE is on…..MY HOUSE IS ON FIRE!

“I have to go. Now.”

Out the door, into the car, roaring back toward the opposite side of town, turn into the subdivision, down the main street, turn right, a couple of blocks, and on the left, on the left…

Our gray, wooden frame, attached-carport, baby swing hanging from the tree limb in the back yard single family home, which we had recently moved out of and just rented to someone to get us through the next few months until we could get it sold and move on to the next chapter…

…was smoldering.

The firemen had responded quickly (thank the Lord for that) but the fire, I later found out, had started when the renters, moving in that cold day, decided to start a fire in the fireplace while they labored, but did not properly open the vent. The flames roared too high, climbed the inside of the chimney, raced to the attic and then  across it, and soon the whole roof blazed like a giant torch.

The  house was not a total loss (we would later rebuild it completely and sell it), but the smell, that smell that hit me as I got out of the car and saw something that we owned, that we had lived in with a little baby, burning and smoking and dripping now-wet ash, was a smell that I would never quite banish from my nostrils.

Acrid. Hot. Wet. Smokey. Acid.




I walked outside today, leaving the office at a leisurely pace, getting ready to drive home from the South Carolina countryside and the clinic we maintain there. It had been a very light day. Many of my new patients, scheduled to come in right after the holiday for their first appointments with me, had decided that taking down Christmas decorations or cleaning up after the New Year’s Eve party was a tad bit more important than coming in. I was ready to call this one done and go home.

The smell hit me, and a thousand memories rushed into my head, as if poised there and just waiting to be given the signal to come back.

It was that smokey-cold, biting, slightly pungent smell of a wintertime coming later than usual to these parts. A delayed fall, early winter smell that was welcome, since we’ve had unseasonably warm temps and higher than usual creeks and rivers over the last few weeks in both Carolina and Georgia.

It brought back good memories, warm and pleasant thoughts of hayrides and warm, bulky sweaters and hot chocolate and apple cider and knowing that the winter was coming, and feeling sure that meant spring could not be too far behind.

I smiled as I turned Rosie into the bright, low, winter sunshine for the drive home.




Today was a day of smells.

If you’ve ever been anywhere near the South Carolina Lowcountry, you know that she seduces you first through your nostrils, even before you see her. You are intoxicated by her perfume, and no matter how long it’s been since you’ve seen her, you fall in love with her all over again. You nestle into the hollow of her neck, you breath deeply, and you know you are home.

Riding down the highway, getting off the interstate and getting through the new roundabouts and finding the causeways that take you toward Beaufort and Port Royal all feel the same. Get past the Whale Branch River, over a gently rising bridge, the school of the same name off to your left, and it hits you. The smell of the marsh, that pungent, sweetly assaulting odor that Pat Conroy seems to write about and get out of the way long before the first chapter of each of his many books has ended.

Our old black lab Holly used to crane her neck and put her sensitive nose straight up into the air at right about that spot, straining and sniffing and one time trying to go right through the sunroof of my car as she made contact with the Lowcountry Lady. She loved the smells of the marsh, the beach, the straw at the high tide mark. It was a world that only dogs know at that level, and that we get a mere whiff of.

Today started with the vague smell of spitting rain, not quite wet but not quite mist, trying to fall but instead seeping out of the sky toward the ground and those of us moving about on it. Musty, vaguely and disorientingly fall-like or even spring-like on February first. It gave way to the smell of the gym for me, walking for a couple of hours, greeting an elliptical devotee, then another tread-miller beside me before I finished and went back to the room for another round of fresh, clean, shower and shampoo smells to get ready for the day.

On to the coffee shop attached to the hotel, and of course the wonderful smells of early morning fresh ground beans and newspapers and oatmeal and breakfast sandwiches and tea. There were conversations, a new friend found in a woman from the Northeast with an open Bible on the table in front of her and a notepad to the side, studying for her group later in the week. People talking and reading and starting the day, bleary eyes primed by caffeine and the rush of sticky bun-fueled blood sugar spikes.

I made my way out through the noncommittal rain to Hunting Island, a wonderful, primal, windswept, tree-lined stretch of beach with a tall lighthouse of black and white and a jungle as prehistoric as any you’ve ever seen in the movies. Driving through it to get to the sand you feel that long green snakes might lower themselves from Spanish moss covered-branches or that a small inquisitive dinosaur might still hide behind a dense patch of ferns ten yards off the road.

Getting out of the car there is to inhale the lushness of it all, the dripping air, the sea salt and seaweed smell of a beach that is not developed. One that is in fact eroding at an alarming rate, just one hundred thirty yards separating the high tide mark from the base of the lighthouse, already moved once in the 1800s and possibly needing to be moved again one day soon. The sand, salt, rain and wind melded into one continuous olfactory experience that cleared my head, my mind, and my spirit for a couple of hours, and let me be blissfully quiet for a time.

Back to town and a series of gustatory experiences with their associated smells tempting and satisfying. Chocolate, so much chocolate, milk and dark and filled and in sheets. Pralines and jelly beans and brittle and boxes being packed in the back, destined for parts unknown. The smell of chocolate made by people who love it, who love the making of it, who love that you love it.

Australian shiraz and bleu cheese and fish and pepper and cranberries and sweet-spicy dressing, followed by strong black coffee. Tastes, yes, but even before that, smells from the kitchen and at the hands of the servers as they pass by to the next table over.

Out to the river for a stroll in the fog which, as Sandberg told us, has crept in on little cat feet as I ate my dinner, causing the day to darken early and the landscape to go surreal. To my left front, there appears to be a Bridge to Nowhere across the Beaufort River, beautifully monochrome and still. Off to the right, a single boatman in a tiny silent skiff moves like a piece of melting ice on a sheet of glass, sliding and gliding out away from the promenade, the only thing on the river that is not completely still in the grayness.

I love this place. I love what it does to me. I love how it has become a part of me over the last quarter century.  I love how it simultaneously energizes me and makes me slow down. I love how it makes me notice that nature moves in her own time, in her own way.

I take it all in, these tastes and sights and sounds and lack of sounds, but mostly I take in the smells today.

I lay my head on a fluffy pillow, soft and sweet-smelling and clean, and I settle in for a night of sleep.

A night of dreams.