Even in winter
one whiff stirs a remembrance
of spring long ago.
Notes: I’ve heard that the sense of smell is the strongest trigger of memories. I’m not sure that is a scientific fact, but anecdotally it sure seems so.
The odor of a particular janitorial product can transport me back to the polished hallways of Southeast Grade School. A hint of Lily of the Valley can put me right back in the shoes of the little boy who was me tending a flower garden with my mother.
The smell of fresh baked bread lands me in my grandmother’s house, playing with my cousins, anticipating the first bite of that still-hot bread, smeared with homemade butter and smothered in honey from the comb.
And the smell need not be pleasant. Step into a campground outhouse, and I’m right back on my childhood farm. We weren’t the poorest farmers in the county — we had a two-seater.
And that reminds me. The smell of burning paper brings back the recollection of the out-of-date Sears & Roebuck catalogs, kept along with a box of kitchen matches in that old outhouse as a sort of forerunner to the modern room deodorizer. You just rip out a page, roll it tight, and light it. Everything smells much better than before!
Last month while on vacation, I was delighted to find a fragrance from the past at an Brooks Brothers outlet mall store. The bright green of the Royall Lyme bottle caught my eye almost immediately.
The heavy metal crown-shaped lid felt the same. The faux-Old English font looked the same. And when I sprayed on a bit of the fragrance, I was taken back to the mid 1960s again.
The high school speech and debate club had boarded a school bus and driven to Kansas City for a weekend field trip. The stated educational rationale was to take in a film or two that were not available in my rural hometown. But it was really pretty much a junket, a good excuse to get out of town and hang out in the big city.
Some of the details are fuzzy, but I think we stayed at an old Howard Johnson’s out on I-70 and Noland Road. Then the next day, with our teacher, Mr. Washburn, driving the bus, we ventured into the city. I think the big movie most people wanted to see was Cat Ballou, which would most likely date this event in the spring of ’67.
We had no way of knowing it, but that summer in San Francisco would see the “Summer of Love,” with the full flowering of the hippie subculture. This was the era of “be-ins,” sex, drugs, and rock & roll.
But that was all to come later. Back in Kansas City, we caught a matinee, which I remember nothing about. We ate at the Italian Gardens, at its old location on Baltimore Avenue, my first experience with ethnic food. The spumoni was redolent. It must have been soaked in some type of booze, which I had also never tasted before. A classic spumoni in an old school Italian restaurant can sometimes take me back in time.
But the most memorable experience happened when we stopped into a fancy men’s clothing store. I didn’t have a lot of spending money, so I couldn’t afford the clothes. But I found a bottle of Royall Lyme cologne in my price range and bought it.
I had a crush on a girl, and there were signs she liked me too. We sat next to each other on the bus ride back home. I wore the lime-scented fragrance.
As I walked home from the school building by myself, I recall humming Simon and Garfunkle’s 59th Street Bridge Song, with its signature line, “Feelin’ groovy.” (From the first album I would buy for myself, incidentally.)
The sun was warm. The birds were chirping. My feet floated above the sidewalk. God was in His heaven. Everything was right with the world.
And all was infused with lime.
Speaking strictly for me, I could have died then and there.
As for peak experiences, this may seem fairly tame. But when you think about it, how many times in your life seem absolutely perfect?
I can only think of a handful.
The perfection was fleeting, of course. It always is. We went back to classes on Monday. The school year ended soon. The puppy-love romance fizzled. The summer was spent detasseling corn and bucking hay. Come mid-August and we had to endure the grueling two-a-day football practices. School started up again. I caught a cold. The entire football season I sat on the ice-cold aluminum bench as a third stringer.
Everything was not groovy.
But that one springtime, lime-soaked day was a glimpse. A foretaste of something pure and good and innocent and perfect.
My generation would try, just a couple of years later to take the Summer of Love to the next level and seize that innocence by force. At Woodstock, half a million young people would head to Yasgur’s Farm and try to “get back to the garden,” but would wind up wallowing in trash and mud instead.
I read about Woodstock in TIME magazine. I wanted to believe in it. But I had just been blessed with indoor plumbing and central heating a few years before. Something about the filth and the litter and the discomfort just didn’t jibe with what paradise was supposed to be like for me.
Then, in December of 1969, all the false hope of the Summer of Love and Woodstock would be slammed shut at the Altamont Raceway Festival Free Concert. While the Rolling Stones played Sympathy for the Devil, a fight broke out. And while they played Under My Thumb, a Hells Angels security guard stabbed a stoned-out and unruly concert-goer to death.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the counterculture had peaked, and I had pretty much missed it.
We were a long way from “all is groovy.”
By the time I would head off to college in 1970, eager to plunge into the counterculture, it had already been exposed as a false hope and an empty dream. I felt vaguely cheated, like I’d arrived late at the party.
In 1973, Van Morrison would capture the contradictions and the corruption of the hippie movement in his song The Great Deception on the album Hard Nose the Highway:
Did you ever hear about the great deception
Well the plastic revolutionaries take the money and run
Have you ever been down to love city
Where they rip you off with a smile
And it don’t take a gun
— by Van Morrison
But the idea of paradise persists. And the scent of limes still brings it back.