Column: Making sense of scents

Which of your five senses trigger the strongest emotions?

That question popped into my mind Monday morning as I arrived for work.

A neighbor of the Galion Inquirer has wind chimes on their back porch.

Each morning, when I 0pen the door of my truck the first thing I hear is the sound of those metal wind chimes tinkling against one another as they blow in the breeze.

Instantly I’m transported to Wakita, Oklahoma.

That’s where Helen Hunt’s Aunt Meg lives in the movie “Twisters.”

Meg is an artist and there are metal sculptures and wind chimes all over her property. The sounds they make are beautiful, and eerie, and foreboding … at the same time.

You can hear their haunting melody as they move in a breeze. Later, as an F-5 tornado approaches, the sounds become less beautiful and more horrific.

That, in general, is how I feel about weather.

It’s fascinating. It can be fun and exhilarating. It can be dangerous, fatal.

It’s funny how a simple assault on one of your senses can take you instantly to another place or time.

The closest I’ve come to a tornado is a waterspout … a tornado on the water.

Twenty years ago my family rented a house on the causeway leading to Cedar Point. We had the Sandusky Bay in our back yard. The front yard, across the road, was a white sandy beach and Lake Erie.

This was in July or August, and it was hot. There was no air-conditioning so much of my time was spent outside. I even brought along a tent and slept in what little grass there was in that back yard.

One day a strong cold front moved across the lake and produced several waterspouts. The wind was blowing at 30-40 mph. It was cold and chilly. Sand and from the beach would smash against your face. But water spouts — especially two side-by-side, and two more off in the distance — are for me, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And I was going to experience them one of nature’s most fascinating spectacles.

I took a lawn chair and a blanket and several cold beers and planted myself on the beach for at least three hours, watching waterspouts and boats on Lake Erie trying to dodge those waterspouts. It was, in the words of Leonard Nimoy, fascinating.

Now when I smell a Great Lake, or an ocean, that strange mixture of smells — fish, diesel fuel, suntan lotion, salt, sand — I think of that day watching waterspouts on the shores of Lake Erie.

One of my favorite song lyrics, by Jimmy Buffett, goes like this:

“Well, the wind is blowin’ harder now, fifty knots of there abouts;

There’s white caps on the ocean and I’m watching for waterspouts;

It’s time to close the shutters. It’s time to go inside.

In a week I’ll be in gay Paris. That’s a mighty long airplane ride.”

“Trying to reason with a hurricane season” is one of Buffett’s great songs.

The smell of the ocean takes me back to those lyrics and other Buffett masterpieces.

That’s where I’m at right now, day-dreaming about being on a beach.

Your senses — sights, sounds, tastes, touches and smells — can do that.

I tell people I can smell weather. Sometimes there is ozone in the air before thunderstorms, sometimes you can smell the rain, sometimes you can smell dust in the air blowing in from far away as wind and storms approach.

My sense of smell is the one that triggers the strongest responses and memories.

Mostly good ones.

The smell of the ocean is wonderful. It’s briny and sweet and wet and remind me of my best vacations — and some of the best food — I’ve experienced. Give me a beach, fresh clams, crabs and shrimp and I’m a happy camper.

I spent a week in Maine a couple years ago.

Now, the smell of the ocean also triggers memories of lobster rolls, lobster and butter, lobster bisque and a delectable brie and lobster omelet I had at 6 a.m. after driving all night from Ohio to Maine. The restaurant was on a rocky ledge overlooking the Atlantic.

It was awesome.

I love the smell of citrus. It takes me back to the house my family owned in Florida. There were orange, tangerine and kumquat trees in the back yard, which meant fresh-squeezed orange juice for breakfast, and lunch and dinner. There were grapefruit trees and a papaya tree in my grandpa’s backyard a couple blocks away.

When I was in elementary school, maybe middle school, I bought my girlfriend a bottle of perfume. It was Love’s Fresh Lemon. The smell of lemons makes me think of those days.

But some pleasant aromas trigger unpleasant memories.

Vanilla is like that. To many it means baking cookies and angel food cake, or making ice cream.

For me, the smell of vanilla takes me to Lake Buena Vista, Florida, and a huge candle store in the Disney World shopping center.

This is not a pleasant memory.

The overwhelming scent of vanilla enveloped you if you were within 200 feet of that shop. When I walked inside, it was as if a vanilla sledgehammer had struck me in the forehead. It took hours for that vanilla-induced headache to fade.

It took me years before I could start cooking with vanilla extract again.

There is only one other scent I can think of that triggers unpleasant memories … almonds, specifically almond liqueur.

On my 21st birthday, while a student at The Ohio State University, we had a party in the house we rented. Our place was known as the snake pit. Six or seven of us lived there. On weekends the population could swell to 20. I had to step over the bodies on my way to work early in the morning.

So, on my 21st birthday, I had 21 shots of a drink we called a “storm cloud.” IStorm clouds are made of Amaretto, Bailey’s Irish Cream and a splash of really potent rum. When poured correctly into a shot glass, the Bailey’s forms what looks like a cloud in the shot glass.

As someone who loves weather, a storm cloud was perfect.

But not 21 of them.

Suffice it to say, the day after my 21st birthday was a lot less enjoyable than the previous 24 hours.

Today, more than three decades later, the smell of almonds turns my stomach.

Some bad odors trigger pleasant memories.

Football locker rooms or wrestling practice facilities have a certain smell about them, mostly because the practice gear worn in those sports have a certain scent to them, because they get a lot of use between washes.

Anyway, locker rooms remind me of my youth. Those noxious odors trigger pleasant memories.

I traveled to a wedding many years ago in Michigan with my then-girlfriend’s parents.

After we packed up their car — before we even left Galion — my girlfriend’s dad stopped at the local drive-thru/deli and bought some Limburger cheese, a rather pungent cheese. And an eight-hour road trip did little to abate its odoriferous qualities.

Still when I smell Limburger I think of that enjoyable weekend trip.

Even the smell of skunks, while disgusting and vile, make me smile.

I live close to Heise Park. My family and neighbors have smelled and trapped and put up with skunks for years.

But those were some of the best years of my life.

A disgusting aroma. Apleasant memory.

So that’s my 2 cents worth. But truthfully, I’ll never make sense of scents.

Russ Kent is editor of the Galion Inquirer. Email him at [email protected] with comments and story ideas.


Russ Kent

Galion Inquirer



Russ Kent is editor of the Galion Inquirer. Email him at [email protected] with comments and story ideas.