Summer is here, and those distinctive smells of the hot season abound: trees and flowers in bloom, humidity in the air, the ozone before a late-afternoon thunderstorm, your fired-up backyard grill, the chlorine in a refreshing pool. Many of these smells no doubt spark pleasant memories of childhood—those lazy summer days when time felt endless and fun seemed limitless. With our olfactory nerve so close to the amygdala and hippocampus, smells become powerful triggers for emotional memory.
Some summer smells have gone extinct, and for good reason: They’re deadly. But sometimes I miss these odors, despite their toxic provenance. Not everyone loved these smells, but I sometimes recall them with fondness in my olfactory memory as best I can.
First, gasoline. Now, this was not everyone’s cup of tea, but the smell of freshly pumping gasoline was ambrosia to my nostrils. Today’s gas tank openings have minimally sized holes, flaps that shut when we remove the pump nozzle and many also sport vapor-capturing mechanisms. We’ve come to realize that those fumes are not only flammable but can cause cancer and nervous system damage. But when I was a kid, when my dad pulled into the gas station during the summer, I would love to roll down the window, stick my head out and deeply inhale those slightly pungent, slightly sweet vapors. They held many wonderful promises—a vacation car trip to “The Lake” up north, a jaunt to the drive-in theater to see a second-run Disney movie, a surprise expedition to Kiddieland to ride the mini-train.
Next in my inventory of summer odor oddities is lead paint. The dangers of lead paint are now widely known. The possibilities for brain damage (especially in children) and other organ damage are so severe that lead paint is banned from sale. While having our 1925 Dutch colonial house repainted when we lived in Moorhead, Minnesota, in the late 1990s, the smell of the old white lead paint being removed brought me back to my grandparents’ house. One summer my younger brother and I painted my grandparents’ white garage for them. Another summer, my project was painting pantry cupboard doors and anything else wooden in their basement. As we cleaned up the toxic residue of our house in Moorhead, my nostrils realized I was awash in lead paint during those summers at my grandparents’.
My leaded memories at Grandma and Grandpa’s weren’t entirely about child labor, though. My grandparents’ garden of tomatoes, lettuce and other Midwestern staples was next to the garage. When I would tromp and play in the dirt with them as they tended their plants, the warm summer breeze seemed to free the garage’s paint odor into the air. I don’t know if there is any scientific truth to heat releasing lead paint odor, but to this day I still associate Grandpa’s tomatoes with the smell of his garage.
When I was especially young, my grandparents’ backyard was surrounded by the proverbial white picket fence. Even today, I still remember my three-year-old body slamming into the lead-laden wood while kicking a ball around the yard with my brothers. My arms slid across the white surface, and that distinctive odor would rub onto my skin and burst into the air once again.
My last stroll through the memory lane of toxic aromas takes me to Tar Street. When I was a kid, utility companies seemed to revel in tar, or what I now know (thanks to the magic of the Internet) is creosote, or coal tar. Creosote is a great wood preserver, and telephone poles seemed to be slathered—and often reslathered—with the gooey black stuff. For me, freshly tarred telephone poles—which seemed to be a special summer project for the linemen of the county—were a special olfactory treat, though many of my friends thought I was crazy. The toxic soup of coal tar, to no surprise, is no good for anyone: It damages skin, lungs and other organs, in addition to being carcinogenic. Tarred-up poles, at least to the extent of those liberally creosoted days of my childhood, are a thing of the past. And another summer odor has passed into the archive of memory.
I obviously know that these aromas from times past are gone for good reason. But the impressions of childhood, for better or worse, are powerful totems of foundational memory and experience. As a kid growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, many of those sensory impressions I gained, we now know, were from harmful substances. Even so, I sometimes long for those bizarre, industrial odors of toxic summer. They should have been lost, but they are still a loss.
Thomas Dean does not plan to spend this summer sniffing asphalt or tasting paint.