Walking out of my office this morning, I caught a whiff of a colleague’s overpowering scent of Polo, and found myself mysteriously transported back to 1985 again. Climb into the wayback machine, and come with me…
They say that the most potent of all of the human senses is our sense of smell. While sight, sound, taste and touch can all evoke memories of our past, there is something unique about the sense of smell that makes its connection to our memory stronger, and more vivid. I have experienced this many times. Put me within 20 yards of mothballs, and I am immediately transported to my Grandmother’s house. Put me near fresh cut grass during the dusty days of late August, and I can almost feel the pain of football 3 a days. So I find it highly distracting when a co-worker of mine douses himself with Polo by Ralph Lauren, and proceeds to fumigate the office with memories of 1985. Like a red shirted character on Star Trek I am suddenly beamed down to a hostile planet where I know I am doomed.
The year 1985 could have been the high water mark of my life. In fact, it had all the makings of it. When it began I was in the 2nd semester of my Junior year at ND, and had suddenly found myself in the midst of a flowering social life which seemed unattainable a mere 6 months earlier. I had a steady girlfriend, more close friends than any man deserves, and access to alcohol that only increased with each passing month. By spring of that year every week seemed to promise a new experience, and a new coed with whom to become acquainted. By all rights I should have spent the rest of my days in Batavia living in the long shadows of my life at 17. How I managed to escape that fate, and wind up happy, and somewhat well adjusted, on the frozen prairies of Minnesota is still a mystery to me. In fact, attempting to solve that mystery by retracing my steps backward to the very beginning is half the point of writing this blawg.
So these periodic blasts of a dated cologne result in a flood of memories that send me off in a reverie trying to grasp the essence of what I felt at the time. The spring of 1985 was an early one that seemed to linger deep into June. With each passing week the temperature inched upward, the world became greener, and began to vibrate with life. My braces had come off after 6 years of suffering and pain, and my self esteem soared. Never before had anyone ever considered me to be “good looking”, but suddenly it seemed as if there was a different, maybe even handsome, face staring back at me from the mirror. The same could be said for all of us that year. We had turned the corner from gangly teens, to young adults, and we were thrilled to get out and try out our new equipment.
I am a born pessimist. For as long as I can remember, I have viewed every good event in my life with the suspicion that it was fleeting, and would soon be followed by Faulkner-ian loss. If ever there was such a thing as Western New York Gothic, I embodied it. But that spring of 1985, for the first, and maybe the last time in my life, the future seemed boundless. My heart still aches remembering it.
It was a spring evening, with the first breath of summer sighing through the trees. It was a Friday, and after school we had borrowed one of our parent’s cars, and driven a classmate who could pass for 21, out to a convenience store on East Main to buy beer. With thrilling success we had managed to acquire 2 cases of beer. Well, if you can classify Old Milwaukee, and Old Milwaukee Light as beer, but at the time we weren’t exactly selective drinkers. Being 16 and 17 year olds, we were limited in our range and mobility. Getting a car after dark, was pretty much out of the realm of possibility, so we had to do some quick planning to figure out where to store this beer, and where to drink it after nightfall. After some discussion, we decided on the woods behind the Blind School. It was a central location, accessible by a short walk from most of our houses. So we drove the dirt driveway back behind the school that afternoon, and stashed our illicit treasure under some upturned concrete blocks, in a pile of dirt and construction waste from a recent construction project. Then we returned to our homes for supper hoping that no one had spotted us.
That evening, shortly after supper, we began to gather in small groups at various houses. The guys started showing up at 20 Prospect on their 10 speeds before, ahem, “going to the movies”. The girls began to gather at Bella’s house on State Street for the same ostensible purpose. Then as the shadows began to lengthen, we started making our way to the woods to rendezvous. The spot we had chosen was a wooded hillside that sloped down towards the north, and an undeveloped area of scrubby growth that extended to the Thruway. The nearest homes were on Burke Drive, over a hundred yards to the west, through a wooded area thick with undergrowth. It was unlit and very secluded, well off the beaten path for any passing kids, or adults.
Looking back it all seems so innocent, but at the time we felt like hardened criminals committing a felony. Retrieving our warm Old Milwaukee, we began passing cans around the circle, and talking in hushed, conspiratorial tones. Being kids it didn’t take more than half a can for us to begin feeling the magical effects of alcohol beginning to tickle our consciousness. I had never felt more mature in my life than I did sitting around that circle, talking and laughing with 8 other guys and girls. It was the first real clandestine “party” we had ever thrown, and it would not be the last.
Sitting there in the gathering dusk, the city began to disappear around us, until it was just the nine of us there in the dark, our senses alive like never before. Goosebumps appeared on my arms, as much from the excitement of the moment as it was from the coolness of late May. The girls huddled close to the guys, and we began to look at each other in a new light. Up until that point the friendships between us had been reserved and platonic. But as the night went on, and the cans piled up, we became aware of each others presence in a visceral way that we hadn’t ever noticed before. Like blind kids, the dimness and the alcohol had suddenly magnified our other senses. We could feel each others presence, even in the indigo darkness. It was an awakening for us all.
As summer came on, we would repeat this scene many times, in many places, but our relationships had begun to change. With each progressive step, our familiarity increased, and romantic intrigues developed. Over the course of the next 5 years the couplings, and breakups would become too numerous, and intertwined, to keep straight. But sitting there on the edge of 17, the future stretched out like a trackless wilderness. We had no idea what lay before us, and we tingled with anticipation, poised and ready to step forward into the virgin woods and begin blazing our trails.
That was 25 years ago. We had no idea of the twists, turns and the dead ends that we would wander into. One by one our paths would diverge into a forest of our own choosing, and slowly the path behind would be overgrown with weeds and burdocks. But the memories are still there, somewhere far in the back of our minds, until something, say a colleagues bottle of ancient cologne, flips a switch and it all comes flooding back. When it does, there’s not much that can be done except to pause, smile, and marvel at the journey.