Memories. Sometimes vivid memories seem to leap into clarity by a simple smell or taste or sound. Details that were long forgotten suddenly revel themselves. This doesn’t happen often, but it is fun when it does. Rarely is it visual. Sometime it is difficult or near impossible to know what spurred the memory into action, other times it is quite obvious.
A few days ago I was stopped by a road crew. They were using some machine that was belching out noxious diesel fumes. The fumes were not like the normal truck, they were dark and sooty, a stinky smoke. Obviously the machine was not in good working condition. In short, the machine was stinking up the place and this place didn’t need the help. It was right next to a ranch and there were hundreds of cows rooting around in their own fertilizer.
As I drove on mind traveled back to 1987. At the time I was in the Air Force and a member of a civil engineering group on a field deployment exercise in England. The field deployment was out in the boonies next to a prison in Essex county. We set up camp for a hundred or so construction workers, and I remember it was cold, rainy, wet and humid. I distinctly remember that the entire exercise was fraught with disaster and ended early.
One of my duties was to set up and operate our field shower unit. It consisted of two 60’ x 40’ tents, and a system of pumps, a powerful boiler, electric power cables, diesel tanks, and mixing valves connected with looked like small fire hoses. The boiler was originally designed in the 60s to provide emergency chemical decontamination for equipment and personal. Think of it as a really big high pressure, high temperature, car wash. It was about the size of a mini cooper. Once set up I had to closely monitor the device and watch out for signs it would suddenly over-pressurize and explode, or just stop working. The moral of the troops depended on me and my crew. The boiler also had a tendency to change the fuel air mixture randomly and start chuff out large dark plumes of black soot or roar like a jet engine. We set the equipment up directly between the two shower tents. This soon became my home as well. Showers are incredibly important in field deployment, especially when it is in a generally miserable environment. So I made a home between the tents.
I did not go to this deployment unprepared. This wasn’t my first rodeo. I brought instant coffee, instant hot chocolate and packaged noodles. I knew that the process of getting coffee or even food would be a challenge and rigidly scheduled, and I need lots of coffee. If I was going to camp out I wanted to do so in style, and have coffee anytime I wanted.
On the first day we made whipped mud. I guess it was necessary to drive the heavy equipment around in random circles. Maybe this was to discover how well the ground would support heavy equipment. A ten-ton dump truck, a fork lift, and a water truck got stuck in the mud. Now we know. It took a large chain, a grader, and dozens of spectators to get the trucks out of that mud and into more mud. After whipping the mud into froth with the consistency of peanut butter, we set up our tent city, right in the middle of the mud. I guess this was according to some plan, so far so good…
On the second day, the chow-tent heating equipment stopped working, probably due to mud infiltration into the burners. Or because the equipment was originally made to support the Korean conflict and was simply experiencing an end of life issue. So as a backup plan they started handing out MREs. Meals Ready to Eat. Which was fine with me, I could heat up my MREs on the boiler I was babysitting. I kept the boiler just under the boiling point, so my hot chocolate and coffee was always available. My colleagues and I were contented to sit between the shower tents, play spades on a tent box, smoke and drink coffee.
On the third day the tent that was used by the fire fighters caught fire. Fortunately they were on the other side of camp training people on how to use fire extinguishers, so no one was hurt. Unfortunately by the time they got to their tent it was a complete loss. They had to move into other tents that had room. The irony was not lost on, well everyone. Apparently it was started by a defective heater that was left untended. After that everyone was more careful with the tent heaters. How soaking wet canvas can burn so well was a mystery.
On the third day a new latrine needed to be dug. They decided to dig the new latrine pit right next to the old one. Something about MREs was causing the latrine pits to fill up pretty fast. While digging the new pit, the back hoe operator discovered a large metal object. Engineers were sent in to see if they accidentally hit a pipe or something. Turns out they hit a 200 lb bomb left over from WWII. We evacuated the site for about six hours while the Explosive Ordinance Disposal crew came out and evaluated the situation. The safest way to deal with it was to ‘blow in place’. Yes, that is what the technical order says. You can see where this is going. Our commandeer wanted EOD to cover the bomb with dirt to hold the explosion in. EOD didn’t think that would be a good idea. They had concerns about well, blowing up the equipment operator. Anyway, they set off a block of C-4 on top of the old bomb which would supposedly set it off. It did violently liberate the mud into the air. And since it was right next to our old latrine pit, some of that became air born as well. We learned that cold, rainy, muddy weather is not shitty weather until you add this secret ingredient. It literally rained shit and mud on the tents that were within about a two hundred feet of the old latrine. Thankfully the shower tents were much further away. The commander’s tent was quite close to ground zero. This fact was not lost on the people who already believed he was full of it. We were hoping to find a bomb fragment, no luck too much mud.
On day four we decided to pack up and go back to base. One last duty was to convert the shower boiler back into a decontamination unit and pressure wash the effected tents before bringing them back to base. The commander’s tent was the first to be cleaned. I believe he was the first to arrive back home as well.
It is amazing what memories a little smell can bring back. There was something about the smell of diesel fumes, and crap that made me think of instant coffee, hot chocolate, MREs, and mud. What other memories are lying hidden in my brain waiting for some smell, taste, or sound?
Has this happened to you?