Katie’s Song

| November 17, 2012

Author’s Note:  some indicate that this article brings back memories that aren’t necessarily good ones.  If you’re having a bad day along those lines, perhaps you might want to read this article another time.


Humans have five senses.  But I’m personally convinced that two of these – smell and hearing – are more deeply embedded in the psyche, and are much harder to ignore.

Or to forget.

While experiences associated with touch may be the most intense, their memories – both pleasant and painful – fade with time.  One can remember pleasure and pain vividly; but the memories aren’t anywhere as intense as the original experiences.  The memories don’t seem to produce the same visceral reaction.

My guess is that’s a psychological self-defense mechanism we humans have developed over time.  But I’m not a shrink; I could be wrong.

Ditto for taste, and for sight.  Memories associated with these senses seem to fade too; the memories simply aren’t anywhere near as intense as original experiences.  At least that’s the case for me.

But hearing and smell seem . . . different.

There are some sounds in life you never forget; hearing them again grabs your attention with near-original intensity.  You may not immediately recognize someone’s face after several years – but once they speak, most of us have absolutely no doubt as to who they are.  There any number of other sounds each of us could name that are, for us personally, absolutely unforgettable and which hit home like few others.  The voice of a close friend or a loved one; the sound of a crashing car; certain music . . . the list goes on.  And the list is unique for each of us.

Smells are similar.  Some are similarly unforgettable and immediate.  I suspect that is due to a different reason than for sound – my guess is that the tie-in for sound is more emotional and psychological, while that for smell is biological and evolutionary.  But I could be wrong about this, too.

While deployed, I discovered a few such sounds and smells.  The sharp “crack” of small arms fire, and the lower “thump-thump-thump” of a heavy machine gun.  The low, sharp report of an explosion.  The smell of small-arms fire. The simultaneous “whop-whop-whop” combined with turbine-whine of rotary-wing aircraft.  The “click-clack” of a weapon chambering a round.  The unmistakable “burned-but-not-quite-completely” petrochemical scent of jet or turbine exhaust.

To that list, add a couple of sounds.  And another smell.

So, what’s this got to do with Katie?  And who the hell is Katie?

Well, that’s my nickname for her – Katie.  She’s fairly slender, and she generally dresses in drab colors.  She’s of Russian ancestry.  But she’s traveled quite widely during the last few decades; she has relatives (and offspring) in many places.  She’s a grand lady in her own way.  Some would call her beautiful.

She’s also dangerous as hell.  In many respects, Katie’s rather like a black widow spider:  beautiful, but very deadly.  Indeed, Katie’s far more deadly than any spider.

More formally, her family name is “Katyusha”.

Some incoming whistles or shrieks.  Not Katie.

Katie sings.

Katie has surprisingly strong “pipes”.  She can be amazingly loud for such a slender thing.

Her song has two notes.  The first is usually reasonably soft.  It’s a bit hard to describe, actually.  It’s a mixture of zoom, buzz, and whoosh, all at once.  The tone drops with time, and doesn’t start that high to begin with – think contralto vice soprano.  The best approximation I can come up is the “zheu” sound at the beginning of the French word “jeune” – but with the tongue allowed to buzz slightly, and pronounced drawn-out and slowly, in a normal conversational tone, with falling pitch.

Katie’s second note is fairly easy to describe.  Depending on how close Katie is, it’s faint, moderate, loud – or literally deafening.  This note also involves the sense of touch, as the ground (and anything you’re crouched down behind and/or flattening yourself against) often shakes when you hear Katie’s second note.


In some places, Katie’s song is sometimes preceded by a sound you absolutely want to hear first. It’s harsh, rasping, and repetitive – and annoying as hell.  But it damn sure gets your attention.

Then again, an incoming warning klaxon is supposed to do that.

If you hear Katie sing, you really want to hear both notes – or only her second note, sung softly.  You don’t want to hear – or remember – only the first.

If you’re close enough, you might even smell Katie’s breath shortly after hearing her song.  Katie’s breath, unfortunately, is foul.  It’s quite sulfurous; it smells a lot like small arms fire, but with a fair amount of the musky odors of dust and dirt added.

Katie’s song, once you’ve heard it, is something you will never forget.  Guaranteed.  Ditto for the sound that often precedes her song.

I can’t say I much care for Katie’s song.  But it does indeed get your attention like few other things in life.  And you really don’t ever want to find yourself close enough to Katie to smell her breath.

But there is one good thing about smelling Katie’s breath after hearing her sing.

Smelling Katie’s breath tells you – definitively – that you’re still alive.

— — —

Backstory:   The above is an edited version of something I wrote in November 2007.  It was originally posted to a site that is now defunct. I decided it might be apropos here.

Five years ago today, Camp Victory, Baghdad, Iraq, was on the receiving end of a multi-rocket attack. Although all but one of my soldiers and I were fairly close to a couple of the impact points – some of my guys  were on their way out of a  protected building, others of us were caught in the open – God was merciful.  The warning klaxon gave us all sufficient warning to take cover. 

None of us were injured in the attack.  But it was still just a bit too close for comfort. 

Not everyone on base that day (and on a number of other days) was so lucky.

The incoming warning radars and klaxon at Camp Victory were working properly five years ago.  Had either malfunctioned – and had the attack been 30 seconds to a minute later – most or all of us would virtually certainly have been standing together in a group talking. 

And we’d almost certainly have been standing on flat ground about 5 meters away from one of the impact points. 

Thank you, Lord – for the last 5 years and counting.  On behalf of all of us.

Category: War Stories

Comments (27)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Twist says:

    Some sounds you never forget or describe. The best analogy I have come up with for incoming is it sounds like a semi going down the highway.

    The ranges at Ft Wainwright have a highway that runs by them. We where out at the range shortly after we redeployed. We where all standing in the break area when a semi drove by. All talking ceased and everyone froze with the “is this realy happening” look on their faces.

  2. Winter Soldier says:

    I was there that day as well, thankfully far enough away. I’d agree that smell is the big one though – when I arrived for tour two, and the ramp dropped on the aircraft the smell made me wonder if I’d even left as memories came flooding back.

  3. Hondo says:

    I know what you mean, Twist. A few times I’ve heard warning devices or mechanical sounds that – for a brief moment – I’d have sworn was the incoming klaxon. Then I realized that was several thousand miles and some years ago.

    I do wish the area where I work had a different weather warning alert system, though.

  4. Tom Huxton says:

    Somehow, the movies cannot capture the dap, dap, dap of AK fire. Not once have I seen a film with accurate sound effect for this weapon.

    The sound of a Huey is unforgettable. You do not hear it so much as feel it in your chest. It is quite distinct from the faster spinning mosquito buzz of the LOH or the metallic saw mill whine of the flying crane.

    A B52 strike up close is hard to forget. Three of those monsters flying close together look like a single silver speck because they are so high. When the load comes screaming down after that long fall, the bombers are already back around for their second drop. The black smoke rises thousands of feet, and the debris is sorted by size as fist sized clods pelt down. You do the dance. be outside for the drop (in case your bunker collapses) and inside for the rain-of-clods back outside for the second drop and inside as the hard rain comes again. Every square yard has a clod or two, all the same size, cracked and rounded by their flight.

  5. Twist says:

    @4, They also don’t ever get the sound of a RPG right. They always make it sound like one of those space ships from “Star Wars”.

  6. Twist says:

    I just noticed I used “where” instead of “were” in #1 not once but twice. Where were the grammar police on that one?

  7. AW1 Tim says:

    A couple of smells stand out for me: the scent of OD canvas on a warm/hot day. It could be the cover of a deuce & a half, or a command tent, whatever. It had a scent that is impossible to forget. Same with the scent of JP-5. After 5K hours of flight time, that scent is on speed dial.

    For sounds, the APU whine on a P-3 Orion, or the sound of it’s big 4-bladed props and engines are unmistakeable.

    Like Tom says, too, the sound of a Huey is unmistakeable from any other helo. You do feel it first and then hear it. But you also feel it on the back of your neck. The hairs there stand up and I get this kind of rushing sensation whenever I hear one.

    But as for Katyusha, here’s a nice Russian military song. It’s a classic for them and one that’s kind of catchy. 🙂

  8. OWB says:

    Thanks for the insight there, Tim. Had not thought about the vehicle covers smelling the same as tents. Must give that some thought because I had a profound (and thoroughly unexpected)negative reaction to entering a tent one day under completely non-threatening conditions that has never made any sense to me. Hmmm. The sound and the smell is exactly what triggered the reaction.

    Yes, for me, too, Hondo. The sight of those tents only made me wish we were checking into the Holiday Inn instead, but the sound of the tent flap and smell of the canvus was visceral.

    And lest anyone misunderstand – no, I am not suggesting that incoming and entering a tent in CONUS field training are the same. They are not. But, triggers can occur anywhere.

  9. Common Sense says:

    I want to say thanks to all of you and your willingness to put yourselves in harms way so that I and all the other civilians in the US don’t have to remember the sounds and smells you describe. Unlike the poor souls in Israel I have never had to run to a shelter or watch missiles being intercepted above my head.

    Thanks again for all you do.

  10. This is a very touching post. Thank you for sharing it with us, Hondo. And yes, Common Sense, the people in Israel experiencing all of this now are very unfortunate. Thank you again..

  11. Nik says:

    Smells are the closest tied to the core of your brain at the “reptilian stem”. If you follow the line of thought of Evolutionists, the ability to sense chemicals in your area was critical for survival. The forms of life that could not died off too quickly to pass that trait along.

    Hearing is also closely tied in to the same place because hearing is really just an extension of touch. And again, it was critical for ancient aquatic life forms to be able to feel where the creatures around them were. Over millenia, a sub section of the body was specialized to help locate the source of vibrations in the water, and later in the air. Look at a cat’s ears, how they swivel around.

    Those senses were developed before eyespots to detect light, and later eyes to interpret that light.

    That’s if you’re an evolutionist (or Intelligent Design in evolution). The ones that developed and used those senses lived to pass on those traits. The ones that didn’t, died off.

    Now if you’re a strict Bible (or other religious text) Creationist…I got nothing.

    Either way, touch (and by extension hearing) and smell are the tightest of senses wired into the base and oldest part of the human brain.

  12. Militant Bibliophile says:

    I remember that sound so well that your description gave me the chills: you caught it perfectly, EXACTLY how I remember it. I was fortunate enough that the number of rockets in the biggest barrage I was ever caught in could be counted on one hand, but I was close enough (on the other side of an intervening 8′ HESCO wall, thank God) for it to be indelibly imprinted on my mind.

  13. Madconductor says:

    I would like to echo Common Sense’s comments. I know most of you have a visceral connection to what you have described and that it will last forever. And, like the previous comment, I read this with Israeli civilians in the back of my mind, even before I got to the comments. I can only imagine their frustration and fear, never having to experience that myself – even though I’m 62. Thanks guys – and girls – for what you have done and still do. Though the present dumbass-in-chief gives you little respect and insulting leadership, most of the people you have protected and continue to protect appreciate you enormously. My son is 19 years in the Army. I could not be prouder of him and the things he and our military have done for this country.

    I think that telling you to “stay safe” is almost redundant and maybe more of a prayer than a closing.

  14. Hondo: I particularly enjoyed this post although it can’t reflect MY war. It still stirred memories and/or memories of memories.

    Ship sounds drown out most external sounds. Shell splashes in the water from shore batteries plinking at us might well have been pretty fountains. The New Jersey firing a broadside as well as an Arclight raid at night were visual marvels with a mostly unchanging rumbling sound track.

    Outbound stuff was a different matter, but even that was felt as much as heard.

    Smells I can more closely relate to perhaps, but for different reasons. At times when the wind was right we could smell the jungle miles out to sea. Nuoc Mam in Da Nang. Shit River in the PI, etc.


  15. Nik says:

    “I think that telling you to “stay safe” is almost redundant and maybe more of a prayer than a closing.”

    I see it as a “Godspeed”, or “God be with you”, or “I’m concerned with your well-being as a human being, so you might well be onto something there.

  16. Nik says:

    “My guess is that’s a psychological self-defense mechanism we humans have developed over time. But I’m not a shrink; I could be wrong.”

    I forgot this part.

    There is a chemical they’ve found that helps people forget. It’s believed that you’re right, it is a psychological defense.

    Can you imagine re-experiencing the exact pain of every time you stubbed your toe, every time you burned your hand, every time you cut your finger? And that’s just minor pains.

    Also, some think it’s an evolutionary defense to keep your reflexes sharp. Instead of being overwhelmed by bad memories of everything that happened the last 1000 times you were scared by something, it keeps the brain’s “routing” of fight-or-flight clear. Instead of being awash in reliving those experiences, your head is clear to undertake the basic functions of panic and then act.

  17. Ex-PH2 says:

    The sounds of VC mortars being fired at Khe Sanh during the Tet Offensive were described as a pop followed by the rustle of squirrels running through leaves.

    I can only imagine what it’s like to be on the receiving end of any of that, in any war. I’m grateful to any and all who have been there.

  18. Ex-PH2 says:

    Zero, did you have to post the spring roll and dipping sauce recipe? Now I want spring rolls!

  19. Mr Wolf, non-Esq says:

    There is one other smell associated with Katy. Although, she doesn’t always wear it. But, when she does, you will NEVER forget it.

    Ask any first responder. They may not know Katy, but they’ll know her favorite scent.

    When Katy has left this trail, there are only memories. Bad ones. Your brain cannot un-smell what has been scented. It only takes a little, tiny bit of it. But you’ll know immediately.

    Death is Katy’s favorite lover. And he wears a cologne no one wants.

  20. Ex-PH2 #17: Sorry ’bout that. I was thinking about the “fish sauce” item in the recipe when I wrote that. The rotten fish smell permeated the very air. A fresh jar of Kim Chee smells better. Shucks Shit River smelled better!

  21. Wrench Monkey says:

    Veterans can describe things (sights, sounds, experiances) in ways civilian poets can only dream of.

  22. Ex-PH2 says:

    @20 Zero, it’s okay. I got the recipe for it from the link, but you’re right — the fish sauce is disgusting and I can’t stand the smell of fish anwyay, so I’ll make the dipping sauce without the fish sauce. I can’t even stand the smell of Sparkle Pants’s favorite stinky fish and shrimp from the Fancy Feast people, and she just grooves on it.

  23. Rerun0369 says:

    The deep bap, bap, bap of a PKM does it for me. That is one sound I will never forget, on the receiving end of that away to often. The boom of an RPG getting launched is singularly terrifying, filled me with dread everytime. Having operated primarily in farming areas in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and now living in farm country back in the states, every morning is a flash back to earlier times due to the smells. It always brings me back, to the good and the bad.

  24. riflemusket58 says:

    At the place I work they use a lot of radios to communicate with in the building. That crackling sound can be a little bothersome. I keep expecting to hear the words BATTERY, FIRE MISSION!
    We have a lot of trucks coming in and out of our facility and the smell of diesel is always there. One the trucks actually has the whine of an old deuce and a half. Nice post.
    Harold Adams
    1st Armored Division
    Desert Storm Veteran

  25. Poetrooper says:

    That Huey “whop-whop-whop” is indeed distinctive and for years after returning from Vietnam it could make the hair stand up on the back of my neck, literally, when one, or a formation, flew over which was frequently, as I was going to college at Texas El Paso, close to Fort Bliss. Another unique sound not mentioned was that hollow “bloop” of the M-79 grenade launcher. Another was that saw-like “rawwwr” sound of the Gatling guns mounted on close-support aircraft.

    As for smells, the two most memorable were, first, the smell of the latrine drums being burned in the morning, a stench unlike any other in the world; and second, although much less unpleasant than the first, was the smell of dried squid on the breath of the Vietnamese bar girls. They ate dried squid chips just like we eat potato chips. And when they plopped down on your lap and beamed a lovely smile into your face, they could absolutely wilt you with that breath when they gushed, “Hi GI! I luff you too mush, GI! Buy me drink, GI? You wan boom-boom, GI?”

    Come to think of it, that last memory’s not all that bad.


  26. Hayabusa says:

    Shortly after coming back from Iraq, I went to a soccer game at my daughter’s school. While standing on the sidelines during the game, a cell phone belonging to one of the other parents went off. This guy’s ring tone sounded EXACTLY like the klaxon on the C-RAM alarm. I was proned out on the grass before I even had any conscious thought of what I was doing. The other parents were looking at me kind of funny. I didn’t care.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Let’s not forget the acrid ell of the burn pit as the 24/7 smoke first rises during the hot Iraqi morning, then sits under the heavy air at night! My sense of smell is shot from that! Constantly smell burning wire!