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 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