The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

The Smell of Life

It was dark that night, I recall that. And quiet – an odd combination of mechanical thrum and a subtle sense of quarry out there. We were all conscious of the sounds of the moment, but only two people were actually listening. It was so long ago.  

One listener was the sonar operator on watch. And the other? Me. The Sonar Supervisor for this watch. Both of us had only one ear of our headphones on, as is the habit of our craft. One ear listens for sounds from the hydrophones with the earpiece.. The other ear keeps track of the conversation between Sonar and Control. He switches ears every so often, to keep the listening ear fresh.

Speech in the Sonar shack was subdued, a tone reflective of the red lighting under which we worked. The air was a heady brew of diesel, hydraulics, the un-showered bodies of the crew ripened by weeks of submerged living, and things no one ever wanted to name, all filtered through an atmospheric control system specially designed to make every space on the boat smell equally bad. But no one could smell it, because we had been awash in it for so long.It was into this moment of focused tedium that the door quietly opened, and the Messenger of the Watch slipped into the Shack. He carried with him three cups of coffee, one for me, and one each for the operators. I wrapped my fingers around that cup and brought it close. Its waft spoke of deep things, rich, heady flavors that assaulted the senses in a way only a man acclimated to deprivation can appreciate. It smelled like Victory. It smelled like the ugly underside of Life itself. In that cramped, thrumming space alive with electronics, and the vague rocking of a submerged submarine, it smelled like Salvation. I nodded my gratitude to him as he slipped back out into the darkened passage, prompting him to reverse, stick his head back in the door to smile and say, “don’t expect it to be a regular thing”. The same thing he had said 12 hours ago. And twelve hours before then. And so this quiet vessel slid silently through the depths of ink-black waters, far beneath the storm raging above over the North Atlantic.

A well-kept hospital is a clean place, devoid of smells except the scent of those chemicals that are busy killing something that’s busy trying to kill you. This visit was my turn to stay, as our son’s illnesses were recurrent, and his immune system vulnerable to people coming and going, so my wife and I had established a plan where one of us simply stayed, and the other stayed away.  

I sat in a dimly-lit room alive with monitors that tracked the life of my son, sick in yonder ICU bed while his body fought its battles within. The night outside was dark, but I could see through the rain the same lights of the town as I had for the last several nights. I had them memorized from this fourth-floor perch, and kept watch on both the town and the machines, a task I was oddly at ease with. The comparison to my previous life as a submarine sonarman hadn’t fully dawned on my yet.

As I sat, not realizing all the things I wasn’t smelling, a Nurse came through and offered to bring me a cup of coffee. He had told me, earlier in the day, that he had been an Army Nurse for some years. He suddenly seemed to me that the blessed Saints had sent their own emissary. A weary smile took over my tired face, and not a word further was needed. He disappeared back out, and down the hall.

The coffee entered the room unobtrusively, and found itself sitting on the small table behind me while I was busy attending to some detail for Sean. I sat back down, and the scent of the darkened brew curled up around me sensuously, entwined itself in memories and lifted them to consciousness. The coffee, the memories of dark and dangerous places, of mission and mates, all came together in a swirling moment of satisfaction. I was back in familiar territory, a place where I knew what to do, where I knew those around me knew what to do. The weariness faded from my shoulders. And at that moment, I also became keenly aware of what I had not been smelling – anything. In this sterile hospital room – this empty crucible, the coffee’s rarified savor was pure like God’s own Breath of Life.  

And I realized with a disturbed grin that God’s Own Breath of Life smells eerily similar to underway coffee.


 

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One Response to “The Smell of Life”

  1. Kris says:

    Beautiful Glenn, just beautiful.

    God Bless you and your family.

    Kris
    (fellow fast attack submarine sonar girl)

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