A sense of forever Seaside aromas, often indescribable yet indelible, call forth the sweet memories of years gone by.

July 13, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff

I stood on the boardwalk at Seaside Heights, N.J., and all about me lights flashed and glimmered and glowed and collectively held back the night. Red and blue bulbs defined the downward curve of the "scenic railway," as my mother called the roller coaster, and from off in the dark I could hear the artillery crump of waves as they hit the sand. I was 3 years old and could taste the salt in the air. I felt the moisture of my mother's hand holding mine as we watched the cars click by with my two brothers, on the ride, laughing, their hair flying.

As I stood there creating the earliest memory of my life, I detected a strong aroma. It rose from the boards beneath my feet, and sealed this memory indelibly in my mind, the way a

drop of golden sap in a Baltic forest creeps over an insect and holds it fast for all time.

It was the smell of creosote. I never forgot it, never will. Always, it evokes the beach.

Human beings, I have read, can detect about 10,000 different odors. These can't always be identified or called forth. But the sense can, and does, differentiate them. We all have favorite smells, but it is uncertain how or why favor is bestowed. Because the smells are sweet? Floral? Erotic? Or because of personal experiences associated with them?

Would the scent of creosote, an oily, black, gummy substance distilled from coal tar, and for years the preferred wood preservative, be pleasing to me absent the events of that night? Probably not.

It is clear that odors lock up memories, good and bad. They are like little strongboxes. The smell of creosote holds my happiest memory; it is a child's memory of a moment uncompromised by && knowledge of time's capacity to annihilate all, happiness and grief alike, before the realization that all things end.

Some people come to escape this tragic knowledge. People with Alzheimer's disease, I have read, lose their ability to smell as they lose their memory. Their little strongboxes are stolen from them.

Our family has been vacationing at Bethany Beach or Rehoboth off and on for about 25 years. We avoid Ocean City: It is noisy, crowded, dirty, vulgar, paved over, treeless and full of other qualities we want to escape. But it has its points: It is insanely unrestrained and overstated, completely free of the middle-class smugness that characterizes the "Quiet Resorts" farther up the beach.

Once a year we drive down to the boardwalk at Ocean City and let the children indulge themselves until they babble with happiness and then grow cranky and wind up getting yelled at. In Ocean City, the senses are brought under siege. Children grow dizzy after half an hour there.

It is difficult to say what the boardwalk at Ocean City smells like: If there is a brisk sea breeze, most of its myriad fragrances escape unarrested; if the day is still and hot, it smells like everything at once. All 10,000 separate odors within our range become one vast solution that washes over an olfactory sense not evolved enough to know one from the other.

This year we tried to record some of these smells sequentially. Wife Susana had an idea: recruit extra noses, acute noses. Cute noses. Thus, both grandsons, Nicholas and his younger brother, Stefan, were invited. We meandered down the boardwalk from 11th Street to the amusement pier; they were alert to their mission. This is what they reported:

Caramel, popcorn, crab pepper, cigarette smoke, hot rubber, burned meat, the bay, (Assawoman) yew bushes, wet sand, candle wax, frying dough (we stopped for funnel cake), burned meat again, tomato sauce, fresh soap emanating from clean skin, tattoos (I can't quite explain that one), tomato juice, sweet lemonade, a noisome antiseptic aroma wafting out of the public toilets, wet concrete (the boardwalk yields to that near the pier), a perfume, bubble gum, hot grease, vinegar, another perfume.

At that point in our count a ferocious storm broke over our heads; the amusement pier closed, and wooden shutters slammed shut all around and everybody ran for their cars or crammed into dark bars. Every smell but that of the rain vanished with the tide that rolled through the streets in an immense hydraulic purge. We got drenched and smelled very much like the dog frequently does.

Turning a page

The beach in winter is richer in smells for me. This, on the surface of it, doesn't make sense: heat generates odor, agitates its molecules and flings them into the air. That's why warm food is always tastier than cold: Its aroma rises invitingly to meet you.

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