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My Perspective: What does your life smell like?

Besides owning the Senior Perspective, I also own a small offset/digital print shop. Both businesses operate from the same building. Because it is a print shop, it has a distinct smell. Typically, people notice the smell when they walk in and make a funny face. Most people are OK with the smell, but for some, the smell is too much for them, and they need to step outside. A select few, maybe one in 30, really like the smell. And for some, the smell brings back great memories.

The other day, a man, whose name was also Jim, stopped by and commented on the smell of our office.

“This smell brings back some wonderful memories,” he said. “I love this smell.”

At the same time, his wife crinkled her nose and replied, “You love this smell?”

For the man, the smell of the office brought him back to his childhood.

“I lived in Fosston from 1958 through 1963 when I graduated,” he said. “My mom and dad operated a variety store, and my two brothers and I worked as part of the family business. Dad was pretty creative regarding his newspaper ads in The Thirteen Towns, and I would bring the draft ad to the newspaper office.”

Jim said he was fascinated by the linotype machine, but more so, the operator.

“Curt Brink played the linotype keyboard like a master pianist,” he said. “As I watched him I basked in the aroma of the ink. I was horrified by the hot lead near the linotype, and later came to appreciate the setting when I was a journalism student at Bemidji State.”

Jim became the co-editor of The Northern Student, and found the same attraction to the print shop at the Bemidji Pioneer, where the paper was printed.

“In the year I served as editor, the Pioneer transitioned from letterpress to offset,” he recalled. “That was a learning experience! No more wonderful aroma, although the building was so steeped in the smells that it probably will never go away.”

The smell of our office brought all those memories back to Jim instantly. That got me to thinking about the smells of my life and which ones could bring me back to my childhood.

I spent most of my childhood in a small town (Stewart, Minn.) which had a large livestock feed production operation (Form-A-Feed) on the edge of town. I lived about two or three blocks from this operation. One might think that that would make the town smell like corn or soybeans, but it actually smelled more like butterscotch. When I smell butterscotch, I think of my days in Stewart.

My favorite childhood smell comes from annual Fourth of July visits to one of our relative’s cabins on Lake Elora, located north of Duluth. All the relatives from my mom’s side of the family came together each year to celebrate at the cabin. The smell I remember is a combination of Lake Elora, pines, campfire and (later in the evening) fireworks.

Each year, we would also visit some relatives in Hinckley who were farmers (Lois and Harold). We would have full access to their dairy barns and all the outbuildings, as Harold was off doing chores and Lois was preparing the next meal. Occasionally, we would “help” Harold, too, which was fun. Farms have some of the most unique odors of any profession. Some people don’t, but I love the smell of a farm… well, at least most of the smells.

My dad was a science teacher, so I spent a fair amount of time in his classroom, not only as a student but also just hanging around waiting for him to finish up his work after school or on the weekend. I also spent a few extra hours in there now and then for misbehaving, but that’s another story. This classroom smelled like gas from the Bunsen burner, chalk board dust, the sweat and tears left behind from failed experiments, along with a hint of formaldehyde.

I went to college at Mankato State (now Minnesota State, Mankato). There are a couple smells I will surely remember from those days. One was compliments of the guy across the hall from me in the dorms. He was a smoker, but I never saw him with a cigarette (if you know what I mean). Also, when I lived in an apartment with a few other guys my junior and senior year, there was another distinct odor. The place was a dive. It was a ground floor apartment which flooded about once a year. It also had a small gas leak that was not fully repaired during the two years I was there. So the smell was a combination of mildew, gas, unwashed dishes and dirty carpet (did we even own a vacuum?). Plus, one of the guys was on the college wrestling team and didn’t shower nearly enough, so that scent sort of took over when he was around.

My “fresh out of college” days smelled a lot like a dark room. I worked at a weekly newspaper (Pope County Tribune). Digital cameras were still in the experimental phase, so all our photos were taken with film (remember film?) and I developed everything in a dark room. If you have never been in a dark room, you don’t know the unique odor of the chemicals involved.

The early days of parenthood have a lot of unique smells. The smell of a new baby is truly hard to beat. That is a smell that no one has ever been able to duplicate. On the flip side (literally), there are plenty of not-so-pleasant smells that those same babies produce on a daily basis for the first two or three years of their life.

For me, there are two smells that are prominent in my life these days. These are the smells that will remind me of my working life when I retire someday. The first is a newspaper smell, and the second is the print shop smell. You might think that they are the same smell, but they are not. Newspaper ink is soy based, so it has a different odor. And newsprint paper also has a small scent that I won’t ever forget. The print shop inks, on the other hand, are typically acrylic and petroleum based, which smell differently than the soy ink. Plus, print shops always have a distinct press wash odor. In fact, if you go into a print shop and the odor really catches your attention, it is not the ink. It is the press wash. The ink has an odor, but it’s not nearly as strong as press wash.

The other smell I encounter regularly these days is the smell of baseball, as all three boys have played in youth baseball. That smell includes fresh-cut grass, sunflower seeds and hot dogs. And my son, Noah, is raising pigs for the fair again this year, so I am very familiar with the pig barn smell.

What are the smells of your life? What memories come back when you walk into a print shop, an auto repair shop, or barn, or bait shop, or tire shop, or hospital room? What does the smell of pipe smoke make you think of? Or cigars? Or butterscotch?

I didn’t realize it until I wrote this column, but my life has definitely smelled interesting. I wonder what the next chapter of my life will smell like?

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