My dog Sophie and I took our morning walk today, and as usual it’s about a two mile circuit of the downtown area and the parkland along the river. Enjoying the cool morning on this second official day of Autumn I suddenly noticed the smell of baking cookies in the air. If you’ve lived in this town for even a little while you’ll know that the heavenly scent emanates from the Malt-O-Meal company hot cereal plant in the old Ames mill, along the river. I honestly think that scent in the air might be the thing that helps people decide to move here. Can you imagine, being reminded of Grandma baking cookies in the kitchen every time you go outside? Why wouldn’t you want to live here?
They say that smell is the sense most associated with memory and this morning I am reminded of the time more than forty years ago when I worked at Malt-O-Meal, in the cold cereal plant. I was an 18 year old, scrawny nothing of a kid, and they hired me to work the night shift. My first job there was to disassemble a large dough extruder every night, right down to the nuts and bolts, lay the heavy pieces out on a large tile floor and steam clean the whole thing with powdered lye. Lye is the common term for Sodium Hydroxide, the same stuff in drain cleaner. It was a messy, hot, wet, job but I was 18 and invincible. If anything went wrong while I was working I went to find The Indian. “The Indian,” as he was affectionately known was a gentle giant of a man, (at least to scrawny, skinny, 18 year old me), who was in fact, part Native American. He would come, fix whatever went wrong and go back to his job while saying no more than a handful of words. My kind of co-worker! At the end of my shift, I walked home, (I didn’t have a car) no matter the weather. If it was 20 below my wet clothes would be frozen stiff by time I arrived. Ah, the good life.
Before Malt-O-Meal, I was a pump jockey at a local gas station. This of course was back in the days when gas station attendants pumped your gas, cleaned your windows, checked and filled your oil, aired your tires, and you payed while sitting in your car. We kept large wads of cash in our pockets and a change machine on our belts. I never got robbed. One slow day at the gas station, my boss and I were talking and we watched a car slowly weave down the street. Suddenly it turned into the gas station, swerved around, smashed right into a gas pump knocking it clean off the cement pedestal it sat on, and weaved right back out and onto the road. Flames shot 10 feet into the air from the pipe in the ground and my boss vaulted over the counter running for the pump off switches in the back room. I called the fire department while having my short life flash before my eyes. All this seemed to happen in slow motion and while I was reviewing my life I decided it was very short indeed and if I was going to have to review it in the future, I much preferred it to be longer, and more interesting. The boss shut down the pumps and the fire department came to make sure everything was alright. We found out later it was a fourteen year old who had stolen her boyfriends car, never having driven before.
Looking back on experiences like that while being comfortable and safe is fine but when I was standing not 20 feet from flames shooting out of a thousand gallon underground gas tank I envisioned half the town going up in a ball of flame explosion from which my remains would only be found by using a flour sifter. I began to seriously think about what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and this wasn’t it.
After you’re outside in the cookie smell for awhile, you get used to it and don’t notice much. So we had our walk, it was about 56 degrees Fahrenheit with very low humidity. A beautiful morning. I am in love with Minnesota in the Fall, as we have lots of hardwood forest land, remnants of “The Big Woods”, that used to cover most of our state. The Fall colors are lovely and the air is crisp and cool. A finer day, could not be had.