Every Sunday my walk to the church Sanctuary takes me through the Pavilion. The Pavilion is a large open-air room, surrounded by the chapel on one side, the cafeteria on another, and the library on a third side. The fourth side is the Solid Rock Cafe espresso bar. Over the whole affair is a peaked canvas roof. And because it’s more often than not really hot, at least a dozen ceiling fans hang from the ceiling and do their mighty best to keep the temperature something below sweltering. My favorite time to walk through the Pavilion is summertime because the smell of espresso is mixed with the smell of hot canvas. That smell is the smell of Oklahoma 30-years ago.
My first unit in Oklahoma was a tactical target acquisition artillery unit. We spend two weeks out of every four out in the field, working out of ancient canvas tents that were even hotter inside than the Oklahoma summertime sun outside. Coffee is the lifeblood of the Army, and nearly every memory I have includes coffee in some form–I’m either drinking it, making it, or eating it (in the form of freeze dried coffee that came in packets in our field rations). The smell of coffee mixed with that ancient canvas tent smells exactly the same as the church Pavilion on a summer morning. And every time I smell that canvas-and-coffee smell I think of those days so long ago, back in Oklahoma, slogging through the Oklahoma desert hills, plotting the trajectories for the artillery batteries to shoot downrange. (We calculated targets mostly by hand, using a slide rule and a range deflection protractor, because the behemoth we called a computer took two days to boot up and then as often as not gave a trajectory that would have had us shoot a battery fire for effect into downtown Lawton.)
It was an adventurous time, a time that was comfortably dirty and uncomplicated. We slept, we ate, we blew things up. My whole life was ahead of me, and I didn’t think about it much except to know that the next day was likely to be better than the day before. I was hopeful because I didn’t know any other way to be. I learned things every day, like why you didn’t store your leftover tuna outdoors in the sun, and how to take a spit bath out of my helmet. We’d sit outside at night under that great big Oklahoma sky and listen to artillery shells whistle over our heads on their way downrange.
This is the memory that comes to me every time I walk through the Pavilion on a hot summer morning. I love that memory, and I love the smell that brings it to me after so many years.