Read Old Man Scanlon

Proust Exonerated

15 June 2009

Proust asserted that odors cause flashbacks. My contention that Proust had it wrong—that it's thinking of the past that triggers olfactory memories—received its comeuppance this afternoon: one counterexample is all it takes to disprove a theory. Unfortunately, I ascribed his notion to French perverseness, so now I must eat crow (at least the crows would do the same for me, were I to die in the street, bloody, crushed like a squirrel thwarted in its Brownian dash by a sport-utility juggernaut). Actually, we both had it half-right. It really works in both directions, which I might have recognized before I put my foot into it, if I hadn't been in such a hurry to belittle Proust.

At Attleboro station I caught the scent of rugosa roses, planted en masse by the Commonwealth apparently to divert attention from the crumbling concrete in the ten-year-old structures. To be authentic the aroma needed to be underlaid by salt air and iodine, with hints of sulfurous low-tide mud and rotting fish, rather than decaying bark mulch and diesel exhaust, but it still sufficed. I flashed back to a Cape Cod summer in Osterville, and fleshed out the hallucination with Sea & Ski and calamine lotion.

We enter the frontier town of Wareham, a mile-long tourist trap. Tina's Nipa Hut, motels, souvenir emporia, fishing tackle and bait shops, salt-water taffy pullers, and lobster boilers all make their best pitches for rube dollars. Here is where I flexed my new-found twelve-year-old sophistication, savoring the wordplay on "Fir yew I pine, fir yew I balsam" evergreen-scented sachets. We continue up the west side of the Canal, always hoping to see a huge boat, disappointed more often than not. We leave the mainland over the Sagamore Bridge, and we know for sure we're in a subtly different world, sandy, scrubby, wind-swept.

In Osterville we stayed in my father's cousin Oscar's guest cabin, the Little House. Oscar and Dad were two of the nine Carpenter cousins who grew up with each other during the Depression. Dad had other cousins on his father's side, and Mom had more than 30 cousins on her mother's side alone. My own cousin experience is, I think, more typical of Boomers: I had five cousins. They lived states away and at times continents away. My brother, sister, and I saw them infrequently, and never developed the sense of family that Dad and his cousins had.

The Little House lived up to its name. In the evenings we didn't even have to sneak downstairs to eavesdrop on the adults. Oscar's voice carried perfectly well as he talked about his friend Doc Curtis and the Baker family (owners of Colonial Candle, where he worked), exchanged updates about his cousins, and conversed about the state of affairs on the Cape.

breezing up

The Little House had spiders in the bathroom—I hate spiders—but at least they were web-bound, not the blazingly fast hairy-legged free-range behemoths that today typically sneak up and startle the bejeezus out of me. Behind the house was the telephone-pole-mounted fire siren, which was tested every day at noon, accompanied by armies of baying dogs. It was a short walk to the village center, where I went into a bank and asked for four-cent stamps. If my voice had been changing, the embarrassment might have scarred me for life, but it was funny then and my grandchildren think it's funny now. (It was a good year for the Post Office, which issued probably the handsomest stamp ever printed by the United States. Commemorating Winslow Homer, it was totally unlike the gaudy, glossy, cheesily offset-printed, popular-culture-oriented crap they inflict on us today, and, to boot, cost an order of magnitude less.)

We took road trips, heading east out Route 28, to Hyannis for the obligatory visit to Colonial Candle, and sometimes even to Yarmouth. Our elders seemed to enjoy spending way too much time in gift shops. Though generally of scant interest to kids, they sometimes offered displays of classic technology not found in our real-life downtowns. Artisans blowing glass and weaving on a loom fascinated me.

We spent hours at Dowse's Beach, where the gatekeeper had cauliflower ears and was tanned to the bone. The phrase "sun protection factor" had no meaning, and we were all pretty crispy after a week. Our big dilemma was whether to go to the Little Side (East Bay, warm and calm) or the Big Side (Nantucket Sound, cooler, big waves). Our parents, as parents were prepared to do then, arbitrarily adjudicated the matter; and yet again I fail to display permanent damage from blows to my self-esteem incurred when the choice went against me. We chased gulls, built castles, buried each other in the sand, soaked our poison ivy in sea water, and accumulated halcyon days against the demands of future New England Februaries.

The beach presents the physical interface between two alien universes. When we're up to our waists in the ocean we're stretched between the two, our lower halves bizarre interlopers in the realm of quahogs and dogfish, like the sphere manifesting itself in Flatland. There is always a sense of strangeness at an interface. In beach towns conventions seem less stringent, the atmosphere faintly piratical. The beach interface not only is strange, it exerts attraction upon those who are susceptible. Its power drops slightly beyond the beach towns, out of earshot of the surf, and then remains constant over any distance, always drawing us back.

Beach towns are perfect for honeymoons, and the richest conversations with our oldest friends. They're probably the only place in the world in which a male human of the engineering persuasion can credibly attempt to pass for normal, though, of course, hardly ever successfully.