Boston’s Logan International Airport is more than 80 years old. This comes readily to mind every time one flies into or out of Boston. It’s apparent in the dilapidated structure, barely-sufficient terminal access and the many absent amenities hard to put one’s finger on, but which, when present in other airports, make the whole experience of traveling much more pleasant. Logan, to put it bluntly, is a miserable airport.
Boston itself is hundreds of years old, and to be fair, the city’s considerable age shows just as well (or as poorly) as the airport’s, but you have to give a city with a history and culture like Boston’s a bit of a break. Besides, if the crumbling buildings, too-narrow streets and countless miscellanies associated with life in a historical monument get you down, you can always move. The downside there, of course, is that you would then have to drive even further to get to Logan; which is the situation in which I found myself last Christmas.
I lost nearly an hour of my life riding shotgun on I-90, playing Mario on my GBA as I was driven to the airport (The Drive). Shortly thereafter, I lost another hour waiting in line to be screened for explosives and/or carpet knives (The Screening), and prior to settling in to lose still a third hour waiting for my flight (The Wait), I set off in search of what is known in the traveling trade as “The Seat.”
Back when Logan was last renovated, sometime in the 1980s, electrical outlets were only good for plugging in the occasional vacuum cleaner and were located on walls or columns easy for cleaning workers to locate … and away from most of the terminal seating. Therefore, most often, The Seat is not even a seat at all, rather a space of floor near an outlet upon which a power-seeking passenger must squat. But every once in a while, a Logan traveler will come across a Seat that is exactly that: an honest-to-Vishnu chair near a power outlet.
In the past decade or so, these Seats have become as rare as unicorns, and last Christmas, as I trundled from The Screening to The Wait, I spotted one. It was empty. I almost wept. And then I ran.
As I flung myself into The Seat, bags flapping around me like dislodged feathers, I emitted a barbaric yawp of glee and reached into my bag for my GameBoy Advance SP. It was nearly dry from The Drive, and after The Wait, I was in for a long “The Flight” down to Texas. I wanted to be sure I had enough juice; there was a lot of Mario to be played, after all, and now, thanks to The Seat, I could juice it up from the comfort of … well, The Seat. In that exact moment, when I’d plugged my GBA into the providential outlet, fired up Super Mario World and thought about Texas, it occurred to me that Mario evoked the smell of mothballs and that mothballs smell like Galveston, Texas.
Galveston is a sleepy little town on the Texas Gulf Coast. Once the gateway to the almost-fertile, wide-open expanses of one of the nation’s newest states, Galveston, in the 1800s, welcomed ships from the old world with open arms. Countless scores of European immigrants were added to America’s melting pot by way of Galveston, lured by the smell of prosperity and the hope of the American Dream. But that was before The Hurricane.
In 1900, the deadliest storm ever recorded struck Galveston head on. Known as “The Galveston Hurricane of 1900” or, colloquially as “The Hurricane,” the storm took more American lives than any other storm either before or since and officially ended Galveston’s halcyon days as a major metropolitan city. The city would never recover from “The Hurricane” and today it is home to little more than a flotilla of shrimp boats, a small army of retirees and the headless friend of a member of the Dupont family. The aroma of prosperity has been replaced by the smell of low tide mixed with mothballs.
It was this smell which greeted me when I arrived in Galveston for the first time in 1985, shortly after the death of my grandfather. My mother, my grandmother and I were in town to visit some relative or another, and retrieve photographs of the deceased. I’d never met this relative, and quite honestly, from the age of the photographs in which she appeared, I assumed her to be dead. When I got my first noseful of Galveston’s briny air, I silently wished she were.
My grandfather worked at a spring factory, had lost most of his right hand in an accident, had served in the 101st Airborne Regiment in WWII, and had been shot down over Germany and spent time in a German prison camp. He would come home from work on Fridays with a case of beer on each arm, ice them both down in a big red cooler on the porch and then sit outside drinking beer with salt sprinkled on the top of the can, smoking cigarettes one after the other. I’d sit with him, and together we’d watch the light fade from the Earth until the only thing I could see was his face, highlighted in orange as he took a drag from his cigarette. On those nights, it felt like we were the only two people on the planet.
He gave me my first taste of beer, taught me how to ride a motorcycle (mainly by watching) and in more ways than I can count, showed me what it meant to be a man and a Texan. I have his hat in my closet and carry his knife in my pocket. Cancer took his life and left me the knickknacks. As the aroma of Galveston struck me full-on, I wished I was spending time with him instead of digging through old boxes in a stupid little town in an ugly old house with a person I’d never met. I knew it was wrong, but to my child’s mind, the trade made perfect sense. “I’ll trade you an unknown old lady card for the grandfather.” But life doesn’t work like that.
If the eyes are the window to the soul, the nose is the back door. Our memories of things, places and events are inextricably tied to our memories of their smells. Sharing space in my mental repository with other suggestive aromas is the putrid stench of decomposing aquatic life mixed with the chemical tang of naphthalene. The combined power of these heady nasal irritants literally took away my asthmatic breath in 1985, but today, owing to the electrochemical voodoo of my mind, I associate their smell with one of the most unexpectedly best times of my life from which a succession of great, somewhat-related memories which have followed.
To explain the first step on the road to Mario smelling like mothballs, allow me to share a secret about assumed-to-be-dead relatives: They usually have lots of cool stuff lying around, and my great-something-or-another in Galveston was no exception. A few moments after my mother and I arrived in her home, I was presented with a box of Archie comics, which had been waiting in a secret closet of mystery on the off chance that a child might happen by with a few days to kill. And so, while my mother and my grandmother retired with Mrs. Assumed-to-be-dead to dig up photos of the deceased, I ensconced myself in a spare bedroom, in this house, in the town that smelled of mothballs, and set about escaping into a box full of wonder.
Archie comics aren’t Great Literature by any stretch, but Archie, Jughead and Veronica seemed to me to be ambassadors from a forgotten age, wooing me with their hints at a life that used to be. Half of the jokes barely made sense almost 30 years after their publish (Archie stands behind Veronica’s latest suitor, preparing, the suitor assumes, coffee for his guest. “One lump or two,” Archie asks, his upraised fist clenching a cudgel), but the clarity of the narrative and brightly colored panels spoke to me; took me away from my pain, transporting me to a place where even conflict is funny.
It was, not to put too fine point on it, as close to Nirvana as I’d yet gotten, before I even knew what that word meant. My mind began to consider the possibility that not all surely-dead relatives are created equal, that even the worst pain will pass and that sometimes, the memories of the past can help heal the wounds of the present, and however we cherish those memories, however we preserve them, we’re better off for their presence. Mothballs, in other words, can sometimes be a good thing.
The terminal slowly filled to maximum occupancy levels. Mothers, daughters, aunts, uncles, crying babies, gun-toting National Guardsmen, frustrated airline workers and potential terrorists were all cramming as close as they possibly could to where they guessed the line would form once the gate attendants started collecting boarding passes, sharing breath in one of the oldest cities of what was once the melting pot of the world. Most failed to notice that they held “Zone 237” tickets, and would inevitably be in the way of the 200 some-odd passengers ahead of them in line. Either that or they didn’t care. Holiday travel tends to send altruism straight out the window.
I made rude comments to myself about the nature of selfishness, completely failing to note the irony as I monopolized the terminal’s entire allotment of power plugs by recharging my laptop and GBA simultaneously. I also, I must admit, was barely aware of the hubbub, having spent The Wait escaping into the mothball-scented Land of Mario, via an assortment of GameBoy cartridges assembled from the entire lifespan of the device’s various incarnations.
I’d spent the previous weeks visiting every game store within driving distance, asking permission to look through their used GameBoy game cabinet and returning home with bags full of treasures for a song. Each expedition, each venture into each locked cabinet and each triumphant return reminded my mind’s nose of the preservative tang of naphthalene, and the postponed joy and borrowed memories made possible through that singularly noxious miracle of science.
That memories of Galveston should also fill my mind during the Christmas holiday (at Logan Airport of all places), is no mere happenstance. Nor is it coincidence that my fondest memories of escape seem always to be tinged with the deepest pains of grieving, and among the most putrid smells imaginable. For as I occupied The Seat, dwindling away the long minutes of The Wait, I enjoyed my latest escape, and tried not to think too much about my latest, perhaps deepest loss. One which I knew I’d survive (perhaps better off), but which hurt nonetheless. I didn’t know my wife as long as I knew my grandfather, and she’s certainly not deceased, but I loved her, and she’s nevertheless lost to me.
As I flew that day to the only place left that felt like home, I spent time with my old friends Mario and Zelda, catching up on their adventures and laughing at old jokes. I was 10 years old again, and working hard, again, to exhaust a seemingly inexhaustible supply of serial entertainment in the hope of finding peace through escape. I was on a plane smelling faintly of old upholstery, peanuts and kerosene, but in my mind it smelled like mothballs.
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He has written and produced for television, theatre and film, has been writing on the web since it was invented and claims to have played every console ever made.