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Commentary Detail

Olfactory Memories of 1993
Commentary by: Mark Shook
Aired June 26, 2008

Scientists say that our sense of smell is capable of triggering strong memories. Every time I detect the presence of mildew, I think of floods.

That summer of 1993, I spent a good deal of my vacation time working as a social service interviewer for the Red Cross. My job was to listen to the stories of flood victims, assess their immediate emergency needs, and then authorize the cash vouchers which would help them get started on the road to recovery. It was important work but it was not front line stuff. I got to see pictures of the devastation which often accompanied the stories, but I had no first hand experience of the damage caused by the flood. Then a friend with a small business in the flood zone asked me if I could help him and his family to salvage what remained of their store.

When I walked into the store my friend was power-washing the floor. The six inch layer of mud was barely moving. He had been at it for three hours. The waterline of the flood was clearly visible, less than a foot below the 12 foot ceiling. I did not notice the fragrance of mildew at the time because their were so many other pungent odors competing for my attention. For months afterward I could still smell the mildew. It was as if it had invaded my nasal passages and set up light housekeeping.

Tornados are devastating and terrifying. But when they are gone, the restoration can begin immediately. Floods take days and even weeks to dissipate and the damage continues long after the news vans move on to the next big story. Sand bag volunteers are important, but when the flood has passed, that is when the heartbreaking work of recovery begins. Let us not forget that.

(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)

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Mark Shook

Mark Shook


Mark Shook is Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Israel.

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