Kerosene Dreams

28 10 2010

There are sights and sounds and tastes that just make me sentimental. You know, it’s like when that 80’s song on the radio reminds you of the teenager you were, and the really embarrassing clothes you wore. Or the taste of cookies that as a young child you used to “help” your mother bake, and that she always yelled at you for eating too much of her yummy (raw) cookie dough.

Well, there is also a scent that reminds me of another life I had – of a time and place I felt like I was out changing the world (for the better, of course), or at least getting the world to listen up, pay attention and think. It was also a time when I still believed the values of democracy would easily and swiftly destroy the Taliban. (And boy, were we all wrong about that one, huh?)

One frosty autumn morning not long ago, on my way to work, when the sky was clear and the breeze was just so, this sharp, trenchant aroma out of my deep and distant past showed up and literally socked me between the eyes.

Sniff, sniff…Could it be?… Ahhhhhhhh…

Jet fuel.

In a split second, the biggest adventure of my journalistic life appeared before me like a vision. I was ten years younger and standing on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Carl Vinson in the middle of the Arabian Sea, the hellish noise of afterburners thundering into the core of my being. It was my introduction to – among other things – what it felt like to be shrouded in a cloud of jet fuel.

At the time, I was a freshly minted private pilot and couldn’t get enough of aviation in all its fascinating shapes and forms. The F/A-18 “Hornet” fighter jet was a far cry from my Cessna 152 single engine piston trainer, and not on the list of aircraft I ever thought I’d get to know up close and personal. But here I was, standing open-mouthed about five feet from a whole gaggle squadron of them.

I was on the ship for a reason, which my editor at the other end of a satellite phone never ceased to point out. But being the carrier-rookie-nerd that I was at the time, it was really tough to tear myself away from the delicate choreography of human and high-tech aircraft unfolding before me – with one of the biggest and most sophisticated naval vessels ever built as the stage, in a theater so very far from home.

That was the first of numerous trips to the region for me, a reporting adventure in several chapters, over the course of two years. Again and again I had the privilege of hanging around jet fuel, and it became a really good friend. In the spirit of true companionship, it even took the trouble to penetrate my clothes, cling to my hair, settle on my skin and comfortably infiltrate my consciousness.

Inhale deeply, savor the scent. Ahhhhhhhh...

It’s been almost a decade since then, and the Taliban has still not gone gentle into that good night. Like the irritating relative who just doesn’t know when enough is enough, it sits around and lingers on the sofa long after the party’s over, making crude jokes and finishing off your expensive whiskey.

Jet fuel, on the other hand, is an exceedingly agreeable guest, and welcome back any time.