A meditation from my flying days . . .
Rudyard Kipling described the feelings of a soldier far from home with a poem that opens “Smells are better than sound or sight for making your heart strings crack.” Over the years, we come to associate certain scents with places or events, such as pine scent with mountains or the sweet spices of clove and ginger with Christmas baking, perhaps at a Grandmother or Aunt’s house when we were children. In stories, the Devil is often associated with the sulphury stink of rotten eggs, and writers talk about “the metallic stench of death.” Fresh cut grass may evoke long, blissfully lazy summer afternoons, or winces of hard, hot work under pounding afternoon sun. It all depends on whom, when and where. For me, the scent of prairie grass means “airport.”
I don’t know which kind of grass it is that makes the sweet, cinnamony perfume that often blows on southwest winds. It’s probably close to, if not the same as, the one that makes the deceptively sweet, white smoke of burning short-grass. Whatever it is, I’ve come across the plant most often on the High Plains, from the Dakotas to Texas. Over the years, it has come to mean home, and a certain happiness sweeps through me whenever the drying wind carries the scent to my nose.
It was my first visit to a small airport in far western quarter of the state. The runway, while plenty long, was forty-three feet wide, raising both my eyebrows and my attention to any crosswind, which was minimal. The waiting ambulance whisked my med crew up to the own hospital, where they would meet our patient, confer with her doctors and get her ready to be flown to a bigger facility. I arranged things inside the plane, finished the paperwork and settled down on the top step of the air stair door to read.
The late morning air felt as perfect as it gets – not too warm, but comfortable in the shade of the plane. A steady south wind flipped the slightly tattered windsock before chasing bits of tickle grass over the asphalt ramp and off towards the town. A few cars whisked past on the road beside the airfield but no one stopped. Good weather, a good book and my favorite brand of soda pop made the wait very pleasant. And the wind blew cinnamon. Rich smelling, but not overpowering, threads of prairie grass scent drifted under my nose, reminding me how much I enjoy my work and the part of the country I do it in.
People used to airline travel and places like Wichita, Oklahoma City, Sioux Falls, and other city-surrounded airports don’t realize how different and important these small, rural airfields are. Don’t get me wrong—we need the O’Hares, DFWs and Denver Internationals of the world. But small airports provide stopping places for agricultural aircraft, for cargo operators, and air ambulances like mine. Not big or fancy, lacking control towers or radar antenna, these thousands of smaller airports form the backbone of much of aviation. And without the big jets and city scents, the cinnamon wind blows through.
I enjoy cinnamon airports. Some I enjoy more than others, but they all scratch an itch somewhere inside. Meadowlarks and a cinnamon-hinted breeze mean home to me.