Sunday Life Magazine, The Sun-Herald, Sydney Edition
November 22, 1998

Odour eater

Paul McDermott remembers the plastic fantastics of his youth

I have searched the world over and over and never found it again. Occasionally, like a face long forgotten, it appears in a crowd, surfaces for a second, and disappears. I once thought I caught a shiff of it in Morocco once. In desperation I followed a decaying series of passageways to a sweltering market, where in the mix of exotic spices and animal droppings I lost it.

We all have smells that awaken buried memories; these odours are personal and individualistic and have a significance which is all their own. Smell can provoke memories more powerful and all-encompassing than any other: it's when the olfactory receptors and the much-maligned nose prove their worth. With a single sniff, they cause the head and heart to swim with an overwhelming rush of nostalgia.

The smell I picked up on that street and lost was the acrid, artificial fragance of a transparent plastic bag. A bag I bought for a pittance from a corner shop when I was seven. A bag which contained little green American World War Two soldiers. A smell I have searched for in vain all my life.

As a child I gnawned on any object I could get my flouride-enhanced calcium-deprived pegs around. All manner of toys, plants and furniture suffered at the the hands of my teeth. I spent many an idyllic afternoon licking lead or gnawing on aluminium saucepans. But that all changed when I purchased "the bag". I'd been attracted to the pack because of the graphic cardboard seal depicting the D-day landing with liveral splashes of blood and death and, of course, the strong smell emanating from it. The stench was so artificial, so fake, so disagreeable, it scented the entire store with the odour of cheapness.

At home, in the privacy of my room, I ripped off the cardboard and a powerful charge of aromas enveloped my head. From that second I was lost. The plastic of the bag had fumigated and permeated the soldiers. Each one carried a hint of that special pong. I couldn't resist and chewed on the muzzle of an M-16. Before long I had attacked the entire platoon. A leg here, an arm there, a tiny radio pack. Limbs hung loosely on tendons of stringy green plastic, snipers lost their head, foot soldiers were unable to stand after I ate their pedastals; it was carnage. The army that had emereged whole and fragrant was reduced to a dirty dozen rag-tail lepers. I needed more.

When I returned to the corner shop they were all sold out. No doubt word had spread like wildfire among the junior hedonists in the area. All that remained on the rack were crappy Sherman tanks, amphibious vehicles, and vanity sets moulded in hard, unfogiving synthetic. I have reason to believe that the special plastic I loved has since been banned. I have little doubt it was poisonous and yet I would give almost anything to find it again. Over the years I've searched. I have stood in toy shops sniffing the air - I once ate a relative's Christmas present, but it's never the same.

How fortunate we are to live in this age of the artificial, this time of plastic, not because of the multitude of uses, but the smell. How many generations have gone to the grave without experiencing the intoxicating odour of rubber on a hot day? How dull the scent of lavender when compared to latex? Was there ever a product that was so good to put in your mouth and so stupid to swallow?

PS: I realised, later in life, that the injustice I'd inflicted upon my men depicte, visually, the true horrors of war. The happy-go-lucky, gun-toting group of healthy-minded, whole-limbed infantry was replaced by gnarled stumps of spittle-ridden plastic. But, unlike society, I chose not to remember the brave ones who fought for my freedom. I left them forgotten and discarded at the back of a drawer to gather dust. There were no ticker- tape parades, no welfare, no support. Eventually they were buried in an unmarked shoe box, in a shallow grave, beneath a house brick.

-Paul McDermott
-Typed up by VellaB