Ooh, that smell

For parents who work at home, the household watchword is: "What's that smell?"

We spend much of our time sniffing, searching, trying to find that stinky sweatsock stuffed in the heater vent or that putrid apple core carefully hidden under a bed.

The nose becomes a liability when children are around.

It begins with dirty diapers, Mother Nature's alarm system. If diapers didn't smell awful, parents would never know when Baby's got a load. Baby, happily gurgling, wouldn't mention it. Even attentive parents wouldn't notice until it became apparent that Baby couldn't roll over because his diaper was all whop-sided.

The malodors continue as children grow up. They're regular manufacturers of smells, which explains the origins of the word "olfactory."

For instance, there are all the various permutations of soured milk. Moldy food. Sneakers. Not to mention assorted bathroom smells, most centered around unfamiliar concepts such as "aim" and "flush."

Add a dog into the family equation and the stenches multiply. Dog owners develop highly sensitive noses, able to distinguish "Eau de Dead Bird" from other scents on a canine's breath. If you have a dog, car trips begin like this: Sniff, sniff. "OK, everybody check their shoes!"

The latest musty mystery at our house emanated from my 10-year-old son's school backpack. The backpack is the standard elementary school model, which is to say it has 30 zippers and 20 pockets and weighs about 75 pounds. It developed a peculiar aroma, which is to say it stank. It smelled so bad we could barely stand to share the car with it for the 10 minutes it takes to drive to school.

Now we all knew that said son has been known to leave the remains of sack lunches in that backpack for extended periods of time. More than once, I had removed a soaked-through sack from the backpack and, holding my breath, hurried with it to the trash as if it were on fire. But the smell somehow had penetrated the vinyl lining of the backpack, we believed, until the backpack itself stank. Time to wash it.

This was no simple matter. Many treasures and toys and pages of old homework hide in the recesses of a school backpack. Everything must be removed before it can go into the washer.
I put my son in charge of emptying all the pockets and went about my business. A few minutes later I heard this: "Aaaaaagh!"

Being a calm, experienced parent, I sprinted into his room to find him holding up a Ziploc bag filled with an unidentifiable glurch. The liquescent substance inside was a kaleidoscope of colors, dominated by orange and white. It looked like an astronaut's lunch. And there was no doubt it was the producer of the vile smell.

I hustled the bag of reek to the outside trash bin, buried it under other refuse and slammed the lid. Then I counted the days until the garbage truck would take it away. My calculations were sound. The offending item was removed to the landfill before neighbors could complain to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

We washed the backpack anyway. And someday, we hope, it won't smell bad anymore.

My, you're thinking, that's about the worst stink story I've ever heard. Well, steel yourselves. I can top that one, but I've got to go back about 30 years.

One summer, my parents' Thunderbird developed a terrible odor. It just kept getting worse. Drove my father nuts. He looked under the hood. He crawled around under the car, checking the fender wells for dead cats. Nothing. The smell got so bad that you practically could see it rising off the car like heat waves. Finally, after weeks of searching, the source of the aroma was located. My younger brother had stuffed an Easter egg in the never-used, back-seat ash tray.
Since months had passed since Easter, the egg had plenty of time to develop toxic properties. My parents traded the car off a short time later, and I think they took a loss.

The point of all this? Our government has overlooked a societal ill, one that could be remedied if gas masks were issued to all new parents. I'm planning a letter-writing campaign. Starting with the EPA.

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