It hit me like a brick thrown in the middle of the night. I didn’t know where it was coming from, but I instantly knew its source. Returning home after a long weekend, Mary Lou and I passed a freshly plowed peanut field. “Smell those peanuts”, we both said at the same time.
I have written about this smell before, but it provokes powerful memories for me that I can’t shake, nor do I want to. The first memory of the smell is sitting in a truck with my Mom while my Dad was fixing some piece of machinery in a peanut field at night.
I breathed that earthy scent in deep and part of it has remained in me forever. It meant so many things to me as a young child. It meant there would soon be some money for new school clothes. It meant that my dad and mom would be working some long hours for the next few weeks, which meant a few more hamburgers from Pauline’s City Café than normal.
The smell signaled that school was about to start and that the National Peanut Festival was not far behind. The smell meant that cool weather was not too far behind and that fun times at Compass Lake were over for the year.
There was no air conditioning in our house when I was young, so you could smell the peanuts from the nearby fields over the din of the dryer motors. The dryers hummed all night, just far enough away to not keep me awake.
A few years later, the smell meant that I would be getting up and going to work on weekends at 6 a.m. I would work at the peanut mill after school and then do my homework after I got home.
I would work like a dog, get as filthy as a boy can be, and become hard as a rock while swinging on a suction pipe transferring the peanuts out of every kind of truck and trailer imaginable.
I learned to crank a 1940s model truck years before I could legally drive, taking pride in being able to start old junk vehicles that had no purpose other than to get peanuts to town once a year.
Later I would sit with my father on the steps of the mill office, just after the last load of peanuts had been purchased and unloaded. Our talks during those times were some of the best memories I have of my Dad. More than once, one of us would comment about how good the peanut harvest smelled.
Give me a bit of forbearance for writing about the first smell of a newly plowed peanut field year after year. It is a trigger for me that instantly opens up a floodgate of memories taking me to the very core of who I was as a boy and how I became a man.
The smell of the field, the dust in the warehouse, the whiff of the wet peanuts on the trucks and later dried peanuts in the trailers all intertwine to capture the first 30 years of my life into a simple scent.
I watched my dad become more successful than he ever dreamed because of a simple plant that we grew, bought, processed and sold. Peanut season was part of our family for four generations. Thirty three years after I bought the last peanuts from a farmer, the smell still invokes the same visceral reaction every year.
Just as it is in Southwest Georgia today, the fragrance of freshly plowed peanuts was the smell of money. Now it is also the annual reminder of what a good life I had and how blessed I was to be raised in that kind of hard working environment.
I may travel the world today, but my roots will always be right back here in that freshly plowed field of southern peanuts.
Dan Ponder can be reached at [email protected]