I love the smell of inner tubes. I love that plasticky, chemically bonded rubber smell which indicates summer is near. Growing up in a tiny mountain town where a swimming pool was as common as a traffic jam, the opportunity to swim came only a few magical times a summer. My Mom would have my sister and I crawl into the back seat of her red Datsun hatchback to drive us to the nearest big city -Gunnison, Colorado (population 5,700) and take us to the community pool.
There my Mom would break out the orange floaties we’d wear on our arms like bicep jewelry. My favorite accessory was our white and rainbow-colored inner tube. My sister and I would take turns blowing up the sacred, aromatic inflatable donut until our vision blurred and we became lightheaded, then we would pass on the inflation torch to the other. Getting dizzy was the first of several fun byproducts when playing with our summer inner tube. It became our best friend on those blistering hot and splashy days. The moment my Mom would pull our deflated buddy out of his package, the aroma of warm, melty plastic-y, plastic bliss would fill the air. From there we knew it was only minutes until we got to feel the cool, bright blue water on our skin.
Next came the slathering of sunblock to cover our pudgy exposed parts: our still squishy baby arms, legs and faces. Covered in a milky lotion that prevented us from turning any nearby doorknobs, we would impatiently wait in the shaded areas of the community pool until we had met two requirements by our mother:
- We had to wait fifteen minutes until the sunblock had officially “sunk in” to our precious skin.
- We had to make sure our food had digested so that we wouldn’t get a cramp.
Let me back up just a little bit to elaborate on these two key points. First off, my Mother was a child of both the 60’s and contradiction. She is a redheaded, freckle-faced, sun worshiping hippie. So while she bathed us in skin protectants to prevent our little bodies from getting harmed by the sun, she herself took to the opposite extremes to usher the sun to her skin like a southern belle welcoming in the newest members of the cotillion.
Her personal skin routine began with a repeated lathering of Hawaiian Tropic’s dark tanning oil all over her body until even her aura smelled like she’d stepped off the plane onto Fantasy Island. Then, when no coconut had been left unturned, she would lay out, squarely on the ground, on a giant rectangle of what I’m pretty sure was a sheet of aluminum foil. Astronauts could have used her as a beacon as she refracted more light than the sun itself. Once she knew that we were pool bound, she settled in to cook like a Momma casserole. Luckily my Mom has never been a fair skinned red-head, so her skin rarely burned, and in those glory years before skin cancer was known, by end of summer she was rocking a tropical goddess glow.
I remember my Mom having so many freckles they formed a constellation across her skin. I often would trace my fingers from freckle to freckle, playing “connect the dots”. If only we’d owned a set of magic markers, my Mother would have been covered in more ley lines than the finale of a Ghostbusters movie.
My sister and I were no strangers to getting the, “You have to let your food digest so you don’t get a cramp” lecture. We never really understood what getting a cramp felt like or looked like, but according to our mom, it meant certain doom. Restlessly we would wait that insufferably long fifteen minutes for our PB&J to make its way through our small intestine. (or was it the large intestine?) What often tripped us up, was if we’d snack again after the beginning of that fifteen minutes. I tell you what, it forced pause before taking another slurp of that Capri Sun. But finally, when our mom deemed our food officially digested, we were let off leash to discover the spoils of the community pool. This included dodging innumerable cannon balls, pee circles and lost goggles. We loved every minute of it, minus the pee circles. To be fair, chlorine treated water was as much the definition of summer fun as inner tubes, melted popsicles and charred eyebrows from rogue sparklers. (But that’s a story for another time, perhaps when I’m exploring the merits of fire safety.)
My fondness for the smell of inner tubes grew even stronger as I got older due to a near drowning experience. While visiting my grandmother at her new apartment complex called, “Little Turtle” (how this name came to be I am not sure. But there was giant turtle painted on the floor of the pool, so I guess that would be the tie in?) I accidentally jumped into the deep end of the pool. I should have looked more closely for the turtle’s shell which covered the perimeter of the shallow end. But I was an excited seven year-old and I mindlessly jumped in without my floaties. As I found myself slowly sinking to the bottom of the pool I noticed two things: the floor was much further than I had anticipated, and a donut shaped pink floating piglet was almost within arm’s reach. Clamoring to get to that pig, I flailed my arms as best I could, gasping for air as I bobbed up and down. Luckily that abandoned pig met my grasp and I was able to float my way back to the side of the pool where I flopped onto the cement like a caught fish, spewing out water and twitching. Oddly enough, no one seemed to notice and I certainly didn’t want there to be cause to keep me from swimming in the fancy pool here at Little Turtle. So after a few minutes of recovery, I ate a handful of Triscuits, found my pig rescuer and got back into the water for more play. It went unnoticed by everyone but me, but I knew, that inner tube saved my life.
Even now, if I smell that smell it triggers something nostalgic. Recently a friend of mine had purchased new rubber placemats for her kitchen table. I don’t know if it was the glittery hearts decorating its edges or just my innate sense of connection to that chemical compound, but before I could say, “Pretty glitter!” I was huffing those placemats like a professional. (By the way, is being a professional huffer a thing?) My friend initially thought I was a nut job until I invited her to partake in the sniffing festivities. Sure enough she happily joined me on the, “I’m a kid back at the pool” train.
I will say, not all inner tubes are created equal. After blowing out my tire in the middle of the desert last spring I had to take a trip to the nearest Costco to get a replacement tire. Happy gift to me! What’s that you say? How did you know I wanted to spend $120 on a tire this weekend? Oh you shouldn’t have!” As if the gift of a new tire wasn’t fun enough, I had to wait in their, I wanna say, tire waiting area? for an hour. Sitting on an arbitrary park bench inside the store, I was surrounded by hundreds of tires with a distinctly special aroma. It was as though my face had been thrust into a pool full of tar, formaldehyde, and feet. The air was thick and greasy and I had my choice between waiting outside in the brisk 112 degree weather of Palm Springs or continuing to stew in the juices of chemical warfare. Thankfully my sister reminded me we could go into the Cosco where we made a beeline for the free samples of fruit punch and quiches. Always so many quiches Costco. You guy really do love your quiches.
When I got my car back, the inside still had that effervescent odor imprinted into my upholstery. It was then my sister suggested we check to see if Costco had any inner tubes for sale. Perhaps we could just smash a deflated one to our noses the whole drive home. What a brilliant idea! The power of the summer floating donut should not be underestimated. So the next time you find yourself drifting carelessly down the lazy river at your favorite overcrowded water park, remember to give your floatie a little extra love. You never know what it might give back to you.