Summer in El Cajon blisters the bougainvillea and scares lizards into hiding. Birds go silent. In the forties, before air conditioning, women sat in front of electric fans, their dresses drawn up to their thighs, and maybe a secret glass of Jack Daniels in their hand. Men swore in the heat and mopped their necks with a kerchief.
Back then, acres of raisin grape vineyards lined East Main Street. In summer, the vines twisted on their wooden crosses, stunned by the heat. Down Main Street to the west sat W.D. Hall Lumberyard. On the way to our cabin in La Cresta, my parents and I sometimes stopped there for nails or some board lengths for doing repairs.
Out in the open lumberyard, in summer, the heat liquefied the sap in stacks of pine two by fours, two by eights, two by tens. It oozed down the sides, creating a sweet mountain smell that mixed with the dry dirt scent of the decomposed granite underfoot.
But that was only a preview. We weren’t always invited to go into the rare woods room since we weren’t in the market for those spendy boards, but sometimes an employee would invite us there, out of the heat, for a quick look.
The long, narrow room stretched upward almost into darkness. It felt cool. Against the walls leaned boards that must have been ten or twelve feet tall. The clean, heady smell that saturated the air was a mix of teak’s spicy, paved-road scent with a tang of sweet and peppery, walnut’s odor so much like the nut, only moist like a forest floor, and cherrywood, actually smelling like cherries crossed with bark. And there was maple, a woodish version of maple syrup. Mahogany like nothing so much as a country dirt road. Alder faintly smelling like rubber; and oak smelling like a faraway swamp. There would also have been some woods that can’t be imported today like flowery Brazilian rosewood and Hawaiian koa, which smells like a warm bakery.
When the thermometer hit triple digits in El Cajon, we were often tempted to go by W.D. Hall less for wood and nails than for the rare woods room. You could close your eyes there and let the scents of those hardwoods take you somewhere else. Somewhere cool. Sweet. Unforgettable.
- Anitra Carol Smith