Suzanne's Perfume Journal

So begins author Tim O’Brien’s story, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”, from his book, The Things They Carried (a novel-in-stories about the Vietnam War, published in 1990 and a runner up for the Pulitzer Prize). It’s not the first story I would trot out if I wanted to convince someone to read this book; in fact, it is the only story in the book that I would label as eerie and dark—and it is essential for that reason. Because O’Brien tells the tale of the foot soldier in writing that is remarkably clear-eyed and luminous—so much so it leaves one crying to read him—one could almost forget that war is a theater that unfolds from the savagery and strangeness that beats within us. But sandwiched in between these graceful and illuminating stories, arriving midway through the book, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” jolts the reader back into remembering, its surreality functioning almost as a reality check.

The sweetheart in question is Mary Anne—long-legged and blonde, flirtatious and fresh-faced. She would have to be fresh-faced to show up in Vietnam wearing white culottes and a pink sweater. Mary Anne steps out of a helicopter as if from a dream, stunning the nine men stationed at this isolated medical detachment near Tra Bong village, in part because they can’t believe that her boyfriend actually managed to fly her in, and in part because she is the American dream girl they hold in their hearts. Only seventeen and from small-town Ohio, she has dated Mark Fossie since sixth grade and plans to marry him when he gets home from the war. Indeed, the two of them seem attached at the hip from the moment she disembarks from the chopper, but Mary Anne is bubbly and friendly enough to the other men that she seems to belong to all of them. They enjoy watching her play volleyball in the afternoons in her cutoffs and black bathing suit top, or dancing in the evening to the music from Rat Kiley’s portable tape deck. That she has the freedom to do these things, and they the freedom to watch her, is due to their remote outpost. There are no officers here, only the medics, whose job is to provide acute trauma care for casualties that arrive by helicopter and are then shipped out to hospitals. The work is gory and involves a lot of amputations, but the casualties don’t arrive every day. And while reminders of war are everywhere—the area is booby-trapped with mines, and a group of Green Berets (that most secretive and animal-like brand of Special Forces soldier) occupies a hut at the edge of the compound—mostly the war is not happening here, so security is lax.

So, what does a girl do when she is surrounded by men but bored of volleyball? Probably not what you’re thinking. In Mary Anne’s case, when the war unloads its casualties, she gets right into the thick of helping out. She may be naïve but in a couple days’ time she knows how to clip an artery and deliver a shot of morphine, and when away from the operating room learns other skills as well: how to disassemble an M-16 and then how to use one; how to cook rice over a Sterno can; how to converse a bit in Vietnamese. Soon she is pestering Mark Fossie to take her into the village: she wants to see how the natives live. The thought of entering enemy territory doesn’t faze her.

At first he is proud of her, but when Mary Anne replaces her culottes with green army fatigues, cuts her hair short and wraps it in a green bandana, Mark suggests that it’s time for her to go home. And when she ignores him and starts staying out late at night—then disappears one night altogether and comes trooping in the next morning in full ambush attire and in the accompaniment of the Green Berets—it begins to dawn on everyone but him that maybe she is home. A shouting match followed by a more private altercation with Mark will land her back in her old clothes, and to the distant observer their relationship will appear repaired. But eventually Mary Anne disappears again, and the next time he finds her she is standing in the Green Berets’ hut wearing a necklace that would give the most savage of witch doctors a scare.

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I will admit that it is melodramatic of me to use “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” as a jumping off point to discuss the perfume I’m about to describe. It might give one the impression that the perfume is too weird or strange to wear, and for a number of perfumistas, that’s not the case. Yet quite truthfully, Creature by Kerosene is an oddball perfume and this story really did come to mind the first time I wore it. Creature reminds me of Mary Anne’s descent into the heart of darkness—her seduction by the Greenies, her seduction by that previously unknown territory that lies at her core. Creature is so relentlessly green and wild smelling that wearing it is an exercise of surrendering to the jungle. And when you look at its list of notes, you’ll see that I’m not exaggerating. They include sweet birch, mint, lemon, jasmine, green tea, sage, violet leaves, cypress, cedar, patchouli, and moss. To my mind, at least six of these essences are green, and aside from the jasmine, they aren’t softened up by anything you would call sweet.

On my skin, Creature doesn’t change much: the wintergreen smell of sweet birch and the equally bracing scent of mint are quite pronounced, yet the scent doesn’t remind me of toothpaste or mouthwash. The fragrance overall has a weedy mint smell coupled to an accord that smells like pond moss or some form of vegetal decay. Wild mint meets swamp water would be a good description, and the feeling it gives off is of thick vegetation growing in a damp area. The cucumber-like smell of violet leaves coupled to the hazy, wet-dog-in-a-forest smell of moss produces a jungle dampness, to my nose. It acts as a foil to the airy, high-pitched smell of wintergreen and mint, tugging it down a few levels.

Creature isn’t a perfume I enjoy wearing, yet neither have I been able to walk away and stop thinking about it for more than a few months. Is it the nature lover in me that is intrigued, or is it the way it recalls the story of an innocent young woman who disappeared into that darkest area of human nature?


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No Ordinary Sweetheart: Creature by Kerosene

March 10, 2013:

There were times, apparently, when she took crazy, death-wish chances—things that even the Greenies balked at. It was as if she were taunting some wild creature out in the bush, or in her head, inviting it to show itself, a curious game of hide-and-go-seek that was played out in the dense terrain of a nightmare. She was lost inside herself. On occasion, when they were taken under fire, Mary Anne would stand quietly and watch the tracer rounds snap by, a little smile at her lips, intent on some private transaction with the war. Other times she would simply vanish altogether—for hours, for days.

And then one morning, all alone, Mary Anne walked off into the mountains and did not come back.

Vietnam was full of strange stories, some improbable, some well beyond that, but the stories that will last forever are those that swirl back and forth across the border between trivia and bedlam, the mad and the mundane. This one keeps returning to me. I heard it from Rat Kiley, who swore up and down to its truth, although in the end, I'll admit, that doesn't amount to much of a warranty. Among the men in Alpha Company, Rat had a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement, a compulsion to rev up the facts, and for most of us it was normal procedure to discount sixty or seventy percent of anything he had to say. If Rat told you, for example, that he'd slept with four girls one night, you could figure it was about a girl and a half. It wasn't a question of deceit. Just the opposite: he wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt. For Rat Kiley, I think, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around, and when you listened to one of his stories, you'd find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute and then multiplying by maybe.

Still, with this particular story, Rat never backed down. He claimed to have witnessed the incident with his own eyes, and I remember how upset he became one morning when Mitchell Sanders challenged him on its basic premise.

"It can't happen," Sanders said. "Nobody ships his honey over to Nam. It don't ring true. I mean, you just can't import your own personal poontang."

Rat shook his head. "I saw it, man. I was right there. This guy did it."

"His girlfriend?"

"Straight on. It's a fact."

Creature by Kerosene eau de parfum is by indie perfumer John Pegg and can be purchased at minnewyork.com, $140 for 100 ml. My review is based on a decant provided by another blogger, Christos of Memory of Scent.

Bottle image is from Fragrantica.com.

The Things They Carried, copyright © 1990 by Tim O'Brien (Originally published by Houghton Mifflin and reprinted in paperback by Broadway Books, a division of Random House New York, 1998, pp. 89-90 and 115)