Marhaban Min Janub Florida

That’s a terrible transliteration of “Hello from south Florida” from Arabic, but since most of you have never used military standard transliteration systems, I figured only a few rocks would be thrown this way.

Memory is a strange, and powerful, thing. Supposedly the sense of smell is the strongest link for most people. I don’t doubt that in the least. Today I was watching a video of a Sheriff on patrol in Ramsey County, Minnesota. His name is Bob Fletcher, and the broadcast is called Live on Patrol. (Not to be confused with On Patrol Live on the REELZ network.)

At any rate, my wife and I enjoy the show because he cruises all the places I grew up in, and where we lived for the previous 28 years. It’s like being home for a visit. I lived there most of my life, and the instant the live feed comes on I can usually tell you where he is within a block or two. I love that and it is fun to watch for us. But we’re old and boring, so there.

This day I could smell the grass as he drove around. I could tell what it smelled like by the color. Minnesota summer generates a certain odor and it’s distinct from Florida where I live now. That smell also hits me when he drives past certain restaurants I’ve walked past for decades: they each have a unique odor. It tugs at my heart more than a bit. I felt like I was run out of my birthplace early by the violence that followed the riots. It was time to leave, and watching Sheriff Fletcher on patrol tells me we made the right decision: things are not good in the Twin Cities. Ramsey county doesn’t yet circle the drain, but it will be pulled down with Minneapolis and Hennepin country before long.

So, now that I’ve covered the most common sensory/memory link, let’s talk about my top linkage: sound and memories. I think this one applies to a lot of former military linguists. Our lives, and those of others, depended on our hearing and discernment. We were very well trained listeners, and most of us got really good. We got so good, in some cases, we could tell what kind of radio they were transmitting on, what kind of vehicle it was (helicopter, tank, fighter) by background noises. All of which mattered, since most likely a tank was no threat to your submarine, but an Anti Submarine Warfare helicopter was a big deal.

Last night we didn’t feel like watching television or doing anything else but read. I pulled up a channel that played R&B from my youth, and we listened for hours. I know all of the words. Some are wrong, but I know them. And they all evoke memories. 

The number one on my list of memory shakers was STOP IN THE NAME OF LOVE by the Supremes. I sat there and sang along, in Arabic, with my eyes closed.

Why Arabic? Because in 1985 I was in a basic Arabic class with a dozen of the smartest people in the military. We were unique, as our section had collected the cream of the class. And, because we were smart and strange, we used our dictionaries extensively. As a result, when we learned one of the words in that song (and I don’t remember which word) we realized we knew a bunch of the others as well. We looked up the rest. 

Within a couple of days we were ready. The instructor, who we called “Elvis from Baghdad” because of his hairstyle (he was a really good guy), walked in and we stood up and four or five of us sang the song, in Arabic, with all the hand gestures and swaying. In uniform. Camouflage, working Navy uniforms, and Marine Corps greens. 

And we killed it. He was surprised and gave us a slow clap before telling us to shut up and get to work. High praise from him. 

Well, last night after I sang along to the song, I realized I’d forgotten a few of the words. After I went to bed, my brain engaged and talked to me all night in Arabic. For starters we did the whole song in that classroom just like we did 37 years ago. All the words. And then the rest of the night I had a ton of dreams in Arabic. Vocabulary, and situations from decades ago, cascaded through the night. 

I woke up this morning smiling. All that hard work and study were not lost. It was all there waiting for me to reach out to it. 

I can still smell that room when I pause a moment: starch, cigarettes, coffee, and the warm sunshine of Monterey heating the dust on the windows. 

I like that feeling. I can only hope tonight I dream of bakeries.  


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Joseph Courtemanche

About Joseph Courtemanche

I'm a conservative Christian author who's been happily married for over 30 years. I am a Veteran of the United States Navy, Naval Security Group. I speak a few languages, I have an absurd sense of humor and I'm proud to be an American.


Marhaban Min Janub Florida — 1 Comment