Dean Poling: Don't bogart that incense, my friend

Jan. 28—The old man needed to find incense.

Several weeks ago. A work Christmas party. Names and desired gifts written on slips of paper. Names drawn. Incense was the top desired gift for the name he drew. A specific brand of incense.

The last time the old man had dealt with incense had been 40-plus years earlier on a scout camping trip. Another scout brought the incense. Several scouts gathered in a tent. The incense was lit and the boys waited for something to "happen."

Two things happened.

One, the tent smelled like someone had set fire to their mothers' cooking spices.

Two, a scout leader threw back the flap of the tent and accused the boys of lighting incense to cover up the smell of marijuana.

The scout leader was older, had raised teenage kids in the 1960s and it being the 1970s then, he assumed the scouts were smoking weed. None of the scouts had any marijuana. Incense was about as subversive as the evening was supposed to get and that subversion led only to yelled accusations and clothes that smelled like burnt paprika.

The scout who brought the incense said he only lit it because he found the scent calming. The scout leader was not appeased but since he couldn't find anything harsher than incense, he told us all to return to our tents and get to sleep.

Decades later, now, the old man recalled this incident from his youth as he sought places that might not only sell incense but sell the desired brand name of incense on the slip of paper.

He'd procrastinated. The evening before the Christmas party. He realized the obvious choice for the incense about 10 minutes after the obvious shop that likely carried the incense had closed.

His wife suggested trying a smoke-type shop. A place that sells smokes. Sounded like a plan. They drove to such a shop. In the well-lighted shop window, a sign not only advertised incense but the brand of incense desired.

The man thought for possibly the millionth time that he was a genius for marrying such a smart and resourceful woman.

They entered the shop.

The man behind the counter eyed the couple — both in their 50s — who entered the store. The shop clerk looked at the couple as if they might be casing the joint, as if the couple might be on a secret undercover assignment of some sort of official capacity rather than as an old man who needed to get a gift for the office Christmas party.

Looking around the shop, the old man immediately understood the clerk's reasons for suspicions and better understood his scout leader's lumping incense as a gateway to doom so many decades ago.

Numerous bongs and pipes and other items lined the shelves. All sorts of shapes and sizes and colors and varieties.

The old man was not shocked by these items. After all, he had not always been a scout nor had he always been an old man. He'd been around and seen things before but he had never spent much time on the incense scene.

That was a revelation.

Dozens of scents were available. Veritable bouquets of incense sticks jammed into slots. Some with obvious scent names such as sandalwood; others with mysterious scents such as voodoo ... what does voodoo smell like? The old man not only discovered the scent but the scent was soon stuck to his fingers.

The couple inserted various scents into long plastic sleeves. The old man asked if the shop sold gift cards that way he could buy a few sticks and his Secret Santa person could buy the scents she preferred. No, the clerk said, watching the couple closely.

The sticks were marked for individual sale. The man had about five sticks each in a couple of different plastic sleeves. The clerk said he would charge for 10 sticks per sleeve even if there were less that 10 in a sleeve. The old man responded with, so that means you'll only charge me for 10 if I shove about a dozen in each sleeve, right? It was a joke. The clerk was not amused.

The old man bought roughly 70 incense sticks. The clerk seemed relieved to see the couple leave.

The wife instructed the old man to place the incense in the trunk so her car would not smell like the kaleidoscope of scents emitting from the sleeves.

They began driving home, laughing at the clerk's suspicions of an older couple in the store. Their son called. They shared their exploit with him.

The son listened, then asked, "You're taking incense to an office party? Doesn't your work have a drug testing policy?"

The old man thought he heard a thread of the long departed scout leader in his son's voice. Then the old man paraphrased Freud, "Sometime an incense stick is just an incense stick."

Dean Poling is an editor with The Valdosta Daily Times and editor of The Tifton Gazette.