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Gyms, young or old, are one smelly business

Updated on May 29, 2014

1930's Basketball action inside a gymnasium


This is what school is all about


I want to share, in my opinion, a near-scientific, socioeducational revelation with you: All gymnasiums smell the same.

In the 12 years of my schooling, the two I had to use, the grammar school gym and the high school gym--smelled exactly the same. Although the high school gym, which was brand, spanking new, and gave me hope that maybe in the next six years smells will be different, were not. The new high school gym was exactly-in-smell like the one in grammar school.

Frankly, when I would be sitting in class, daydreaming of Spider-Man or Jimi Hendrix' latest LP, I would get scared. I feared that some secret life force had moved under our gymnasiums and were planning to take over. Then it became clear as Kentucky moonshine. This is rural Hamilton, Ala., population: 5200, counting myself. No self-respecting life force would waste its time, energy, and spaceships taking over my hick town.

I say that in honesty and truth, but we in Hamilton had nothing but this smelly gym to offer these "beings" from worlds unknown. What an embarrassment. Our hometown, the laughing-stock of towns to be seized by space beings.

To set the mood, play this video now

Teens in the 50's doing a conga dance in their gym


Aneta Corsaut, as Jane Martin


Personally . . .

I think "the universal smell" of all high school gyms has a lot to do with the (Photo at the right), showing appropriately-dressed young people doing a wild dance called a "Conga Dance," where a leader forms a snake-like line and other teens hook to his line as it grows bigger and bigger--snaking its way through the gym causing teen yells and screams signifying fun, delight, and acceptance.

This underground, unearthly Conga Dance device worked like a charm. Soon, all teens across the U.S.A. were doing the Conga, sneaking smokes, even drinks of whiskey in bottles wrapped in brown paper bags they had stashed outside the gym--my Lord, "Mr. and Mrs. America!" Didn't you see this coming? Change. Awful, dreadful, life-shattering and shaking, change that could have been a nifty name for "the monster," the Conga unleashed. "Oh, no, Jane! Let's make a break for it! Here comes that monster called 'Change!'" young Steve Andrews yells as he drags his girlfriend, 'Jane Martin,' a home-ec assistant to safety.

"Yes, 'Billy,'" 'Jane' screams. "Someone had better call officer Jim!" (Officer Jim was the policeman who did believe Steve McQueen's character, Steve Andrews and his girlfriend, Jane Martin, played by Aneta Corsaut (later Helen Crump on the Andy Griffith Show.)

Sgt. Jim Bert was played by John Benson.

A brother poses with his sister at her graduation


As in all 50's horror flicks

Every "officer Jim," was focused on the "monster," or in this case, The Blob," instead of what caused the stinking life form. Saving free countries from this kind of adversity was not taught at the Police Academy, so film producers of the 1950's were stuck without answers by locals authorities.

So enter the United States military--Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy to get the job done. But sadly, I have strayed from my topic of all gymnasiums across America smelling exactly the same.

I am sure that the cult-classic, The Blob, was only fiction. And had nothing to do with this very-distinguishable smell that to me is a mixture of aroma's from a medical lab, a busy cow barn somewhere in Iowa, and model airplane glue.

If you have visited a high school gymnasium lately, you might have a different take on this smell that will stay with you from first to 12th. grade.

Kirk, Ross, Lyn Ulbricht at Ross' graduation


What "I" think of

when I step inside my grammar school or high school gym:

  • How the elite students ruled all aspects of our classes
  • The numerous depressing days and nights these jerks caused my friends and I, and inside our gymnasiums creating a class system.
  • Even the African-Americans not only noticed "the smell" of our gym, but the class structure the elite students created
  • The mental-dread from having to assemble in the smelly-gymnasium each morning from grade four through six

This is a silly thing. I know that this is what you may be thinking. The smell of my gymnasiums that were burned into my nasal passages as well as my memories, have been with me since 1961, when I transferred to the Hamilton Grammar School to finish my second semester of first grade.

I had started my school quest in 1961 at New Home School, a "wounded" set of country schools that were once important to my state of Alabama. But in 1966, the State Board of Education mercifully pulled the plug and shut-down all such schools.

And what is so scary about this story is even the outdated gym at New Home School had "that" smell. It was unavoidable. It would hit me each time I took the nickel that my mom had given me that morning for me to buy myself a cold soda at recess. I remember it so vividly. I would run to the old drink machine that you opened from the top, then reach inside and drag-out a Nehi peach drink in the bottle--what a taste of Heaven, America, freedom and peace.

Then, to my surprise, I would be hit by "that" certain gymnasium smell and hesitate before I took one sip of my cold soda. The smell was that influential. Plus being memorable, for now at age 60, it is as "fresh," as the first time the aroma writhed up my nose.

Even new gymnasiums have "that" smell


(Top) Class valedictorian, Class of '53, incidentally, the year I was born. (bottom) Smiling grad


Let me be clear. "This" seemingly-innocent gym smell has not harmed my family and I. Yet. So you can just relax in your designer-PJ's (with feet) and sip your soothing drink of cinnamon mixed with Dr Pepper. This drink would even soothe the dangerous animals shown on Animal Planet.

The main point of this piece was not only to warn you and give you plenty of time just in case you and your family have visiting dad's relic-of-a-gymnasium on your upcoming family vacation. Time was, this would be the ideal family outing.

Dad: "Look kids! There is the hoop where ol' dad scored the winning bucket to beat Withchester by two points. What a night."

Mom: "Kids, dad needs this moment."

Kids: "Ohhhh, no! Dad, what is "that" smell emanating from the gym floor? I, fe . .e . .l fu . . .n . . . . .n . . .y!" (drops to floor),

See what might have happened if I hadn't devoted some time to writing this hub?

But, if you insist on going on like a fearless Indiana Jones, go right ahead, but remember,

there are no Officer Jim's to help you out.


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    • Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

      Beth Eaglescliffe 

      4 years ago from UK

      I agree, the smell of school gyms is very distinctive. It's a mix of stale sweat, fear, excitement, old wood floors, rusting climbing bars and poorly waxed leather.

      Thanks for writing a memory-jogging article.

    • profile image

      Kenneth Avery 

      4 years ago

      Hi, Sheila . . .thank you for your kind comments. You and I cannot take-off to help with this study because you and I will be working tirelessly on the New Gilligan's Island for television.

      At least on their island there are NO smelly gyms. But this is weird, seriously-speaking.

      Hope the best for you. Come back anytime.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      I've never really given this topic much thought, but now that you mention it I agree. All gyms do smell the same. I went with my mom to one of her HS reunions down in TN. Since her class was so small, they decided to hold the reunion in the gym. It smelled exactly like the gym at my HS. Weird. I bet some scientist reads your hubs and decides to do a study on this phenomenon. Well ... probably not, but it would be interesting.


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