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Nonfiction: The Soapboard


My father was a collector of sorts. Not the kind of man that accumulated cars or coins or anything most people would perceive to be of value. Little chance we would discover dusty Pollock's and de Kooning's squirreled away in a basement corner, Dad unaware or unconcerned with the fortune that lived by the furnace. Paintings mysteriously acquired after World War II in trade for a bottle of port or a carton of cigarettes after a drunken night of revelry. Nothing that romantic or story-worthy. This was Montana.

He was an amasser of moments, choosing to collect strange symbols of place and time. There were dozens of baseball caps rimming the window of his den—filthy brims, sweat-stained headbands—commemorating golf outings, friendly electrical contractors, Rotary Club fundraisers, and long-forgotten conventions. Unspectacular gray rocks pulled from favorite rivers were piled high in the alley, with the unfulfilled pledge that someday he would construct a stone fence. Bowls overflowing with matchbooks sat on the coffee table, no longer destined to create fire, but instead celebrating special evenings at favorite taverns and restaurants.

But most unusual: his soap collection.

Hundreds of tiny bars of motel soap attached to a six by six-foot piece of worn brown corkboard with fuzzy pipe cleaners. One could almost comprehend and appreciate this assemblage if the soap commemorated memories in magnificent hotels—The Waldorf Astoria in 1955, a thick bar of Eau de Wonderful from the Ritz in Paris brought home after a magical second honeymoon—luxurious soaps placed in temperature controlled display cabinets for generations to enjoy. But Dad was a travelling salesman on a budget, spending his days piloting a wobbly Dodge station wagon around the West, the back overflowing with catalogs advertising gas pumps and steam cleaners, a supplier to men in steel-toed boots. He wore short sleeve Arrow dress shirts and skinny clip-on ties, a cracked plastic pocket protector overflowing with pens. He was a man that always carried a pocketknife and a clean white handkerchief.

Dad seldom ventured anywhere more glamorous than Spokane or Denver. Most of the soaps he collected were the tiny slivers delivered sparingly in cheap motels—acidic, often soggy bars that lived on the edge of stained tubs and mysteriously transformed into arrowhead sized soaplets after one rub of the armpit, from places called The C'mon Inn, The Butte Super 8, and Rusty's Motel in Forsyth, Montana.

Even as a kid, I had trouble comprehending the attraction, but was a big fan of the dad and lad camaraderie that resulted from the hobby. He would come home on Friday night and empty the week's bounty out of his worn leather Dop kit, the two of us spending a half hour before dinner cross legged on the frigid basement floor. Dad placed the soap against the corkboard, lining it up so I could wrap the flexible wire pipe cleaner around the bar and wind it through the nearest two holes, twisting the wire together in precise little knots on the back of the board. Jack's Motel in Malta, Buck's T4 in Big Sky, Budget Inn in Cody. Each bar a movie trailer for my father's stories:

The dead rat he found in the motel pool in Havre.
The hotel in Dillon with coin-operated television and a vibrating bed.
The great steakhouse next to the motel in Great Falls.
The motel in Polson that only charged six dollars a night.
The guy that had a heart attack and died in the room next to his in West Yellowstone.
The time he let his friend Wally sleeps in his bathtub in Jackson Hole.

There were the anonymous bars, lowest of the low in the world of motel soaps, that didn't bother to mention the establishment. Names like Lovely Lady and Camay, or the semi-anonymous Best Western. Even these were board-worthy, Dad licking the tip of his pen before making a tiny notation on the bottom of the bar.

Sometimes after a convention, or if he and Mom took a vacation, there would be a special bar, an almost full-sized model with ornate lettering from a famous hotel. It would receive special treatment, Dad fingering it gently, pointing at an embossed gold leaf logo. These bars would be placed on soap Fifth Avenue, a special section of the board for bars so big they required two pipe cleaners to properly mount. Dad would puff on his pipe, the two of us in sweet haze, the expensive soap a parable for my future.

"Son, work hard and be careful with your money, and someday you'll stay at The Ridpath in Spokane. Fanciest hotel you have ever seem. They serve these shrimp cocktails. Nothing shrimpy about them. Huge. When shrimp get really big, they call them prawns. Not sure why."

He'd smile and point at me with his pipe's mouthpiece, one hand rubbing back his crew cut, his eyes surprisingly tender. I'd see my reflection in his thick black framed glasses. "I know you're going to be a big success, and your board will probably be filled with nice hotels instead of motels. Fancy places with big lobbies and room service. I can't wait to see your soap board someday." He'd say it with such conviction I'd believe him. This from a man who more than once probably spent the night in his car so his family could live a little bit better.

One night my sister brought home a new boyfriend from college, a sketchy frat boy we struggled to like. Dad gave him the soap board tour, which he greeted with smirks and smart-assed remarks my father mistook for compliments, Dad from a world that had no need for sarcasm. I wished I were a few years older so I could drag the kid into the alley and throw him headfirst into a dumpster. That night he was relegated to what passed for the basement guest room, technically a squeaky World War II-era rollaway mattress covered by my dead grandmother's quilt. The bed sat in the corner of the unfinished concrete tomb, separated from my sister's room by the furnace, twenty steps, the kitchen, and Dad's watchful eye. Two days after the kid left we discover he had removed one of our rarest specimens, an almost full-sized bar from The Fairmont in San Francisco, brought back from the 1972 Tokheim Pump convention. Dad emitted a sad little moan when we find the wrapper mangled, carelessly tossed in the bathroom garbage can like the bloody clothing of a murder victim. The bar, half melted in a soap dish, still slimy and covered with disgusting coarse black hair, a cruel move that assured this kid would never be part of the family.

In a big rainstorm, I worried about the soap board. What if the basement floods? Soap and water might be a natural mix, but bad for soap collectors. One day I rushed home from school during a phenomenal storm, water bucketing against the roof, and run downstairs to check on the soap board. All was well, but as a precaution, I mounted a stepladder and pounded a few nails six feet up the wall, struggling to get the board to safety.

Dad would proudly drag guests into the basement to show them the board, my mother and sister's eyes rolling in embarrassment whenever he said, "Come downstairs, I want to show you something." Without the benefit of motel narrative, it was a confusing thing to see—row after row of crummy bars of soap hanging against the studs of an unfinished basement—like tiny motel tombstones. The guests, always gracious but baffled, would smile and nod, and congratulate him on the mysterious accomplishment.

When I started dating and bringing girls home, I would warn them. "Listen, my Dad is going to do something really weird, and invite you down to the basement to see his soap collection. Keep your jacket on until afterwards. It's always cold downstairs."

Soap collection? Two words never used together.

"Just do me a favor and don't think he's crazy, and tell him how much you like it." Because I tended to have good taste in women, they would see the excitement in his eyes, grab a little glimpse of soap board magic, and respond accordingly.

With compliments:
Look how nice the brown pipe cleaner compliments the tan on Harley's Motel.
Wow. Irish Spring. I love their commercials. When the woman says, "But I like it too".

Seeking artistic and travel advice:
Why do you think Ben's Inn uses a tractor as their logo?
So of these three motels in Rapid City, which one do you prefer?

Philosophical discussions:
Do you ever look at this and say, "Here's my entire life told in soap?" And what does it all mean? (I didn't date her for long.)

When I brought my soon-to-be wife home, she received the deluxe soap board tour, complete with detailed lodging narrative that went on for two glasses of wine. Afterward she hugged Dad, assuring him it was the best soap collection she had ever seen, cementing herself into the family.

When my folks were very old my mother decided to die, an event that shocked and baffled him. This was not part of the plan, especially as he slipped into old age fat and happy, unconcerned with any of the disciplines that might lead to elderly health and longevity. Mom was supposed to outlive him by at least five years, pad around the TV room in her quilted blue housecoat, make him toast in the morning, the two sipping coffee amidst a shrine of family pictures, maybe take a road trip now and then to collect another bar of soap. But in their sixty-sixth year of marriage she gave up early, personally calling the Priest so he could come over and officially sign off on her death.

A few weeks later Dad took the now perilous journey down the narrow wooden steps, planting himself in an old plastic deck chair in front of the soap board. I found him there, leaning forward, chin against his glossy cane, discretely rubbing moist eyes as if he were watching a home movie.

"Look at this one from The Royal Hawaiian." He raises an age-spotted hand and points at an oversized pink bar. "Your Mom, and Tommy and Mary and I went there in 1968. God, we had a great time. That was a lovely hotel. All pink. Imagine that, a pink hotel. Your Mom would wear those flowers around her neck. I was so proud of her. People would say to me, 'How did you ever get such a good looking woman to marry you?' Don't know. Just lucky. The luck of the Irish."

For the next two hours we sat in front of the soap board, Dad retelling the stories I had heard a thousand times but somehow seemed fresh.

A year later he gave up too, nodding away in his sleep. My sisters and I struggled to close out two lives, empty a house full of memories and somehow properly disburse things technically worthless but invaluable.

And what to do with the soap board? We stood in front of it for almost an hour, over forty years of stories rolling off of it. One of my sisters took down the bar from the hotel in Napa Valley where she was married, one of the fanciest on Soap Fifth Avenue. My other sister took the bar from a motel next to the hospital where her son was born. I removed a bar from a hotel outside of Portland, Oregon, the place we stopped when he drove me to college.

The next day we carried the board to his funeral and propped it up next to the photo of Dad that sat in the back of the church. Friends shuffled in, and most smiled when they saw it, veterans of the soap board tour. When you live as long as Dad, funerals are less about grief and more about celebration, and at the end of the service I pointed to the board.

"I know most of you were dragged down to the basement to see his soap collection." A collective smile went through the crowd. "We want it to be Dad's gift to you, so if you see a bar that has some special significance, please take it with you to remember our father."

After the service, family and old folks surround the board. Wally Streeter located the soap from Jackson Hole, now four decades old, soap dust sifting through the edge of the paper, and smiled widely and pointed.

"Your Dad let me sleep in his bathtub."

One old man I didn't recognize removed a tattered bar from the bottom of the board—the KC Motel. "They went out of business thirty years ago, but I loved the place. There was a bar next to it where I did some drinking, and it was easy to stumble home. The bartender had a dog that drank beer and would howl when they played Nat King Cole on the jukebox. Not sure if it was because he liked it or didn't."

The soap board became the center of discussion for the next hour, and slowly most of the bars disappeared, memories taken to new homes. I took four or five, which I keep dry and safe in a wooden box on my dresser. Sometimes I find myself adding to the collection. Not like my Dad—not every inn is worth commemorating—but some trips need to be remembered. My wife and I return from a two-week trip to Europe, and I pull several bars from my luggage as we unpack. Fancy hotels with big lobbies and room service, just like he predicted.