Pack Creek Ranch, San Juan County, Utah
April, 2012 – the first week
Classic spring snowstorm dump, melt-off - clear skies and sunny again.
First wild flowers up – purple vetch, the wild equivalent of crocus.
Images – some still, some moving:
1. A little naked boy sits up to his waist in warm water in a large bathtub.
Around him float three small chunky white boats.
Wooden kitchen matches serve as masts, and triangular pieces of white Band-Aid tape stuck on the matchsticks are the sails.
The child is laughing as he plays with his sailboats.
They float - because they are bars of Ivory soap – the soap that floats.
2. An eight-year-old boy has just shouted a blasphemous curse.
His mother glares at him, sharply says: “If you ever do that again, I’ll wash your mouth out with soap.”
The little boy glares back.
He’s heard this threat before.
She won’t do it. He curses again.
The mother grabs the little boy’s arm with her fingers like an eagle snatches a rabbit off the ground with its talons, and before he can shut his mouth in defense, she reaches for a bar of soap off the sink and jams it into the little boy’s mouth, twisting it around and around and in and out.
He had it coming. He knows it. He dared her to do it. And she did.
Ivory soap – the soap that floats and cleanses.
99.44% pure – unlike the little boy.
He will never forget the taste.
3. Later, the same little boy is in his mother’s kitchen, sneaking little white cubes into a pot of soup cooking on the stove.
The look like chunks of potato – but they are not.
Did she know?
The froth on the top of the boiling soup was surely a dead giveaway.
But she never said.
And he had to eat the soup, which he did, with his head and eyes down.
A bit of an Ivory taste.
4. The same boy sits on a bench at summer church camp.
He is carving something out of a soft, white, clay-like block with a set of
X-acto tools, whittling away with purpose.
Ivory soap – the big laundry-bar size – is the material.
The rest of his campmates are crafting angels, sheep, a cross, and the baby Jesus in his cradle out of their bars of soap.
But the boy is working on a model of a coiled rattle snake.
The camp art instructor will tell his mother what he carved.
He hopes so.
5. Yesterday, the same boy, now a semi-mature man, is smiling in triumph as he removes a crumbly pile of flaky white froth from his microwave.
He had put in a plate full of white chunks.
The microwaves agitated the air pockets and water in the chunks, heating them and causing them to explode and expand the original mass.
KAFOOM! Soap soufflé.
This is science.
And also Ivory Soap.
(Want to try the science experiment?
There’s a fine you-tube video of the process – take a look.
Get some ivory soap and give it a try.
Caveat: Though it will work as described, the test will leave the microwave and kitchen smelling like Ivory soap for hours if not days.
And don’t try and taste it – trust me.)
6. Last image – of a naked man taking a steamy outdoor shower last night in the crisp air - in the light of a half moon.
Having frothed up the surface of the bar of white soap, he squeezes it hard in both hands, and the soap rockets up into the air.
These pictures and short films are memories.
Provoked yesterday morning when I was at the City Market in Moab at the early hour when clerks are restocking shelves.
My way was partially block by a cart loaded with boxes of Ivory soap.
It’s been more than fifty years since I used or even thought of Ivory soap.
I picked up a 3-pack of bath bars, labeled “original.”
I held the soap up to my nose to smell.
Like Proust eating his Madeline.
The smell of Ivory was a fine thin thread that pulled memories off the shelves in the back-storage room of my mind.
And all day long yesterday I opened the memory packets.
That’s the source of the pictures and films I’ve shared with you.
Ivory soap. The soap that floats. “99.44% pure, clean, and simple.”
Unchanged since its invention in 1891.
Its air-pocketed floaty-ness was either an accident or intentional.
But nobody can say for sure, and Proctor and Gamble doesn’t try.
(I’ve always wondered why Ivory Soap touts itself as being 99.44% pure. What’s with the other .56%, and why haven’t they worked that out of the mix since 1891?)
Ivory. The only bar soap in my house and life until I left home at 17.
The smell, the feel, the shape – all are embedded in my mind.
From baby to boy to teenager, the same, the one and only Ivory soap.
The memories churned out of my mind all day long.
Soap facts and thoughts:
Soap is basically a combination of fat, acid, and water.
My grandmother made her own out of beef tallow and lye, and water - boiled up until it left a gummy residue in the wash pot. It was pressed into a mold to dry. I watched her do it. Raw, ugly, stinky yellow bars that, nevertheless, would scour the grime off your hide and clothes.
Commercial bar soap first came to Europe from Islamic Spain in the 13th century, where soap makers sophisticated its manufacture by refining the process and adding perfumes.
As soon as I left home and bought my own toiletries I abandoned Ivory soap.
I wanted a manly smell - saddle leather or lime or the open sea.
Anything but Ivory, which smelled to me like babies, home, and my Mother.
Now, and for maybe fifty years, I’ve used a hard-milled, German-made, cream soap – 4711 brand – which smells like spring in the Mediterranean
Also the 4711 cologne, shaving cream, and deodorant – same fragrance.
My second son says it’s my smell – he always notices it when he gives me a hug – and memories of his own childhood come back to him.
The packaging of a bar of 4711 soap has a lengthy list of components and ingredients I cannot pronounce or comprehend.
But I don’t care – it works for me – and my wife likes it.
I don’t need to know why.
One of the small pleasures of this life is opening a new bar of soap.
And one of the small downsides is the conflict between getting the full measure of use out of a bar of soap - even when it becomes a sliver - and deciding to throw it away in favor of a new bar.
Frugality vs. luxury.
(Slipping the remnants into a scrub-mitt is one solution.)
When I came to bed last night after my shower, my wife noticed.
“You smell different,” she said as we cuddled down in the darkness.
“It’s . . . not you . . .”
I guess not.
But it once was, and, in memory, it will always remain.
Standing out there in the shower in the moonlight last night with a new bar of 4711 in one hand and a new bar of Ivory in the other I could not help considering the wealth these two bars represented.
As a middle-class American in the 21st century I can have all the bars of soap I will ever need or want.
Yet, for a large part of the human population these two bars of soap represent unimaginable and unobtainable luxury.
Once, on a beach in Cuba, a young man offered to catch lobsters for a group of us. We could go with him to his home and his mother would make a fine lobster dinner.
He kept his part of the bargain. His mother kept hers.
A truly fine, memorable dinner.
And then the question of payment arose. Some cash would be appreciated.
Partial payment - in U.S.dollars, of course - but only partial.
Pay the rest in bars of soap – we could bring it to the beach tomorrow.
Bars of soap?
A decent bar of soap was not only a very expensive luxury in Cuba, but usually unobtainable at any price.
There wasn’t any available in the stores.
The boy and his mother had not had a bar of soap in more than a year.
We went back to our cruise ship, raided our personal supplies and bought out the ship’s store.
We met the young man on the beach the next day with cash, of course.
And a huge bag full of all the bars of soap we could carry - Dove and Palmolive and various fragrances of pine and citrus and wild flowers.
The young man accepted the bag, set it down, and reached inside.
He held up a handful of the bars of soap.
He slowly brought them to his nose to smell.
He took a deep breath.
Tears welled in his eyes.
“I am rich,” he said.