You didn’t know you needed one, did you?

If I hadn’t told you, you may have lived your entire life not knowing about my collection of paper placemats.   Yes, it’s true, circa 1963-1969, a wall of my bedroom was devoted to placements that were collected not only by me, but also by relatives and friends who went on trips around the country.

They are mostly regional in representation; restaurants, motel chains—Howard Johnson’s was a big deal when it opened its ubiquitous motel and restaurant  on the highway just outside of Rapid City in 196_; they come from Montana, North and South Dakota, Saskatchewan—that’s the time I nearly got left in Canada because I proudly declared my birth city, “Wurzburg, Germany,” when queried by the border agents and of course, Canada was happy to see the backside of my nine-year-old self, but the good ole U.S. of A. was not too pleased to see the front side, since I was still a green-card carrying foreign national, but alas and alack without my papers—not  my fault, obviously, what did I know from crossing borders, right?  My mother, in hushed confidential tones with the U.S. border guard seemed to smooth things over [did she slip him a sawbuck?] and we tootled on through—and Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, ad infinitum.

There are over 100 of these pieces of paper—this is what graphic designers did in the ’60s—and most them are little tidbits of history—with  a Caucasian bias—how we dominated the First Americans (or, conversely,  how they slaughtered our infantry, men, women and children,) but mostly they try to show some pride of place and for that, you can’t fault them for trying.

The prairie states are rather unforgiving geographically and meteorologically; they are open space incarnate and it takes a certain kind of person to love it (I do,) and a certain kind of person to make their life there (we did.)

I thumb-tacked each one of my treasures upon one wall of my bedroom.  They were side-by-side, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling.  I did not group them according to design or state, only as they came into my possession did they then find a life on my wall.

You should know that the rest of the walls of my bedroom (its size: possibly no more than 10′ x 10′) were hung with National Geographic maps, even the NatGeo sky map was on the ceiling, so when I laid on my twin bed positioned  against the west wall (until, of course, I discovered ‘angles’ and then it jutted out into the room; discovering angles most likely occurred about the same time as puberty, I’m sure you understand.)

These paper placements represents my first collection.  I would not have it had my mother not saved it in a hard-cardboard folder and one day before she died, sent me home with a box filled with my childhood:  books & clothes, & baby shoes, & report cards, newspaper clippings, you know, the things that all mothers tuck away (I’ll stop now a moment while I get a Kleenex to blow my nose and wipe the tear from my eye—truly.)

I don’t know why I collect, but I do know that it gives me some comfort and satisfaction, a sense of belonging.  I’ve always said that collectors are driven by a need to control the chaos of the world around them and that by owning and cherishing a group of things, it  is an excellent way to impose a sense of order on a world that is, understandably, impossible to understand.

Collecting them was something to do, whether it was my idea or an adult’s, doesn’t matter. I can admire the design elements and the marketing ideas; how businesses reached out to their clientele through history and comedy and the cute and the saccharine sweet. But what value do they have?

Because I can’t for the life of me imagine imposing a dollar value on them or likewise consigning them to the trash heap.  So, they’re safely tucked on a shelf in my closet and today, for the first time in maybe 35 years, I took them down and looked at each and every one of them and tried to call up who, what, when, where and how. Like any research into the past, sometimes I was successful, other times it was a big “huh?” Those twinges of nostalgia, though, those short bursts of the memory of my room, with its west window hidden behind a magnificently large honeysuckle bush which gave it a secretive coolness in the hot glare of a Dakota summer, the narrow twin bed that I quickly grew too big for, the salvaged from a junk heap mahogany desk with its typewriter well, and books on shelves, the floor, stacked in the closet, a music stand with my cello propped up in a corner, a model car in mid-completion and then the home it was in, with its octagonal hall, linoleum floors and rag rugs, the smell of my mother’s Marlboro’s and a dog, a parakeet, the back screen door open and shut, the dry crispness of the wind coming in from the Hills, all of those snatches of wispy cloud race by in time lapse as I lift one thin paper placemat after the other from its cardboard home and carefully put them all back again, saved for another time, another visit. That’s their value.

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© Robert Patrick, and Cultivar, 2008-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts, photographs and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert Patrick and Cultivar with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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