A Pillowcase Mystery
Note: A version of this essay appears in Episode 006 of the Pete Brown Says podcast.
I am out of shape, friends. Badly out of shape. My metabolism has slowed down as I crossed over into my late 40s, and my efforts to exercise seem to come in fits and starts. Or, more accurately, fits and stops. Or, to be completely honest, in stops and stops. A buddy and I signed up for a 5K that’s this coming weekend, so I’ve been trying to get out and run over the past two weeks.
But we’ve crossed daylight savings here in Central Ohio, so if I get home from work at 6, it’s already pitch dark outside. I’ve been running with one of these head-flashlights on my head. It’s not a great look for me.
[And, just an aside here, when I was growing up, headlamps were for miners, and they seemed to be big and bulky, pre LED-technology. We had one flashlight in our house and it took huge D-batteries which invariably were dead whenever we needed it. And you could also buy replacement bulbs for your flashlights back then. That was totally a thing. When my parents bought me my own flashlight before I left for sleep away camp when I was 10-years-old and I thought I had hit the jackpot. My own flashlight!
Now flashlights seem pretty commonplace, come in hundreds of different form factors, and rely on LEDs instead of bulbs. You can use smaller batteries that last longer. And they’re cheap, too. Cheap in the way that you suspect that someone in an underprivileged country is probably getting screwed just so I can buy a flashlight for pennies on the dollar. Am I wrong in thinking we’re experiencing a new golden age in the flashlight world?]
I bought a set of two head lamps for my kids about 8 years back when we were going camping for a week. I love remember them bopping around the campfire with their headlights on, 8 and 6 years old, finding much to love in this adventure with Mom and Dad.
Anyway, running at night with one of these things on your head really focuses your vision on the circle of light about three feet ahead of you. Your peripheral vision remains unlit, so it begins to feel like you have blinders on. Which is probably why the folded piece of note paper caught my eye as I ran up on it. So I stopped and picked it up.
It was a shopping list. I could even tell you whose it is because the note paper has their name imprinted on the top. I love finding things like this because it gives me what feels like a momentary but authentic view into someone’s life, when their at home and their masks are off and their guard is down. This person’s list is pretty mundane: bread, coffee, flour, carrots. But at the bottom written in large letters it says ‘C-type batteries.’
C’s? Really? C batteries? They’re the El Camino of batteries! They’re shorter and fatter than those sports cars, double and triple-A, yet they’re puny when compared to the mighty pickup truck Ds. Who buys C batteries anymore? What could they be for?
I don’t know the answer to that, so I’m just going to presume they needed them for a flashlight.
I think we only get to know our parents as actual human people like this: small glimpses caught when their parenting force fields are down and we see that they’re as flawed as the rest of us, and that they experience struggles like we do. That they have more hopes and thoughts and things to do beyond driving us to practice, or to the movies, or wherever we want to go. When I was a little kid, I remember thinking that grown-ups seemed hopelessly lost to me. I mean, they had money and transportation, and if they wanted to, they could drink cherry Kool Aid at every meal and also chocolate milk whenever the hell they wanted. But for some reason, they chose not to. And that really confused me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about seeing our parents as humans this week. Wondering what foibles of my own have clued my kids in to the fact that I don’t have all the answers. I’ve been thinking a lot about my mom as well. The day this essay comes out, it will be three year to the day since she passed away after a decade long battle with cancer, succumbing just a few days before what would have been her 74th birthday. And yet I’m still learning things about her that I never knew.
Today’s story is about one such mystery. And it revolves around something that was in my very first bedroom when I was just a few years old. Still, the mystery of it didn’t resolve until quite recently in my life.
Now, I have a trick I use when I’m trying to get my brain back to the very earliest memories I have. What I do is I picture my room, my very first room in our first house. I see the baby blue walls. The table lamp with a red, white and blue base. The children’s desk with attached chair. The more details I can recall, the more I begin to live in that time, and some deep-seeded memories resurface.
Now that we’re all thinking about our childhood homes, I’m wondering if you can think of anything from your home that just seemed normal to you until you remember it later, when you’re an adult, or you mention it in conversation with someone and they’re like “whoa, whoa, whoa…what?” I’m not talking about bad stuff or evil doings here, and if that was the case for you, Im so very sorry and hope you’re ok. But what I’m thinking of here is more the unique ways your family did the mundane stuff, like, in our home, we never refrigerated 2 liters of Pepsi. We kept them out on the counter and just served the drink over ice instead, and my often my Mom seemed to like drinking it warm. And it wasn’t until once I got to college and had other roommates that I realized this wasn’t common practice.
So that’s are some example. Today’s mystery revolves around an item that we had in our home the entire time I was growing up, and it was only when it came back to me a few years ago that it suddenly struck me as unusual, and that through it I would learn something about my Mom in the process.
For this story to make any sense as a mystery, you have to know what kind of person my Mom, Jacquie, was and the care, thought and effort she put into the homes she made — comfortable, tasteful spaces punctuated with unique items she picked up in her years as an antiques dealer and estate sale liquidator.
Every room in her home was done just so, colors carefully chosen, unique furniture combinations that just somehow worked together. She was partial to french country, Limoges porcelain and anglophilia — royal family tins commemorative tins.
For inspiration, she poured through magazines from Better Homes to Architectural Digest. In her later years, she became a true Pinterest commando. And though I am biased, as her only son, I think it fair to describe her as a woman of style and grace, capable of achieving that perfect balance between design and comfort. As you might suspect for a woman of her era, she was in no small way a fan of Jacquie Kennedy, even changing the spelling of her first name to match how Jacquie Kennedy spelled it. And when e-bay became a thing, she used it to buy a to-do list written by Jacquie Kennedy when she was first lady. It’s pretty cool.
My mom was not, as you might also guess, much of a sports fan. When Cleveland’s sports teams did well, I think she was pleased, but more happy about the lift in mood that the occasional winning season lent the populace of our rust belt city. Closing steel mills, auto assembly plants, burning rivers, bankruptcy and other tough times all feel much more get-throughable to our citizens if the Browns are winning, or if the Cavs make the playoffs.
My mom only attended a small handful of my little league games, declaring them “too hard” for her to sit through, which I want to believe was a reference to the aluminum bleachers, where she sat in a head scarf and big sunglasses, and not, what was much more likely the case, having to watch her only son strike out four times in every game.
Which is why this thing, this mystery I am going to share, is just so damn weird and perplexing. Because the item I am going to tell you about was in her home from at least the early 1970’s. I remember it being in my room in our first house, in 1973 or 1974. I was only two or three at the time, and it is one of my earliest memories.
And somehow, this thing remained, across the span of years and years, through two moves and a downsizing, in her possession until it became mine once more after she passed away, three years ago this month. And given how often she made regular donations to St. Vincent DePaul and Goodwill, as well as her preference for refinery, well, that’s a pretty amazing feat for a pillow case.
The mystery I am sharing with you today is about a pillow case.
A Mark Spitz pillowcase. In case that clears it up.
I’ve lived in my current home for about one year now, so it was about a year ago that we had a housewarming party, and I mentioned to a group of my friends that I was working on some essays that I thought would make a pretty good podcast. And they asked me about what kind of stories I was writing, and my elevator pitch at the time was pretty poorly crafted, because I remember stumbling through an answer like: “Um, well, you know, little league and youth soccer, and this game ball I have that I gave myself and also about my Mark Spitz pillowcase.”
Friends, few phrases will bring a social occasion to a halt as quickly as “It’s a story about my Mark Spitz pillowcase.”
Mark Spitz, if you don’t know, was an Olympic swimmer who won 11 Olympic medals in swimming, nine of which were gold. At the 1972 summer olympics in Munich, Spitz won seven gold medals in seven events, setting seven World Records as he did it, which is still kind of hard to believe. Well before Michael Phelps came along, there was Mark Spitz, and the distance between them is closer than you would think. All of those records you’ve watched Phelps break over the years? Most of them were set by Mark Spitz. By Mark Spitz and his mustache.
Because it’s kind of hard to talk about Mark Spitz without mentioning his mustache, which was big and bushy and very 1972 through and through. He had it in Munich when he set all of those records. And he has it in his picture on my pillowcase.
In case you’re wondering if there’s more to a Mark Spitz pillowcase than it sounds, let me assure you there is not. It’s simply a white pillowcase. On one side is a black-and-white picture of Mark Spitz’ head. And that’s it. There is no other branding — no tell-tale Wheaties logo or other brand to suggest this was some sort of mail-order promotion. There is just Mark Spitz’ head, neck and part of his bare shoulders, upon which you can see the chains from his seven gold medals.
Much like the phone lamp, I was immediately called on this detail, and thus led an expedition party into our master bedroom, where I removed the Mark Spitz pillowcase from the linen closet and laid out for all to see.
There was a moment there that I think you could safely call “stunned silence.”
After a beat, my friend Lothar spoke up.
“Wow,” he said. “That is a Mark Spitz pillowcase.”
There’s really not much you can say about it beyond that.
It’s presence is so literal and certain once you lay eyes upon it. I like to think that Lothar’s life split into two at that moment: the years he lived blissfully unaware of the existence of Mark Spitz pillowcases in the world, and the moment after he uttered that phrase, when he got woke, as the kids say, to the reality of the Mark Spitz pillowcasin’ world we actually live in.
I should mention here that after winning his seven golds in 72, Spitz was the subject of a famous full-color poster of him standing with his seven gold medals on. It was one of the first real olympic athlete posters to sell like crazy. And I’ve read online that Spitzwas something of a pioneer for an Olympian to translate his success into merchandising and souvenirs.
And it’s worth noting that the Spitz pillowcase, though black and white, appears to have been screen printed, which rules out the idea that someone suggested to me that maybe it was an iron-on of some sort distributed out through breakfast cereals and whatnot. By the way, there are just over 1,000 results when you search Mark Spitz on e-bay, and not one of them is a pillowcase. (They’re mostly autographed photos, cards and that poster I mentioned earlier.)
So, absent any additional information about the product itself, I’m faced with the very likely possibility that my Mom or Dad bought a Mark Spitz pillowcase in 1972 or 1973 and added it to our linen closet as if nothing was odd at all about this.
And while I simply can’t reconcile in my mind the idea that my Mom would have bought it, it is slightly more plausible that my Dad did. I mean, he did come home with the odd purchase from time to time, butI cannot say I would ever consider him a swimming fan, or a Mark Spitz fan, or an Olympics fan, for that matter.
So it seems clear that I have to track down some people and ask some questions. My mom passed away two years ago after a ten-year battle with cancer, but my Dad is a spry 93 and still sharp. But his hearing is rough and talking on the phone with him can devolve into a shouting match of miscommunication that would be probably be comic for anyone not on the actual call itself to overhear. But I think if I bring the pillow case to him, lay it out in all its glory, it might jog his memory and the story behind it can be revealed. And my three older sisters, also, may have some insights to share.
And of course, if these two leads fail, I can try to reach out to Mark Spitz himself. He’s 67 now, and does about 25 speaking events a year. It’s a bit of a long shot, trying to get one of America’s most decorated olympians to give some of his time to a podcast that, at the moment I am writing this, has a total of 0 episodes and 0 listeners.
And while Spitz certainly won’t be able to tell me how my this pillow case came into m family, perhaps he’s got some insight into the product itself. Of the crazy ideal some marketer had back in the 70s to put Spitz’ face on pillow cases. There’s a Twitter account that may be his, but it’s been almost dormant for the past few years. Same with a Facebook page. And both reference a URL (markspitzusa.com) that seems to resolve to nothing at the moment, although using the Wayback Internet Archive, I turned up a Flash0heavy website that appears to have not have been updated since 2007.
So with the mystery thick and properly established, I’m leaving off the written portion of today’s episode, for now. When you hear me again, I’m hoping I’ll be in Cleveland, with mics at the ready.
OK — this is Pete several months later now. I’m going to play some excerpts from my interview with my Dad, and while I did indeed bring a proper digital audio recorder with me when I visited, I forgot to bring an SD card, which did nothing to convince my Dad that I have managed to pull any of my shit together in the 30 years since I left home.
So I ended up using my phone to record the interview. And as soon as I unfurled the Mark Spitz pillowcase, my Dad laughed and said “Your mother had such a crush on him.”
A crush? Really? My Mom? On an Olympic Swimmer?
For sure, my Dad says. In fact, he thinks she had bought two of the Mark Spitz pillowcases, and only ended up putting on of them on my bed. And when I ask if she had made this purchase as a joke, he said no, she really liked Mark Spitz, but of course she also laughed about it.
M sister Amy was there for this interview, and she was having none of it. Amy is my second oldest sister who, along with all of my sisters, does an amazing job taking care of my Dad, and in many ways (and particularly the bossy ways), she is the most like my Mom. And I love my sister Amy, but we are often like planets rotating around opposite sides of the sun. Our takes so on many things seem to naturally fall into diametric opposition.
The Marc Spitz pillowcase was no exception. Because, you see, if there is one thing I remember clearly about this pillow case, one image that made me want to do this episode at all, it is my memory of discovering the Mark Spitz pillowcase on a pillow on my bed in my bedroom of our first house, the one we moved out of in 1976.
Amy, however, claims she was with my Mom in the 1980s and my Mom purchased the pillowcase for me explicitly. She went so far as to claim she got it on clearance at Higbees department store.
Which, if true, blows my timeline out of the water. Also, while buying oddball stuff on clearance did happen in our family from time to time, I can’t quite see how a Mark Spitz pillowcase featuring his 1972 photo would still be on sale, or on clearance, a full ten years after his popularity peaked. Nor had I ever given any indication to my Mom that I was a swim fan, an Olympics fan, or knew the first thing about Mark Spitz at all.
So I pressed Amy: Was the Mark Spitz pillowcase the product of an unholy celebrity crush of my Mom’s in the 1970s, or a throwaway clearance sale purchase in the 1980s.
“Clearance, clearance, clearance,” she tells me. “Let that be the story.”
I love how she says, ‘let that be the story,’ too. Because there’s something protective in the sentiment, like she’s still looking out for my Mom the way she did up until she passed away from cancer a few years back. If I had to guess — and I do have to guess, because I honestly don’t have the energy to attempt a second interview with her, so since I have to guess, my guess is there’s just something about the idea of my Mom as young woman in the early 1970s with a fun crush on an Olympic swimmer that either doesn’t parse with my sister’s understanding and memory of my Mom — which I totally get.
It’s that glimpse into the world of our parents as actual people, and how hard that is to reconcile with our childhood understanding of them. Or, she’s worried that my Mom would be upset with me if I shared with the world that she once had a crush on Mark Spitz that was so strong that it carried itself over into bed linens. So, 1980s, bargain bin… Let that be the story, she says. Let that be the story.
But, if you’ve listened to any of the previous episodes, you probably know that I just can’t do it. I can’t let that be the story.
Because my memory of the Mac Spitz pillowcase so clearly predates the 1980s. My bedroom in our first house was painted blue, and had served as the nursery for three kids. It always had a slight smell of nursery to it, even after I got a big boy bed, as they say. It was connected to the master bedroom via a shared bathroom, so my Mom could step through to check on the babies should they wake in the night. Since I was the last born, it just one day became my room by default. Next to my bed was a lamp with a red, white and blue base and blue piping on the shade.
I discovered the Mark Spitz pillowcase on a pillow on my bed one day after my Mom made it. I remember sitting down and wondering about it for a moment, and then calling out to my Mom through the shared bathroom ‘hey, Mom, who’s dis mustache guy on my bed?’
It’s one of those memories that I experience in great detail and full color, one that has remained more or less consistent and unchanged over the years. And since it was likely in 1973 or 4, I recognize that this is one of the earliest memories I have.
Do you know how sometimes you hear the phrase “since the beginning of recorded time”? I love that phrase. I imagine everybody was just going about their daily business and one day one guy goes “hey, we ought to be writing some of this shit down” and boom, recorded time began.
Well, me discovering the pillow case on my bed, in my blue bedroom that still smelled faintly of nursery, that’s my beginning of recorded time, the earliest thing I can reliably remember. And my sister’s narrative, that the pillowcase was bought in the 80’s as a joke, well, that shifts my beginning of recorded history. This must be why I’m having such a reaction to it. I don’t want those intervening years taken from me.
So, I want you to know that I did reach out to Mark Spitz through Twitter and Facebook, but didn’t get a response back. And I realize, that asking an Olympian with 11 medals for an interview on a brand new podcast with only a few hundred listeners, well, that’s a long shot for anyone.
Wikipedia tells me that Mark Spitz has done well since the 1972 Olympics. In addition to endorsement deals, he started a real estate company, worked as a broadcaster for ABC during the 1976 and 1984 Olympics. In 1992, he attempted a comeback, but failed to qualify for the Olympic team even though some of his timers were better than what they were in 1972. There’s also some online content about a minor kerfuffle in 2008, when Spitz was apparently miffed that USA swimming didn’t invite him to Beijing to watch Phelps make a run at his record.
As far as I can tell, nowadays he’s a motivational speaker and a painter. He paints abstracts, a vein of art about which I know very little, but based on the images I saw at markspitzart.com, seem serviceable and well-wrought. MarkSpitzArt.com, by the way, appears to not have been updated since 2011.
So I failed to land a Mark Spitz interview, leaving me to wonder what I would have asked about anyway. I’m sure I’d ask some questions about the 72 Olympics and about seeing records get broken. These are questions I’m sure he’s been asked a million times. I’d be interested to hear him talk about the endorsements and merchandising that followed the Olympics, though, and if he reviewed products bearing his image before they hit the market. I’d want to know if he was even aware that he was on a pillow case, or if he has one (or more) still in his home.
And there’s on last question I’d have to ask, because it was asked of me that evening when I laid the Mark Spitz pillowcase on the bed for my friends to see.
“I wonder if there were sheets with the rest of his body on them,” my friend Mike asked.
And we all laughed and agreed that would have been awesome. And I have something for you listeners. Because while I’m not great at landing Mark Spitz interviews, I am, most would agree, pretty damn good with Photoshop.
So while the Mark Spitz pillow case is the featured image for this episode, and you can see it at petebrownsays.com or over on Medium, I’ve also used my photoshop skills to bring the idea of Mark Spitz sheets to go along with the Mark Spitz pillowcase to life. I am not too humble to declare that it is some of my best work. And if you want to see it, you need to follow me on Instagram at petebrownsays, because that is the only platform I’m putting this image on.
And I think that wraps up this pillow case mystery, and how I came to own a Mark Spitz pillow case. Because apparently my Mom, whom I still miss every day, was an actual real person in the early 1970s, with what I have to believe was a fun celebrity crush on a be-mustached Olympic hero. Whose pillowcase she would buy, get a good laugh out of, and them put on the big boy bed in my room, the former nursery, where I would find it, and give it a long look and wonder about its meaning.
Just Me and Mark Spitz, sitting on my big boy bed in a tidy suburb west of downtown Cleveland, waiting for the gun to start the race, dreaming of gold, and raring to go.