Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Sail Us Away

I finally rolled out of my comfortable cave of sleep and blindly slumped into the bathroom. And immediately noted remnants of a lingering presence. It wasn’t the foggy medicine cabinet mirror above the sink, damp towels hung or half-folded here and there–all seven of us used one bathroom in the bungalow. It was the fragrance. Spicy and warm, rich and uplifting. Dad had finished his daily routine, and left evidence of preparations for the new day.

Old Spice, the common man’s transformative…. after shave. Accessible and intensely itself. A moderate scent that was and remains admired by both genders–and the one that introduced generations to fragrances for men alone. Prior to 1938, fragrances–perfume, cologne, toilette water–were predominantly women’s domain (in the US, at least). It was a hit from the start (though it began a year before as a woman’s fragrance, then tweaked to telegraph more masculinity.)

It was as much Dad’s signature as anything else, whether it was his ridiculous puns or sonorous viola playing or singing in my mother’s ear with arms about her or researching his Bible for Sunday school class. It was present everywhere after he put it on, moving room to room in his haste to get going. Fragrance elicits many images and feelings, associated with things that are even wordless. Masculine, yes, he was that; strong of heart and body but also gentle and prone to fun as much as deep pondering. I studied him, at times baffled by the contradictions but admired him. Old Spice spoke to lighter sides. Yet he was always poised to move and start accomplishing something, at ease in the greater world, his inviting smile radiating to others as he listened and spoke carefully. He was a traditionalist in a core sense yet one who cared little for constraining imagination–or only enough to harness the energy of ideas.

But beyond his professional world, there was a side that appreciated and sought the outdoors. Water activities and boats, camping among twittering birds and scurrying critters, riding his bike through tree-lined streets, taking to winding back roads that led to interesting places. He enjoyed being in the elements and learning nature’s ways, though there was little enough time for it.

My father, then, was a fit for an Old Spice user. It trailed him out of the house, then hung around inside. I sometimes sneaked a whiff from the iconic white bottle when he was on work trips. Though I have to admit he also wore other aftershaves–Aqua Velva, perhaps, or English Leather, Royall Bay Rum and, to really change it up, Royall Lyme (which I particularly liked). But he usually returned to Old Spice, from what memory asserts.

Increasingly I was intent on unlocking the fascinating codes of scent from my mother, sisters, girlfriends and glossy ads. As I became a teen, things changed more in the perfume business. If a trend or two altered in the late thirties, then by a decade afterward colognes and perfumes were associated with men as well as women. And worn increasingly by youths as the ’50s and ’60s arrived. As with everything, I had to wait until I was fourteen or fifteen to officially use a light perfume, try a new way of being and venture bravely into the world. And I could enjoy fragrances of others. Including wafts of the boys’ experiments.

Today every fashion magazine or site appeals to anyone who has an interest—there are dramatic, expensive ad campaigns and atmospheric pages with little scent strips, hoping to spur a longing for something more and better, more enticing and unique. And, as usual with any olfactory trigger, those scents are associated with certain males I have known–quite other than my father. I dated guys who wore Brut (what a name and marketing!), Hai Karate, Musk by English Leather, 4711 and Jaguar. Hefty even exotic names meant to overstate, lionize the male image most teenaged and college boys could rarely actually impart. Some bowled me over– into a near faint. I probably liked musky scents the most and knew this was pretty bold of me to admit at 16, 17. But another kind might persuade me the young man who wore it had good taste and a fortuitous future. And it might include me.

All teen boys and girls aspiring to be attractive men and women reached for what was deemed more adult–yet not the same; we needed our own signature styles. We spritzed, splashed, dabbed and slapped it on. And not always to increase our favor in the eyes–and through noses–of others. We just enjoyed it. Later in life, different scents helped shape images of boyfriends, then husbands, a few co-workers and friends. When those waft my way, a memory comes to the fore. Like Jade East and later Hugo Boss which resonate with long ago love that was lost. Like patchouli (more considered gender neutral even then), worn by quintessential hippie boys who captivated my attention. Or Aramis, which Marc wore for some years after we married, though he generally didn’t care for a fancy scent preceding him in in his professional life. And I think his favorite these days, despite approving of Atelier Cologne’s pungent Cedre Atlas (which I sometimes wear), is Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint liquid soap. He uses it daily and might wash his clothes with it if he could. Good thing I don’t mind the fragrance as it travels right my way after he washes face or hands.

Recently I was at a large grocery store with a daughter when she said she had to pick up something for her partner. His favorite body wash. Body wash…I followed, curious. She went right to a giant display of Old Spice and chose his favorite one. While I nearly fell backward, stunned as I gazed upon the overwhelming choices of…everything. I was not prepared for this, a wall of shelves stocked to the brim with Old Spice products–and not just after shave or anti-perspirant. There were air fresheners (really?), anti-chafe emollient (for a tad relief, I guess) and body washes and beard products and shampoos and conditioners. I probably have left something out. There were dozens of eye-catching new designs of packaging, and unusual scents galore despite the brand still trumpeting: “Old Spice.” At least there was still a ship–well, a yacht, if I saw it right, replacing the old standby of a colonial-type tall ship. One of my favorite sorts of boats. But now–a yacht!

It had apparently been rebranded over the years I had forgotten about it. It had begun by addressing the image long taken for granted, which had slowly become “an old man’s aftershave.” I mean, it was true that I didn’t know younger guys who’d worn Old Spice. Or only the musk-laced one which, if you consider it, makes sense. By 2008, though, the brand was growing more rapidly as they worked on the image. Then a few years later a smart, playful commercial was conceived and produced, and it successfully portrayed a buff male touting its masculine but fun virtues. I looked it up and you can, too. It absolutely was a different image they were going for, at last. It worked.

Old Spice had evolved to meet the expectations of more media-savvy, younger generations. As I gazed upon the choices before me, I was bedazzled–though I also laughed a bit. How could any man find all these surprising iterations that attractive? Coconut Old Spice? The packaging, scent variations, graphics. I was surprised that some sported an old red color or white with an additional flare–an attempt at reflecting the original style. But it was too much to study further and my daughter was ready. I started to walk away.

Then I turned back. Where was that regular Old Spice deodorant? I reached high and snagged one, put it in my basket. I was taking it home to Marc. Because he’d told me long ago that even though his father hadn’t been around after his parents divorced, his taciturn but steadying grandfather had been. And he wore only simple, trusty Old Spice. And was he delighted I bought it for him? Of course. The comfortable, pleasantly warm and bright scent is back again. And Marc smells pretty nice when we have a good hug.