By Heidi Mitchell
September 14, 2014
© Neil McAllister / Alamy
| Credit: © Neil McAllister / Alamy

For much of the 1970’s, my father was a traveling salesman, moving across the country by car and plane. Upon returning home, he’d empty his nicked hotel keys into a green wooden crate. The box lived on the top shelf of my parents’ closet, and I used to pull out a chair and stand on my tippy-toes to reach it, then lie on the floor and sort the 200 or so keys by fob shape, destination, or hotel chain. For a little girl in a one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, that box of keys was a window to the exciting world outside.

Each key tells a story. There’s one from the Host Motel, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, where Dad found himself during the historic flood of 1972. There’s another from the scary Rodeway Inn in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he knew to put a chair under the doorknob at night. (“But they had great ribs,” he insisted.) There are the many Ramada Inns, from exotic places like Portland, Oregon, and even more Howard Johnsons and Holiday Inns, whose purloined towels hung neatly in our bathroom—I imagined the stylized star to be our family crest. One lone cast-iron key from the King David Jerusalem was pilfered during my parents’ honeymoon; the Quality Inn in Omaha was from the night I was born, Dad off to chase a deal. My father would rave about the gym at Chicago’s Hyatt Regency O’Hare because it was such a luxury—those keys signified boom times.

Four decades later, I still get little-kid butterflies when I take out the dusty collection and conjure those nostalgic images of business travel in the seventies: paper maps, coin-operated televisions, security-free airports (“two steps from the car rental kiosk and you were on the plane in Kansas City,” my dad recalls). Travel, even for a man selling telephone systems, was glamorous and full of adventure. One relentless decade of it gave my father a lifetime of memories, and inspired a wealth of fantasies in his daughter.