Soap Lake, The Oracle, and the Worlds Biggest Lava Lamp

Here’s a repeat from season one.

Just as ancient Greece had what it considered to be the center of the universe in Delphi, home of the Oracle, the state of Washington also has a cosmic center in the little town of Soap Lake. Located on the high desert exactly in the geographic center of the state, Soap Lake also had an oracle like figure in one Sam Israel. Born in the early 20th century in Rhodes, Greece, he immigrated to Seattle shortly thereafter, establishing himself as a modestly successful shoe maker and laying the foundation for making his fortune by buying dilapidated downtown real estate during the Great Depression.

Seattle has one of the most finely preserved collections of late 19th century buildings of any large urban core in the country. Pioneer Square in the heart of the city is nearly perfectly preserved just as it was constructed after the Great Fire of 1889. This was not due to any altruistic do-gooding on the part of the city, who tried for years to condemn these buildings, but was attributed entirely to the sheer stubbornness of Mr. Sam, who owned many of these buildings, and his refusal to let the powers that be bully him into doing other than what he pleased with them.

As a landlord of these unloved buildings, his overhead was low due to the poor maintenance and upkeep he practiced on them and he cheerfully passed this on in generous lease terms to his tenants who rightly held him in high regard. Many a successful restaurant, gallery, or watering hole were established in these beautiful old downtown buildings due to these low rents. To the city official or bureaucrat however who attempted to coerce him into improvements, he was decidedly less generous in word and deed. In an era when property rights had a little more bite than they do today, his pat answer to threats of eminent domain or condemnation his buildings was “Fuck you, I’ll see you in court”. And in court he mostly was in the 60’s and 70’s, fighting the do-gooders and their urban renewal until public perception, and finally the politicians, came around to the position that maybe these old buildings might be worth saving. When he wasn’t fighting the pinheads he could usually be found at his compound in Soap Lake, which leads to the cosmic angle of this story.

Now, I’m not much of a woo-woo guy by nature. I think that pyramids are great for burying mummies in but probably won’t keep your razor blades sharp. If someone tells me that they are employed as a “lifestyle coach”, I will regard them as I do someone with a diminished mental capacity. There was a definite vibe however upon entering Soap Lake for the first time like only a few other towns I’ve been in. You wouldn’t know it to see it now, but the town was once a prominent destination in the early part of the twentieth century due to the alleged healing properties of its namesake mineral lake. If you’ve ever been to fading boom towns  like Bizbee Arizona, or maybe Key West before it became an “Earnest Hemingway slept here” kind of town, you’ll know what I am talking about.

In the summer of 1992 a friend of a friend who had emigrated from Chicago to Soap Lake with his entire clan had invited us to the Greek Days festival there. After fueling ourselves with Margaritas at a Belltown bar in the days when drinking and driving was still marginally tolerated as acceptable behavior, we headed east. Arriving at the city limits around 11:00 PM, the sidewalks were rolled up as you might expect of a small rural town an hour before midnight. It occurred to us as we looked down the length of Main Street that we hadn’t given our friend fair warning that we were taking him up on his invitation and had no idea of where we might find him. Just then at the far end of town we saw a single headlight come around a corner and head toward us. As the light approached us we could see that our friend, somehow anticipating our arrival, was piloting a Vespa scooter equipped with a sidecar and was riding heeled over on two wheels so that the side car was suspended in the air. Wearing an old bucket helmet and goggles and sporting a leather jacket with a “Real Men Ride Hodakas” patch on the back, he dropped the sidecar while coming to a stop and said “follow me” in an unpracticed deadpan. We did.

Our first stop was the Notares Lodge where we were hustled into the back and sworn in as members of the Soap Lake Businessman’s Club. There was no initiation or anything, just a fee of seven dollars and the personal vouching of our local friend as to our good character and high moral fiber. After receiving our membership cards, we descended a set of stairs out back of the lodge where our friend knocked on a large imposing basement door with a small hatch located in the center. The hatch opened, cards were checked and we were in! The place was constructed entirely of huge Douglas Fir logs and was packed to the rafters with “local color”. We grabbed a stump at the bar, an enormous old growth fir of about forty feet sawed in half lengthwise and started tossing them back. Our friend, serving as the evenings emcee, grabbed a beer and  jumped on stage to introduce the entertainment. “Ladies and gentlemen…Bonnie Guitar” he said simply before hopping back down and joining us at the bar. Without delay she and her band  launched into a rollicking Texas Two Step. She couldn’t have been younger than eighty and rumor has it used to play with Hank Williams Sr. back in the day. About half way through her first set, our friend leapt back on stage and launched into a fine harmonica solo, which the headliner apparently took as an unwelcomed breach in etiquette, as Ms. Guitar took a run at him hitting him like a rodeo bull square in the back, knocking him off stage and into the first row of tables to the cheers of all in attendance. Untangling himself from a couple of chairs while Bonnie continued with her set, our patron steered us to a table in back and introduced us to a few of the locals. First up was Bobcat. An old broken down ex rodeo clown armed with a pearl handled six shooter whose holster he constantly fondled, he couldn’t see two feet in front of his face and for some reason called everybody Wayney as in “Is that you Wayney? I can’t see you!”. There was the owner of the florist shop who according to our friend was the only gay guy in town. He had developed a compulsion that evening of reaching across the bar and squeezing my drinking buddy’s biceps, suggestively expressing that he must have done some wheat farming with arms like that. Also sharing our table was a guy who had scandalized the town and couldn’t show his face anywhere other than after dark in the club as he had cheated on and then left his beautiful much younger wife for her mother who had a face like a well worn leather Harley bag with eyes. They say that love is blind but I can say with certainty that in this case it was deaf and dumb as well. We were all getting pretty soused when the locals started speaking in earnest tones of how their dream of building “The Worlds Biggest Lava Lamp” would be just the ticket to put the town back on the tourist map after the interstate had bypassed them years before. Us city boys had a good laugh at that one but the stern looks from all at the table told us that they were dead serious and that maybe a more stoic approach might serve us well as long as we were in town. At some point the motherfucker’s ex-wife/daughter in law/whatever, tracked him to the club and got in a chair throwing dust up with him while Bobcat, shouting “Is that you Wayney?” put a couple of .38 slugs point blank into a poster of John Wayne lacquered to the lodge wall. We scrambled for the exits and I don’t remember much after that. I hope nothing weird happened.

We woke the next morning under the tables at a Greek restaurant owned by our friends aunt, who was the spitting image of a 1960’s Elvis Presley, where we had ended the evening about three hours earlier with shots of Ouzo and further discussion of how the “Worlds Biggest Lava Lamp” was sure to revive the fortunes of Soap Lake. Elvis disappeared to the lounge and after returning with a round of good stiff Bloody Caesars to ease our well deserved hangovers, we proceeded to walk in small quiet steps to Main Street where the annual Greek Days parade was just kicking off. It was the usual small town affair with high school bands from around the area and local dignitaries riding in new convertibles provided by the Ford dealer in Ephrata. At the head of the line riding in a big ’68 Cadillac convertible, in his position as Grand Marshall as he had been for as long as anyone could remember was a smiling Mr. Sam with his arm draped around a very voluptuous Miss Grant County wearing a very small dress. Our friend having just enough of a buzz from his Caesar’s, shouted upon seeing the Grand Marshall groping Miss Grant County in the back seat of the Cadillac, “To what do you owe your success Mr. Sam?” Sam’s smile grew and right there in front of moms, the kids, the local dignitaries and Miss Grant County said “Fuck You! I’ll see you in court!”
Wise words from the Oracle of Soap Lake.

Mr. Sam died a couple of years after that and was buried on the shore of his lakeside compound. Most of his old downtown buildings reverted to corporate hands and have since been fixed up and utilized to their “highest and best use”. A few years later I heard that the lodge and businessman’s club had burned down and that “The Worlds Biggest Lava Lamp” remains unbuilt and a still distant dream to the folks of Soap Lake.

A couple of years ago I found myself in Ephrata attending a baseball camp for my two boys and thought I would take a quick detour and see how the town of Soap Lake was faring. I drove up Main Street past the Del-Red Tavern and what was left of the lodge, past the Greek restaurant and the businessman’s club, and reflected on how quiet the town seemed in contrast to my memory of it. I got the feeling that the vibe that I had experienced, that feeling of being in a cosmic hot spot on first entering Soap Lake those years ago had long since gone, maybe diverted to some other town, in some other place. As I turned and slowly drove back down Main Street, reminiscing on adventures of long ago, I got to thinking that perhaps the vibe I had felt on that summer evening long ago was not due to the towns location but rather a reflection of the people who called the town home. That maybe the feeling of anything being possible that weekend was due in no small part to the unreasoned optimism of the folks living out here off of the Interstate rather than the cosmic geographic location of a town that appeared to me now as it probably had been all along.  A small rural town off the beaten path, forgotten and insignificant except for those who call it home, hoping for renewal in the form of “The World’s Biggest Lava Lamp”.

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7 responses to “Soap Lake, The Oracle, and the Worlds Biggest Lava Lamp

  1. I live in Soap Lake, but Sam Israel was before my time.
    He sounds like quite the character.

  2. He was quite the character. Any progress on erecting the lava lamp?

  3. I only know what I read in the paper.
    The idea seemed to have gone by the wayside until recently.
    As you probably know, Soap Lake was given the Target display from New York. It had been estimated that it would be in excess of $1M to erect it and make functional, so I has sat in storage for many years.
    Ocassionally,they have to move it because of lack of funds to pay for storage. Then a licensing snafu of the name “lava lamp” ensued.

    Just a couple days ago, the Grant County Journal had an article stating that there is renewed hope in getting it erected. A new architect has offered his time and new ideas.
    City council affirmatively voted to relocate the proposed site.
    The CEO of LavaLite has granted Soap Lake the right to use the name Soap Lake Lava Lamp.
    I think there was an artistic rendition of the new concrete and stainless structure in the paper as well.
    Only time will tell.
    If you are interested, the GCJ thursday Feb 4th 2011 issue had the info.
    You could call GCJ at 509-754-4636 if you are interested in acquiring a copy.

  4. Seems bureaucratic snafu’s are an obstacle to getting things done nearly everywhere these days.
    If you know Dwayne Nycz say howdy. His aunt runs Don’s and he was the guy in the Vespa.

  5. Dwayne knows quite a bit about the fresh plans for the new lamp. His family will be instrumental to the realization of full project. Ask him about it!
    BTW… your Soap Lake experiences have been echoed by others with strikingly similar tones. Very enjoyable read. Gotta love that town and the stories those dusty streets could tell! Somehow Ouzo seems to be a common thread in the ones I’ve “heard”.

    • I hope they finally get it done! Kind of lost touch with Dwayne. Last I was in Soap Lake I messed with him by cruising slowly in front of his place until he looked out, and then floored it in a shower of gravel, going around the block and doing it again, lather, rinse, repeat, until he came outside shaking some sort of yard implement at me. Never did stop. Bet he still wonders who that was. 🙂

      • That visual is all too easily imagined… I’m still working on Dwayne commandeering the Vespa but love the thought! You were lucky to catch Bonnie at the BC Those days are gone now, and I never had the privilege.

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