My father was a practical man. Fashion meant absolutely nothing to him and less than nothing when it came to clothing his four children. Summertime meant us boys would all get our heads shaved, supposedly to prepare for the heat of the season, but in reality it was to get his money’s worth at the barbershop and to be able to go longer between paying a barber to cut our hair. To this day, I buzz off the little hair I have left at the start of every summer.
He used his summer haircut strategy also when it came to buying us new shoes. The popular brands that the popular kids were wearing was not a popular choice with Dad. Also, you would never hear him ask this question of the shoe guy, “Are you sure these shoes are a good fit?” He would ask, “Are you sure he has plenty of growing room?” I was always excited at how fast my feet were growing, but in reality I often was wearing a size or two too big.
Besides trying to purchase kids’ shoes with plenty of room for potential growth, durability was a constant concern. We had all sorts of ways of wearing out our shoes. One of the more popular one, particularly with the toe area of our shoes, was playing on the Maypole. However, as I grew up and left the playground, I was still able to find new ways of wearing out my shoes before what Dad felt was an appropriate duration of time.
As I entered 9th grade and adolescence, Dad decided it was time to buy a man’s shoe for me, something sturdy enough to withstand a beating and of course with a couple of years of growth capacity. He settled upon the very expensive Florsheim wingtip. I can assure you, of the 1600 or so students in my high school, I was the only one wearing this sort of shoe to school. It was like my feet were in training to be an insurance salesman. And, these were not the sleek versions you find today. No, mine were often referred to as Gun Boats. Thick, solid, heavy, if you accidentally kicked your other ankle, a trip to the emergency room was a real possibility.
My Dad had finally beat me at my own game. For a young teenager who was already struggling with pubic hair, the shoes were too much for me. My friends would ask questions like, “Where is your briefcase?” Yet, I could…not…wear…out…those shoes.
One evening, I was at our church wearing this human equivalent of horseshoes on my feet. It was quite snowy outside and people had tracked a lot of snow and ice into the foyer. In the foyer, one could turn to the right and enter the sanctuary or one could proceed up two steps and continue down a hallway. Besides struggling with my shoes, I was struggling even more so with the Hell and Damnation sermons I constantly had to listen to. My religion was a religion of rules. Although we were supposed to be “saved by grace” we still had to measure up. I could not measure up. It was beginning to wear me down emotionally. It was a constant presence in my young life.
On that particular evening, not wanting to be at church on a Wednesday night, not liking some of the faces that surrounded me, feeling overwhelmed and depressed from it all and wearing a pair of shoes that had me trapped in a teenager’s social nightmare, I took a step from the top of the hallway to go down to the foyer and into the sanctuary.
One other ting about those Florsheim wingtips in the 1960’s… they had leather soles. Leather soles on a wet, hard surface are nearly impossible to navigate securely for any distance. Think ice skating. When you also add, slushy, icy, snowy stuff that the worshippers had neglected to wipe off from their own footwear, you have a perfect storm.
I took one step from the top stair and I was airborne landing incredibly hard in the foyer, flat on my back, instant pain, like a truck had run over me and my wingtips, pointing straight up as if to laugh in my face, saying. “I’m ok, but you don’t look so good.”
It was too much for me, the pain, the church, the wingtips and I closed my eyes and I said quite clearly, “Oh… fuck.” I don’t ever remember using that word before then. As I opened my eyes, a church lady was staring down at me from the top of the stairs with a look of condemnation all over her smug, self-righteous face. She had clearly heard my summary statement regarding my life situation. I was sprawled out, shoes together and my arms extended from my side. I was in a horizontal crucifix position.
If I could talk to my 13 year old self, I would tell him I understand exactly how you feel and when it comes to our spontaneous descriptions of our despair, well, if the shoe fits.
As has often been the case in my life though, whenever I express my humanity, even when in despair, things change. For some reason, totally unknown to me, Dad decided to buy me a new pair of shoes for school soon after the “Foyer Incident.” He said we would keep the wingtips for dressing up occasions. Funny thing is, I had those shoes when I graduated from high school four years later and I still had room to grow in them.