THE SAGA OF THE ANTI-NIKE FOR LIFE
A little brother’s dream trip to Burlington
In the winter of 1956 or thereabouts, when I was in the first grade, my family went on a shopping trip to Burlington, Colorado. It was a big city to me, full of wondrous things, and I was extremely surprised when my parents said they wanted to buy me a new pair of shoes to wear to church. The shoes I typically wore were brown leather high tops, with ugly soles. I wore those shoes for everything: to school, to church, and for working around the farm. I wanted so much to have new shoes, so that I could be like my big brother Gary.
Gary always had very nice-looking shoes. He worked hard to keep them polished and clean. That was no small task, especially in the middle of winter, when our small barnyard would sometimes be crowded with 300 or 400 yearling heifers, all eating, drinking, pissing, and defecating in the corral. Sometimes we would have six to eight inches of soft, smelly “mud” in the corral.
As I remember, Gary had a shoe wardrobe that included a black dressy pair for church, combat boots for farm work, penny loafers for school, and some fashionable “Keds” tennis shoes. Gary was always a very smart dresser. I used to whine and complain to our mom about the lack of shoe equality between us. (I didn’t have the nerve to complain our Dad.) She never once denied the lack of equality, but she would be armed and ready with a reply.
“Kenny, I have never seen anyone like you. You can wear out a pair of shoes in two months! Gary’s shoes are in good condition even after he outgrows them. But you! There is never a pond of water that you don’t walk through, rather than going around. And after you help your Dad, your shoes look like someone took a knife to them! I have no doubt that when your Dad nails something in place, you put a nail through your shoes when he isn’t looking, just to see if shoes could be nailed together.”
I wanted to reply that if I had a lot of shoes to chose from, mine would last a lot longer too, so the inequity spoke for itself. I asked my Mother why Gary could have school shoes, combat boots for his farm work, shiny black leather shoes for church, and the best of the best in my mind, “Keds” tennis shoes.
Gary was 2 1/2 years older than I was, and in my mind anything he had, I should have equally. And I was very envious of those combat boots that laced up even higher than my high tops. Boy, did they show class! They were even better than cowboy boots!
By way of comparison take a peek at my lonely pair below. I am sure that seeing this will gain me a tad bit of sympathy.
I had just one pair of ugly every-occasion shoes. Be it for work, feeding the pigs and gathering the eggs, or standing with Gary in the back of the pickup throwing out bales of hay to the cattle in the winter, or taking apart a dead 3 hp Briggs and Stratton engine (which had black oil that oozed everywhere), or for playing in the mud, snow and rain with Gary, or even attending Sunday School, I wore those shoes.
Gary and I had a blast growing up together and we loved each other. Despite doing exactly the same things as me, however, Gary never seemed to get his clothes covered in grease or mud, and his shoes always looked clean and nice. (I remember occasions when he actually had the audacity to slow down our playing by taking off his shoes and socks when things got too dirty. He definitely did it the time that we built an earthen dam after a heavy downpour.)
Before I move forward with this story, I should point out that many of my friends had multiple pairs of shoes, but they were stuck with ill fitting hand-me-downs. In case that term means nothing to some readers, this situation occurred when there were multiple girls or boys in a family and each succeeding child wore whatever his or her big brother or sister had worn a few years earlier. Hand-me-down shoes had probably been repaired a few times, and hand-me-down clothes were generally faded, and might have patches on the knees and elbows. As a rule that’s what farm kids wore in grade school and what rich city kids probably did not. I was blessed in that way, being a younger brother, and I usually wore Gary’s old clothes.
Shoes, however, were a different matter for me. In the winter of 1956, as I remember, Gary’s feet were a boy’s size 10D, very normal. However, my size at that time was 7 1/2 EEE, which meant my very wide feet could not possibly fit in my brother’s hand-me down-shoes. In pictures taken around this time, I usually appeared to be about half Gary’s size and his hand-me-down clothes were always giant on me, so I always had to “grow into them.” My dad used to call me a “short snort” because I was so small and skinny. As a side note, I remember that Ron O’Neil and I would fill our pockets with gravel on the days the Flagler school weighed us and measured our height. Neither one of us wanted to be the lightest boy in the class.
If I had understood what people meant by the anti-Christ back then, I would have christened my everyday shoes the anti-Nikes. They were old and worn out, and they were UGLY! I was really looking forward to getting a new pair of shoes on our winter trip to Burlington. I could be just like Gary, and I could wear nice shoes to church and special occasions!
THE SAGA OF THE ANTI-NIKE FOR LIFE.
“Never seek immediate gratification as there is only hell to pay. “
Late one Saturday morning, we drove 65 miles east of the farm to the town of Burlington, Colorado, which was our county seat. Any time we made a trip to Burlington it was a big deal, because it was the largest town on the old Highway 24, which ran from Denver to Kansas. (It entered Kansas near Goodland.) About 2,000 people lived in Burlington at the time that I am remembering, as opposed to about 700 in Flagler. Burlington had two wonderful bakeries, a five and dime store, a Gamble’s department store, smaller clothing stores for women and children, and even a hospital with multiple doctors (instead of the single doctor in Flagler). There was also a bowling alley, a swimming pool, and the administrative offices of Kit Carson County. The county sheriff’s headquarters had a jail sitting on the top of the old courthouse. The county fairgrounds were also located at the edge of town. But perhaps the best attraction of Burlington (at least in the view of small boys) was a Dairy Queen! We loved stopping there for a treat before heading home.
On the particular Saturday that I recall in this story, it had started snowing early that morning and my Mom convinced my Dad that he should take some time off work so that they could head over to Burlington and do some early Christmas shopping. As I have said, Burlington had a wider range of shopping opportunities than Flagler. And of course my mom loved the beauty parlor there, if she could get into it.
It was wasn’t too cold out, but the December snow was falling, coming down with big flakes and not much wind. It was beautiful as we drove to Burlington, but our windshield wipers kept getting gummed up with ice, dirt, and snow. Daddy would have to get out and pound on the windshield wipers to get the ice to fall off.
The day seemed to move very slowly. Gary and I went with our Mom most of the time, and then to the five and ten cent store, even though we didn’t have ten cents between the two of us. We looked at the great toys—model airplanes, model boats, model cars, and anything else that seemed magical at the moment. Finally, at about 4:30, our mother showed up. She wanted us to go with her to the Gamble’s store to look at a few things that she had picked out for us.
The first thing we looked at was a white dress shirt along with a bow tie for Gary. The look on his face told me that he would tell Mama that every size he tried on didn’t fit, because the very last thing in the whole world that he could see himself doing was wearing a dumb white dress shirt. The war was on. The first shirt had sleeves that were too short, the second shirt had a neck that was too tight, and the third shirt just didn’t feel right. Our Mom wasn’t giving up, and eventually that third shirt must have felt good enough, because that’s what he got.
Then it was my turn. I had not expected to get anything but my mother told me that I was going to be singing in the school Christmas Festival program and in the church Christmas Play. “And,” she said, “I finally think that you are mature enough to have a pair of Sunday shoes.” Just the very idea of getting those new shoes brought a huge smile to my face. I couldn’t wait!
We headed over to the shoe department, and all of a sudden every single person in the store department happened to be a friend of my mother, or if they weren’t friends before they met her, she was determined to talk long enough to make them my friends. She held my arm firmly, although I was stretching away from her, ready to make a getaway to see the kids’ shoes. However, she had her heels dug in, and she was trying to see another person that she could talk to, for just a little longer.
The clock showed the big hand moving towards the 12 and the little hand moving towards the 6 and I knew that meant it was going to be closing time before I ever got to pick out my shoes. But finally, with just minutes to spare, we made it to the children’s shoes. As I walked up to the display, I spotted the shoes I wanted. They were slip-on shoes, with red leather and brown leather combined, and I learned they were called penny loafers. If I remember rightly, they cost about $12.00, and my mother said, “No! That is way too much!”
She walked over to another pair of shoes. They looked kind of weird. I asked the man who was helping us what those shoes were made out of, because it sure didn’t look like leather. He explained to me that he had already talked to both my mom and dad about them and they were a very good pair of shoes because they were split pig hide, which looked more like suede then a smooth leather. They had the penny loafer design, but in a smaller “half-penny” style.
We were in a rush, and I had to sit down while he got out an aluminum thing and measured the length of my feet. He said, “Boy, you sure have pretty nice feet. Let’s see how wide they are.” And the little gauge that he measured with went wider and wider. The man said, “I’m not sure we have triple E wide children’s shoes, so maybe I will need to go to see if we have some for men.”
Back he came, not with multiple boxes with multiple designs, but with one single box. Instead of this shoe style being a pretty brown, it was a kind of god-awful army fatigue color of green. And sure as shooting, this pair fit like a glove. The salesman asked me, “Young man, would you like to wear these home? I’ll put your old shoes in the box.” I said “yes” as fast as the word could come out of my mouth, and my mother said “no” as fast as the word could come out of her mouth. Thankfully, my father was there as the arbitrator, and he said, ”Give him a break and let him wear them home. He doesn’t get new shoes very often.”
Once Daddy stepped in, I knew I had won, but Mama had to get in one last word. She said, “Ken, it’s snowing out there. You make a dash to the car and get in so the shoes don’t get wet. And the second we get home, off they go. You will dry them off, and put them in a special place for special occasions.”
All the way home I looked at those shoes. At first in the store with all the other beautiful shoes and expensive shoes to choose from, I had thought they were ugly, but as I was riding along with them on my feet, I knew they were perfect shoes. They were soft, they were warm, the soul flexed very easily, and honestly I had never received any gift of clothing of any type that ever had the sophisticated look and feel, and the deep sense of joy, that these shoes brought to me.
It took us longer than usual to drive from Burlington back to our farm. Our farm was approximately 14 miles north of Flagler, on dirt-topped roads that we simply could not drive along quickly. The house was dark and cold when we finally arrived. Almost immediately we were told, “Gary, you need to milk the cow, and Ken, you and Gary need to feed the pig and her babies and make sure they have water. And finally, Ken, I want you to get the eggs.” Daddy said he would load the bales up and spread the bales among the cattle himself.
By now there were about six or seven inches of new snow on the ground. I helped Gary round up and corral the cow he had to milk and then I headed to the chicken house to get the eggs. I was really glad that I didn’t have to work outdoors like Gary did when he milked the cow. There was mud about six inches deep, and then the snow on top of it, and I knew if I had to try to milk the cow I would ruin my new shoes. And the very last thing my mother had said before we got in the car and headed home from Burlington was, “Take those shoes off when you get home.”
So I knew there was some risk involved in wearing my new shoes to do the chores. I had even taken them off and put on my old shoes for at least a moment, but as I got to the back door and I was about to leave, I just could not wear those old shoes. I had to wear the new ones! So I ran back and put them on.
One of my chores was to feed the sow. She had recently birthed a litter of baby pigs and Daddy had put them in the chicken coop with all the chickens, because it was the only building we had that would really protect them from the weather. The little bitty black pigs were beautiful, unbelievably cute, and also unbelievably dangerous. Not because they would hurt you, but because their mother was very protective of them.
To keep the pigs in the chicken coop, my Dad had placed an electrified metal bar in front of the door. If the mother sow tried to get out, she would be shocked, so she stayed in the chicken coop with her babies. Behind the bar there was a heavy trough that we would pour her grain into, and another one that we had to fill with water twice a day. When I went in to gather the eggs, I had to straddle the metal bar that ran across the door, and I had to stretch far enough so that I didn’t step into the trough of water.
This was a supreme task on my part, as the fence charger on the bar was extremely strong. It would shock the heck out of me if I touched it. There was nothing to hang onto as I went over the bar. I had to lift up one leg while standing on my tiptoes, put it over the metal bar, and then lift up the other leg and step in. Between my “family jewels” (which were protected only by my Levi’s jeans and underwear) and the bar there was a space of just 1 1/2 to 2 inches. And then, once inside the chicken coop I had to face a pig that would just as easily bite me as look at me.
As I walked to the chicken house with my bucket, the more I thought about this the more I started to panic. My soft new shoes no longer had a nice green tint. They were covered with snow and had turned into dark leather. My feet were wet and cold, and snow had slid inside of my shoes and gotten down into my socks. I knew then that it was going to be difficult, if not impossible, to climb over the electrical barricade and not slip and shock myself. Besides that, the chicken coop was very dark. I stared in, but I could not see the sow or any of the baby pigs, although I could hear the babies.
I managed to make it over the bar. Then, all of a sudden, I heard a horrendous roar. It was the mother pig coming straight at me. She was doing 90 miles an hour. I threw the metal bucket I was carrying towards her. She was between me and the exit. The closest safe place I had for a retreat was the chicken roost.
If you don’t know what a chicken roost is, let me explain. Old chicken houses like ours had dirt floors and a small access opening so that the chickens could come in at night or during inclement weather. Along one wall there would be nesting boxes where the hens would lay their eggs. Each hen’s nesting box usually had a lid. Hay was placed in the box and the chickens would manage to jump/fly 4 feet up to the boxes. They would get in from a middle opening in the lid that you would raise to collect the eggs.
The hens were very possessive of their spaces in the nesting box and always sat on the same spot to protect their eggs. When a hen was not in her nesting box she might wander over to the roost. Our roost was homemade. A row of four support boards (two-by-fours) had been put against the wall at an angle. These support boards were about six feet high. Then, starting at about three feet up from the dirt floor, a one-by-four piece of wood was nailed along the length of the support boards as a roost. There were two roosts above that, and on the very top a one-by-four piece of wood was nailed to the two by fours, and to the wall, to stabilize the structure.
The chickens slept on the roost just as you would see pheasants (or chickens for that matter) sleep in trees. The higher that the birds could get off the ground, the safer they were from the predators that might get through their small door into the chicken coop. The key predator in our area was coyotes, with foxes second.
Now why was the chicken roost crucial to this drama? Just as the chickens were seeking safety on their roosts to protect their babies against a 1000 lb. sow who was charging a human to protect her babies, I also saw that the chicken roost was the closest safe place I could go, and that I needed to be as high up as I could get.
Once I was perched on the chicken roost, I tried staring down that sow, and got nowhere. The sow was charging my weak perch. The chickens fled immediately, fluttering away to a safer place, and all I could hear was the deep, loud, threatening grunt of the mother pig. Our standoff may have lasted 8 to 10 minutes, but in my mind it also could have been 30 or 45 minutes… I knew that I was scared, that I had a precarious position with little to sit on or grab. It was nearly dark, though the outdoor light was still streaking through the windows and through the top half of the door, so I could see a little. The baby pigs could see me too, and wandered over to look. Then the mother sow made a charge toward where I was balanced, to chase the little pigs away from me. This startled me. I yanked up my left foot and… Damned if my shoe didn’t fall off.
It funny what’s comes to your mind in an instant like that. I thought, “I didn’t get the penny into the leather strap on the shoe.” But that flashing thought lasted half a second. The sow thought she saw her next meal, and without hesitating she grabbed my shoe with her mouth and started chewing on it.
I suddenly became aware that I had just managed to get two females mad at me, and although one was a more immediate danger, with the other there would be hell to pay. When my mother found out, I would be in trouble so deep that all I could hope for now was to escape with my life. Time stood still. I screamed at Gary to hurry up. After what seemed like a century, he was done with the milking and he came to find me.
I made a break for it, although by now the sow didn’t seem to even care. My dad also showed up and the three of us walked back to the house. My dad marveled at how lucky I was not to be hurt. He assured me that he would get the eggs with me for a week or two until the sow settled down. (I could tell that Gary thought I was a wimp, because he said that he could have just gotten the eggs.)
My dad assured me that as a small person I had done the right thing. (I told no one that my shoeless foot felt like it was close to freezing off.) When we got back to the farmhouse I wanted to go anyplace but where Mama would see me. However, Daddy insisted that I tell her the story. We took off our winter coats as usual, and Mama came to the back porch to call us for supper, as usual. Then it happened. I had covered up the single shoe by putting my coat on the floor, and Mama politely suggested that I hang it up. And so what was left of the pair of new shoes was now exposed, the story was told, and my prospects for getting anything more than work shoes were deferred from year to year until I was in the sixth grade.
I lived to tell the story. It wasn’t pleasant but it was a great lesson. If I had not kept my mouth shut, I bet to this day that my sweet brother Gary would have gone to get my work shoes for me before I went into the chicken house to feed the mama sow, and thus would have concealed the evidence of my folly. My dad did assure me that he was sure that my shoe would be found in the daylight. We went out together about noon the next day to look, and unfortunately my father was wrong. There was a sole, a couple of things like tacks in the sole, and that was that.