February 2, 2023

FTV: These Boots . . .


     Yes, go ahead and finish the lyric begun above;  “are made for walking, and that’s just what they’ll do, one day these boots are going to walk all over you.”  Some may hear Nancy Sinatra’s voice singing her No 1 hit from 1966.  It was written and produced by Lee Hazlewood and entered the Billboard Hot 100 on January 22 of that year.  Though it has been covered by the likes of Loretta Lynn, Megadeth (yes, that Megadeth), Billy Ray Cyrus, Haley Reinhart, and Jessica Simpson, I prefer the version done by the late Carol Reid.  Carol was one of the movers and shakers responsible for remodeling the Ontonagon Theater of Performing Arts (located in the Ontonagon Township Memorial Building).  On more occasions than I can count, I was lucky enough to be playing the drums with The Easy Money Band when Carol would be brought on stage to perform the song.  More than a few people see it as Carol’s signature tune (rather than Nancy’s) in the same way the late Donnie Hawkins’ name became attached to The Mule Skinner’s Blues.  Carol had a lot of fun with the song and so did we.  With that said, let us turn our attention to boots – real ‘boots on the ground’ boots. 

     My first memories of boots include plastic bread bags.  During my years in elementary school, trundling off on winter mornings included slipping on an old fashioned pair of rubber galoshes.  Over the years, I wore them all – the type with the metal clasps and those with zippers.  What they all shared was the near impossibility of getting my shoes to slide in or out of them.  Getting my feet in was easy enough because I could stand up and force the issue.  Getting them out, however, was an entirely different matter.  The feet came out fine, but the shoes (and sometimes my socks) remained.  It required a good deal of tugging and pulling to extricate them.  My mother heard my complaints and solved the problem by having me put an empty plastic bread bag over each foot.  At first, it felt a little funny to be seen doing this at school, but this ‘easy on / easy off’ method overcame any self consciousness I may have felt.  I also couldn’t help but notice a few of my classmates began doing the same thing.

     The rubber school boots were fine for school, but extended outdoor winter activities required a different mode of footwear.  As long as I remember, I was the recipient of hand me down Sorel boots with felt liners.  My brother’s feet grew faster than mine so every time he got a new pair, I got his old ones.  If any of you were the youngest in the family, hand-me-downs were one of the joys of being the younger brother or sister.  As long as his feet kept growing, new boots were purchased and the old ones were passed on to me.  My dad always had a pair with eye hooks the laces needed to be criss-crossed through many times over to tie (to me, they seemed to take forever to get on).  I was happy with eyelets with only one set of hooks at the top that could be ignored if one was in a hurry to get rolling.  I convinced my mother to let me wear the Sorels to school one day but by the time I came home for lunch, my feet felt like they were on their own little sauna.  After putting on dry socks, regular shoes, and rubber boots for the return to school, it was a mistake never to be repeated unless we were having our annual outdoor fun day.

     The rubber boots went away in seventh grade.  The only two years I had to ride a bus to school meant trotting two blocks to the bus stop in front of the new Marquette Senior High building on Fair Avenue.  The first really rainy fall day, I made the double mistake of wearing my rubber boots and my old Safety Patrol rain poncho.  Nothing could have prepared me for the vicious attack my attire evoked from the eighth graders riding the same bus across town.  I did wear the boots home but the poncho got rolled up and tucked under my arm for the ride home.  My poor mother could not understand why I refused to wear either (poncho or boots) for the rest of seventh grade.  She must have figured it out because she did invest in a more waterproof outer coat for me but no matter how much she tried, she couldn’t get me to wear boots to the bus stop, even in winter.  As mothers are want to do, mine decided to take action rather than press for an explanation.  I would not be wearing my school shoes to the bus stop the next winter if she had anything to say about it.

     I came home from school one day to find a brand new pair of Chukka boots waiting for me.  Being a fashion maven wasn’t my strong suit so I had no idea what she had in mind when I asked, “What are these?”   My mother explained they were something new she had found in the Sears Catalog.  “Boots that look like shoes,” she said.  At this point, there was no use arguing the point so I tried them on and must have deemed them okay.  Mom was always ahead of the fashion curve.  I was wearing wide-wale corduroy pants, paisley pattern shirts, and vellore shirts with leather lacing instead of buttons before they were trendy.  From that day forward, she never had to nag me about wearing shoes with no boots in the winter and my feet were much happier for it.  All fashion trends have to start somewhere so I guess it took my sensible mother to put me on the path of wearing Chukka boots, a habit I continue to this day.  Back then, there were only a couple of styles on the market but these days, the great variety almost makes it hard to choose which way to go.  I didn’t think that much about fashion choices back then, but as one expert described the style recently, “Swapping sneakers for Chukkas is an easy way to elevate all your casual looks.  They remain suitable asa  choice for a business casual look and can be worn with khakis and a sport coat or blazer.”  Who knew they could be such a fashion statement?  Shoot, I was happy to have warm, dry feet without being forced to wear rubber boots.  I also decided to be a supporter of anyone who ‘did their own thing’ fashion wise – no fashion bullies!

     My favorite pair of boots came courtesy of the United States Army, but I didn’t have to serve a hitch to get them.  My brother ended his first year of teaching in downstate Chesaning by getting drafted in the summer of 1971.  He came home that Christmas with a set of regulation high-top Army boots to go along with the regulation gloves, jacket and liner he had gotten me for my birthday.  I got the quick ‘this is how you shine your boots’ tutorial and spent the winter semester of my freshman year in college wearing them everywhere.  With the right socks, they were as warm as any felt lined Sorels.  The traction soles were great for any surface, and I really liked the extra ankle support they provided.  My second summer at the Huron Mountain Club, we did one of those acts of idiocy only 18 year olds can do that really put them to the test.

     After climbing the trail to the top of Huron Mountain one afternoon, we decided to run (yes, run) back to the car.  The trail had some steep sections and in the moment, we thought it would be a good idea to jump straight from one corner to the next and skip every other switchback on the trail down.  As we neared the bottom, we hit one section of trail that was a little more rugged than the rest.  When I launched myself to jump to the next landing, I realized it was a little farther down than the switchbacks we had already encountered.  At twenty feet, it seemed to take forever for me to hit the trail again.  It may have only seemed like my life flashed before my eyes before I hit with a thud.  A quick tuck and roll (as one sees a paratrooper do when they touch down) left me staring up taking a quick survey of which body parts were still intact.

     How the three of us managed to splat down, roll, and finally come to a stop without landing on each other is one of those little mysteries we probably should have thought about before going airborne.  “Anybody break anything?” was the first question that came out of my mouth.  We compared notes, took a quick inventory of our bruises, and thanked our footwear we were still in one piece.  The other two guys had on pretty heavy duty hiking boot and I was sporting my trusty black Army boots.  Jim summarized the event in two simple phrases:  “Probably a good thing we didn’t try that in tennis shoes.  How about we walk the rest of the way?”

     When we first began taking students on hikes at the Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park, I dug my trusty Army boots out of storage.  They had been sadly neglected but a little spit and black polish had them looking almost as good as new.  Knowing the terrain we were going to encounter would be rough, it made sense for me to give my ankles enough support.  Having sprained both of them during my college years, it only made sense to give them all the help they could get.

     The lesser of the two sprains was an accident.  Before they put in the artificial surface and new bleachers at the Hedgecock Field House, they had those gray, wooden ones ringing the basketball court.  After watching the NMU team play, I was on the way down to the floor when the person to my left stumbled into me.  I took a step to the right to catch myself from falling and my right foot hit the framing that held up the seats.  I knew immediately what happened so I hopped out the side exit and stuck my foot into a snowbank.  It hurt like the dickens but the cold kept it from ballooning up.  It was sore the next morning, but after a couple of days hobbling around, it improved enough I could get back to exercising again.  

      During my semester of student teaching in the spring of 1975, I had sprained my left ankle badly playing a pickup basketball game at the Field House.  The doctor at the NMU Health Clinic told me helpfully, “Well, I don’t think you broke it but maybe you would have done less ligament damage if you had,” before she sent me off to have it x-rayed at the hospital.  It turned out the tech who x-rayed it was the same guy who had undercut me playing basketball.  I went up for a shot and he moved under me which resulted in my foot landing on the top of his instead of the floor.  It made an awful popping noise and when I was able to get down to the locker room to change, I realized it was the same foot I would have to use to depress the clutch on my truck.  It was a painful drive home.  When the x-ray guy happily said, “I kind of figured I might see you today,” I would have hit him with my crutch if he had been standing any closer.  

     I spent the next day student teaching on crutches but my arms rebelled and said, “Nope, this isn’t going to last long.”  Luckily, I had purchased a pair of calf-high moose skin boots from an Indigenous craftsman while we were on a geology field trip around Lake Superior.  The next day, I gritted my teeth and tightened the laces up so they became more like the walking boot one gets to wear after ankle surgery.  I was helping Fred Rydholm with the Bothwell Middle School track team that spring and once he saw me limping around, he told me to spend the first half hour of practice in the whirlpool.  Between the boots and the water treatment, I was almost tap dancing within a week.  The prospect of hiking in any kind of rough terrain brought me back to wearing my extra supportive Army boots.

     Sometime in the late 1980s, we expanded our Porkies field trips to include orienteering with the eighth graders.  Orienteering employs topographic maps and compasses to travel between points without the need to simply hike down a trail.  The first few years we took this day-long trek, I was extremely glad to have my old favorite combat boots.  By rights, the thirty years we made this annual hike should probably have worn them out, except for one minor detail.  Before one of our hikes in the early 2000s, my beloved boots were nowhere to be found.  After searching all the usual hiding places, I even began to wonder if I had ditched them and just forgot about it.  I was able to pick up a pair of cross-trek hiking boots for the occasion.  They are good boots and I still wear them to this day, but I missed my old go-to hikers.

     Even as an adult, the ‘hand-me-down’ boot thing was still part of my life.  Twice, my dad took advantage of an offer to test drive a new pick-up truck when the dealer was offering a free pair of Sorel boots as a come on.  The first pair was passed down to me because dad found his arches were high enough he could not get his feet into them.  When he gave them to me, I knew his size 11s would be at least a size too big for me, but with an extra pair of socks, maybe they would fit.  Up to then, I never gave the arches of my feet much thought but true to my family genetics, I could not get them on either.  Eventually I found someone with the right shaped foot and gifted them a really nice pair of boots.

     His second ‘boots for test drive’ event landed dad an even better style of Sorel that he could actually get his feet into.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t long after he got them that he missed a step going to the basement and ended up breaking his ankle.  He got it plated and pinned, but the boots became a moot point when his outdoor trekking was hampered by his ankle.  When he offered them to me, he made it a point to emphasize that yes, they were a style he could wear so they would also fit my feet.  They are great boots, but they are heavy enough I do not like to wear them for anything other than running the snowblower.  The padding must be significant because it feels like I could fall down and the boots would stand me up again like one of those old Palooka Joe blow-up punching bags.

     I took my last orienteering hike in the spring of 2018, just a couple of weeks before I retired.  As I began devoting some of my new free time to sorting out the mess in my garage, I found an opaque plastic bag hanging from a hook in a back corner.  Lo and behold, my missing Army boots reappeared nearly fifteen years after they had vanished.  Once they get their spit polish shine back, I will have to take them for a test hike to see if they still work.  And no, I do not plan to jump off any high rocks to see if they still offer me enough ankle support to keep me from breaking my ankle.  They may have saved the 18 year-old me but I am not tempting fate fifty years later.  With apologies to Carol and Nancy, “These boots are made for [only] walking.”

     After years of wondering where Chukka boots got their name, I finally looked it up.  They originated with British troops serving in North Africa during the Western Desert Campaign of WWII.  They were manufactured for officers in Cairo’s Khan el Khalili bazaar and resembled a popular boot style from South Africa known as Veldskoen.  When infantryman Nathan Clark observed officers from the Eighth Army wearing them, he took the design back to his family’s company after the war.  The ‘Chukka’ name more than likely comes from a seven and a half minute playing period in Polo known as a Chukker or Chukka.  The Brits were fond of wearing boots while playing and socializing after a match.   The British Army gets a nod for the idea, but Clark can be credited for making them popular. The Chukka became a ‘must-have’ fashion in the 1950s and 1960s especially among actors like Marlon Brando and Steve McQueen.  As I said, as the driver of my JH wardrobe, my mother was always up on what was new in the world of fashion.  I just never imagined she may have been taking hints from Brando and McQueen.

Top Piece Video:  These Boots Are Made for Walking by . . .yeah, I was curious about the Megadeth version, but could not pass up Nancy – it is much closer to what Carole sang!