Columnist’s Note: I wrote this memory years ago, and each summer I am reminded of it by someone who also walked the streets of Sedalia on those tacky tar streets that were common during our childhoods. With the temperature nearing triple digits all last week I thought it would be a good time to bring out the story of my barefoot days, a memory that I am sure I share with a lot of people my age.
In the heat of a summer day when it is so hot you can almost see flames rise off an asphalt road, I think back to the tar streets of my youth, and wonder how it was that as a bare foot boy I could run across them, and never get a blister. I suppose it could have been all those calluses I built up during the summer months. The tar on those streets, like the one that ran by my house on Fifth and Emmit, changed consistency depending on the temperature, from a hard brittle in cold weather, to a tacky rug ruining substance, that coated bare feet an inch thick on hot summer days, today’s improved sphalt is not supposed to do that they say.
Running barefoot in those carefree days was not only desirable, but economically necessary, for most kids in my neighborhood, because shoes were for school, church, or company, but during the summer everyday shoes were a luxury many families couldn’t afford. It may seem funny today with secondhand stores, and garage sales everywhere, but people usually wore out their own clothes in the pre 60s days.
I always got a stiff new pair of (Spalding Black Dot Tennis Shoes) at the start of each school year, but by the final bell, of that year they had so many rough miles on them, they could hardly be classified as footwear anymore. The tops and soles would have lost most of the stitching that held them together by then, and they only looked like whole shoes when I stood still allowing the two halves to settle back together. I always discarded those sad looking husks, along with any papers the teachers might send home with me, as soon as I cleared school property.
There was a feeling of complete freedom in that simple act, and I could tell my feet appreciated it too, as they spread out like lazy dogs on a hot afternoon, when I freed them for another summer. My feet would become rock hard during summer vacation allowing me to run over any surface that happened along my path, and although I would pick up a nail now and then, as well as bee stings, and stone bruises, they could only slow me down for a minute, before I was off again to run over rocks, cinders, and those tacky tar roads. I remember getting in a lot of trouble, when I stuck to one of mom’s clean rugs, or freshly waxed linoleum floors, when I’d forget to scrape it off before entering the house.
The only things that would interrupt the freedom from footwear, were Sunday School, or company. Mom kept a pair of leather prisons in the closet for those occasions, and would force them onto my poor spread out feet like cruel torture chambers, that I was forced to endure until church was over, or the relatives finally went home.
The phrase I dreaded the most back then was, “It’s time to shop for school shoes.” It was like hearing I was being sentenced to nine months at hard labor, because those words meant school days were almost here again.
The man at the shoe store would shake his head at my tar stained, callused feet, as he shoe horned my feet into their restrictive cells, and I could see there was sympathy in his eyes, perhaps because he remembered his own barefoot days. I don’t recall how old I was when shoeless summers were no longer possible for me, but even now as a 70 plus boy, when the restrictions of adulthood, and work gets me down, I like to walk into the back yard, take off my shoes, and feel grass slip between my bare toes. It takes me back to those barefoot days for a little while, and though I can’t run very fast anymore, and I’m not brave enough to venture onto gravel, or asphalt roads without shoes, it is tempting sometimes.
I took some kidding after this story ran, but I did find out there are still a lot of grown up kids out there, who like me remember their barefoot days.
Jack Miller is a longtime Sedalia resident whose column runs in the Weekend edition of the Democrat.