The world of my childhood was experienced with two bare feet. Growing up in Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1960’s no children wore shoes in the summertime except perhaps the sons and daughters of the newly imported – families who moved to Montgomery from other environs, where apparently shoes were a sign of civilization. Not here. Not among the poor and not even among the rich, or at least those deemed rich by the standard of the sleepy town along the banks of the Alabama River.
Shoes were not required for school, prompting uninitiated newcomers regularly to visit the school principal offering to buy shoes for the poor barefoot children streaming into the school each day, the children of the local doctors, lawyers and business leaders – the classmates of their children. The esteemed local pediatrician, wise beyond his time, assured parents that barefoot was best. He had his medical reasons – but I just thought he loved us.
A whole world of sensation is lost on those who go through life wearing shoes. Imagine a day with gloves on your hands, how encumbered you would feel, how much you would miss. Yet your feet in shoes are missing even more as their contact with the ground is constant and not the intermittent touch of hands.
I wore shoes in the winter but as spring warmed the ground, and young plants unfurled tender leaves, my own tender soles emerged, free at last. First outings were always a bit shocking, sensitive feet aware of the rough texture of the sidewalk, a slight prickle from the pine straw, the gritty oiliness of a particular spot in the carport, a vulnerability to menacing stickers, hiding in friendly lawns.
A simple trip to the grocery store, on the first really hot day of summer, was an adventure when barefoot. The walk across an asphalt parking lot was both a challenge and a physics lesson. We’d dart from one painted white line to another, my little brother and I, feet cooling to just below the scorching point, before heading off across wide expanses of black. We mastered principles of thermodynamics by touch – yellow lines were cooler than the asphalt but not as cool as the white lines, rough pavement was cooler than smooth.
The contrast upon entering was dramatic, passing through heavy automatic doors, which threatened to grab an errant bare toe. The floor felt impossibly smooth and cool, delightful when freshly waxed and clean, not so great when gritty and dusty. We’d walk past the fruits and vegetables, up and down aisles of canned goods, finally approaching the freezer aisles, with air and floor temperature dropping precipitously. Bare feet became cold feet, and we’d ask mom to hurry up but don’t forget the ice cream. Then back out we’d go, through the toe – eating doors, across black pavement hotter still in the heat of the day, standing beside the car waiting for mom to unlock it, hopping from foot to foot.
Back home we would drive to my suburban neighborhood, with grassy lawns and concrete sidewalks. My feet knew each better than my eyes. St. Augustine grass is a wonder of the natural world, and you simply haven’t lived until you have walked through a lush St. Augustine lawn barefoot on a hot day, so cool underfoot, drawing heat from bare feet, when the air is so heavy, soft and hot. I still do not understand how this can be.
I became a connoisseur of concrete. Some is too rough. Concrete with exposed aggregate is a cruel and inhumane invention of those out to mangle little knees and condemn barefoot children to gingerly pick their way down the driveway. Some is too smooth, slippery for bare feet and must be crossed with care when wet. But broom-finished concrete is just right, smooth but not slippery underfoot, the perfect palate for painting a storm’s advent, big raindrops leaving dark splotches, more and more until all is darkened. After the rain we headed back outside, walking across the wet concrete – the warm surface covered in cool rain. Dust settled. Steam rising.
People wonder at this shoeless lifestyle. Didn’t your feet get hurt? Yes, they did on occasion. I don’t know that modern children even understand the meaning of the phrase “a stumped toe” as we called it in Central Alabama. (In other areas, I have learned, it was called a “stubbed toe.”) But by whatever name, they were a nuisance. I’m running free — then a surprise of pain interrupts my steps. I look down and see blood covering torn skin. “How bad is it?” I wonder. The garden hose will tell, the dull sting of water on exposed flesh. The first water is hot, warmed by the sun in the snaking hose lying on the grass, and eventually turns cooler, but never cold.
After picking out bits of dirt from the wound, I decide mom needs to see it. I remember sitting on the kitchen counter, feet in the sink, mom’s hands making it feel better. Cool water from the faucet, followed by sharply stinging soap and finally a thorough rinsing. Mom applies goopy antibiotic ointment and two Bandaids – one over the top, one around the toe holding the other in place. I head back outside, barefoot still…of course.
By late summer, the injuries are rare. The calluses on my feet are so thick that even black asphalt is mastered. Small shards of glass can be painlessly pulled out of the thick, tough pads leaving cuts without pain or blood. Splinters are encased, like bugs in amber – no pain, no infection, no problem. My summer-toughened feet give me a sense of strength. I’m armored and able to move quickly and carelessly, impervious to the challenges of the ground.
A child running barefoot in late summer is freedom and joy. I’m running down streets, across sidewalks, through wooded lots, and undeveloped fields, hot sun on skin, humid air moving through sweaty curls, and the ever-changing feel of the ground under bare feet. Strong feet, limbs and lungs, conditioned from long days spent playing outside, enable me to run on and on, just for the joy of it.
Nowadays, while some southern children still run free at play, at schools and shops shoes are required. But there is one last sanctuary for unshod children – one I find especially appropriate. Like little cherubs, they still patter through the halls of certain Montgomery churches, the girls in French hand-sewn dresses, the boys in smocked shirts which button on to little short pants. No shoes for either.
In some ways they are remnant of a bygone era, but perhaps they are also a foretaste of heavenly glory. For I have hopes of going barefooted in heaven. After all, at the burning bush God told Moses to take off his shoes for he was standing on Holy Ground. In heaven all the ground will be Holy, and we will be free – free of sin, free of sickness, free of painful stickers, and, Lord willing, free of shoes. Amen.