Sometime during childhood, and always as my soft steps from bare feet were heard bolting for the screen door, Mom’s mindful voice began cautioning from the kitchen, “Ricky, put your shoes on, …
Sometime during childhood, and always as my soft steps from bare feet were heard bolting for the screen door, Mom’s mindful voice began cautioning from the kitchen, “Ricky, put your shoes on, son!”
Call it a reminder, if you will ... that even rambunctious 7-year-old boys going on 8, or 8-year-olds nearing 9, were not immune from the laws of the land.
In this case, the land was the old family homestead just outside Falkner, Miss., not too far from Ripley where I was born in the mid-’50s and probably just as close to the closest neighbor in the other direction, Walnut.
In this time, the law was enforced by Sheriff Mom. And when she couldn’t handle it, Dad’s leather belt could. On most days, they were an effective team. My sore bottom substantiated that notion.
In the early years, Dad looked the other way when I sprinted across the linoleum for the yard in bare feet. It was what boys did, he reckoned. Mom was an unwilling accomplice. She better understood the realities of rusty nails, broken glass, bugs that bite, snakes, spiders, chiggers and all things that gave moms a reason to fret. Still, she tolerated the risk and stood by as a silent partner.
That ended the day — while visiting first cousins in Macedonia, another nearby, unincorporated town — I pulled up lame during a game of tackle football with the boys from neighboring farms. The broken neck to a Pepsi — discreetly hidden in the summer grass from a bottle’s previous fall to the ground — found its way into the fleshy bottom of my big toe.
Whether the shard sliced the digit on the right foot, or the left, I cannot say. But I remember this: Streams of blood, the frown on Mom’s face, the feared reminder that we had been warned to wear our high-topped Keds for the big game and a sore limp for the next few days.
As I recall, the game probably continued without me ... as I sat on the sidelines exerting pressure on the open wound with a clean, but raggedy, dish cloth long since retired to a closet shelf. It sat among a fleet of worn fabric — mostly T-shirts, towels, pillowcases and socks — that had outlived their public use, yet remained on call seven days, and as many nights, a week for dusting, wiping grease from tired engines and soaking up blood from the wounds of invincible little boys.
It was the way of country folks. Nothing wasted. Nothing wanted. Nothing cast into the burning barrel until its time had come.
Later in the afternoon, the damaged toe was padded with cotton and wrapped in white adhesive tape. The idea of a Band-Aid in this north Mississippi farmhouse seemed as foreign as a savings account in the Tupelo bank.
No doctors. No tetanus shots. Just the cotton, the tape and a couple of St. Joseph aspirin to numb the pain.
Mom did mention stitches and maybe a booster shot from the Tippah County Health Department in Ripley once we had returned home. Dad didn’t dismiss the idea altogether, but offered some perspective with his familiar chuckle, “Well, let’s just see how it is tomorrow. Besides, if the boy needs a shot at all, it’d be for his distemper.”
At the time, I didn’t really know what distemper was. But everybody else laughed, so I figured it must have been something bad.
It was just Dad’s way.
Still, sometime after the Macedonia mishap, Mom handed down the edict. No more bare feet in the outdoors of the Magnolia State. Dad had little choice but to acquiesce. His consent kept the peace and preserved the goodwill in our modest home. It might have even prolonged my life ... as well as Mom’s patience and Dad’s tranquility.
Fifty-plus years later, as I look back on the moment, it’s a pretty good bet I broke Mom’s law more than once. It’s just what boys did. Dad might have been privy to the violations — assuming Mom was away from the house, such as at work in the blue jean factory or out back picking beans, peas, okra, squash or tomatoes from one of the two gardens that kept us busy in the hot months and fed in the cold ones.
“You take them shoes with you,” Dad might have warned as I scurried barefoot for the front door. “If you see yore mama comin’, you put ’em on. It’ll save us both a lot of fuss. It’ll also keep her from tannin’ yore hide ... and mine.”
Avoiding the dreaded tanned hide was foremost among my priorities as a boy. It didn’t curb the number of adventures my brother and I shared, but it did assure we took greater care in their doing.
Running barefoot in the rural settings of my boyhood — whether through a pasture on Grandaddy Norton’s farm, down a dirt road flanked on either side by sprawling stretches of kudzu or across the muddy rows of a watermelon patch in an afternoon rain — was just what kids would do.
It was a big part of life.
It was who we were.
It was growing up without a care.
Sure, in the poverty of those late ’50s and early ’60s in a land critiqued by many yet visited by few, there were plenty of cares. But Mom and Dad tended to those. We kids just played outside, worked the gardens, did our schoolwork and finished our chores ... and the grownups did all the rest.
But they did theirs in shoes. We did not. Such acts came by choice; at least, until the maternal mandate born from the mishap in Macedonia.
For us, shoes were a choice. We had them. We just didn’t always wear them, except for Sunday morning services at Pine Hill Baptist Church, and school.
Nowadays, other kids in distant lands go barefoot, as well. But they have no choice ... because they have no shoes. As such, they can’t get into schools and that means no education. No education means low-paying jobs as an adult. Hence, the cycle of poverty, like a wheel run amok, just keeps on turning.
Today is the final day of collections for the 14th annual Buckner Shoes for Orphan Souls drive in Cleveland and Bradley County. Volunteers will pick up the cardboard receptacles at 33 local sites on Monday.
There’s still time to drop off a pair of new shoes or socks, or both. But you’ll need to hurry.
When I was a kid, we were poor, too. But we had shoes, so we had a choice.
Too many youngsters today have no shoes ... so they have no choice.
Your donation can make a difference. Besides, it’s just a pair of shoes.
In the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, that’s the same as saying it’s just a matter of life.
(About the writer: Rick Norton is an associate editor at the Cleveland Daily Banner. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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