For several years during my boyhood, from the time of my earliest memories until some point in my early teens when high-top tennis shoes, penny loafers, and interest in girls entered the picture, going barefooted was one of the grand pleasures of late spring and summer.
Momma considered May 1 a sort of unofficial “opening day” of the barefoot season, but well before that point, whenever temperatures climbed into the high 60s or 70s, I pestered her to let me wander about outside without shoes.
I well remember dire predictions such as, “You’ll catch your death of a cold” or expressions regarding the ridiculousness of my desires to the effect of, “I declare, I believe you’d go barefooted in the winter if we’d let you.” Occasionally Momma, no doubt beaten down by constant requests to shed my shoes and possibly by being secretly sympathetic to my desires as well, would give in for a few wondrous hours.
On many other occasions, including an especially memorable one when I disobeyed her strictures and shed my bothersome shoes anyway, I confess to being guilty of disobeying parental orders. One time when I was caught — not “red-handed” but “red-footed,” you could say — must have been particularly egregious in terms of either the temperature or Mom’s temperament. At any rate, the end result was a quite healthy dose of “hickory tea” applied with appreciably more energy than normal. Incidentally, for anyone who doesn’t recognize this terminology in an era where parental permissiveness seems pervasive, it describes corporal punishment administered with a hickory limb, or in my personal experience, and I had a good deal of it, a forsythia limb with just the right amount of flexibility.
May was a month of ups and downs when it came to going barefooted; at times it was simply too cold, while at others spells of a few days occurred when it was plenty warm enough to divest myself of hated footwear when I got home from school. Going barefoot in school was totally taboo, although I can remember asking teachers, more than once, why we couldn’t at least get rid of shoes while out on the playground. As a testament to changing times, I’ve seen numerous vintage school photos from the first third of the 20th century showing youngsters, particularly boys, without shoes.
By June though, all was right in my boyhood world when it came to barefooting it. Once that glorious, long-awaited day arrived when the school bell rang for a final time and the spring semester came to an end, three months of blissful freedom were at hand. That liberty included boundless opportunities to go fishing, build forts, seine minnows, camp out, play pick-up games of baseball or rolly bat, ride my one-speed bicycle, go swimming, catch night crawlers and spring lizards for fish bait, run a trot line for catfish, shoot my BB gun or slingshot, and just be a boy.
Mind you, I had chores as well. They included an endless and losing battle against Bermuda grass encroaching on our capacious garden, and in those pre-tiller days, I was poorly armed with my weapon being a pitchfork with which to dig up pernicious, tenacious vegetation bit by bit. I hated that particular duty but other ones, such as mowing the lawn with an old reel-type push mower that I still have, keeping weeds at bay in our small orchard using a mowing scythe, helping Daddy in the garden, picking blackberries to sell for the whopping sum of two bits a gallon, and being over at my grandparents’ to perform similar chores, were less loathsome parts of the picture.
While a good bit of the time I spent with my paternal grandparents involved work, I never really thought of it in that way. I certainly performed chores aplenty there, but Grandpa Joe had a way of making everything so interesting that I never really looked at it as labor. He could interrupt a session of hoeing corn with a dissertation on ground cherries even as we enjoyed eating them or wax eloquent on the differing virtues of varieties of field corn such as ‘Hickory King’ and ‘Hickory Cane.’ As an added bonus, he didn’t have any Bermuda grass on his little farm.
Then too, chances were pretty good that before day’s end, we’d be enjoying a glass of Grandma’s iced tea while he told tales from his rocking chair throne on the porch or mused about what she might serve for supper. Odds were also quite good that at some juncture I would fall victim to yet another of his endlessly delightful excursions into practical education through means of example. Grandpa Joe may have been singularly lacking in formal exposure to schooling, but he was a pedagogical wizard when it came to teaching through firsthand experience.
Perhaps it’s permissible to provide one of the countless examples of his skill in that regard, particularly so since I was barefooted at the time. It typified so many of the elements that were of importance to me in my boyhood classroom in the outdoors — subsistence agriculture, homemade toys, proximity to water, a pocket knife, and throwing. Incidentally, the latter might be launching almost anything — rocks, homemade spears I had fashioned from river cane, knives, hatchets, or, in cold weather, snowballs.
It was late summer, and we were plundering through a patch of “made” corn, gathering red-rooted pigweed to feed the hogs. The field bordered a good sized river. I was of course barefooted while Grandpa wore the brogans that always covered his feet except on Sundays. For no particular reason, other than misplaced youthful exuberance, I suddenly commented to my grandsire, “I wish I could throw a rock across the river.”
He chuckled and responded that he reckoned he could perform that particular feat without much trouble. Since Grandpa was well into his 70s, stooped from a life of hard work and still somewhat crippled from a shattered hip dating back a couple of years while out squirrel hunting in the snow, the very idea seemed preposterous to me. As I now suspect he realized, it provided too much temptation for me to resist. Impetuously I said, “If you throw a rock across the river, I’ll pull pigweed and slop the hogs all by myself for a week.” I never even bothered to get a quid pro quo should he fail. That was how certain I was of the feat’s impossibility. Unfortunately, mine was precisely the sort of response he had hoped to evoke.
Smiling softly, he pulled out his Barlow knife, carefully examined a number of nearby stalks of tall bottomland field corn, and cut one down. He then stripped the fodder off, removed the tapering final 3 or 4 feet, and carefully cut a notch in the smaller end of a stalk perhaps 7 feet in length. We then walked to the riverbank, where he kicked around in the rocks along the shore a bit while my bare feet enjoyed the cool water. Finally, Grandpa selected his missile. Only then did belated realization dawn on me. He was going to employ mechanical advantage to good effect using what was in essence a sort of atlatl, a tool that uses leverage to achieve greater velocity.
Sure enough, he launched his pebble, and it was still gaining elevation at the point when it reached the river’s opposite side. “Well son,” he said, “There’s a lesson there. Things ain’t always what they seem. I reckon the fool-headed, barefooted boy standing here best get busy gathering armloads of pigweed.” He let me suffer in abject misery for what seemed forever, although likely it was no more than 30 seconds. He then concluded the day’s lesson: “You’ll learn, but don’t fret too much about pulling weeds. I’ll help you, and then we’ll go slice that watermelon sitting in a washtub with a block of ice.”
Although more often than not I went barefooted, as had been the case on that day of infamy, I did wear shoes for some of the chores — reel mowers and bare feet weren’t a suitable mix, and the same held true for wielding a pitchfork or mowing scythe. Far more often than not though, I traipsed around devoid of footwear. That would be standard practice until school resumed in September. By mid-June I would already have built up a pretty thick layer of armament on my feet in the form of calluses, although insteps always remained vulnerable to things like honeybee stings, locust thorns, and broken glass. Otherwise though, the bottoms of my feet, and for that matter those of any youngster worth his salt, were tough as leather and well nigh impervious to harm.
Those toughened feet may not have been fireproof, but one “watch this” test of their ruggedness was to crush with your foot some adult’s carelessly dropped cigarette butt that was still glowing. Another was to walk on concrete or asphalt in the heat of a torrid summer afternoon. Of course minor dangers came along with the welcome challenges to just how tough one’s feet had become. I don’t think a summer ever passed without them presenting me with a painful problem at some point. Getting stubbed toes and making a pedaling mistep while riding my bicycle barefooted were the two I remember most. In the latter regard, it’s one thing to catch the bottom of a pair of jeans in a bike chain, quite another matter when it comes to the bare flesh of a big toe tangling with the chain.
To my youthful way of thinking, going barefooted equated to freedom and fanciful mental exercises in geographical relocation. I was Huck Finn on the Mississippi, or Robinson Crusoe on a remote island, an intrepid American Indian in the greater Yellowstone region, or hunter-explorer Fred Selous in the African veldt.
The feel of cool mud between one’s toes was nothing short of wonderful. After all, a good mudhole in a suitably squishy state provided pleasures far transcending those of any mudpack, not to mention those of some fancy place that charges for such treatment. My sister enjoyed going barefooted about as much as I did, and on one occasion Momma actually abandoned her adult dignity and joined us in getting gloriously dirty in the mud created by a sudden summer rain.
Similarly, walking through freshly plowed ground while wiggling your toes in the fertile soil gave a sense of connection to the good Earth that just wasn’t the same when wearing shoes. The feel matched the smell, and to my way of thinking the aroma of newly tilled earth makes pantywaist pretenders out of the likes of Chanel No. 5.
Other joys of being barefooted included wading in branches without any worry about getting your shoes wet and a subsequent tongue-lashing or worse from parents, going night crawler hunting after an evening shower and feeling the wet grass and worm castings beneath your feet, pushing around in rocks at the edge of a nearby branch or creek just to see if you could turn up some suitable slingshot ammunition, or maybe wading in a branch to catch crayfish.
Today my feet are so tender that a 40-yard walk to the mailbox would find me hopping off hot concrete or treading so carefully I resemble an old man trying to imitate a skilled ballerina. In those glorious old barefoot days though, it was sheer magic to go unshod, and I have to feel a bit sorry for any reader, no matter their age or sex, who didn’t enjoy this singular privilege of youth. Barefootin’ it was pure joy, an integral part of youth in yesteryear, and a wonderful rite of passage.
Jim Casada is a full-time freelancer who has produced 18 original books and served as editor, compiler, or contributor to many more.