Barefoot Was Best
(c) Copyright Chuck Bealke, 1996
During my farming days, I learned to wear pretty good boots. When working around machinery or cows, making hay, or moving on snow or mud, anything less could bite you quickly. But during two Summers I spent in the country at my aunt's place near Fayetteville, Arkansas, I went barefoot. These were pre-teen years (maybe 10 and 11), and I can't remember why we abandoned shoes; but we did. These were Summer vacations from school -- rare times when I had few work obligations other than maybe cleaning up after my considerably untidy self in the house. They were spent with my cousin of the same age and were certainly my most carefree and enjoyable summers. My aunt's place was a large frame country house on a hill with a huge screened porch. It had a nice view, sat on about seven grassy acres, and was surrounded by a small dairy, a chicken farm, an orchard and a horse pasture. Shunning domesticity, my cousin and I spent more time on the neighboring farms than on our own place. It was a time of roaming exploration. About the only places to play close to the house were a narrow creek, a spring house, and a tire swing hanging from a big tree. The tire was just barely within reach and not drilled, so anytime you wanted to use it actively, you could count on getting your pants seat wet - particularly after a good rain. Tire swings are surely one of God's gifts to mosquitoes.
The house was accessed by means of a gravel road leading up the hill to it. The gravel was fist-sized limestone and was a bit sharp on the edges and points. We would start a Summer walking gingerly over the painful rocks, taking small steps and watching every one. In a few weeks, however, boy feet developed a kind of a hide on the bottom, and you did not notice the rocks much. By the end of a Summer, we would be running up and down the road paying little more heed to the rocks than a man in combat boots. Our feet really got tough. We did take heed of thistles and thorns, and it seems like there were always stickers and cut weed stalks afoot in a field just mowed with a sickle bar. To go shoeless is to occasionally cut your heel or toes, stub your toes painfully about once a day - but no more outside than in - and to really feel your surroundings. One of the local kids was rumored to have walked onto a nail sticking from a board, but we were luckier. Concrete was HOT when the sun was high, and brick pavement seemed even worse. Warm wet mud underfoot was a neat feeling, as were some smooth flat rocks in the bottom of a flowing creek. Tall grass pulling through your toes was wet in the mornings. Though it was not risky physically, we did not run too carelessly around the dairy barn. Feet of a distracted boy are flawless tools for judging the age (in minutes or days) of bovine deposits. There was a Jersey bull about in a pasture, and we were effectively warned never to be on the same side of the fence with him.
Two of our favorite pastimes in this barefoot experience were jumping onto the running board of a passing neighbor's pickup truck to hitch a ride down the county road (as fun as forbidden), and playing in a wide creek bottom down the road. This watering hole had places to swim, dangle legs in running water, walk in the mud and swing like Tarzan from tree vines. (Actually, this was more like Tarzan restricted to six-foot swings just off the ground and the small percentage of the vines that would support any weight.) We had a decent fear of accidently stepping on snakes, but hardly ever saw any except at a neighbor's pond. At this almost mysterious place, teaming with all kinds of tall plants, algae, frogs, turtles and dragon flies, we were extra careful of our path.
We doubtless would have enjoyed the summers with our feet covered like those of the older natives, but surely not as much.