Averyell A. Kessler
My mother was astounded when I announced I wanted saddle shoes. “They’re for children,” she said. “You’ve outgrown them.”
“Not now,” I answered. “Everybody has them.”
“Everybody?” she asked.
“Almost everybody,” I continued. “It’s a thing.”
“Oh yes,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I know about things.”
I was in my eighth-grade year at Bailey Junior High and edging into dicey teen-age years. Maturity was blossoming like four o’clocks on a picket fence. The ever-present specter of fads, popularity, and the overwhelming desire to fit in were creeping into my psyche. I’d already passed in and out of Bobbie Brooks pre-teen clothing phase and pressed shiny pennies into my oxblood red leather loafers. I had learned how to stuff tissue into a size AAA bra, and squeeze into a panty girdle. (No one in the eighth grade needed a panty girdle, but they held up our stockings. Stockings? What were we thinking?) I had no idea I was trotting behind the bell cow of “follow the crowd” mania. My grandfather WG recognized it immediately, but he kept quiet and watched the story unfold. Experience is an excellent teacher, if you aren’t planning to jump off the roof in a plastic Superman cape.
After three days of whining and fruitless pleas, I spoke lethal words, “I’ll be the only one without them.” Finally, Mama gave in. We drove downtown to Capital Street and parked in front of Myron’s Shoe Store(??) the go-to shop for saddle shoe craziness. A single salesman was delighted to see us when we stepped into a shoebox shaped store smelling of mold and air-wick, plus a faint tinge of shoe polish. It was late October, but the ice conditioner was still blasting out a whirlwind of freezing air.
“Saddle shoes?” he asked eagerly, rubbing his hands together.
“Yes,” Mama answered.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but this saddle shoe craze had been really good for business,” he laughed. We settled into padded green chairs and waited as he climbed aboard a chrome fitting stool, pulled it to within an inch of my knees, and picked up his measuring tool. “Now little lady, let’s see what your size is.”
The words little lady were fingernails scraping across a blackboard, but I ignored it. He darted into his stock room and returned with a single box. “I don’t have your exact size, but these might do. I can put them on the stretcher and they’ll be fine. Stretcher? Was that an instrument of medieval torture? Was I in competition with Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters, hoping to slip their enormous toes into a tiny glass slipper?
The next few minutes flew by as I tried on the shoes. Ouch. The salesman stretched them, then stretched them again. The third stretch sealed the deal, and I was able to walk around the shop without overt pain. He led me to a large, medical looking machine in the center of the store. It was a pediscope, the ultimate shoe fitting gadget of the day, and a frightening combination of a weigh-for-a-penny scale and goose necked X-ray machine. When I stepped on, a ghastly green light appeared on the dial exposing my bony feet (or someone’s bony feet) encased in shoes.
“A perfect fit,” the salesman brayed. “Plenty of room for the toes.” He failed to mention heels.
I was giddy when we left the store. I was set, blending in with the popular kids, ready to mix with the best of 14-year-old society. Three days later, I began to limp.
Mama noticed before I did. “I knew those shoes didn’t fit,” she said.
“Yes, they do,” I answered. I’m surprised a bolt of lightning didn’t crash through the kitchen window and take me out for lying. My heals were throbbing, red and raw as a Gulf Coast sunburn. My toes were pressed together like the teeth of a fine-tooth comb. I remembered Scarlet O’Hara sucking in breath as Prissy laced her corset tighter than a drum skin. I was undeterred. Beauty requires suffering. Right?
My grandfather WG arrived early then next morning with a box of freshly picked camelias for Mama. He noticed my limp and asked what was going on. After I told the story, he stared at me with searchlight eyes.
“Remember what I told you. Don’t follow the mob.”
“Yes,” I whispered. “but everybody wears them.”
“Forget about everybody. Those shoes hurt, don’t they?”
“A little bit.” I bit my lip; my heels were thrumming from a fresh outbreak of blisters.
“Do you want to follow the mob when it jumps off a cliff?”
“No!” I answered.
“Then be an individual. Walk in your own shoes!” Good advice from a 19th century man.
I’ve been walking in my own shoes for a long time now. I’ve managed to steer clear of lemming philosophy and group think because I’ve never read an entrancing story written by committee or heard a glorious sonata flow from a board of directors meeting. The lovely watercolor hanging on my writing room wall wasn’t created by a busy group passing a paintbrush from hand to hand. I welcome John Milton’s marketplace of ideas. Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.* This post is not intended to be political, because I avoid that like a bad case of athlete’s foot. It’s just a brief push back against a copycat life where labels are common, point of view seems to be everything and independent thought is a pile of tin pennies. My grandfather taught me not to follow the mob. The big boss lemming is never the first one over the cliff, only his followers. I’m certain he wasn’t wearing saddle shoes.
*Areopagitica – John Milton’s prose work in defense of freedom of speech and expression.