The Return of Barefooters | Taking a Cue from Shoeless Dames

In my Iowa yesterdays, barefooting proved a mark of courage, a flaunting of the sage parental advice warning us kids away from the bogeyman and the plethora of small, sharp objects he planted beneath our tender feet—glass, nails, nettles, bees. My cousins and I viewed it as something more than a coincidence that the toughest among us, our cousin Leah, had feet as thick as horsehide and calluses deeper than a barnyard cowboy’s.

Leah, who rough-housed with the boys, was always first to dash across our barnyard bed of rocks. While the rest of us winced and hollered and whooped and soft-shoed our way across—eh-oh-ah—Leah practically levitated. She took after my shoeless grandmother on my father’s side who somehow managed to rule the roost sans the usual dictator’s props: iron fist and steel-toed boot. In other words, our empress had no shoes.

Sometime between my gran’s hog-calling, cow-wrassling, bare-footed, pre-Depression era youth and my own Gen X pussyfooting, barefooting became verboten. “Barefoot and pregnant” became the worst insult you could hurl a young woman’s way, as if the two separate slurs—“barefoot” and “pregnant”—shared some sinister root.

In my Iowa childhood, almost overnight signs went up on Main Street declaring, “No shirt, No shoes, No service.” The women in my family, especially, hemmed and hawed at the news, but they did as women always do—they adapted. My mom carried a pair of clogs, while my grandma toted her flip-flops—what she called her “clippees” for the clip-clip sound they produced whenever rubber sole smacked under-ankle.

Their “emergency” footwear hung out in the car in the event commerce needed doing; the way the men in our family carried tire irons and jumper cables . . . just in case. As we kids watched and waited in the hot car, our heroine would emerge triumphant from the dime store, twirling her shopping bags, looking like a million bucks. Then the car door would swing open on its rusty hinges and our ladies of perpetual subterfuge would kick off those insufferable shoes, and put their big, bare, bunioned toes on the accelerator.

It’s possible, I think, to grab hold of the fleeting decades by their shoestrings. Once apprehended, the stranger-than-fiction ’70s are simply flip-flops and pop tops; the ineffable ’80s just so much patent leather and pumps; the never-say-never ’90s pretty much pumped-up, space-age hightops.

Today, it’s the barefooters among us—the real, raw dogs—that are truly threatened with extinction. Gone are the employees who used to “air out” beneath their desks, kicking off both shoes and socks. Gone, too, are the tough kids like Leah who could run a rock gauntlet in no time flat. I miss them all, and I bet you do, too.
But we can take comfort in this bit of sole: our kids and grandkids, nieces and nephews, have found their feet again. Flip-flops are once more the rage in our not-so-new millennium, even though kids today don’t wear them like we used to—as a bit of practical, passive, ground-up cooling in the days before widespread A.C. Now they’re donned as a fashion statement, an emblem of some wished for leisure, or else a retro homage to a parent’s tragically hip, bell-bottomed past.

In retrospect, maybe the next generation has what we lacked—the chutzpa to wear “clippees” to class and clogs to church. Can barefooting be far behind? And maybe their era, when the presence or absence of a tattooed ankle or a toe ring can still sometimes make the difference between a dream job and a rejection slip, isn’t so very different from the one we went toe to toe with. Then as now, being yourself, best foot forward, amounts to no small feat.

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