The retirement home was just up the street from the only stop light and on the left in the town where I grew up. I used to pass it every day as kid on my bike. The old people sitting on the porch would wave, I would wave back but only if I was alone. After all, when your with your friends, you are not supposed to know anyone that lived there let alone wave to them. Those were the people that as a group you made fun of and would never want any of the others see you waving. I was a teenager before I ever got closer than the sidewalk.
Have you ever walked into a building and just known or felt that something was different about the place. That was what I felt the first time I went inside that retirement home, that eerie strange this is different, kind of feeling. I had gone in with a new friend whose mother worked at the home. I can’t really remember why he went there, it could have been any number of reasons, all I know is that I went in and sat on a bench in the front hallway while he disappeared deeper inside.
I read somewhere, that what a person wears on their feet tells a lot about that person, or was it in some movie that I watched. I guess it really doesn’t matter whether I watched it or read it, all I know is that somewhere in that statement there is truth. A thick layer of dust covered the pair of boots that sat at the bottom of the stairs under the coat rack. I stared at those boots as I sat in the chair and waited for my friend to return from where ever he had gone. The eyelets were nearly worn through, and the laces had broken in places and were knotted to keep them together. In spots the leather was worn thin and the soles seemed to have flat spots where the balls of the feet would be. No doubt, they too were nearly worn out. Near the top, the leather was cracked and tattered from age and neglect. I could tell two things from those boots both of them obvious; they had seen a lot of wear, but not for a long time.
As I sat there staring at them I wished that I could have told more about the person that had worn them. Had the boots belonged to someone that had worked their whole life in one pair of boots, perhaps they had worn out many pairs of boots over their lifetime and these were just the last in a long line of boots that had seen better days. Had they belonged to a good father or good mother, had they spent their life roaming the roads and not spent any time at home. Had those boots seen the inside of more bars than they had the inside of any factory or other place of work. Had they seen the long highway one-step at a time or had they been one of the many feet that had built that highway. Had they seen the fields and barns of farm living, there were so many ways for those boots to have been worn down by their owner and I was just guessing or was that passing the time until it was time to leave.
From the moment I noticed the boots I had blocked out everything that was going on around me, I wasn’t there to stare at a pair of boots. I had just tagged along with my friend, all I had to do was wait for him to come back so we could go and do whatever it was that we were doing. For whatever reason those boots would not let go of me, I didn‘t even notice when one of the old men that I would see all the time on the porch sat down on bench across from me.
The old man sat watching me as I looked at the boots for the fifth time in less than a minute.
“Yup, those boots have seen some ground all right.”
“What’s that?” I said as I snapped back from wherever I was heading in my mind.
“Those boots that you got your eye on,” he continued, “they have seen many places and things that; well let‘s just say they been a lot places and seen a lot of ground.”
“They look like they’ve seen better days at least,” I said half laughing.
“Don’t let that layer of dust fool you son, there’s still a lot of wear left in those boots.”
“You can’t be serious,” I returned still chuckling. “Those things would disintegrate the first step you took, that is if you could lace them up and get them on in the first place.”
The old man got up and crossed the room mumbling to himself as if I had offended him, which of course was not my intention. I then figured that the boots must have belonged to him he had no doubt worn those old boots proudly until he could no longer work. Besides, I had only been stating my opinion and had not meant any harm to his ego even if I had known they were his.
“I didn’t mean…”
“Oh they are not mine,” he said as he picked them up. “And I know that you meant no harm. No son, I am just their caretaker, soon they will pass from me to the next caretaker.”
“Caretaker? You mean that you are responsible for the care and up keep of these boots?”
“Care and up keep?” he chuckled, “they don’t need any up keep or care, not these boots. I simply look after them until they’re needed again.”
I was sure that the man was answering the question I was asking, but for some reason I was only becoming confused.
“These boots were worn when this country wasn’t even a twinkle in the founding fathers eyes, they were here in every skirmish battle and war to protect those that came here to settle and create a new life. They were there when the tea was tossed over board in Boston harbor and again when the shot was fired at concord; they carried messages between the continental congress and General Washington; they were there when he crossed the Delaware river to surprise the British; they helped carry the news of the British surrender in Yorktown, they were there when General Washington spoke his farewell to his troops. They helped to carry the wounded at Gettysburg; they stood and listened to President Lincoln as he spoke; they were with General Jackson when he was shot: they gave the Rebel yell and the Yankee answer; they were with General Grant when he burned Atlanta; they were there as General Lee handed over his sword, yes on both sides. They were with Teddy Roosevelt and his rough riders, in his charge up San Juan Hill. They were in World War 1 at the Majinou line and in the trenches when the Huns were over run, and they were with the young fly boys that flew over those trenches. They were there when the Baron was shot down. They were at the signing of the armistice in France. They were with the American Volunteer Force, the flying tigers helping to defend the people of China. They were with the American flyers in the battle of Britain, they landed on the beaches in Egypt, the shores of Italy, and the coast of Normandy; they crossed the Rhine and fought their way into Berlin. They were with the boys when Mac Arthur was ordered out of the Philippines, they marched on Battan, they were in the Prison camps everywhere; they were with the resistance groups fighting in the Philippines and with Mac Arthur when he returned, they landed with the marines on Okinawa and Iwo Jima and every other island whose names will always be remembered by number or letter in the pacific, they were with the boys that flew the Enola Gay and they were on board the Missouri when it was all over. They were with the Army Air Corp as they flew the Berlin airlift. Later they crossed the thirty- eighth parallel with Mac Arthur and fought over hills with names like Hamburger Hill and Heart Break Ridge. They walked the jungles of Vietnam, flew bombing missions with the navy pilots, crawled into the tunnels, and were aboard the patrol boats that piloted the rivers. They were with last defender of the embassy and made the last helicopter out. They were with the marines in Lebanon and Grenada the army in Panama, they were with the troops in Saudi Arabia in the run up to Kuwait when they chased back the Iraqi army, they have flown with the men that have watched over it ever since. They were with the bombers when they went into Bosnia and the marines when they went to Sudan; they pulled out the survivors when the Black Hawk went down. These boots may looked worn out and haggard and perhaps you think they have seen better days but let me tell you something when they are needed they are ready to be put on again and do what they do best. They will always go wherever they are called to, to fight for and to protect this country and any other that needs it.”
I watched the old man as he talked dusting off the boots as he spoke. I wasn’t so sure what he had meant but I knew of those places that he spoke of and yet I wondered why he did not speak of any of the places that were in the news now. As the old man laced up the boots I watched in amazement how those boots seemed to change right before my eyes as well. The fingers that pulled on the laces changed as the old man finished putting on the boots I could here something far off in the distance.
I looked back to the boots once more and noticed that the leather looked new and the laces were no longer knotted and worn. The soles of the boots were new and the dust that had covered them was long gone. When they had been under that coat rack next to the door they had looked stiff and worn out and more likely to have fallen apart before they could ever be worn again, but now they looked new as if they had just come off the production line.
“Well son its time for me to go.” the old man said as he finished putting on those boots
I looked up from the bench and saw the old man a good forty years younger. His eyes bright and his gray hair now dark his stature strait and not hunched over
“I wish I could tell you more about these boots,” he said walking toward the door. “But it’s time for me to go now,” he said as he walked out the door.
I wanted to ask him more about the boots and what I had just seen but I could barely make a sound. I stood and began to follow him out the door forgetting that my friend was inside and that we had planned a long ride that day.
“Stay where you are for now,” the old man said turning around at the top of the porch steps. “It’s okay, you will join me soon enough until then these old boots and I will take care of you. Soon they will be passed on to you and those like you to wear and when the call comes I know you will be ready to answer it just as millions before you have and millions more will answer after you.”
28 May, 2010