I loved my little red boots. Little itty-bitty cheap plastic boots with plastic rubbery pull-up handles. They were so RED! And I loved red. I felt so PROUD! Cuz I wore them, or rather lost them, in receiving (remember, medals of honor are not awarded to winners but recipients!) my very first concussion, which was also the first time I fell out of a tree, and the very first time I broke through the ice over frozen water. Now, one can imagine little red boots venturing foolishly out onto the ice, but what in tarnation where they doing up in a TREE?
Oh, by the way, this was back when I was a little boy. I was a bad, bad elementary school lad trying to tag along with those badder than worse pre-teen boys my Momma hated me playing with. Of course, we didn’t use “pre-teen” back in those halcyon red rock-throwing1960s. Back then we li’l kids call ‘em “the Big Kids.” I grew up, see, in rural Virginia, on my parents’ dairy farm outside the town of Farmville, yes, the real Farmville, halfway between Richmond and Lynchburg.
One day a long, long time ago, decades now, I ventured out after a long and terrible storm. In my little red boots, of course. The sun was shining. The birds were singing. And all the plants and everything else outside was slick and glistening wet. It must’ve been Spring or Fall because I do remember wearing a coat and a hat.
I climbed up into a tree. I loved to climb. That’s why I was up in a tree. I began playing in it the previous summer. It was a scrubby, bushy, shrubby tree growing wild around the corner of the yard. My parents just mowed the grass around it. It was a tangle of shoots with myriad branches forking forth in all directions. At one point I slipped and grabbed, stopped myself, and ended up with a mouthful of leaves. Apparently I used my mouth as an extra hand. No wonder I have jaw problems these days!
I scrambled higher and higher up. Maybe I was 20 or 25 feet above the ground or so, a long ways up when you’re a little squirt in little red boots. As I stared proudly around me, both feet slipped. I shot down with a shout. All sound was ripped outa my throat, however, because I felt a jerk of pain, I snapped over in a flip, and one knee stretched open like rubber bands. My shirt pulled out of my pants, my coat ballooned the wrong way, and my hat fell away and disappeared. It all happened quickly. I found myself hanging upside down. One leg dangled like bug antennae with the sock half-off my foot. My little red boot! I swiveled around and spied it way off in the grass.
What in the world was I doing upside down? I finally looked up to look down my leg. I hung upside down as one foot, still inside the other little red boot, was wedged tight in the fork of a cluster of branches. Ugly, twisted, crooked branches, too. My ankle felt wedged against knots of wood where more branches grew away from the feeder trunks. A dull ache began to throb in my foot. The more I wiggled the tighter my foot jammed inside the boot between living wooden branches. Oww.
I figured if I could shake loose I might grab some branches to flip myself right side up, then realized everything within reach was too flimsy. I could run a wicked twig right through one of my eyeballs, too. That reminded me of my ears. I jerked a hand to pet the side of my head. My hearing aid was still on.
Well, I was stuck. Stuck good. Stuck bad. Stuck too far for anyone to hear me. So I began to shout and yell as I hung upside down.
Nothing. Not a peep. No sign of my mother peering through the window going, “What in the world is making all that gosh darn racket?” I howled. I barked. Pretended I was a wildcat. And turned into a wolf.
Nothing. Not even after I morphed into a werewolf with big, drooly fangs. Which I discovered isn’t a good idea while hanging upside down.
So I commenced to scream. Hearing a little boy scream must certainly galvanize hearing people. I screamed and shouted and wiggled upside down. After awhile my voice grew hoarse, my throat hurt, my head swelled with blood, my foot and ankle and knee hurt, and I grew tired and whiney.
“MOMMA!” I yelled one more time. “Help! I’m stuck upside down in a tree! HELP ME, MOMMA!”
There gotta be some really good four-letter cuss words for kids to shout in public. Couldn’t think of any, so as I pondered screaming the one word with the most magnificent and truly awe-inspiring power, the one word which upon being uttered by a child brings all adults into absolute stillness, at least for a moment or two anyway, the F-word, yes, the magnificent F-word, dark shadows darted across the ground below me. I looked up and there ran my Momma. She flew down the hill with her legs chugging like pistons.
She stopped and looked at me. Apparently she thought I was relatively uninjured because she began to chuckle and snickle and then as if she was going to sneeze Momma burst out laughing hard. I couldn’t remember a thing she said because I felt great disappointment in not being able to SHOUT OUT real loud my F-word.
Momma even left me hanging! She went over, retrieved the flyaway little red boot, and came back before me. With surprising strength, for she was a tiny little thang, she grunted and popped me right out of that tree and set me on the ground standing. Except I buckled and fell down in the wet grass. She laughed again; glad to see I was all right.
“What in the world were you doing climbing up inside those dripping wet bushes with those slick little boots on?” asked Momma.
“I just wanted to climb,” I said and shrugged my shoulders. “I like climbing trees. But never in my little red boots before.”
“You mean not right after a heavy rain,” she mused.
“Yep,” I said and nodded.
“Come on in the house. Let’s make some hot cocoa.”
And we did.
But I kept wearing those little red boots.
Sometime later, when I was a tad bigger for such a young lad, I still wore my little red boots. They just felt really snug.
It was Winter now. Cold air gripped the South and curled everything brittle with ice. Trees buckled and snapped under layers of freezing rain. Ice covered the fields and woods as if somebody hid your favorite glazed donuts in the freezer.
It warmed up for a couple of days and the ice began to thaw. Then down swept more frosty air from Canada. This time it snowed. Oh, it was freezing cold, and we kids loved it. I hooked up with my buddies Raymond and Glen Moore from down the way. Their dad worked for my dad on the dairy farm, and they lived in the house my parents first lived in after they moved to Prince Edward County, Virginia. The one with an outhouse out back and a pigpen off to the side.
“Let’s go play in the creek!” I said.
“Play in the creek? It’s all frozed up!” declared Raymond, because he was the oldest.
“We can bust open the ice with rocks!” I said with wide eyes.
“Yeah!” shouted Glen. “And maybe we can find us some crawdads unda them rocks!”
“Let’s go explore anyway,” I pushed.
Off we went. Across the fields and down the woods and through strands of barbed wire fence drawn tight across the remains of woven wire fence so ancient and overgrown with wild honeysuckle the wire snapped in half. We three boys ended up exploring Lost Creek, a stream bubbling up out of the ground to flow between the Bass and Gates Farms into Little Sandy River. On the Gates’s side, where we were giddily trespassing (it didn’t matter as we were all cousins), the creek ran through a strand of dense woods with rocky outcrops.
Lost Creek dropped over a lip of rock and fell into a plunge basin of sorts to form a nice wide pool several yards across and deep. We called it the Big-Pool-Like-A-Swimming-Hole. In the Summer we got down in the water and splashed in it. Water striders would dart across the surface with big water beetles bumbling below after tadpoles. At Summer’s End beautiful scary golden garden spiders would weave impeccable webs over and around the pools to catch mosquitoes, gnats, and beetles. Now, however, it glittered raw with ice and snow.
I loved looking down at my little red boots standing in all that white snow.
Raymond, Glen, and I arrived upon the edge of Big-Pool-Like-A-Swimming-Hole. It was thick with ice. Underneath, however, the water seemed clear all the way down to the sandy bottom. We could distinguished little rocks and sticks through the ice. And leaves!
“Look!” shouted Glen as he pointed. “Fish! Lookit them fish!”
“Ain’t nothin’ but a buncha minnows,” said Raymond trying to sound wise.
“Minnows is fish!” protested Glen.
“Crayfish eat them,” I said. “Hide under a rock. Minnows swim by. And the crayfish’ll grab ‘em with claws and gnaw on whatever it catches.”
I remember how much I enjoyed saying that word “gnaw,” feeling my whole mouth changing shape. “Gnaw…”
“I bet there’s a big grandpa crawdad lurkin’ down in yonder lickin’ his lips like it’s Christmas,” said Raymond.
“Crawfish don’t have lips,” I said, shuffling about in my little red boots.
“We call ‘em crawdads,” insisted Raymond.
“Hey, how you know them things ain’t got no lips?” asked Glen as he squinted at me curiously. “You ain’t been kissin’ on them things, now is you?”
“Well, if we find ol’ grandpa down in there, I dare you to lick it.”
“What? No, I ain’t gonna lick a daggone crayfish!”
“Double dare you, then,” said Glen. “Pay you five dollars to lick it.”
“Shut up, Glen,” snorted Raymond. “You ain’t got no money.”
“Yes, I do, too,” insisted Glen. “Got it from Momma who done got it from Poppa.”
“Oh, she give it to ya then, now did she?” asked Raymond.
“No, she done left it out on the kitchen counter, and I went over and put it in my pocket while she was bent over up inside the refrigerator. Never said nothin’,” Glen boasted with an air of defiance.
“I’m gonna tell Momma on you, boy!” Raymond stood up tall and stuck out his chest.
“Not if I lick that crayfish first,” I swore. And they both turned and looked at me funny. I would’ve licked it, too. Then run home with five dollars in my fist, gargle with vinegar, and go brush my teeth real good.
That stopped both brothers incessant yackety-yak as I began to slip around the snow-covered rocks in my little red boots. My feet felt cold, and I wanted to move.
“Hey,” Raymond said to me. “Walk out on that ice. See how strong it is.”
“Yeah, I double dare ya!” shouted Glen.
I stared hard at that ice. It looked really thick. And the water underneath appeared deep. Maybe over my ankles? Over there in the middle of the pool it certainly looked up to my knees. And in the far corner, maybe even up to my neck. The ice distorted our sense of just how deep the water might be. Oh, I was foolish and brave.
I inched forward till the red tip of my boots rested over the edge of the ice. I took two more steps. Nothing but a slight crunch each time.
“Aww, you ain’t got nothin’ to worry about,” said Raymond. “That ice is all frozed down deep.”
I shrugged my shoulders and walked on out across the ice into a beam of light. I stopped and turned around. As I began to shrug my shoulders I broke through the ice.
I plunged in through chunks of broken ice into the pool of water. I yelled with fright. It felt as if ten thousand blades of freezing metal sliced into my legs and feet and genitals. Water poured into my boots, and I stood trembling in water up to my waist.
Everyone was yelling and shouting and cursing as I splashed like a crazy maniac trying to get out of Big-Pool-Like-A-Swimming-Hole. I lunged forward toward shore, but the edge of ice was hard as rocks. Raymond and Glen reached out, grabbed me, and yanked me out of the water. We were all excited and wet and shaking. Especially me.
While the two brothers were splattered here and there with a few drops, I was soaking wet from the waist down. My pants clung stiff and wet to my skin and I wobbled like a drunk man urinating in his own trousers. With help from Raymond and Glen I tugged off my boots and emptied out the water. I decided to keep my socks on. We were a long ways from home for little boys. At least half a mile away through snowy fields and icy forests and over fences. Raymond and Glen helped me wobble home. I thought I was going to freeze to death, but I staggered on home crying and laughing and whining and cursing and giggling and shouting and whimpering.
Right before we got to the back door of my parents’ home, Raymond and Glen said goodbye and ran off. They were scared of getting into trouble.
“Don’t you tell on us, now!” they shouted as they scurried away.
“Just that five dollars!” I yelled back.
My Mom and Dad scolded me good, but I didn’t care. I was glad to be alive and warm. Mom said I looked blue as a fish.
“Can I have some hot cocoa?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “I’m warming up chicken noodle soup instead.”
Dad looked down at my pile of wet clothes and my two little red boots.
“Son,” he said with a sigh, “You’re too big for those boots. You need a new pair. But they won’t be boots like those.”
They took away my too-small little red boots. I’d worn them out so much Mom and Dad decided to throw them away instead of passing them on down the line to my little sister and brother. And I got new boots alright. A pair of big, hideous charcoal-colored galoshes with too many metal buckles. They slid over my shoes, and I absolutely HATED those galoshes. I loathed them. You couldn’t run or fight in them and only little nerdy butt kids with giant eyeglasses and bad haircuts wore such ugly boots. So I fit right in with my Frankenstein-bolt hearing aids.
Years rolled by and then decades. Soon after I moved to Seattle, Washington after thruhiking the Appalachian Trail, I wandered around Green Lake on a rainy spring day in 1992. I felt far from Virginia and lost in the city. I stopped by a vacant lifeguard station on a beach of sorts watching the rain drizzle off as sunshine splayed across the water. A wild, colorful gaggle of little kids tromped by squealing and shouting in high-pitched voices. Preschoolers on a walk. They were way overdressed in layers of jackets and raincoats with so many colors I was reminded of tidal pools out on the wild Olympic coast brimming with brightly hued starfish, urchins, and sea anemones.
As I glanced down below the too-long rain slickers I noticed about half the tots stomped along in little red plastic boots, just like I wore such a long time ago. Memories of the smell of fresh, new plastic boots flooded my mind. I stood there silently, smiling into the new sunshine, watching the parade of little red boots splash through the puddles on the way around Green Lake.
Memories flood in from 3,000 miles away of climbing up in a wet tree in red plastic boots only to fall and get stuck hanging upside down, of walking through the snowy woods and across the fields and out onto the ice wearing my little red boots. Of breaking through the ice and plunging into Big-Pool-Like-A-Swimming-Hole up to my waist and turning my little red boots into a pair of underwater buckets. I remember the misery felt walking home squish-squish-squishy-squish in the freezing cold. All these memories coming back to me for as I write this my house fills with the comforting smell of fresh gingerbread. I hide in my office as my wife orchestrates a baking party and marvel about the magic of little red boots.
William Dudley Bass
7 December 2011
Copyright © 2011, 2016 by William Dudley Bass. All Rights Reserved until we Humans establish Wise Stewardship of and for our Earth and Solarian Commons. Thank you.