Military Brats And Shoe Shines

A good shoe shine isn’t easy to pull off. You have to do a preliminary cleaning of the shoe first: a removal of the dust and grime that has accumulated on the shoe’s precious leather exterior, perhaps with a cloth or with a spare brush. Then, you apply the polish itself with another small brush with dense, closely packed bristles. Not the one you just used for dusting; that will still have some dirt on it which will stick to the greasy polish and will be transferred back to the shoe. (If you’ve been careful in your storage of the polish, that is, you’ve kept the can carefully closed, the polish will not have dried up and become useless.) This initial application done, the actual shine can begin. A larger brush with broader, softer bristles should be used. The last touch–one only used by those who desire the kind of gleam in their shoes that you could check your reflection in–is to use a soft cotton rag to deliver one final buffing. (Incidentally, while some shoe shine kits come with such rags, I’ve found old undershirts work best.)

As this description of the shoe shine process should indicate, I have some familiarity with it. And I continue to take pride in stepping out for the day wearing a well-polished pair of boots. Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve worn Doc Martens, Blundstones and Dickies boots; I think I’m justified in explaining their long lives–several years for each pair–on my feet as being partly due to not just their sturdy manufacture, but also my diligent care of their exteriors.

This attitude of mine is, in large part, due to the fact that I am a military brat, the offspring of an air force pilot, someone who took acute care to make sure his precious flying boots looked ready for action every time he stepped into an aircraft cockpit. This attention to appearance, this external manifestation of an inner discipline, he sought to convey to his sons, teaching them that to look sloppy and slovenly in manner and dress was to be sloppy and slovenly in other aspects of our lives too (and perhaps in our minds too). A school uniform was not one if its wearer sported dusty and dirty shoes. My father taught us how to spit and shine, how to make sure we stepped out in style, taking pride in  pair of well-shined shoes. This was not preening or strutting; this was simple self-esteem made manifest.

Over the years, I let many of my father’s lessons about dress and decorum fade away. I grew my hair long, I got tattoos, I wore jeans and shirts with holes in them; I disdained ties and never learned to knot one; I own only one suit, purchased twenty-fours ago, which I trot out for weddings; I walked around in shorts and sandals; I was often sloppy and unkempt.

But somehow, I never reconciled myself to wearing dusty, beat-up shoes that looked like they hadn’t been shined in months.

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