We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat: Shark Attack!

Yeah, yeah. I already know you’re going to ask me what shoes have to do with sharks and boats. Before we’re done here today, I’m absolutely certain I’ll have figured it out.

You see, I was gonna write about the deep subject of great whites and fishing trawlers, but Stacey and my oldest son (J1) and I got talking about shoes at lunch this afternoon. I’ve been avoiding the topic of shoes for so long now — it’s been years! — that I just had to change course. But I’d already typed out the shark and boat headlines, which I really like, so changing THEM was just too much trouble.

So we’ve got sharks and boats in the headlines, but I’ve got this thing about shoes, so now I’ve committed myself to connecting these random subjects. And DON’T THINK I CAN’T DO IT!

When I say I’ve got a thing about shoes, it’s not what you think, you perverts. It’s not that fetish kind of thing — not like the guy who used to live across the hall from Stacey before we were married. Stacey used to leave her shoes outside the door of her old apartment, to keep from tracking dirt inside. Her shoes are small — she has feet the size of a 47-year-old first grader — and soon after this guy moved in next door she started finding her mud-besmirched pumps and loafers cleaned and polished when she went to put them on the next morning.

You don’t have to think very hard about THAT before your calves start cramping.

The man eventually confessed, and even took it a step further to ask if she had any other shoes he might clean for her. He even offered to pay her to let him clean her shoes. I would have screamed and called the police, but Stacey is a more forgiving sole (haha! Get it?! Like the FISH?!). She just said, “No,” and after the man blushed very deeply, he moved away. Possibly to Tacoma.

No, my thing about shoes has to do with genetics. My great-grandfather was a shoemaker, as was my father and my father’s father. I grew up making boots. Once I was old enough not to attract much attention for violating child labor laws, I spent my Saturdays and summer vacations working in my father’s boot factory. And while I can’t say that bootmaking is literally in my blood, I know for a fact that my blood is in the boots.

I once spent an entire summer checking boots for nails. Back in the day, our boot “uppers” were attached to the soles with a technique called a 3/4 stitch-down. The front portion of the boot was stitched to the midsole, while the heel was fastened using nails. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the nails would safely crimp over against the iron bottom of the form the boot was made around. One percent of the time they would not. My job was to find that 1 percent. This was known as a “hand job,” meaning I did it by blindly sticking my hand inside the boot and sliding my thumb along the heel of the insole until I found something sharp. It was like a bad form of birth control. I would cry out, quickly pull my hand from the boot, and listen to the chorus of men around me yelling, “Don’t bleed on the boots!”

Bootmaking, even on an assembly line, is a skilled trade, and there was a hierarchy among the shoemakers. Once someone had moved one or two steps up from the bottom, he or she generally stuck around. There was a symbiosis between my father and his shoemakers. In Portland, Ore., in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there were exactly, umm, no other shoemaking companies. So if you were a skilled shoemaker in Portland, you didn’t have a lot of options where to work. And if you were the owner of a boot factory, you didn’t have a lot of shoemakers to choose from ...

This symbiosis worked well. My dad needed shoemakers, and the shoemakers needed my dad, and they treated each other accordingly. Most of the shoemakers I first met as a small child were still there when I went away to college.

Many of the highest skilled shoemakers were immigrants — fresh off the boat, so-to-speak! (HA!) My father sponsored most of their visas. There was Horace from England, who was a leather cutter and pattern maker and who taught me how to use a hand-knife. Chris from Italy ran the lasting department and was the only shoemaker we had with the strength and skill to stitch a Norwegian Welt by hand. The man was an ox! Alfredo was from Guatemala, also a leather cutter. We worked side-by-side one summer, and he would tell me stories from his impoverished youth that made the hair stand up on the back of my head. His accent was so strong that I would often miss important details. I would drive him crazy asking, “What? What was that?” after every other sentence. He finally just stopped repeating himself, forcing me to make the extra effort to comprehend. Then it was like music, listening to exotic stories colored with soft “n”s and rolled “r”s while I stood on one leg stamping rivets into hiking boots for eight hours a day.

I was the one asking for work, so my father had no compunction about giving me the crappiest, least-skilled jobs. The way he saw it, if I wanted something better, I could get myself a paper route. And while I longed for the more glamorous jobs like cutting patterns or lasting uppers, instead I got the mind-numbing tasks of gluing insoles and skiving false tongues. While my father paid his shoemakers a union wage, his kid got paid a buck-sixty an hour, the State minimum at the time.

But I loved working, for lots of reasons. I liked being busy. I enjoyed the sense of self-worth, that at age 14 I could work a full day just like an adult. I liked working for my father because he was a fair and honest man, and I could tell that the shoemakers working for him appreciated that. Friday was payday, and my father always handed out the checks himself, because he wanted his employees to know that he appreciated them. He knew everybody’s name, everybody’s problems. I can still see him walking up and down the production line, passing out thank yous along with the envelopes. My co-workers frequently went out of their way to let me know how much they respected my father.

At Thanksgiving, Dad would purchase a small truck-load of frozen turkeys. He handed them out three days before the holiday, because he knew it took some time for them to defrost. He brought one home for my mother to cook. I didn’t understand at the time, but it was symbolic that the entire factory gave thanks each year over the exact same meal.

My father was a quiet man who disliked confrontation, and I was my father’s son. The finish line was where the boot heels were shaped, sanded smooth, then inked and polished. It was populated with men who could have used a little of that themselves. Until I got to know them better, I was more than a little intimidated by them. There was a man named Frank, a Croatian immigrant with a gruff, unhappy manner and a reputation as a violent drunk on the weekends. He called everybody, “Mishko,” which I skeptically hoped was an endearment. At the time, my father’s “shop” was on 82nd Avenue in Portland, in a cinderblock building that was bursting at the seams. One incredibly hot afternoon, my father took a twenty from his wallet and sent me across the street to the Safeway with instructions to bring back enough bottled soda to hand out to the entire crew. The cold drinks were greatly appreciated, but then I was standing next to Frank at his machine, watching as he finally picked out a 7-UP. He scowled at me, took a swig, then spit it on the floor.

“That’s horrible vodka!” Then he laughed and pointed to the ON switch to his blower.

“Push button, Mishko!”

I found out later that “Mishko” roughly translates to “you stupid little bastard.”

I didn’t blame my dad for giving me the crappy work or the least pay. Even at that tender age, I recognized the advantages he was offering me over the men and women I was working with. Many of them were immigrants, and were already enjoying a better life than they had left behind. But I was the boss’s son, and while I worked hard never to appear to take advantage of that fact — never standing idle, always working till the bell rang — I also knew that at the end of the summer I’d go back to high school, and at the end of high school my dad and mom would help me go on to college. My parents had raised me to believe that I could do anything that I wanted, which feels like a huge burden if you don’t know what it is you want. But I knew that doing menial tasks for minimum wage was just the beginning of a much longer journey. I didn’t envy those who had already reached their destination, even if they had anchored their boats in my father’s safe harbor.

Because my ship had not yet sailed ...

And my brother, Bill, once made cowboy boots out of shark skin.

There! I did it!

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