Opinion: When I had nothing to do

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Commentary by Ward Degler

When my sister and I were little kids, the thing we feared most was to run out of things to do. If she got tired of her dolls or her modeling clay horses, and I had filled up the pages of my coloring book, and especially if the weather was lousy and we couldn’t go outside, we were tempted to cry out, “There’s nothing to do!”

Bad mistake. Mom always had something for us to do. Most often it was polishing shoes. Neither of us wanted to do that. Ever.

Every member of the family had two pair of shoes. There were work shoes for dad and housework shoes for mom. Sis and I had play shoes. All of these routinely got muddy, grimy, dirty and scuffed.

Cleaning gunk from shoes was nasty business. First, you scraped, usually with a dull knife, then you washed with a scrub brush. Finally, after everything had dried, you applied a liberal coat of liquid Dyn-Shine, which restored at least a modicum of original leather color.

Our dress shoes were easier. Since they were worn mostly on Sundays and special events like birthday parties or when company came to dinner, a little Shinola and a quick brushing was sufficient.

Dad also had work boots. These were knee-high leather things with long, rawhide laces. They always looked like they’d gone through at least one world war when Dad came home from a week fighting fires and planting trees in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.

Cleaning them was always my job. And it wasn’t just the boots, the laces had to be cleaned as well. And the only way to clean a dozen yards of rawhide laces was to completely remove them from the boots and wash them with soapy water.

Dad’s boots didn’t get polish. They got grease. The stuff came in a tube and had a smell that even years later I am not able to identify. My dog used to roll in stuff that came close, but even that lacked the complete bouquet of dad’s boot grease.

Worse, if that’s possible, once the boots had been greased, I had to park them close to the hot stove so they’d get warm and absorb the grease. Naturally, that rich aroma wafted through the entire house and even permeated our clothes. Nobody would sit next to me on the school bus for three days after I’d greased dad’s boots.

Fortunately, they don’t make shoes and boots like that anymore, and I haven’t smelled boot grease for years. Still, I always make sure I’ve got something to do, especially if I see a pair of muddy shoes in the house.

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