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James R. Stout

The Gauntlet of Fire

            From the time I can remember until I was about 13, I went barefoot when outside playing. Of course, this wasn’t true during cold weather, but in Texas it is warm or hot weather from as early as March until as late as October. The feel of the grass on my bare feet was always great. I liken it to John McClain scrunching up his toes and using the carpet in the executive bathroom in the Nakatomi Plaza in “Die Hard”. It just felt so good. However, there were some pitfalls when going barefoot. First, there were times when you found yourself without shoes and in the land of “Stickers”. Going through such a minefield was tiptoe #1. Of course, the worst landmines were those left by Fido, Snoopy, and Rin Tin Tin. Second, there was tiptoe #2 -hot pavement. Sometimes just getting across the street was about the same as walking on hot coals. The amazing part about going barefoot and hot pavement was that we consciously made the choice to do so. Let’s go back to the summer of 1968. It’s a hot July afternoon and there was a dime in my pocket just aching to be traded to a Coke machine three blocks away in Gerland’s Supermarket. It’s not like we were so poor that I didn’t own shoes. But putting on shoes just seemed like such a chore. So, I would head for the store. The grass in our front yard was no problem, but the first bed of coals was our street. Sometimes I would tiptoe and sometimes I would run. Either way my feet were going to feel it. Getting to the next block wasn’t too bad. I could stay on the grass on either side of the sidewalk and there were a couple of large shade trees that allowed walking on the sidewalk to be pain free. Then it was time to cross the next street. If I was lucky, the people who lived on the corner of the house on the other side of the street would have been running a sprinkler and the grass would be nice and cool. But that didn’t happen near enough.

            Now we come to the “gauntlet of fire”. At the end of the property of that last house was a large parking lot for the shopping center that housed Gerland’s, Dugan’s Drugs, Ralph’s Hardware, a beauty salon, a barbershop, a furniture store, and a couple of small businesses including a dentist’s office. That side parking lot was a good 50 yards of hot pavement. To make matters worse the lot was strewn with small pebbles as well as pull tabs from canned colas. Remember, I chose to go barefoot. Makes you wonder if I had a brain. This was not tiptoe terrain. No, it was heel terrain. My heels had more callouses than any other part of my feet, so as quickly as possible I got across that parking lot walking on the heels of my feet. Speaking of callouses, in those days my feet were pretty dad burn tough. They also required a good scrubbing every night whether I wanted to or not. Mom would have scalped me if I put those feet on my sheets.

            But the gauntlet wasn’t nearly finished. There was the unshaded walkway in front of all the stores that I still had to transverse. At least it was smooth and didn’t have rocks and such. Gerland’s was in the middle of the shopping center. By the time I got to that magical door that opened by itself I was salivating over the thought of the cool tile floor just a few feet away. It almost hurt because the floor was cold from the A/C in the store. We didn’t have A/C at home and to be in that store was like Heaven. Just to the right of the front doors was that beautiful Coke machine. I hurriedly put my dime in the slot, listened to the satisfying sound of the dime clicking down the gullet of that machine and then the even better sound of the mechanism that released the 10 ounce bottle of elixir and the “clunk” as it landed in the opening where I would quickly extract it and pry off the bottle cap on the opener affixed to the side of the machine. Now, I could have paid an additional 3 cents for the deposit on that bottle and headed back home immediately. But where’s the fun in that? The first thing I would do after opening that bottle wasn’t to take a swig. Nope, I would take that bottle that was about 38 degrees cold and put it up against my cheek and then my forehead. Then I took that first swig and felt the delicious cold burn as the liquid slid down my throat. Now, as it happened, on the other side of the aisle from the Coke machine resided two things. First, there was the place where you took all your bottles to get your deposits back. But right next to that was the magazine rack. I didn’t have money to buy many magazines, but once in a while I had 12 cents for a comic book. In those days, you didn’t get taxed on anything until the total was 25 cents. If money permitted, I would thumb through the comic books and choose one. If there was no extra money that day, then I would look at the covers. I did this while enjoying those 10 ounces of pure joy. But all too soon the bottle was empty, and I would put it in one of the crates beside of the Coke machine.

            I would slowly walk back to the front doors and steel myself to the task before me. The walk home never seemed quite as good as the walk to the store. Once I was back home, I would sometimes sit on the front porch and do some contemplating. I might think about how the Astros were doing, about the latest records that were hits on the radio, or perhaps an upcoming television program that I was anxious to watch. But mostly I took in the little world that was right there around me. The big Arizona Ash in the front yard and how nice the shade was that it provided. The new Mercury Montego that Mr. Evans had just gotten. The cat that the old lady catercorner from our house fed. That was one tough cat. I saw it get hit by a car in the head while running across the street and teeth went flying, but that cat just shook it off and kept going. He lived for several more years after that. I thought about the shape of the clouds. It seems like I thought about everything.

            I don’t live in that world anymore. That world doesn’t exist anymore and hasn’t for over 50 years now, but there are remnants of it in my life today. And I’m not just talking about the memories. I still go out and sit on the porch every day. No, it’s not the same porch, but it does give me a view to the little world that I live in today. I do a lot contemplating on my porch. In fact, many times these blog entries have their beginning when I’m sitting on my porch. Even though THE world is vastly different today than it was 50 years ago, and we have lost a great deal of the good things that the world once had, you can still find good things in the world today. You just have to look a bit harder to find them. So, what are you waiting for? Start looking!

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