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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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From My Window

Issue Date: March 17, 2021

Red Ball Sneakers

By Jane Thibodeau Martin,

Bare ground has now emerged from the snow cover and it awakens a childhood memory. The appearance of bare dirt got the blood pumping after a winter of heavy clothing and boots, and my mom admonishing us for months in exasperation not to run in the house. Kids cooped up for a long Wisconsin winter and tired of trying to thrash along in deep snow or on slippery ice crave running free again, and those tiny patches of bare dirt were just the thing to scratch that itch.

It was also the cue for us to get sneakers. All winter long we wore boots every time we went out the door; black rubber boots, with fake fur lining that we preserved by putting bread wrappers over our socks before slipping them on. The sneakers from the previous fall were too small, and usually had holes over the big and small toe areas from our fast-growing feet. That meant even getting a sibling's hand-me-downs, a normal strategy, wouldn't work. Spring meant we got a new pair of canvas sneakers, and when we slipped them on, our feet felt so light we couldn't wait to see how fast we could run. (Outside, Mom reminded us.)

And where did we head to test our speed? Right to the bare dirt patches, carefully avoiding puddles and snowpiles enroute.

I recall getting Ked's brand sneakers but Red Ball sneakers were heavily advertised on Saturday morning cartoon shows, so we always hoped for those. The Red Ball shoes were well marketed since the style of the two brands (and all other kid's sneakers) were identical - absolutely flat, thin soles, and no arch support whatsoever. They were blindingly, virginally white - until we wore them once or twice. Then inevitably the first mud spots despoiled them. I wouldn't let Mom wash them in the wash machine because then I couldn't wear them until they were air dried, so I secretly scrubbed the spots off in the bathroom with my toothbrush. Yes, I really did.

One year they debuted navy blue and bright red ones that were not only much more stylish but had the advantage of disguising the dirt. Small sizes had a big rubber toe cover that extended the life of the shoes but was ugly, and I was thrilled when my feet got big enough to get the "big girl" styles without the toe cap. (Those cap ones looked like clown shoes.)

And there was no doubt we were incredibly speedy in those new shoes. I know it was a combination of six month's over-winter physical growth that fueled the increase, added to the normal spring energy I still feel sixty years later. But the lightweight shoes helped a bit too, and that's what we credited for our lightning fast sprints. Red Ball shoes were the fastest of all, in my opinion.

I snooped around on line a bit and found a poster advertising Red Ball Shoes from 1936 so it was a venerable brand even in the late 1950's. You can still buy Red Ball shoes two ways - a modern version, not branded Red Ball, but identical to what I remember. I don't remember what my parents paid but I bet it was less than five dollars. Modern ones of a similar style I bought a few years ago were around $35, and while I love the look and use them for errand running when I am popping in and out of a car frequently; the absolutely flat insoles are brutal for extensive walking, not a problem I remember having when I was eight.

But you can also buy real Red Balls on line through vintage sites. "Deadstock" has a pair of 1950-ish girl's Red Balls with original box, big rubber toe cap with red and white polka dot canvas in a kid's size 11 - and they are really cute. They should be for $238. And a pair of 1960 men's high top Red Ball Jets sneakers, unworn in the box with the tissue paper offered at $475.

Sadly, I don't have any of my childhood sneakers left because by the time I outgrew them they were totally trashed. And I won't be buying any vintage ones, because no shoes on earth would make this body go as fast as it did back in 1962. But it would be fair to say I have a spring in my step now that our snow is in full retreat, and I can go outside in my grown-up tennis shoes. And I am treasuring the memory of a time when the most exciting thing to a kid my age would be to be able to go outside and play without the ritual of socks, bread wrappers and boots first!

BOOK: just finished "Sediments In Time," an autobiography by Meave Leaky, one of the famous Leaky paleoanthropology family. Her description of her scientific work is interesting, but her story of her life as a pioneering woman scientist is what I enjoyed the most, raising her kids without running water, working and living in a hellishly hot desert camp in Africa.

Happy St. Pat's day to those of Irish descent, and those who wish they were!

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.


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