07 April 2010

Boots and the Jogging of Memory

When I was just a little Sherpa, I would help my dad spit-shine his black Air Force flight boots. I remember pouring a little water into the metal lid of the wax--the Air Force, after all, doesn't spit. I remember the smell of the polish, and how the oily black would seep through the old white T-shirts that we used to apply the paste, staining my fingers. I remember buffing the boots with a brush, the two-stroke rhythm lightly tap-tapping, tap-tapping. Not too hard. First across the heel, then the toe.

When I got boots of my own, I recreated the ritual. It didn't matter the time or place: dorm, barracks, apartment or house, all I had to do was break out the Kiwi-brand boot black and part of me would be back with Dad, in front of the TV, polishing his boots, trying not to get any black on the carpet.

First the heel, then the toe.

I got home today a bit of a muddy wreck. A lot of the headquarters company personnel--both enlisted and officers--are training and testing a significant number of their pre-deployment individual "warrior tasks" this week. These are basic skills that every soldier must know. Yesterday, it was death-by-PowerPoint stuff in the classroom: Subjects like suicide-prevention and sexual harassment awareness. Today, it was outside. It rained most of last night, and early this morning. The storms broke, however, just as we were shuttled by bus out into the training areas, all hard and beetle-plump in our Kevlar helmets and body armor.

Springtime in Iowa quickly turned sunny and muggy, and we welcomed the coolness that exuded the tomb-like cinderblock "houses" from which we were attempting to root out OPFOR insurgents. We breathed the musty air in deeply. We were sweating from the adrenaline, not to mention bounding up to the building while wearing body armor. "Smell that?" said Trooper, once we got inside, "You can almost taste the Hantavirus."

I managed to find the only still-active mud puddle as four of us stacked along the wall outside one of the buildings. The OPFOR ("opposition force") on the popped a machine gun out a second-story window. He couldn't get the angle. I hit the deck, then rolled and slithered even closer to the exterior wall. Seconds later, I followed Trooper through the door.

On a different mission this afternoon, Trooper and I were running toward a building when small arms fire erupted to our front. We were in the open, and trusted our teammates to lay suppressive fires as we continued toward the objective. I squeezed off a few unaimed shots myself. In doing so, I missed the fact that the rolling ground underneath my feet suddenly dipped downward. Observers later complimented me on my "combat roll." I was glad they didn't call it something else, and that no one was carrying a video camera.

(Later, I quipped that I'd tripped on a contour line. That's a map-reading joke--one my navigator father might appreciate.)

Got muddy on that little downhill trip, too. And grass-stained. And sore. My right forearm--the same one I've been nursing a case of carpal tunnel in--has swelled up like Popeye as I write this. Might be a conversation piece tomorrow, when we do similar training.

Household-6 and the kids arrived home just as I was pulling my car into the driveway, too. The now-dried moon-mud on my knee pads and trousers, boots and protective mask case would have to come off before I stepped into the house. I invited my two-and-a-half-old son, Rain, to sit on the front porch with me. From the garage, I retrieved two stiff-bristled fingernail brushes that I use for driving the dirt off my rough-and-buff desert boots. One for me, one for Rain. What came next surprised me, as clouds of dust billowed around us, and dirty crusts fell off my equipment ...

First the heel, then the toe.


  1. Same with the black boot Army of the 80s. BTW - is there a "warrior tasks" guide to reference out there somewhere? PDV from FB

  2. Not only have you jogged your memories but, mine as well...the eldest brother offered to pay us $.25 to shine his AirForce boots. Uhh, we never got paid. :)

  3. Son is AF. Captain and pilot. He has the spit shine boots. I looked at the buff boots of today's sandbox army and thought, well at least they don't,(can't), shine those. I wondered what constituted "army clean" when it came to those boots, now I know, a fingernail brush does the trick. Is your middle name a masculine variant of grace? take care lorraine

  4. @ PDV: One-page summary is at the link below. Zap me e-mail direct if you have CAC access, and I can point you elsewhere. Internet search terms would be "Warrior Tasks" and "Battle Drills." In the black-boot Army, they were called "Common Tasks" or "CTT" (for "Common Task Training."


    @ lorraine: I've often wondered how much the good people who make black Kiwi wax suffered after U.S. armed forces went to buff-out boots. By the way, an Iowa Air National Guard friend of mine says that, with the Air Force tiger-stripe camouflage, she's authorized to wear either the Army tan-colored boots or the "new" Air Force sage-green ones. Both types of boots are rough suede, and brush clean in most instances.

    And, yes, ma'am, my middle name is "grace," although that's probably more of a nickname stemming from such pratfalls as those I performed earlier this week, while tripping over my own boots.

  5. I have very similar memories of shining shoes with my dad. (And, for the record, philosophy professors don't spit, either.) I just shined a pair last week--is there a more satisfying job?--and thoroughly enjoyed the buffing strokes, too. Where do the Army and Air Force stand on the final step of using an old pair of nylons to take the sheen up another notch?

  6. @ Carolyn: I'd forgotten the nylons trick! Dad didn't go for the mirror-like shine, although I've known a few paratroopers that could do some real black magic in shining up their jump boots. Maybe they used nylons ...


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