Guest Editorial

Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Foothold in shoe history

Buying shoes for their children is particularly serious business for German parents. For that reason a U.S. shoe company is making big strides there with its expandable "Max der Wurm" (Max the Worm) shoes.

The shoes have an extending concertina panel between the toe and heel. When a silver button on the shoe is depressed, the panel can be lengthened to accommodate the quickly growing feet of a German youngster.

The desire of German parents to make sure their children have comfortable shoes runs directly counter to my mother's theory while her children were growing, "If the shoe doesn't fit, wear it anyway", usually followed by, "Money doesn't grow on trees."

Like many mothers of her time, my mother didn't trust her children's foot measurements. After a shoe salesman would determine the perfect size for one of us, my mother would ask for the shoe in one or more sizes larger. Although the salesman would try to convince her that a finger width of space at the toe of the shoe would allow the shoe to grow with us, my mother wasn't happy until another child's entire foot would fit in the toe space.

"She'll grow into them," would argue the woman, who also sent her children out into the world with 12-inch cuffs on their blue jeans and shirttails which hung to their knees.

With so much extra toe space in our new shoes, we didn't walk around as much as we clunked around. Tripping over our own oversized shoes became a way of life.

Because our shoes were expected to last for years rather than months, we also needed the shoe repairman at the corner, who would extend the life of footwear by re-stitching leather seams and replacing worn-down heels. If he was feeling particularly generous, he would let us have our old rubber heels for games of hopscotch on neighborhood sidewalks. Life had its perks.

We were raised with comparisons to other children living in harsher circumstances. ("You wish you had another pair of shoes? There are children in this world walking around with bare feet! They would feel very fortunate to have your shoes!") We presumed that they were the same downtrodden children in Africa or Asia or would have gladly eaten our broccoli and spinach.

If we continued to plead for new shoes, my mother, and presumably every mother of that time, would weave stories about children they knew during The Depression who had to wear worn down car tire treads, cut to fit and nailed crudely to the bottoms of their shoes. That would have been a growing child's nightmare - with an extended warranty from the tire maker, the shoes could have lasted for five more years or 50,000 miles.

"It must have been difficult to dance with shoe soles made from tire treads," my mother would add as an afterthought. She was very good with afterthoughts.

If the expandable shoe trend catches on with cost-conscious parents in the U.S., there will be conflicts with our disposable shoe mentalities. Given the fact that so many children today have a voice in picking out shoe styles, we can only wonder how they will feel about wearing expandable SpongeBob SquarePants shoes or pink, glittery shoes influenced by Barbie to their high school graduations, college entrance interviews or weddings.

We might not be ready for shoes that last longer than our fleeting interests.

* Carole Achterhof is an author and public speaker from the Iowa Great Lakes area. She offers a humorous look at the news for Pilot-Tribune readers each week.