My Son’s First Pair of Cowboy Boots - by Shane Borrowman

November 27, 2013

Posted By: Shaunescy

My son, John, got his first pair of cowboy boots a few weeks back—brown,  embroidered on the top (starting at the toe box) and sides, a zipper running partially up the outside of each shaft.  Stylin’.  I had some when I was younger than him—he’s eight now—but once those wore out, I didn’t have another pair again until I was almost thirty.  He loves these boots, and he wears them nearly every day.

After a couple weeks of playground use, though, those brown boots were looking a little shabby.  So, one morning before school, I dug out my shine kit—a long buffing brush with dark bristles, a can of “neutral” Kiwi Polish (apparently I’m out of both brown and black), and a few old cotton socks.  I keep all of this in an original GI Joe box, which is long—since it held a 12” action figure—and has a lid that slides on and off.  If the thing wasn’t stained inside with polish, then it might be worth something all on its own.

I sat on the living room floor.  My son took his boots off and handed them to me.  I put one sock over my right hand, fingers shoved all the way to the toe, and pulled up a glob of polish—which I then smeared all over the right boot.

John didn’t want to say anything, but I could tell that he was dubious about how this process was going to turn out.  He’s seen me in action before, and he’s seen my plans go astray regardless of my level of confidence.  Just ask him about last year’s Derby Car for Scouts.  Working through that project involved a lot more use of power tools than it should have, plus multiple messy coats of paint in too small of a room for such work to be truly safe.

As I wiped polish all over the boot, really rubbing it into each nook and seam, I explained what I was doing, explained that shining boots was, at its heart, a pretty simple process (assuming we’re talking about dirty boots that are just dusty, rather than about boots that are caked with mud or manure).  Wipe off dust.  Wipe on polish.  Buff.  Wipe down a bit more.  Do the other boot.

Somewhere in there, as I finished coating the first boot with that clear polish and then began buffing, I trailed off.  John was still watching, still paying attention to how boots should be shined, but I was lost in the process, lost in the past.

The smell of the polish is rich and warm.  Putting it on each boot is a greasy process that doesn’t leave my fingers greasy…but somehow manages to leave the suggestion that they’re greasy.  The sound of the brush—a sort of whish, whish—is soft and low.  As I buffed that polish into each boot, bringing the cheap leather to a dark and golden shine, I was flooded with memories of my father.

Dad wore cowboy boots all the time when I was a kid.  He kept the boxes that they came in when he bought them, so he always had a safe storage place, and his shine rags and polish went into an old blue shoebox, one that he still has.  He used the same buffing brush I have now, a gift he passed along on some random weekend two decades ago, during a discussion of the quality of the work shoes I was buying at Payless.

It occurs to me not that he was probably trying to point out politely that my shoes were cheap because they looked cheap…but a great shine would help.

Dad shined his cowboy boots all the time, my memory tells me, at least every weekend (usually more than one pair, since he had several at any given time).  For five years, he was a deputy Sheriff in Deer Lodge County, and he regularly shined the boots that went with that uniform, too.  When the Anaconda Company collapsed and economics forced him to take work at the Hanford Nuclear Site, on the security team, those combat boots needed almost daily shining.

The same rags, the same brush, the same brand of Kiwi Polish.

The same rich smells and smooth, repetitive sounds over and over again, from the time of my earliest memories in Anaconda to the time of my most recent visit to Washington.

I could not polish my son’s boots before school that morning without thinking about my father.  He never exactly told me “Do this, then this, then this.”  He just showed me, again and again, what should be done—both in terms of what it literally took to make boots clean and shiny and in terms of what it took to look professional, to look my best  (even if finances did keep me in a cheap loafer until I could finally afford boots).  It was a lesson that took hold, apparently, at a level I never expected.  Never even guessed at until I lived it.

When John got home that night, his boots were scuffed and dirty again—apparently because he drags his feet when he’s manually slowing down his swing.  The toes were rubbed right down to the point where the surface-level color was completely gone.  I couldn’t have been happier.  I pulled out the GI Joe box and set out my socks, my brush, my polish.  I lay these things in a loose arc on the floor in front of me, John’s boots close to hand.

As he watched, I shined them again, shined them for him for the second time.  There’s not a doubt in my mind that he could do this himself, now, if I’d let him.  But it’s hard to give up.  When I shine John’s boots, I’m granted one of those moments of time travel that only parents truly understand—one of those moments where the past and the present fold over on one another so fully that it happens with an almost audible click.  Even better, I see the past and the present as they move into the future.

John and I will shine our boots together soon.  Eventually, I’ll give him the big brush that I use, probably when he’s been in college for a couple years.  He’ll need it, since that will be the one he’s used to working on his own leather.  And I can buy another…knowing that some day he’ll teach his own son to shine boots.


With Love, Dad

Shane Borrowman is a native of Anaconda, father of twins, and professor of English at The University of Montana Western.  He has published on a wide range of topics, including the development of boxing in Renaissance England, medieval Arabic philosophy, and American zombie films.  He is editor or co-editor of four writing textbooks and six collections of original scholarship.

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