White Oak Mountain Ranger: Boots

  • Wednesday, November 9, 2022

“A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth has got it’s boots on” - James Callaghan

“I admire our ancestors, whoever they were. I think the first self-conscious person must have shaken in his boots. Because as he becomes self-conscious, he’s no longer part of nature. He sees himself against nature. He looks at the vastness of the universe and it looks hostile.” - John Shelby Spong

Looking into the near future you can pretty easily predict cold, wet weather. This used to be normal around these parts for this time of year. Not so much here lately, but you can bet your best pair of boots, cold and wet is on the way. Maybe it’s the lunar eclipse effect, but you can smell it in the air today.

When it’s cold and wet two essentials are imperative; a good hat and a good pair of boots. It’s possible to ‘tough it out’ without a decent hat, but wet and cold feet have had a tendency to have just about killed me on more than a few frigid hunts. Cold and wet days when waterproofing the toes failed miserably.

I’m a little hazy on exactly where my first pair of “hunting” boots came from. Probably Penny’s or the Sears basement, because none of my dead relatives ever left me a decent boot big enough to fit my big feet in comfortably.

The first pair of boots weren’t really ‘hunting’ boots as much as they were repurposed, plain, sturdy leather ‘work’ boots, with what turned out to be rather slippery ‘no grip’ soles, in wet, timbered terrain.

A good pair of ‘hunting’ boots were exotic things that required the use of mail order catalogs and large sums of money that simply didn’t exist at the time. And, there was parental logic for repurposing ‘work’ boots for hunting; “Your feet are growing so fast that by the time you get a new pair of expensive boots broken in you’ll need a bigger size! Let’s try to save a little money here Son.”

Parental logic didn’t appear to include worrying about frostbite, trench foot and broken bones in that era. “If your feet get cold, don’t do anything stupid, just come on back home kid!”

We tried mightily at waterproofing leather boots. It was another pre-hunt ritual in my house growing up. Breakdown the guns, cleans and oil the guns, set out all the necessary gear needed for the next days hunt and waterproof the boots.

First, there was a greasy substance referred to as ‘mink oil’. After that was declared a disaster, there was something called ‘neetsfoot’ oil, which was another disaster at the fleeting concept of long term, leather boot, water proofing.

We should have known that minks didn’t really have oil that worked on cheap boots. Anything that included the word ‘neet’ was simply some kind of Madison Avenue slogan and it became quickly apparent that anybody who named anything ‘neet’ had never spent daylight to dark hunting in wet and cold hills, or swamp edges in East Tennessee in November.

But the ‘Old Man’ never gave up trying to waterproof our cheap leather boots. Beeswax cracked the leather. Silicone filled in the cracks. Nothing worked, not even two pairs of socks. His solution to poor boot waterproofing was to just go home when his feet got wet and cold. This defeatist attitude drove me nuts, but it probably staved off more than a few cases of frostbite to the toes.

I rapidly settled on two plastic ‘Colonial’ bread sacks over the socks as a cure for inadequate leather waterproofing. It looked plenty goofy, but for a couple of hours into each wet hunt, the plastic bread bags were the best waterproofing man had ever devised.

The leather got soaked as usual, but the socks stayed dry right up to the time that the feet started sweating profusely. Sweaty feet could be endured as long as you kept on the move, but once you decided to sit in one spot for a while, the feet froze up faster than you could change your wet socks for a handy pair of dry socks.

Of course, a pair of dry socks were dependent upon you being able to remember to carry a pair of dry socks in your game bag. Dry socks were a luxury item and they were pretty easy to forget when you found yourself more worried about the important things in your game bag. High priority commodities, such as extra ammo, knives, canteen, matches, rope…….The list was endless and ultimately, abundantly heavy. Sometimes dry socks just didn’t make the wet trips. Frozen toes just often didn’t take a high priority in the pre-planning process in those days.

After an especially wet and cold winter and a couple of near death experiences, complete with dead and frozen toes, I vowed to go to the basement of Sears and purchase the best pair of rubber boots Ted Williams himself could autograph.

The Old Man ‘poo-pooed’ the very idea of rubber boots for anything other than trout fishing. His theory was that rubber boots didn’t allow your feet to breathe. He was convinced that on cold and dry days, your sweaty feet would turn to ice in minutes. His logic seemed to me to be about half flawed: on wet days your feet couldn’t breathe because your mink oiled boots were ringing wet, but, on cold dry days your feet couldn’t breathe through two inches of mink oil. They couldn’t breathe enough through the grease layer so they would stay warm enough so you didn’t have to build a fire to thaw your frozen toes out before they turned black from frostbite.

This breathing and sweating feet theory was one of the many issues that the Old Man and I had begun to disagree on.

I consulted with my colleagues in the North Chattanooga Squirrel Killing and Expeditionary Society. We were in unanimous agreement that most ‘Old Men’ were basically full of a lot of crap that they brought home from the Second World War. This was a new technological era. Rubber boots were now the manly thing in hunting footwear.

I mowed yards, raked leaves and sold bags of squirrels to a nearby old hillbilly granny who had a thing for squirrel brains and eggs. After a grueling summer and fall of hard labor, I amassed the small bankroll necessary to make the trip to the Sears basement for a pair of lace-up, high top, green rubber, fully and completely waterproof, Ted Williams autographed, ‘hunting’ boots.

No more embarrassing ‘Colonial’ bread sacks for the Young Ranger!

The Old man was right about sweaty feet, but I never let on. There was one drawback to high dollar rubber waterproof boots autographed by Ted Williams though. After about two seasons they cracked badly, leaked, and the laces rotted or tore through the rubber eyes. That resulted in another season of bread bags and frozen toes. Super glue, shoe goo and five minute epoxy hadn’t been invented in those days.

I wish that I’d kept a running record of the ‘hunting’ boots that I’ve managed to destroy in the search for a pair of good boots that are warm, comfortable and waterproof. I’d probably be badly staggered by the enormous amount of cash spent trying to prevent frostbite.

For a while, I thought that old Mr. Leon Leonwood Bean had come up with the answer. It was an expensive solution but, as it turned out, it too was a rather dry but cold answer. It took a rather large amount of disposable income and two or three pairs of ‘Beans’ to come to this rather sad conclusion. I gave up on his invention too, as the feet grew older and less tolerant to cold sits in tree stands on frigid mornings.

‘Toasty Toes’ or charcoal hand warmers stuffed in boots? Technology is sometimes a wonderful thing. A good ‘Colonial’ bread bag still comes in handy when you don’t want your blistered toes to be stained black by a broken bag of charcoal. Electric and rechargeable insoles? Who would have thought of such a thing? Probably some guy that used bread bags as waterproofing back in the day.

Technology related to feet, is today, a million dollar industry. Have we been blindly hornswoggled into a culture of ‘tenderfoot’ outdoorsmen by an industry designed to lure hunters, hikers and walkers, into the deep thicket of lost wages?

It’s high time to prepare your footwear for the coming wet and cold. It’s not to late. It doesn’t really matter if you need to have a toe or two sliced off because you remain in the school that leather boots are still the manly thing in footwear. Ten functional toes aren’t really all that necessary for slogging around when it’s cold and wet.

Imagine the days before expensive ‘hunting’ boots were mass produced. Think of how many hunters have gone before us in the days prior to the invention plastic bread sacks, or harvesting oil from a mink.

How many hunters and trappers of ‘days gone by’ complained about wet feet and a few missing toes?

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Send comments to whiteoakmtnranger@gmail.com


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