Sunday, 27 April 2008


When was the last time a new pair of shoes gave you blisters? For me, I think it was my last pair of school shoes, for back in the day, school shoes were made of leather, came out of the box as stiff and unbending as iron, and we seemed to do a lot more walking and running around than the current generation of tubbies. My heels always used to become a sea of weeping goo with each new pair, but the shoes were gradually broken in, and I developed thick calouses on the back of each ankle.

Modern shoes don't seem to blister like the old ones did. I don't know if they leather is softer, or whether the fit is better, or they are just cut to a more pliable style, but I have not had a blister in about a decade and a half.

The last time I got blisters is when I was a recruit, and compared to my fellow recruits, I came off pretty well. On our first day as recruits, we were issued a pair of boots. That involved sitting on a bench, having our foot size roughly taken and then having a pair tossed at us. I have bought shoes at the Athletes Foot, where they get you to walk over a machine that scans how your foot interacts with the ground, and they take lots of measurements, and you generally end up with a really well fitting and suitable shoe.

The army could learn a lot from that approach. Some got boots too small, others too big. Mine were about the right size to start with, but your feet swell under certain conditions, and the boots had no give in them, so everyone copped a bushel of blisters. I got off reasonably easy because I took my own pair of boots to camp - a pair that I had broken in long before, so my feet survived better than the rest. I still had to wear the regulation set of boots from time to time, since my old boots looked like crap and refused to gleam when polished, but it was better than blistering from toe to ankle.

There were several different treatments for blisters, but my favourite has always been to pop the blister and then rub lots of metho into it - as in methylated spirits. It hurts like hell, but the metho seems to dry the blister and it heals hard. Another option is to tip Betadine into a popped blister - that also hurts like hell, but it produces a wickedly hard callouse.

I had several seasons of rowing under my belt before I joined the reserves, so I was used to blisters galore. Each season of rowing had produced a crop of at least 20 blisters per hand, with one of my crewmates setting a record with 36 on each hand. We went through a lot of Betadine and metho, and I was well used to the pain of dealing with blisters. But it seemed that for some of my fellow recruits, the blisters that appeared after a day of square bashing were the first they'd ever had, and they whinged and whined and wanted to get a doctor to look at their ankles and they wanted gauze and strapping and all that sort of crap.

Those of us who had been through the blistering process simply sat down and showed them how to pop a blister with a sewing needle and then fill the blister with Betadine. Rough, messy and painful - but it always works. Needless to say, it was common to see recruits hobbling around the base, and reasonably common to see someone with a particular bad case of feet being ordered to sit on the side of the parade ground and watch what we were doing. Some lucky bastards also got dispensation to wear trainers on parade instead of boots.

The thing is though, trainers do not make a lovely "crash" when you stand to attention. You make that loud crashing noise by lifting the knee up high and ramming the foot down into the ground, rather than simply dragging it across the tarmac from the "at ease" position. I spent an awful lot of time ramming one foot into the tarmac, as we practiced whalloping the parade ground with our boots. When a company comes to attention, it should do so with a single loud "crack", and that crack should be audible from one end of the parade ground to the other. You don't need hobnails on your boots to achieve the affect - you just need to get that knee up high and ram it down hard.

We spent an awful lot of time trying to polish and soften our boots. Just as I was preparing to leave in 1991, the army started issuing lovely soft brown boots to replace the old black boot. I never got a pair (the reserves being at the back of the queue, and our regiment at the back of the reserves queue), but someone in the army had finally figured out that we'd be a bit more effective with a modern comfortable boot.

Some tried soaking the boots in a bucket of water overnight, then wearing the wet boot in order to make it mould to the foot. Others swore that urine was the best softening agent, so they urinated in their boots at every opportunity (and yes, the smell is something to behold). The more refined believed that using the right boot polish could make a difference, and they were madly protective of their semi-liquid pots of polish. People would do anything to end up with a comfortable boot.

But no matter how the smelt or how comfortable they were, they had to shine. Much time was spent every morning and evening trying to get the toecap to glisten. Woe betide anyone who accidently trod on the gleaming toecap of someone else - punches might be thrown if a dusty footprint resulted. There are two ways to get a gleaming toecap. One is to have the cap professionally buffed and then varnished, but you can't get that done whilst in camp. Therefore we had to rely on the old method of spit and polish.

Yes, spit and polish. I don't know how spit and polish combine to produce a gleaming shine, but they do, and we did it an awful lot. We had no access to a radio or TV or newspapers, let alone the internet or an X-box. All our free time, of which there was not an awful lot, was spent cleaning, polishing and ironing.

Was it a waste of time?

No. Partly because it kept us busy, and as the old saying goes, idle hands make for the devil's work. And partly because it gave us pride in our appearance. A good soldier is a proud soldier - even being a bit cocky is not a bad thing. There is nothing worse than a soldier who is a bag of shit, and that was an expression that I heard an awful lot during my time in the reserves. Looking like a bag of shit was a no-no, and one way to overcome that was to be starched, ironed and polished.

So we polished like demons. The four of us would sit around in a circle in our room, somewhat like our grannies did when they were sewing I guess, and we polished and polished and polished. We might share a single tin of polish, which we would all dip from with our fingers or polishing cloths, and we'd polish and gossip and yarn and we got to know each other a little better. If we weren't polishing our boots, we were sewing our uniforms (taking them in here or there) or cleaning our rifles or polishing our brass. Yes, we had a few brass buckles on our belts, and we had to polish the belts with boot polish and then polish the brass as well. Even the hardest worked cleaning lady would not polish as much in a year as we did in those two weeks.

And as we polished and ironed and starched and scrubbed, we slowly came to look less like bags of shit civilians, and more like soldiers. You don't create a soldier by simply stuffing a civilian into a uniform - there are hundreds of little changes and adjustments that have to be made to produce a soldier from a bag of shit, and bit by bit, we made the change.

Boots help to make a soldier in various ways. The weight of a boot changes the way that you walk - you can't slob along like you've got thongs or ugg boots on. You walk with deliberation and determination, because it takes more effort to take each step, and the tread is heavier. The weight of the boot provides confidence, such as when a door needs kicking in (trying doing that in thongs or a pair of Nikes). The solidity and roughness of the boot reflects the soldier, and when things get rough, and aggression is required, it's nice to have a big nasty boot on each foot. "Putting the boot in" is an expressive term that denotes a certain frame of mind, and it needs to be remembered that a soldier, particularly an infrantryman, needs to be very aggressive in battle.

I'll cover aggression later, but without it, an army is useless; a hollow shell. No moral fibre. Modern men are not natural killers - we do not seek to bump off our fellow man on a regular basis (except for the psychopathic). Men like you and me actually need a long period of intensive training before we are ready to deliberately pull the trigger on someone else. And I refer to men only, since women are generally kept out of the combat arms. The infantry are issued with bayonets for a reason - to stick them into someone else if the need arises. I don't know about you, but I never liked the idea of bayoneting someone else, and still don't, but the army has to put you into a frame of mind where you'll do it willingly.

You can't reach that frame of mind by slothing about in ugg boots. Heavy, nasty, solid leather boots are just the thing to notch up the aggression level a bit. That's why they have always been so popular with punk rockers and skinheads - it puts them into a frame of mind where they are much more prepared to "kick off" (see, another boot related term referring to violence).

A clear symbol of what boots represent could be seen during the invasion of Iraq. The Iraqi army just melted away when faced with the onslaught that the yanks delivered. In some areas, the roads were littered with boots where the soldiers simply dumped their uniforms and split, heading for home. The shedding of the boots was a clear symbol that they had given up soldiering and returned to civilian life (if only most of them had stayed that way).

There are many other shoe related concepts that I could cover, but I'd be at it all night. Let me finish this topic on this note: as a reservist, you flit back and forth between two worlds - the civilian and military. We used to talk about "putting on our civilian head", or "putting on our green (army) head". For me, I put on my green head the moment I pulled my boots on. Pulling on the uniform never really altered my mental state, but lacing the boots was all that I needed to switch to my military personality.

Don't think that's possible? Are you the same person at work, or do you put on your "work head" when you leave for the workplace in the morning? Do you take it off when you get home, or do you stress out because you can't unscrew your work head at the end of the day?

Boots maketh the soldier.

1 comment:

kae said...

I never got blisters from my army boots. GPs. I got them in 1985.
Unfortunately I left them behind when I moved out of a place.