Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Million Dollar Feet
The guy at the shoe store is getting pretty frustrated with me as the shoe boxes pile up. As a last resort I'm trying on a pair of Converse basketball shoes, what southern folks call "catfish". I stand up and walk around in them swaying as though from a height. I look down and my feet look like black canvas sausages. Shit.
“I'm sorry," I tell him. "I'm really hard to buy shoes for. It’s not a style thing, it’s just I got these feet."
The young man in the suit looks lost. "Let's see." He points at my feet and waves his hand in a circle to take off the catfish. I sit in the chair and wrestle them off and toss them back in the box. I stand up in my white gym socks and he examines my feet studiously like a podiatrist. "So. Huh.” He says. “So how come they spread out like that?"
"They're really flat." I say. "I mean like really flat, like duck feet."
"So you need a wide.”
"We don’t have wide at Macy's," he says. "They only come in narrow."
Other people are drifting into the shoe department, people with very possibly normal human feet and I can see him glancing anxiously at them. "It's okay," I say, letting him off the hook. "I gotta have the wide. I just have funny feet. I'll check down the hall."
"Yeah," he says, relieved. "Try Foot Locker. I mean, they got just about everything." He looks at my duck feet in white socks and looks rattled. "Never saw any feet like that."
I start putting my ragged Dr. Scholl's old-guy sneakers back on. "In my generation, these are what we called 'million dollar feet'. Ever hear of that?"
He grins. He likes that. "Million dollar feet?"
"Yeah," I say, tying them up. "When I was a kid the Viet Nam war was going on and they had the draft. You probably don’t know what that is. The government would send you this little card in the mail with a date on it when you had to report for an Army physical. If you failed to show up you could go to jail and a lot of guys did. If you passed the physical they packed you off to Viet Nam to take your chances. But not if you had flat feet. That was the only way out that didn't get you busted. I didn’t try to get out, my parents had both been in the Navy and I figured I'd go in the Navy and I tried to volunteer for it. The Navy doctors thought I was just swell till they got to my feet. Then they stamped me '1-Y' and threw my ass out. That was how that worked."
He nods absently, looking at the other people who are looking at him holding up some pricey looking Florsheims. I let him go. He’d stopped listening a while back. "Anyway."
"Right." he says, over his shoulder, "Try Foot Locker."
Back in the hallway I see some kids go by in enormous sneakers with blinking little pimp lights on the heels, the laces missing and their pants halfway down their ass. The tough guy street fashion of a county prisoner whose laces and belt have been taken away by the lockup cops. Foot Locker. Screw that.
I go over to the bookstore and start thumbing through the history books. There’s a book on the Civil War and I sit down and start looking through the pictures. I love those old photos.
I wrote a story once for Oh Get Grip where a time traveler is laid up in a burn ward watching the rain run down the window pane. He watches the drops that stream straight down a little ways and then suddenly jink off to an angle or just stop. The Time Traveler explains to the reader that this is in fact how historical events in space-time actually work.
The great Jesuit- paleontologist -philosopher Teilhard De Chardin had a great deal to say about this subject. He asserted that the evolution of species is in fact the evolution of consciousness. He linked this with the existence of God, as consciousness evolving through stages, concentrating itself in our own species and evolving to become in the end a supreme and transcendent form of consciousness like God becoming aware of itself. He called this final event when the mass organic consciousness of our species transcends to the next level "The Omega Point". Chardin believed that history was made of a series of smaller Omega Points being guided up to the big Omega Point yet to come. These incidental Omega Points are where the Rain Drop of Human Destiny takes a little jink left instead of straight down, or jinks right and re-establishes new patterns like a long line of dominoes tipping over. The Battle of Little Round Top at Gettysburg is a good example of an Omega Point. It’s one of those little dominoes that tips down a huge line of dominoes that arrives at the world as we know it. You could make a case that without Little Round Top there would be no bookstores in shopping malls.
Up until the battle of Gettysburg the Confederacy was winning the war, in spite of the North's enormous resources of industry and manpower. The Union Army suffered from a lack of competent generals and a lack of will power among the politicians. The South had a thrilling sense of itself as a new nation-state emerging, and it had a brilliant commander in Robert E Lee, one the greatest military leaders America ever produced.
The first day of the Battle of Gettysburg was a hard fought draw with both sides digging in. By the end of the day, the Union Army was lined behind a wall at Cemetery Ridge, between two high hills, Little Round Top, at the open end of the Union line and Big Round Top further away. The 20th Maine infantry had been sent up to observe from the top of Little Round Top and report back. They were lead by Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, formerly a school professor and now a young officer of limited combat experience. The 20th Maine was a small Signal Corps, most of whom had never been shot at. Robert E Lee knew the minute he looked through his binoculars, that Little Round Top was the key position for the entire battle. If he could get Confederate artillery batteries placed in its high ground, he could shell down into the entire Union Army and blow it off the earth. From there would be a clear road to Washington. There he could force President Lincoln to sue for peace and recognize the Confederacy as a separate nation.
The 15th Alabama was a legion of about 7000 men, most of whom were fearless, combat hard sonzabitches. Their assignment was to take Little Round Top by the end of the afternoon and make way for the artillery batteries that would be stationed above the heads of the Union Army. The 20th Maine infantry, who knew nothing of combat before, held them off from behind trees and rocks over a series of five assaults. Most of the Maine men were killed or wounded. When the final assault came, the Maine Infantry ran out of bullets completely. Col Chamberlain instructed his men to fix bayonets and charge downhill in a wheeling maneuver turning in a line like a garden gate. The Alabama mistakenly thought they’d been outnumbered by reinforcements, surrendered and were taken prisoner. Little Round Top held. The next day was the debacle of Picket's Charge, and the first major defeat in battle Robert E Lee ever experienced. Two years later the south went down and the Union of the United States was preserved for the ages as one nation.
What if the 15th Alabama won?
Lee would have obliterated the Union Army and marched on Washington. Lincoln would have had to surrender and sue for peace. The United States would have been split into two nations. Eventually Texas would have made a Republic of its own apart from the Confederacy as it had often threatened to do. Eventually the south and probably the north would have fragmented further to resemble something like the squabbling mob of independent nations found in Africa and South America. There would have been no American navy to defend South America or the Caribbean when Spain attempted to reassert itself. There would have been no United States to defend Europe during WWI. There would have been no United States to defend Europe during WWII or the Far East against Imperial Japan. Most of Europe would today be ruled by Nazi Germany or something like it. Most of eastern and southeast Asia would be ruled by Imperial Japan, and Western Asia by the Soviet Union. That is assuming these entities survived in anything like their present form. There would have been no atomic bomb, or at least no American atomic bomb.
And all this alternate history was prevented by a small group of inexperienced soldiers on top of a hill in Pennsylvania, lead by an ex-school teacher. In fact Col Chamberlain was shot during the battle. The bullet struck his sword scabbard without going in. A little higher and he would been killed or carried from the field. Without his leadership in a critical moment, the world would have jinked over this way instead of jinking over that way. It doesn't take a whole lot to change the entire destiny of the human race.
In my very small world, suppose my feet had been different.
In 1973 I would have been successfully inducted in the Navy. I might have gone to Viet Nam. More likely I would have been sent to some pacific outpost where my natural geekiness would have sent me to a technical job like radio or satellite communications. I'd have maybe married some nice Japanese girl in Hawaii and maybe set up a career for myself with free college off the GI Bill and at this moment be hauling my teenaged grandkids off to the shopping malls of California. Or maybe something more exotic.
Million dollar feet. They can carry you to the strangest places.
If I had had good feet, a girl named Susan would not have sucked a piece of paper with my name and phone number on it into an old vacuum cleaner that wasn't strong enough to suck up paper. What if the vacuum cleaner had been a better one? The piece of paper just a little smaller?
And so the rain runs down the glass of the little house where God lives.
A raindrop goes left instead of right and the universe blinks.
A butterfly falls and somewhere the earth shakes and people begin to die.
What do we know of our lives?
I sit in the bookstore drifting through the old Matthew Brady black and white photos of Gettysburg and Little Round Top.
In The Peach Orchard broken bodies are eternally bloating in the summer sun next to their rifles, swelling against the buttons of their neat dark uniforms.
Hmn. They have peaches in Pennsylvania?