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In a well-polished shoe, a reflection of life

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By Ian Neligh

Black shoe polish, a lighter, nylons, spit or faucet water, a freezer, cotton balls, wax. I was running late, so I just grabbed two clean socks and wrapped them around a worn can of Kiwi and a half-empty lighter. I placed them all in my jacket pocket. I could feel the soft lump pressing against my side as I drove to my parents’ house.

He would soon be graduating and going off to college. I was 14 years old when my parents brought him home from the hospital as a baby. He is now the same age I was when I first entered basic training.

My brother was going to the prom. He asked me to show him how to polish his shoes. He’d heard me describe the almost Zen-like state of mind I experienced when polishing my boots in the military. I knew he just wanted to have a nice-looking pair of shoes for the dance. He’d seen my boots before; they could be brilliant.

It’s sort of hard to imagine — but after a day of training and dragging my blood- and sweat-soaked combat boots through rocks and dirt, only to polish them to a metallic shine every evening — I began to enjoy the mindless task. It allowed my brain time to reorganize. It felt like practicing Tai Chi, meditating or listening to classical music on a Sunday afternoon. Call it Stockholm Syndrome — but it worked. A degree of pride also came with a highly shined pair of boots when standing among fellow soldiers, and sometimes that was enough.

So when my brother asked me to show him how this was done properly, I took the task very seriously. There are a million different supposedly “ultimate” ways of polishing your boots. Some require layers and layers of polish to be applied and then set inside a freezer overnight before you even begin. Some require your boots to be buffed glossy with women’s nylons.

I prefer a different method. We sat down at a table; I took off my boots and put them in front of me. He placed his own shoes in front of him.

I opened the can, and the heavy chemical smell of black shoe polish filled my nostrils. I poured about 2 tablespoons of tap water into the empty lid. I then flicked on the lighter and applied the flame to the polish. This is always the fun part. We watched as the blue flame instantly liquefied the polish. I blew it out and dipped part of the cotton sock into the dark mess and applied it to the tip of my boots, smearing the gunk in a counterclockwise fashion.

“Polishing your shoes is a completely worthless skill,” I admitted, dipping my swab into the water and repeating the circular polishing technique. “You can buy shoes that come perfectly shined — but that shine never really lasts,” I conceded, more to my self than anyone else.

And so we sat there at the table polishing. I tried to explain that to me, polishing, though antiquated, wasn’t so unlike the polishing of a sword: You do not need it shiny to cut something. He nodded, readily agreeing. I watched as his shoes got blacker and blacker with shoe polish, but no shine came.

I’m coming up on my eighth-year anniversary of getting out of the military. In those eight years I became a civilian, a college graduate, a reporter and a husband. Many of my friends from that time dropped out of contact or became distorted like bugs trapped in amber. One calls me up occasionally from Tennessee drunk to talk about the old days. He’s a civilian contractor now, working in Iraq. He was shot the last time he went. He called me recently to say he was going over again.

Like many of them, I joined weeks after graduating from high school. I remember standing at the bottom of an impossibly steep staircase looking up at the building, which would take me into government service and not release me for another four years.

A small group of guys at the top nervously smoked their last cigarette before being sent off to basic training. Going up the stairs was officially my first major life choice. I didn’t know what to expect from the next four years of my life. I didn’t know if I was making the right choice.

The stairs were stone, gray and covered in an early-morning rain. For a time, walking up them seemed impossible. And in that moment I did the only rational thing I could — I sprinted to the top.

Years later, I have little in the physical world to show for those four years, except some official pieces of paper, a couple empty M-16 magazines and the arcane knowledge of how to polish shoes.

My brother’s prom came and went. I called him and asked how it went. “Good,” he said. I asked him jokingly if anyone noticed his shoes. “No one noticed,” he answered. After a moment of idle chatter, he said suddenly, “Although I’ve tried, I can’t get them as shiny as yours.”

“Layers,” I said. “Just keep putting on layers of polish. It just takes a little time.”

Ian Neligh is a news editor for Evergreen Newspapers.