I had managed, somehow, to tear my Achilles tendon, and so the Doctor prescribed them.
They were specially built orthopedic wingtips.
I already didn’t fit in with the other kids in this rural western Canada school. They were the sons & daughters of ranchers and ranch hands, or else lived on the reservation. They rode horses and shot guns and wrangled things. They were all miniature cowboys, except for the Indians and a handful of junior lumberjacks. I was an urban little blond kid who spoke the Queen’s English, being brought up by an upperclass mother who had a fondness for rough great plains/prairie men like my father or my stepfather, real American archetypes, Charlie Starkweather kind of men, but she was not raising me to be one of those men. I was being raised to be her father, an upperclass French diplomat who painted as a hobby. I was an urbane little child. I had a trenchcoat and was dressed like a Carnaby Street Mod.
Me, age 7
It was 1968. It was rural Western Canada. It was two years late and in the wrong place for being a Mod. Worse was having to pull that look off in wingtip shoes, which were only worn by granddads whose pants rode too high. Worse yet was that these were clearly gimp shoes, all orthopedic, one of them with a built up heel that forced me to limp.
I hated gym class. In Canada, we called it Phys Ed, pronounced Fizz Ed. It mostly involved tumbling, which seemed like a useless thing to know unless, maybe, you fell down a lot and wanted to make it look like you did it on purpose.
I had a phobia about being upside down. I distinctly remember being held upside down and shaken by some leering old drunk while all the other drunks in the room, including my parents, sat back and laughed. The guy pick me up over his head and stuck his monstrous, reeking-of-booze face in mine. That night I added being upside down to the list of things I would never let happen to me again. Being manhandled by drunks was already on that list.
In Fizz Ed class I would wait until I was next in line to take a tumble, and then slip to the back of the line. If any of the teachers ever noticed, they never called me on it. Nor did any of them ever take me aside and say “what’s up with the tumbling? What are you afraid of?” Not that I could have really answered them, but probably a good teacher with some patience and insight could’ve drawn out some interesting and possibly alarming information. In the 1960s, all that information was stuff better left unsaid.
I probably tore my achilles tendon taking evasive action. Evasive action was the main thing I did back then. It was a talent that served me especially well years later, in high school, long out of the gimp shoes and playing rugby. Nobody could slip a tackle better than I. I played blindside wing, which is the guy who gets the ball only when the play has completely fallen apart. Blindside wing is on his own against the entire opposite team. I was like a greased pig on the rugby pitch. Nobody could hold onto me.
So I had these gimp shoes. That meant I was exempt from Fizz Ed. Being exempt from Fizz Ed pretty much cemented my reputation as a wimp and a homo, but I didn’t really care so long as I didn’t need to do any tumbling.
Rocky Heinz was the one who started calling me homo. He was a grade or two ahead of me, lanky, bowlegged, pointy and mean. The school bus was not really a good place for evasive action. I was trapped with Rocky and his homo taunts.
I had no idea what a homo was.
I hadn’t quite figured out yet that my Mom really wasn’t the go-to person Moms are supposed to be. No matter how well intentioned, her advice was almost always destined to make things worse. She was especially bad when there was a language component, because she hadn’t yet mastered English.
I told her Rocky Heinz was calling me a homo, and asked her what it was.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Let’s see if we can’t find out.” And what she did to find out was she looked around the house, hoping to find some household product or maybe some packaged food that had the offensive word printed on it, so that the word could a least be given a context. And there it was: Homo Milk.
(For you non Canadians, homo milk is what Canadians call whole milk. It’s printed right there on the carton, in giant letters. Homo Milk.)
The next morning, feeling defiant, I confronted Rocky Heinz on the homo milk business. I hoped that this would put an end to his taunting, but it worked out the opposite. The introduction of milk to the situation just served to escalate things, and I was left with the suspicion that maybe I hadn’t quite figured out what homo meant after all.
It was a defiant spring for me. Fizz Ed had moved outdoors. There was no more tumbling. Rocky’s taunts became just a static I managed to tune out. I was fighting back on the mod clothes, and I was over the gimp shoes.
The gimp shoes came off on a warm spring day at Springbank Elementary. Everyone was running the 50 yard dash, and unlike tumbling or rope climbing this looked like fun. I wanted to be able to run. I didn’t want to be a gimp or a mod. Maybe I would never be a snot nosed pointy and mean cowboy, but at least I could be a regular kid. It was worth a try.
I toed the line barefoot for my first ever attempt at a 50 yard dash. I was running against Rocky’s little sister Vicky, who was a tomboy, and fast. I would never hear the end of it from Rocky if she beat me, but I probably never would hear the end of it from Rocky no matter what happened.
The Fizz Ed teacher blew the whistle.
I kicked everyone’s ass.
Just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke, I lined up again.
I kicked everyone’s ass again.
Nobody was more surprised than I. This was exhilarating. All I was hoping for was a bit of freedom and not to make too big of a fool of myself. I never expected to actually be good at something. I was thrilled.
I wanted to stay barefoot for the rest of the day, but my teachers made me put my gimp shoes back on. My compromise: I refused to lace them. Those things were coming off for good the moment I got home.
Running became my sport. By the following year, my grade was doing official track meets, running against kids from other schools. I was beating everyone every time. I got to stand on podiums and people gave me ribbons and medals.
Better yet, there was no team. Yes, the track team’s success was based on the accumulation of our individual successes, but when I ran, the guy from my school was as much the enemy as the kid from across town. I wanted to win, and I did. It wasn’t because I wanted to beat anyone, really, but because I didn’t want to beaten. This is a very important distinction. I was tired of being the gimp. I was tired of being whatever a homo was. I was tired of leering, drunken adults doing inappropriate things to each other and to kids. I was basically tired of being at the bottom of the food chain.
In running I didn’t need to punch anyone, or tackle anyone, or touch anyone. I didn’t even need to see my opponents. If I did it right, they would all be behind me and out of sight.
I took that track thing and ran it hard for all my school years, but after that rock’n’roll and lots of drinking and drugs got in the way. I’m 53 years old now. The gimp shoe days are a long time ago. So are the days of running fast.