This is not my story. I am hearing it for the first time, just like you.
He is the one who tells it. He is old. He is in a wheelchair. He is carving a piece of basswood with a pocket knife. He speaks in a drawl so thick it’s poetry.
There are children around his feet. A few third graders, a fifth-grader, a fifteen-year-old, and one redhead writer who still watches Saturday morning cartoons. Occasionally.
The old man is telling stories. That’s what old men do. They are inherently good at this.
The man removes a five-dollar bill from his pocket.
“See this?” he says.
The kids nod.
The redhead writer nods.
Age has slowed his speech down. But not his mind.
“Why, I remember when five dollars was like a hundred bucks,” he goes on. “Back when times were hard.”
The Depression. A time when America was on the brink. He tells a story about the lean years. He was six. A rural towhead. He wore ragged clothes. His shoes had given up the ghost and went barefoot most of the time—even to preaching.
“That’s what poor folks did,” he explains. “Our feet were always bare.”
He found a five-dollar bill on the ground. And during his era, he might as well have won the Florida Powerball. He ran home to give the money to his father.
“LOOK WHAT I FOUND, DADDY!” he shouted.
But his father didn’t want the money.
“Son,” his father told him. “It would be wrong for me to keep that money. Lotta folks need it worse than we do.”
But how could that be? They ate beans for supper. His brother worked labor jobs for chicken feed. His mother took in wash. The kid’s feet were blistered.
“What should I do with it?” the boy asked.
“You’re the one who found it,” said his father. “You gotta figure it out for your ownself.”
The boy held onto the money for a week. He had wild-eyed boyish ideas. With five dollars he could’ve been king of the county. He could’ve bought a collection of shoes and still had enough left over for a trip to Maui.
“I went to our minister,” the old man says. “I asked him, ‘What should I do with the money?’”
The reverend said, “Five dollars? My goodness, that’s a lot. You could give it to us. But it wouldn’t be right, me telling you what to do with it. That’s something you gotta figure out for your ownself.”
So the kid thought long and hard about it.
The old man pauses his story. He inspects his carving. He is silent for a few seconds.
A girl at his feet says, “HEY, WHAT HAPPENED?”
“YEAH!” shouts another. “DID YOU GET THE SHOES?!”
“TELL US!” shouts the redhead.
The old man starts carving again. “Well, I got to studying about it,” he says. “And I thought of all the kids in my school. They didn’t have shoes neither. What about them?”
So, he came up with an idea, which he posed to his teacher in private. She listened. She liked his idea. She agreed to help him.
They shook on it. He made his teacher spit in her hand before the official handshake because this is what all respectable boys do.
A few days later, his classmates arrived at the rural school like any other day, but it was not business as usual.
The classroom was decorated with colorful garland and banners. And there was Virginia ham, casseroles, pies, the works. There were layer cakes, lemonade, candy, chocolate, and cookies.
“Today is a national Fun Day!” the teacher announced.
No school work, no math problems, no more teachers’ dirty looks. It was a day set aside for eating, singing, and laughter. There were three-legged races, hide-and-seek, hopscotch, marbles, baseball, and singing.
Children without shoes ate freely, without want. They played. They forgot about the sadness that lingered above their poverty-stricken families.
The day was supposed to be a five-dollar day, but other parents had gotten involved. Mothers, fathers, ministers, and shopkeepers, and church deacons. It became a million-dollar day. And in the memories of many shoeless kids, it was one of the best parties in world history.
He finishes his carving. The children are silent. And I am silent, thinking about how much this world has changed. How much I have changed.
One child finally asks, “But did you ever get a pair of shoes?”
“Yeah,” says one kid.
“Ditto,” says the redhead.
The old man smiles. He flexes a bare foot for us all. His sole is blackened with dirt.
“Shoes are highly overrated,” he says.
Barbara - August 29, 2022 10:15 am
Shoes wear out but the memories made that day live on. Wonderful story.
Bev - August 29, 2022 10:32 am
Ed (Bear) - August 29, 2022 10:57 am
Shoes ARE overrated!
As a kid, I hated wearing shoes. Especially the Sunday shoes. When I grew up, I started liking shoes. I loved hiking shoes! But now that I’m retired, I’m back to hating shoes. I guess I’ll be in diapers again soon too!
Debbie g - August 29, 2022 11:13 am
Thank you for reminding us
Lots of our Stuff is highly over rated the best things are not on a shelf The best is love
Love you Sean and Jamie
And love to us all
Trent - August 29, 2022 12:20 pm
Selfless love, service to others – this is the “stuff” life is made of, not stuff…
Dolores - August 29, 2022 12:39 pm
I love tales of the Great Depression but not because of the terrible stories of woe. Rather, because of the underlying morality and simple kindnesses it reveals; we were our brothers keeper.
My Mom passed away last year at 97, a child of that era. On shoes, I recall her saying it was a scramble and scrape for shoes as the school year approached. Nothing was ever thrown away, everyone donated to each other. Her brothers wore women’s shoes in order to have something on their feet. No one made fun because they were either doing the same or had none.
The boys especially quit school when old enough to work and supplement their household income. But the girls weren’t immune. It was a economic burden to continue your child in school besides the money they could contribute working. And by working I mean the most menial and/or backbreaking jobs you can think of.
Talk about my Mom quitting school was suddenly the topic: Uncle Kenneth objected. In fact he offered to work and buy her school clothes and whatever else so she could stay. Because he said, “she’s the smartest of the bunch of us (eight children), please don’t make her quit”.
I can imagine Mom’s cast down look at the thought of leaving school and then the sudden elation when my grandparents agreed to Uncle Kennth’s offer. My Mom never forgot the sacrifice her brother made and really my grandparents too. When you think about it two incomes were lost to the household in order for Mom to graduate high school.
Just one glimpse of the Greatest Generation.
Tim & Trumpy - August 29, 2022 3:01 pm
Wow! Thanks for sharing Dolores. Brought tears to my eyes again (after Sean’s piece)… beautiful
sjhl7 - August 29, 2022 12:42 pm
What a wonderful story. It reminds me of the stories my Mother told of growing up in those difficult days. Life was hard and the lessons life taught were tough but they made some very strong people!
April McGough - August 29, 2022 1:05 pm
Loved it! Cried, of course
dbdicks430 - August 29, 2022 1:18 pm
Oh, how I wish our teachers today had the flexibility to declare “National Fun Day”…and not be tied to the state curriculum and standardized tests! Plus, not to mention giving hugs to children who need them . What a story, Sean, full of joy in spite of hard times that we can’t imagine. Thank you again for sharing your special gift of writing. Keep it up!
Cathy M - August 29, 2022 2:19 pm
I can picture this room and the children The smiles, laughter, the food and the teacher. Pure joy. I will think about this picture all day. Thank you Sean❤️🙏🏻
Tom Ledford - August 29, 2022 2:42 pm
You are so talented. You tell a great story, you are a great artist, and you can play music. Several pieces of your art hang in our second home in Sandestin. I read your stories every day – keep up the good work. Tom and Marcia
Sandy Burnett - August 29, 2022 4:00 pm
Bare feet with joy in one’s heart is better than any shoes could ever bring.
Linda Moon - August 29, 2022 4:26 pm
Story-telling old men, students, the red-headed writer, and good teachers. These are my kind of folks!!
Pat - August 29, 2022 4:35 pm
Nancy Robertson - August 29, 2022 4:38 pm
What an incredible teaching moment for the adults in this story to use – giving the decision to the boy. What a lifelong lesson learned. Thanks for sharing the story.
David Britnell - August 29, 2022 4:39 pm
So many of the people in my life who are the great story tellers have passed on. Thanks for continuing the tradition Sean!
Anne Arthur - August 29, 2022 5:06 pm
These kids, including the red-headed writer and his readers, will never forget this story. That’s how the world is supposed to be: fair.
And, education of the best kind.
Peggy Alexander - August 29, 2022 6:08 pm
I loved 🥰 this.
Karen - August 29, 2022 7:32 pm
I loved the story. It helps when all of the kids are in the same boat. What a special day he gave his classmates.
MAM - August 29, 2022 8:04 pm
What a beautiful story, Sean! As always, well written and bringing up memories. And Dolores, your story was one we should remember, too. I was a World War II baby, but my parents taught me how to save, how to use money wisely, and how to live frugally. Now that I’ve reached old age, I don’t have to pinch those pennies quite as hard, because of the frugality along the way. And as for shoes, the first sticker burr in my foot, and I’m afraid I was too chicken to go outside without shoes. Then the first broken toe when I banged it on something, well, yep, shoes in the house, too! I guess I’m a wimp!
Ruth - August 30, 2022 2:16 am
Such a poignant story, loved it so much and so many wonderful comments as well. So glad I discovered your writing Sean😇
Larry R. Terry - August 31, 2022 5:19 am
Excellent as always and in every way, sir.
Deborah Blount - August 31, 2022 1:34 pm
Wonderful story. As usual. Thank you.
Renee Welton - September 5, 2022 3:37 am
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - September 9, 2022 2:18 am