Running Shoes

*The following story is my first entry into Jeffrey Hite’s wonderful podcast Great Hites, episode number 57. If you enjoy the story, please go to the site and vote for it! (Of course, you should listen to the other stories first!) Voting is now taking place! Thanks*

**UPDATE: Voting is now over, and believe it or not, this story took 1ST PLACE!!! Thank you to any of you that voted. The stories that were submitted for episode #57 were excellent. I am honored. Thank you again, and if you enjoyed the story, please leave a comment!**

Running Shoes

Wham!

After having given the nail one last “whack”, Alexander took the obviously worn pair of work shoes from the floor, double knotted the laces, and hung them from the nail he had just placed in his workshop wall.

Alexander stepped back and was surveying the rows upon rows of shoes that this latest pair had joined. The late afternoon light streaming through the windows illuminated the motes in the air and made the sheen of dust on the shoes evident. Margaret would surely be telling him, “If you’re going to keep all those shoes, you need to keep them dusted!” if she were to see them in the state they were now.

“What’s all the noise out here, grandpa?” came the query, startling him from his reverie. Unnoticed to him, his grandson Alaric had entered his workshop and, coming up behind him, familiarly placed his arm around his diminutive grandfather’s shoulders. Alaric, a recent college graduate, had been staying with Alexander that last couple of weeks, but the old man was still not used to having him around.

“Just adding another pair to my hall of fame Alaric,” Alexander replied.

“Ever since I was a small child, I remember rows of shoes hanging on this wall gramps, but I’ve never really known why you keep them. Surely you can’t have kept every pair of shoes you’ve ever owned?” questioned Alaric.

Alexander laughed and shook his head. “Boy, if I’d kept every pair of shoes I’d ever had, I wouldn’t own enough walls to put them on. Nah, these are just the special ones. The ones that have a story of their own. The ones that I come out and look at whenever I need a reminder of life’s journey.”

“Next you’ll be telling me they know how to talk, and probably with funny accents,” quipped Alaric, then ducked as a rag was hurled at his head.

Sensing a chance to get his grandfather, normally a bit of a quiet man (when it came to speaking about himself anyway), to share some of his personal history, Alaric casually went over to a pair of boots near the beginning of the first row and asked, “So what do these old boots say to you? ‘Get up, let’s go hunting?’ or maybe just ‘you should think about getting a new hobby!”

Alexander chuckled a bit and came over to where his grandson stood. “Nah, nothing so mundane as that, son. These boots brought me back through the roughest fire fight I ever saw back in Germany during the war.”

Alaric was a bit astounded. Although he had known his grandfather had been in World War II, this was a topic that Grandpa never discussed. Not wanting the conversation to end there, Alaric gently probed, “Really? I don’t think I’ve ever heard that story.”

Alexander turned and looked at him with a one sided smile. “Don’t patronize me boy,” he said gently. “Of course you’ve never heard it. That would be because I’ve never told it to anyone except your grandma.”

Alaric was afraid that his question might have had the adverse effect of the one he’d been hoping for when his grandfather reached up and squeezed his shoulder and turned around to walk off. Instead of leaving the room, however, he went over to his work bench and pulled out an old stool and sat down.

“You might as well make yourself comfortable,” he said. “If you’re gonna get me telling my shoe stories, we might be here a while.”

Alaric hurriedly crossed the room and sat on another of the stools as his grandfather began.

“You see, my platoon had been ordered to take this German town. I don’t remember the name. After you’ve done it enough, they all look the same. Anyway, my squad was working its way up this street running from doorway to doorway trying to stay undercover. We knew there were German snipers around and none of us wanted to be the first to be noticed.

Well, I was peeking around the corner of this building, and sure enough, a shot splintered the plaster off the wall close enough to make you think twice about peeking again. We figured the sniper was up in the bell tower at the end of the street, but we had no plans to try to get him out. We didn’t have the right guns to do the job. We drew straws to see who would go first and try to draw his fire. Of course, I drew the short straw.

As things turned out, I remembered, from the brief look I’d got, that the building across the street had a wall blown out, and I reasoned that if we could get into that building through that hole, we might have a chance to gain some ground. I told the boys what I planned on doing, tightened the laces on those boots and scampered out around that corner as quick as I could. I knew that sniper had me in his sights, so I did my best to dodge and weave while hunching over as low as I could to make myself as small as target as I possible.

From under the brim of my helmet, I could see the darkness of the hole looming in front of me, and I dove forward with all my strength. Don’t remember much after that until I came to with my squad pulling me into an alley near the building that I’d been running toward.

‘Did I get hit,’ I remember asking them. They all laughed. Scotty, the youngest of us all, said, ‘Yup, you got hit all right. Hit by a building!’ and they all started laughing again.

You see, Alaric, I guess when I took that quick peek, I wasn’t seeing as clearly as I thought I was, and that hole that I dove into was in reality just a shadow on a wall. A brick wall that I had just dove head first into! I’m sure the only reason I’m here today is because that sniper was laughing ‘til he wet himself up in that tower!” finished Alexander with a chuckle.

Alaric stared at his grandad for a moment and then started chuckling too.

Alaric got up and wandered back over to the wall. He went up to the very first pair of shoes in the very first row. They were black with a low heel and looked as if they had never been worn, “What about these, Grandpa? What’s their story?”

Alexander smiled a truly beatific smile. “Well son, although they pinched my toes and gave me a blister the one time I wore them, those are the luckiest pair of shoes I’ve ever owned. You see, times were tough back in the spring of ’41. Most of us figured war was coming, but none of us were truly ready. Anyway, I was a young squirt then, younger than you are now. I had just graduated high school and was pretty proud of myself. I was the first one in the family to have graduated and had just bought those shoes and a suit and had applied for my first job over at the mercantile downtown. You know the place, its where McDonald’s is now. All they had available was a position as a bookkeeper, but as soon as they offered it, I took it and was glad of the work.

That old store was a grand old place. They actually still had a cracker barrel! The scent of spices mixed with the smell of leather and soap, and there was always somebody you knew walking among the aisles. More importantly, they had just added a soda fountain, and all the kids hung out there, including the pretty girls. I thought I was pretty lucky to have got a job there.

In fact, I was running home to tell my parents, when the prettiest girl I ever did see walked out of the hardware store. I later found out she was visiting from out of town. Anyway, I was so busy looking at her, I guess I wasn’t looking where I was going, because I ran dang blamed smack into a light pole. I fell on my butt, right there on the side walk, and I’m sure I turned three shades of purple. I wanted nothing more than to get up and get out of there. Unfortunately, I hit that pole hard enough that the ringing in my head left me pretty unsteady. The next thing I knew, that pretty girl was leaning over me and helping me get up. She handed me my hat and helped me get home. My mother, God bless her soul, insisted she stay for some lemonade and so she was there to hear my news. Well, it turned out she staid a bit longer than just for the lemonade. That pretty girl’s name was Margaret. I married her, and five and half years later, thanks to the interruption we call the war, your dad was born. The shoes I was wearing on the night your grandma said, ‘Honey, it’s time’ are hanging right over there,” Alexander said pointing.

“I like these shoes,” said Alaric as he gently placed them back on the nail. He wandered a bit down the line and then picked a pair off the wall about half way down. He looked at them closely.

“Hey grandpa, what about these. What’s this brown stain?” asked Alaric.

Alexander got off his stool and wandered up behind the young man.

“That? That’s blood,” he said, this time with no trace of a smile. “You see, those were the shoes I was wearing the weekend I took your father and uncles up into the mountains. I accidently knocked your dad through a window. That’s your dad’s blood. It ran down my arms and onto my shoes as I bundled him up and raced down the mountain to the hospital. I’m sure your dad has told you that story,” he concluded looking rather troubled, even after all these years.

Alaric nodded his head. His dad had told Alaric about the time that his grandfather, father and uncles had gone up to the church camp in the mountains to do some light repair work and maintenance on the buildings. A pinecone fight had broken out with Alaric’s uncles ganging up on his grandfather and father.

His father and grandfather had climbed up on piles of mattresses that had been stacked on top of the dining room tables in the mess hall in order to try to keep the mice away from them.

Alaric’s dad had only been thirteen at the time and had had a tough time climbing to the top. Just as he was cresting the top of the pile, Alaric’s grandad had backhanded his father on the backswing of his next throw, accidently knocking him off the pile and through a plate glass window, where a triangular shard of glass roughly seven inches on a side, severed an artery near his elbow.

After having removed the shard, and cleansing the wound as quickly as possible, Alaric’s grandfather had thrown his father in the truck and raced him down the mountain. He then ran him into the emergency room, just in the nick of time.

“Grandpa, if they cause you pain, why do you keep them?” asked Alaric quietly.

“Because, as much as we would like it to be, life isn’t always joyful. If you try to forget the painful parts, you’re really trying to hide from yourself. Never do that Alaric. The only man that can truly run from himself is the man that doesn’t know who he is. And if you don’t know who you are, you aren’t really living, now are you?” stated the old man.

“Well, I guess that’s true grandpa. I never really thought about it that way. Out of all these shoes, are most of them sad stories, or are most of them triumphs?”

“Oh, a little of both, a little of both. Would you like to know the story behind that last pair?” asked Alexander, pointing at the pair he’d just put up.

“If you don’t mind telling, I’d love to hear grandpa,” replied Alaric.

“Well, as you can see, they’re worn, but they’re not worn out. The last I wore them, the last time I will ever wear them, was four weeks ago next Tuesday. I was wearing those shoes when I heard Margaret, your grandma call, and then I heard a crash from the kitchen. I went running in and found your grandmother there, lying on the floor. She was holding her heart, and there was such pain in her eyes. I called the ambulance and ran back to her. By then, she was nearly gone and her eyes didn’t hold so much pain. The last thing she ever said to me was, ‘You always did run whenever I called, dear.’ And then she passed away as I held her.”

By the time he finished his recitation, the old man had tears in his eyes and his voice had gone hoarse.

Alaric gathered him in his arms, and the two men, one young, one old stood there and let the tears fall.

After a time, Alexander thumped Alaric on the back and looked up at him. “Alaric, I’m going to ask you to do me a favor. You don’t have to, but I’d sure appreciate it if you would.”

“Of course grandpa, anything, anything at all,” replied Alaric.

“You’ve been staying here with me since Margaret passed, and I really appreciate it. I’d always planned on leaving the house to your dad and uncles, but they all have places all ready. I’ve spoken with them, and they’ve agreed that it would be right if I left the house to you,” concluded Alexander.

Alaric was rather shocked, but loving his grandfather as he did, was more than grateful to realize he would be able to look after the beloved place himself.

“There is only the one thing I ask of you,” continued Alexander. “I want you to document the story of each of these pairs of shoes. We’ll come out here every day, and I’ll tell you the story of another pair, and before you know it, you’ll know my whole life’s story.”

“Of course grandpa, I’d be honored,” replied Alaric.

“No, that isn’t the favor. You see, when it’s my turn, when I pass, I want you to claim the shoes that I am wearing at the time, and place them on that empty nail, that one right there,” he said pointing.

“And I want you to write, whichever pair of shoes they are, that those were the pair I was wearing, that I was wearing when I went running to meet your grandma.”

“Running one last time.”

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