Boxing Day

It’s not much of a present: kind of a lumpy little box, knocked up from plywood with brad-pinned butt joints. Its four stubby legs are sawn sections of thick oaken doweling, and the vaguely shoe-shaped carrying handle doubles as a foot rest for a man receiving a shine.

Shoe shine boxes were a classic shop project, back when shop was practically a required class for boys and assignments centered around parental gifts so you would know what little Johnny was doing in school. This one was carefully rounded off on its edges, with soft brass hinges meticulously pinned in placed and a little hook that latches to a roundhead screw left slightly proud as a latch catch. The pieces are imperfect, leading me to think that it was produced with substantial recourse to hand saws and sanding blocks, and minimal access to power tools.

We picked it up at a garage sale. Its mate, a fancier and heavier built version of the same classic shoeshine boy design, was marked down from five bucks to three. When we picked it up to look at it — Pretty Wife had never seen one before, which is what I get for marrying a younger woman — the lady of the house hurried to throw in the second box for free.

“Just take it! No room to store all this old stuff.” Her husband looked on, smiling just a little. Never said a word while we were there; just accepted a few dollar bills for the shoeshine boxes and a small steel firewood stand for the indoors.

The other box opens and closes better. It’s built from solid hardwood, and so doesn’t feature the strange detail of wood grain running shortwise across the lid. Its sides are joined not by brads and glue but with regimental stacks of tidily machined box joints. The lid latch has both pieces (no screw for a catch) and the “shoe” up top is regularly formed. It’s the kind of thing you buy, not the kind of thing some small human makes with his hands, so we’re keeping it (along with a tidy supply of shoe grease and polish) and gifting its humbler counterpart along to Daughtergirl.

Most of what I like about the shop project is what’s penciled, with the neatness of personal care, onto the bottom: “Mark made this for me Christmas 1961.”

I wonder who Mark was, and who he is now. His father (it doesn’t look like a mother’s printing, nor like a Mother’s Day gift, although you never know) is very likely dead if his kid was old enough to build this 53 years ago, but you never know. Mark is probably alive and just starting to think about leaving the meatiest part of his productive years — but again, you never know.

Maybe Mark is a garbageman in Paduca, or an actuary in New Hampshire. Maybe he went to Japan to study semiconductors, and stayed for the thick, savory udon noodles and a tiny but fierce woman who never wore the wedding kimono that hangs in the front closet, but won’t throw it away because it reminds her of her parents. Maybe Mark rides with the Old Souls in Eugene, and harasses our buddy Dave for lower prices on dented magnetos for panhead choppers. Maybe Mark died in the war. Which war? Pick a war.

Maybe, like a Mark we know, he went on to live through a war and put his tools to work on wooden boats — or maybe he was that old guy at the garage sale. I was negative three in 1961. The box looks like the work of an industrious 12 year-old. That would put Mark at retirement age in four, three, two…

Nope, it’s not much of a present, but that might be okay. Daughtergirl joined us for a trip to Spokane recently, where we discovered we don’t have the same taste in boots — which is to say we have precisely the same taste in boots: they should work hard and well, fit your feet, and fit your life. I’d waited most of my life to order up a pair of White’s hand-crafted boots, and I didn’t want my hard-working daughter to put off well-fitting footwear that long if she was determined (as she seems to be) to keep up her box-slingin’, body-chomping Teamster gig.

The famous White’s Smokejumpers didn’t do it for me when I went boot shopping for myself a few months back, but when I drove across town to Nick’s, they made me up a fine pair of red-brown Foresters with softer, honey-toned soles for my softening back. In two different sizes, arches and and shapes, because that’s how I roll: slightly lopsided. Rebuildable, comfortable, practical, and good lookin’ by my lights… the boots, that is. Not me.

Nick's boots

Daughtergirl was dubious after her fitting at Nick’s, so we reversed my trek and popped over to White’s where she picked out a pair of … steel-toed black Smokejumpers with stout, black Vibram soles. Bad-ass girls need bad-ass boots. That was a good present, the kind that may become a tradition in our family.

I greased up my Nick’s boots again last night, after I cleaned them with some saddle soap I found in one of the shoeshine boxes. It’s probably older than Daughtergirl, but those cans never really go bad. “Just add water.”

And the little plywood box? Only a reminder, really. Take care of yourself and take care of your gear. Good maintenance and preparation can’t guarantee that life won’t mistreat you, but it’ll sure help you feel readier when it does. With that in mind, I rubbed a coat of Johnson’s paste wax into the old plywood and oak pieces, just enough to keep it sound. No need for Minwax dark paste or fossil-origin, microcrystalline Renaissance Wax. This is humble household equipment, not fine furniture construction or curated museology.

Taking care of yourself, keeping yourself ready and useful and thoughtful and strong, leaves you space to care for the people around you. Based on his note to my daughter, I think Mark would approve.

Nick's Boots

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  1. And so your offering had me looking in the attic storage for -my- shine box. Attic storage is on the other side of a door 20 feet behind me.

    Mine has a drawer. The box.

    I’m reminded of the Mexican shoe shine boys when I was but a wee lad living in downtown El Paso. They carried the boxes on a sling over a shoulder, rags draped over the other. “Shine! Shine?” Cordovan was in style back then. Perhaps it still is? I wouldn’t know.

    I’ve never shined out of my box. I used it as a pedestal for my right foot raising my thigh. The thigh I would lay an arm on while applying a different sort of pigment. Something a bit more permanent.

    My box was built in a shop someheres. The mexican kids built theirs with what was available. More important than the box was the polish it carried; black, brown, white…cordovan. Lots of cordovan.

    Yeah, it was what was in the box what mattered. Not the box itself.

    I didn’t see it when I glanced behind the door. It was just a cursory glance mind you. I’ll poke around a little more. I’ve got this itch now, to find it. Oh, I’m quite sure when I do and slide that drawer open, it’ll look empty to the casual observer. How could they possibly know any different? It’s -my- box.

    • Glad you have graduated from baking boots with grease in my oven.


      • I should have definitely gotten the shoe shine box from my grandfather. Loved looking at the polish, brush and fine cloth inside. Little did I know that later I’d not necessarily have a shoe shine box, but would become a fantastic hand at a real spit-shine out of Boot Camp. 😉

  2. I still have my father’s shoe shine box that’s had several reprieves from the recycling bin. Though my box I was commercially produced, the memories around that box of my father polishing the family collection of shoes are mine. That box is safe, now and as long as I’m competent to preserve it. Thank you, Jack. My father was buried 32 years ago today.

  3. Mike Crenshaw says

    Jack, when I was about 9 years old (think 57 Chevy’s here) my Cub Scout den made shoe shine boxes for our fathers. My father was a fairly dapper dresser and he used that box every day that he put on a suit. He passed in ’85 and Mother gave the box to me. I’m not quite as natty as Dad was but that box is the most cherished thing I have from him. It’s scarred and stained but still stout and solid. I hope to pass it on some day.

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