Shoeless classmate set pace for all

Writer’s Block

I can still remember the day Mark Hughes decided he would spend the rest of his life indoors.

Mark was a classmate of mine and we were sitting at our school desks one day listening to our science teacher.

“In 1908, an asteroid crashed into Siberia and wiped out hundreds of miles of forest land,” he explained. “If there had been any humans around, they would all have been toast.”

It must have gotten to Mark, because as we walked home that day, he kept looking warily up at the sky, careful to stay under store awnings and tree branches as much as he could. “Once I get home,” he declared, “I’m not coming back outside again, ever! I don’t want no asteroid smacking into me.”

I reminded him that a fiery asteroid plunging toward the earth at blinding speed wouldn’t have any trouble crashing through the roof of a house, even Mark’s. But he was unconvinced.

“My bedroom is in the basement,” he said. “At least I’ll have a chance.”

I thought of Mark last week when I heard the news of an asteroid that made a close pass to the earth. It zipped by last week just 48,800 miles from our planet. That would be the equivalent of a flying golf ball just grazing the top of a man’s head, close enough to touch his hair. (Although it would miss Dr. Phil altogether.)

But if Mark Hughes worried about asteroids, he was even more obsessed with his shod feet. He was certain that if he wore his shoes for too long, his feet would suffocate, die and fall off. I told him that as far as I knew, human beings had been wearing shoes for thousands of years with few such incidents. But Mark was adamant.

He would walk to and from school without wearing his shoes, carrying them in his school bag and then stepping into them just before entering the classroom. Once seated, he would slip them off under his desk when the teacher wasn’t looking. During recess, unless told otherwise, he would run barefoot around the asphalt schoolyard.

Mark’s feet knew no fear of gravel, thumbtacks, BB’s, rusty nails or shards of glass. His soles were as impenetrable as a tortoise’s backside. He once claimed he could stand barefoot on a hot skillet for 30 seconds before hopping out. (Maybe he could, but no one would have wanted to cook breakfast in that skillet afterward.)

Most kids in our school figured Mark was nuttier than a pecan pie, but it turns out that his disdain for footwear was not nonsensical, but perhaps commonsensical. In an article published some months ago in New York magazine, a writer named Adam Sternbergh says we’re all walking wrong – and it’s because of our shoes.

He quotes a prominent podiatrist as saying, “In only a few thousand years, and with one carelessly designed instrument – our shoes – we have warped the pure anatomical form of human gait.”

For years, people have been telling my younger brother that he walks weird. I can’t wait to tell him the good news: “It’s not you, it’s your shoes.”

Another researcher, Dr. Bernhard Zipfel (gotta love that name) says his podiatric colleagues need to get people out of their shoes and to “actively encourage barefoot walking for healthy individuals.” After all, primitive man didn’t own any wingtips, sneakers or galoshes and except for the dragging knuckles, he walked just fine.

But is it really practical for everybody on the planet to walk around barefoot 24/7? Personally, I don’t think a tuxedo looks nearly complete without including some shoes, even an old brown pair.

It would be hard to slide well at the bowling alley without their rented shoes, thereby making it all but impossible to pick up the 7/10 split.

And except for Mark Hughes, who would want their kid to walk to school barefoot through winter snow?

There are a few new companies that have begun selling shoes designed to simulate walking barefoot. I’ve tried walking in a pair or two and found that in just a short time, my feet were getting dog-tired. Or, to put it another way, my dogs were getting foot-tired.

Nonetheless the experts say we should pay more attention to our feet, treat them better and appreciate them more. In other words, the experts say: listen to our feet. Well fine, but I for one can’t bend down that far so they better speak up.

Meanwhile, wherever he is, I hope Mark Hughes feels vindicated and will walk his way barefoot into ripe old age.

Unless an asteroid hits him first.

Pat Cashman is a writer, actor and public speaker. He can be reached at pat@patcashman.com.