My Forty Years Scribblin's
Personal Memories
High Buttoned Shoes

This story was written in 1995 and published in the January-February 1996 issue of The Montana Journal. Uncle Bill Mackie becomes shy at a dance, much to the consternation of his family.

Time was when everybody in the family, from baby to Grandpa, wore high buttoned shoes. They came in sturdy leathers, in black, brown and tan. For the really snappy dresser, there might be shiny black patent leather with grey cloth tops. You greased the patent leather with Vaseline so it wouldn't crack—then it cracked anyway. Baby, that privileged character, got soft kid skin, but they all fastened up the outside and above the ankle.

We were going to a country dance at the Evaro schoolhouse. Almost everyone in town would be there, for there was no other social life, and it took the whole community to make a crowd. Baby sitters were not yet invented, so the littlest member might be bundled up and hauled in a box on a hand sled, but we all went. Immediately after supper dishes, the place went into a frenzy. The house was turned upside down to find the button hook. Uncle, whose "dress shoes" wore the longest and looked the best because he wore hob nailed boots to work, had black ones. Auntie favored brown. She had a box of shoe polish that smelled like spoiled axle grease, but we kids never had more than one pair at a time, so we had to shine ours up to hide the wear and tear. We dipped a piece of cloth in a saucer of thick cream and rubbed it on the bottom of the stove lid until the soot made it thick enough and black enough to cover the scuffs. Then we could fool ourselves into thinking they looked almost as good as new.

Hair ribbons, when we had any, were washed and ironed wet, then we feminine members each got a turn with the curling iron heated in the lamp chimney. Do I smell burning hair? Turn the wick down. And wipe off the prongs of the iron with a cloth. Lamp black shows up on blond hair!

There was no question as to what we would wear. We had two school dresses. We wore the clean one to the Saturday night dance and then to school through the ensuing week. At last we "women folks" were as groomed and as garnished as we could get. One final touch, a dab from a twenty-five cent bottle of perfume.

Uncle took one dim kerosene lamp into the back bedroom to change into his blue serge suit and his one white shirt and tie, while we kids fidgeted impatient to go, afraid we would miss some of the fun.

Uncle was a typical country dance fan. He loved to play his fiddle and was a graceful waltzer and good at the schottische and polka. He was always willing to give exhibition Irish jigs and clog dances. But now? Something went wrong. We reached the schoolhouse, hung up our coats, and Uncle stationed himself behind the stove in the corner and refused to come out. The desks were already stacked against one wall, and two lanterns hung from the ceiling. Some one had hitched up a team and brought a pump organ, and the ladies had brought cake and sandwiches for the midnight lunch. Uncle ate his sandwich standing up behind the stove. Auntie cast worried glances at him from time to time. We girls worried, too, but not much! Due to the nearby logging camps, there was always a shortage of women for partners, and ten and twelve-year old girls were kept busy dancing. If there were not enough women to fill out a quadrille, a handkerchief was tied around some man's arm designating him a lady for that set. What did it matter if he muddled up and went the wrong way? More laughs—more fun. Everybody let go and had a good time— within reason, of course—for there was a strict code of ethics. Men might disappear out the door from time to time to sample someone's bottle of "white mule," but the ladies? Never!

A man's hat was passed to take up collections to pay the musicians. Sometime in the early morning hours we trudged homeward, tired and let-down now that the excitement had worn away. Uncle Bill lit the lamp and stretched out his feet for us to see. There was a silly grin on his face. Too late he had discovered that he'd gone to the dance with one black and one brown high buttoned shoe!