Wednesday, December 29, 2010

For Your Feet

I don’t recall how we got onto the subject, but the other day some colleagues—with whom I’m in an on-line writer’s group—and I got to talking about footwear. I mean, we don’t always talk about character, plot, description and point of view. Actually, now that I think about it, we almost never do. The fact is that in a writing group you can talk about just about anything, because, in the end, everything—for writers at least—refers back to writing, since everything we do or say or think, we eventually turn into writing of one sort or another.
My choice for everyday wear,
the Caterpillar chukka.
But anyhow, footwear, that was the topic. And it wasn’t until I started talking about “shoes I’d known”, that I realized just how important—for whatever reason—the right footwear has always been to me. Seems the same was true of some of the other writers as well, so the subject definitely appeared to spark interest. After listening to some of their “foot fetishes” and sharing some of my own, I realized that while we may live with our heads in the clouds much of the time, many of us have our feet very firmly planted on the ground—in some seriously heavy-duty footwear.
Timberland hikers for my trail hikes
and walks on the mountain road.

Where I live at this point in my life and for the past eighteen years, the only footwear you want to have is boots of one sort or another. As regular readers know, I make my home in a rural mountain area in Patagonia. The nearest pavement of any kind is a mile and a half away and consists of a two-lane highway with dirt berms. It’s about fourteen miles to the nearest sidewalk.  That’s “in town” and once you get past town, it’s miles and miles of open country, desert steppe land and mountain terrain, two hundred-fifty miles of it, in fact, to the next city of any size. So unless you’re a “townie” and live in the little make-believe paved world of Bariloche with its ski-resort character, its hotels and restaurants, its chocolate factories and shops, its building supply stores and municipal offices, then you definitely want to have all-terrain shoes that will get you from point A to point B with your feet intact, if something should happen and you should find yourself on foot in the middle of nowhere.
Classic wingtips
       Back in my urban days, as a newsman in Buenos Aires—a bustling cosmopolitan city on the other side of the continent, over a thousand miles from here, and where I lived for almost twenty years—my shoes of choice were black or brown wingtips and black low-quarters. But they had to be both tough and comfortable as well as elegant. As a reporter, I did a lot of walking…and occasional running! Fortunately, that was back when Argentina was still the maker of some of the finest leather shoes on earth. I bought mine at Los Angelitos, one of the fine old stores from the pre-globalization days when porteños (Buenos Aires natives) were also some of the most elegantly clad people on earth. Los Angelitos sold dress shoes that made you sigh and go “aaahhh” as soon as you put them on. Comfortable from day one! Still, before I wore a new pair, I always took them to a shoe-mender’s and had them fitted with rubber heels and rubber half-soles. The purists who made dress shoes for Los Angelitos didn’t believe in anything but shoe leather.  But I couldn’t afford to slip on a wet sidewalk and break my neck while chasing after a story. And, for my money, once the rubber half-sole and heel were on the shoe, it became a perhaps less elegant but certainly more versatile piece of footwear.
Back then, I dressed as elegantly as I could afford. My suits were few and off the rack, but tasteful—light two-piece ones for summer and wool-blend three-piece ones for winter, all in blues, grays and thin chalkline pinstripes. I learned something right off when I started working in the street: Typically, reporters—especially the young ones like myself—wore the kind of informal or whimsical garb that marked them from the get-go as reporters and earned them the immediate enmity and suspicion of executives, cops, military officers and government officials alike. One look at them and security was on them like dogs on a bone. ‘Dressing up’ was half the battle. Press corps idealists tended to think of ‘the suit’ as a cop-out. I considered it body armor, which let me slip unscathed and undetected into places where the less well-dressed ended up outside looking in with their noses pressed against the windowpane. Still, if things did end up getting ‘hairy’, having on shoeleather you could move quickly in was another great advantage.
Dobbs snap-brim
That kind of footwear was nothing new to me. When other kids my age were wearing loafers and sneakers in high school, I was already wearing wingtips, since by the last part of my sophomore year, I was a rather precocious professional nightclub musician and was playing one or two weeknights and just about every weekend at jazz clubs in the area—‘the area’ being Lima, Ohio and vicinity. I also gave private percussion lessons and sold musical instruments part-time for a major music store in the area and worked hard at looking the part—right down to a Dobbs snap-brimmed hat and hound's-tooth topcoat for winter. When I also took up smoking Anthony and Cleopatra Grenadiers in my senior year, I began to bear a resemblance to nothing as much as some kind of junior member of the gangland families that owned some of the area’s top nightclubs.
Earlier, when I was about thirteen or fourteen, I went through a dark protest stage in which I wore a duck-tailed ‘Detroiter’ hairstyle, carried a folding knife in my hip pocket, wore black shirts and black trousers, and my footwear of choice became “Spanish boots”. 

Spanish boots - at thirteen,
I thought they made a statement.  
 These, I felt, made a statement, a statement of non-conformity. I pictured myself looking sophisticated and dangerous…not like a juvenile idiot. They were a kind of modified Flamenco ankle boot with high-ish heels and pointy toes. I think I had gone through two pairs of them and was on the third—all of which I bought with money I earned doing myriad odd jobs and selling papers, because the ol’ man said he didn’t mind paying for a nice sturdy oxford, but that he was damned if he was buying me “those ridiculous goddamn boots”— before I started getting chronic ingrown toenails. After a local GP mangled both of my big toes getting the ingrowns out a couple of times, I finally went to a podiatrist someone had recommended.
The foot specialist was a gentle soul, a delicate little man who talked not unlike Truman Capote, dressed in pastel colors and wore his short gray hair in a feathery ‘Caesar cut’ to cover up the fact that he was balding. You could tell that feet weren’t just his job. He loved feet. His patients sat in a tall chair that looked a little like a shoeshiner or barber’s chair, while he sat on a low stool at one’s feet: “All the better to see your feet, my dear.” And before and after treatment, he would, almost fondly, hold one of your feet in his hands, rather as if it were a loaf of warm bread, while he talked to you about what was ailing your feet and what to do about it. In my case he gently—compared with the exquisitely painful Oriental torture inflicted by the GP—removed the ingrown portions of the nails on both big toes, cured the wounds they had caused and then patiently taught me how to cut the nails so as to avoid future problems.
Finally, one of my tormented and now relieved feet in one hand, he reached down with the other and picked up one of my Spanish boots, turning it this way and that, looking at it from all angles. Then he said, “And please, get rid of these.” I opened my mouth to protest, but he said, “Listen, not only are these terrible for your feet—and the probable cause of your ingrown toenails—but they also are so improper. I mean, you seem like a perfectly nice young fellow, and I’ve always equated this kind of footwear with, well, shall we say, uncouth individuals.”
I still sat there looking back at him with a dubious expression.
Please,” he added, “for the sake of your feet, and your reputation, for goodness sake!”
Vietnam vintage, US
Army-issue combat boot
It was in the United States Army, however, that I was first introduced to major footwear: namely, combat boots. I did my basic combat training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of the 82nd Airborne Rangers (and home to Rambo—that’s where Colonel Trautman, Rambo’s mentor, says he’ll take him, “back to Bragg,” when the disturbed Vietnam vet turns a whole town into a disaster area because the sheriff treats him like a vagrant and won’t let him get something to eat). After doing even plain old basic training with those guys (all of our DI’s were Airborne Rangers) you kind of ‘got’ where Rambo was coming from. Army ‘psychology’ worked back then, no matter how smart or in control you thought you were. It tore you down to basic parts and then pieced you back together in the image of the “American Fighting Man” described in the Basic Combat Training Manual. You went in there whatever you had been “back in the world”—farm kid, factory hand, construction worker or joe college—but you came out knowing that if push came to shove, you could be a killer.
Vietnam jungle boots -
fortunately I never
needed any.
This was the 1970s, two decades before Desert Storm turned all Army issue into the sand camouflage of today. Back then the Army was a green army and the boots were black leather—simple, no lining, single-piece sole and heel and tough as a bronco’s saddle. You got two pairs. On one you had to paint a little white square on the back at the top of the upper. That way you couldn’t cheat and use one pair for combat training and have the other one all shined up and perfect for inspection. It was black back one day, white square the next, so that every time your boots got wet and sullied and scuffed in training, it meant you’d spend a long time before lights-out patiently getting them cleaned and polished and buffed up for the next wearing.
My two pairs of basic issue boots accompanied me throughout my three-year tour, as did my single pair of Army-issue black low-quarters to wear with dress greens, dress blues and, sometimes khakis, although khakis were often worn for parades with boots, helmet-liner and pistol belt. Had I been sent to Vietnam at any point I would probably also have been issued a pair of jungle boots—a boot with canvas upper, specially designed for hot, humid conditions in which footwear had to breathe in order to let the wearer’s feet dry out. Fortunately, in Europe, where I was eventually assigned for an overseas tour, there was no need for jungle boots.
The way you broke your new combat boots in was by immediately putting them on and going on a forced march—the first of many. That first forced march in new boots was tough, but putting your feet back into the boots and going for a 5 a.m. run the next day before chow was even tougher. I would have to say that my feet adapted fairly quickly—if only the rest of me had reacted so fast! But there were guys who had never had anything more challenging than a pair of penny-loafers on their feet who ended up requiring treatment at the infirmary. I recall one chubby little guy with a complexion so fair that he was almost translucent, whose feet blistered so badly during the first week of training that he lost the toenail on one of his big toes. But once your feet molded to the boots (those boots never molded to your feet), Army-issue combat boots were really comfortable footwear for long walks in rough places or for standing on pavement for hours on end.
US Army-issue low-quarters.
And the low-quarters were also incredibly durable and comfortable. These looked like a simple, no-frills, black, leather, dress shoe. But they were made so tough that, in my case, for instance, they withstood countless formal and holiday parades in which we accompanied the color guard on marches of up to five miles wearing dress greens or dress blues. And all they required was once-a-year resoling and reheeling. What other dress shoe could you do that in?
When I was discharged, they took my field jacket away from me: It was a practical piece of clothing that I cherished by then, but it was the seventies and the old officers and NCOs were sick and tired of seeing Army field jackets, with peace signs emblazoned on them. So they confiscated them as we “processed out”. But I did manage to keep my Army overcoat (an excellent garment over a suit for cold winter weather) and my dress blue trench coat (that came in handy in rainy Buenos Aires winters). I also kept my two pairs of boots and my low-quarters, items that I had come to be fond of and that were to influence my choices in footwear from then on.

Carolina loggers

The low-quarters I finished wearing out in my first couple of years as a reporter on the streets of Buenos Aires. The combat boots, meanwhile, accompanied me on every adventure in the wilds that I was to have from the time of my discharge in 1973 until the last surviving pair gave up the ghost sixteen years later. Those last boots had a fitting end for veteran footwear. They died at the end of the eighties on the particularly sharp and abrasive surface of an ancient lava bed in Neuquén Province, Patagonia, at the foot of a beautifully cone-shaped extinct volcano called Lanín. Luckily, I had taken along my first pair of serious store-bought boots, which were Carolina loggers. Those not only survived the lava-rock, but also lasted me for another decade, even though, by the end of that time, I was already living in Patagonia and putting them to the test on an almost daily basis.
When I'm in the States
I always pick up a pair
of light Wolverines
Nowadays, I no longer own a single pair of formal shoes. My choice for everyday wear, no matter where in the world I happen to be, is some form of chukka boots (currently from CAT - see photo at the start of this blog entry). These, I even wear—to my wife’s chagrin—with a blazer and chinos when I go to Buenos Aires on business. For general trail-hiking, I’ve most lately favored Timberland hikers (I’m on my third pair). And whenever I’m back in the States, I always make sure to pick up a new pair of Wolverine light Gore-tex high-top boots, which are my standard fair-weather work boot for patrolling the woodland that I administrate or for gathering firewood during the summer months—a light, comfortable, simple boot.
The MyS mountain boot
one of the toughest anywhere
But for really heavy-duty weather—heavy winter rain, mud, snow—and terrain (the mountainous outback of Patagonia), I rely on the most traditional name in Argentine, handmade, outdoor footwear: Marasco y Speziale. The mountain high-tops and hiking boots that this small craftwork factory turns out are the Willys Jeep of footwear: "virtually indestructible". Real four by four power for your feet. They are simple, unlined, heavy as flatirons, tough as whet-leather and hard as a rock. But once you’ve broken them in, nothing in the world gives more support to your feet and ankles in rugged terrain. These are the boots you want to have on if you are about to go, literally, where no man has tread before.
Marasco y Speziale hikers -
virtually indestructible
When I last bought a pair of Marasco y Speziale, I got them from the hands of Marasco himself. He was sitting by himself in the modest showroom of his shop in midtown Buenos Aires, a gruff octogenarian who sized me up before deciding whether he would wait on me or let someone else do it, but who quickly fell into conversation with me when I told him that I administrated 70 acres of woodland in Río Negro and was an admirer of his work. My wife, I told him, was still wearing a pair of MyS hiking boots that I had bought her for Christmas fifteen years before .
He eagerly launched into his own story. He had, he told me, been highly active in the inauguration of the ski resort on Mount Catedral, near my home, decades before and had been providing footwear to mountaineers in the region since 1945. Not only that, for years, he had frequented the Andean-Patagonian region where I live, having hiked and skied and generally enjoyed the beautiful landscape of the region every chance he got for many years.
We ended up talking for a good forty-five minutes or an hour. I was fascinated by his story and he was only too glad to recall the good old days, before the second and third generations in the family firm had started moving MyS more toward lighter outdoor wear and ski gear. He gave me to understand that he could still keep them making the old standard boots because he himself still sat at his cobbler’s bench and hand-crafted them. He had been the one to pass on the trade to his children and their children. But in the future, who knew? 
I ended up buying a new pair of hiking boots for my wife and another pair for myself. When the old gent wrapped them up and handed them to me, I couldn’t help but feel honored to be receiving the items from the very hands of one of the two men who had first created Marasco y Speziale boots, some of the best and toughest footwear the world has ever known.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Book Bob Never Wrote

In the forward to David Cox’s powerful portrait of a violent time, his father, journalist Robert J. Cox, writes:
“This is the book that I could not write…A quarter of a century has passed since the end of the aptly named “Dirty War” in Argentina, yet I still find it too painful to relive those malevolent times by writing about them. So I am deeply indebted to my son David for telling the story of a small English-language newspaper…which saved lives by refusing to be silenced…”
The title of the book is Dirty Secrets, Dirty War (©2008 by David Cox, published by the Evening Post Publishing Co., Charleston, S.C. with Joggling Board Press) and a new edition has just been launched on the market in Spanish (Guerra sucia, secretos sucios, ©2010 by Sudamericana S.A., Buenos Aires, with translation by Teresa Arijón). Both books are listed on Amazon.
While the story is indeed that of the Buenos Aires Herald, where the author’s father worked from 1959 until 1979, and where he was editor-in-chief for well over a decade, it is more the story of the author’s hero: also his father, Robert J. Cox.
David was barely a teenager when, after suffering years of threats, intimidation, arrest and several close calls, his father finally and reluctantly chose to leave Argentina in order to take his family out of harm’s way. But David has since followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a journalist and writer in his own right, and having worked for publications including the Buenos Aires Herald, the International Herald Tribune, the Miami Herald, the Sunday Times, Clarín, La Nación and Perfil. He is currently a journalist with CNN in Atlanta.    
From May 1974 until December 1979—precisely the violent years that David Cox focuses on in his book—I had the privilege of learning my craft as a writer and journalist from Bob Cox. In fact, in my early days as a newsman, back when it still embarrassed me that I had never managed to find the time or money to complete a college education, when somebody asked where I had gone to “J-school”,  I would say, “Cox-Herald.” And when they said, “Huh, never heard of it,” I would just shrug and raise my eyebrows knowingly, as if to say, “Your loss!”
I recall that when I had worked for the paper for a little over a year and began to feel I was becoming a real newsman, we received a high-flying intern who was placed with me on the night desk editing international news. I immediately felt threatened since the guy had a degree (from the Columbia School of Journalism, if memory serves) and his father was a ranking editor at a major U.S. paper, as well as being a personal friend of Bob’s. To make matters worse, we were kind of left to our own devices, to sort out who was going to run the show on the international desk.
In the end, that part of it seemed to work out brilliantly. Since Bob refused to discuss the matter with either of us, (“It doesn’t really matter, does it? Just get to work and turn the bloody paper out!”) we reached a truce and simply shared the desk. I benefited from his superior education (significantly improving my technical knowledge of news-handling), and he benefited from my greater knowledge of the local scene, the local language and the workings of the printshop. Moreover, left to work things out on our own, we began to get quite bold and creative with layout and headlines, like two rival soda jerks, seeing who could out-do the other making the most elaborate of ice-cream sundaes. Granted, at times, we carried this to extremes: The ever conservative, ever droll Basil Thomson—the Herald’s brilliant humorist and then-chairman of the board—once quipped when we arrogantly asked what he thought of the changes we were making in the front-page layout: “Sometimes it’s difficult to finish breakfast after seeing it.”
Anyway, one night this fellow and I were having one of our frequent arguments over idiotic issues. This time it was about which knowledge was more useful to a newsman, classroom hours or hours wearing out shoe-leather on the street. I had some good defensive arguments and was sort of getting the upper hand when Bob walked into our cubicle, absorbed, as usual, in making final penciled corrections to his editorial as he walked. So this guy decides to engage Bob in our discussion and shut me up.
“I’ll bet Bob has a journalism degree, don’t you, Bob?” he says. “Uh, Bob…don’t you?”
Bob was holding a page against the wall with his left hand while he wrote in a correction with his right, and now he looked away from his work at us as if we had just awakened him from a sound sleep and said, “What?”
“J-school,” says the intern.
“What about it?”
“You went, right?”
Bob looked at him, then at me, then back at him and, handing me his editorial to put into the out-basket for the shop, said: “Most places I’ve worked, if you had a journalism degree, you didn’t talk about it.”
The discussion ended there and neither of us ever brought it up again. And from then on, we were almost chummy.      
I’ve talked here before about how Bob and I met, about how I almost literally besieged him for months on end until he finally hired me to work for the Herald. What I neglected to say was that about ten years ago, when he and I spent an evening reminiscing at his home in Charleston, South Carolina, after not seeing each other for two decades, I reminded him of this and asked if he remembered how obnoxious I had been. To my surprise, he told me that he had sometimes used me and my hounding him as an example of the dogged persistence a journalist needed to have. I felt honored, since before that, I had frequently thought back to that time with a certain chagrin, always feeling that I had simply worn him down when he had no real interest in hiring me.
A lot of what I learned from Bob Cox came as much from what he didn’t tell me to do as from what he did. From the outset he explained that I would often find myself on my own when I felt like there should be someone to hold my hand and walk me through the procedures. If I wanted to be a reporter, it was up to me to get out and do it. But that wouldn’t keep me from having to do what I might feel was more than my share of the hard daily grind of getting the news into print and onto the street. Writing and reporting would be done on my own time, since from 6pm until midnight, or until we were done, I would be expected to be at my desk helping do whatever it took to create a daily edition. During those hours, I would have to make decisions that I probably didn’t have the experience or expertise to make and I would have to be responsible for their outcome. No excuses. So it would behoove me to make those decisions logically and ethically. All of this was simply the nature of working for a small, under-funded, community newspaper and if I could live with that and pass my thirty-day trial, I had a job.
In other words, from the beginning, I was treated like a professional, like somebody who should know what he was doing, even though I clearly didn’t. But that kind of responsibility tended to make you learn fast. And not having the boss breathing down your neck all the time meant that when he did tell you something, it was memorable and it changed and molded you.

Author David Cox

One of the greatest lessons I learned from Bob was that a newsman’s first loyalty should not be to the advertising department, to the Board of Directors, to the boss or even to the paper’s editorial line, but to the reader and to his or her own sense of honesty. This was, perhaps, the greatest lesson I ever learned, not only about authentic journalism, but also about writing in general. And a second lesson he taught me was that neither journalism nor writing was like any other job in the world. It wasn’t something that could be done without full commitment. If what you were looking for was simply a steady job where you could just show up and that would be enough, then you should be a bureaucrat. If you were going to be a journalist or a writer or both, however, you needed to be the job. Nothing less would do.
Perhaps the ultimate lesson that Bob Cox taught me, however, more through his actions than his words, was that there were severe consequences to publicly telling the truth, and that you had to be willing to accept those consequences and live (or die) with them. Otherwise you needed to look for something less risky to do with your life, because painting a portrait of your times, telling what you saw exactly as you saw it, was one of the riskiest occupations on earth. A morning newspaper was, in the end, not merely a selected assembly of the previous day’s events, but a—hopefully objective—reflection of the times, a daily snapshot of the era, history in real time. As such, it had to be as true as you could get it. And wherever there was truth, there were people who wanted to silence it…at any cost.
This kind of commitment is what David Cox’s book is about. In this highly inspired portrait of his father, David demonstrates himself to be an accomplished writer, stepping back somewhat from his more intimate role as Bob’s son and observing his father as the subject of a probing and detailed biography. Interestingly enough, the author doesn’t merely talk about the years of the bloody military regime in Argentina that turned his father into an internationally renowned journalist, but starts, instead, at the beginning, when his father was a boy, growing up in war-torn England and forming his first ideals in the face of the Nazi and Fascist threats to world peace and freedom. He talks about Bob’s precociously early first steps in journalism and his first job as a reporter. He then goes on to tell about the hand of fate that took Bob to Buenos Aires, of how Basil Thomson traveled to Britain in search of new talent for the Herald and how, like in a writer’s fantasy, Bob became his choice and was taken away on a voyage to a new adventure in a strange land.
This is the story too of how that adventure became a lifetime commitment—to an editor he admired, to the woman he met, loved and married, to the family they formed, and to the newspaper that became his mission and his life as a journalist, writer and editor.
But despite the distance he takes to tell his father’s story as an objective narrator, David Cox skillfully manages to weave intimacy into the story as well, since we also see the effects of those “malevolent times”—as Bob refers to them in his forward—on the entire family, on David’s mother, Maud Daverio de Cox, and on David himself and his four siblings, Robert Andrew, Victoria, Peter and Ruth. He carefully paints a portrait not only of Robert J. Cox, journalist and editor, but also of Bob Cox, husband and father, and of the strength that the family members drew from each other and from friends and supporters in the midst of critical and life-changing times.
In the end, the story that David Cox tells—and that I highly recommend, even if you don’t know anything about, or have the slightest interest in Argentina—is a universal one. It is a story about the true value of staunch idealism and provides proof that determined individuals can make a difference, and in doing so, both change and save lives.