Remember the days when you stepped outside of your barracks room or your military housing quarters, standing tall, looking good, feeling good and ready to take on the day? You looked down at your boots and your chest swelled with pride as you admired the product on your feet. The product was a set of immaculate-looking boots you had spent hours working on the night before.
How many of you think back to the days of polishing and spit shining your boots? Many service members went so far as to use Leather Luster to make their boots pop and bling from a distance without having to do the work every day. If you were lucky to have been stationed somewhere overseas, you may have known a guy who spit shined a few pairs of your boots each month for a few dollars. This guy probably had a little shop set up near your barracks. I recall that in Panama, a local man set up shop in the basement of a barracks building. Crazy, right? Even crazier was the 50-cent beer in the barracks vending machine.
Power of Perception
Many who served in the military during the black boot era understood the power of perception. What does this mean? There was a time when soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and members of the Coast Guard perfected the art of boot shining. Those who have grown up in the new military tend to poke fun at us “old school” military professionals. The “new school” looks at the old school and asks why we spent so much time shining our boots.
Today, the coyote tan generation asks, why did this matter? Some of us in certain job fields didn’t have a choice but to produce a highly polished, spit-shined boot. The finished product was a set of boots with the toes looking like mirrors and the edges painted with edge dressing. Everything about your boots communicated the type of soldier you were. Does this mean every soldier required shined boots to be visible from the moon? No. But as a military police (MP) officer, and in many other job fields, you were setting a higher standard for others to follow. A basic boot shine with polish and brush was sufficient for many other soldiers in different job skills.
During my days as an MP, we reported for patrol duty in a garrison environment, and we were inspected from head to toe before every shift. Our headgear, haircut, duty belt, weapon, uniform and boots were inspected. On occasion, we were asked to display our Army Values card. If you looked what we called “ate up,” you’d be sent home or back to the barracks to fix yourself.
I recall a week when my squad was heavy with MPs for patrol duty. One MP was going to get to take a free day off. Whichever squad member exhibited the best-looking boots and uniform and displayed the overall “It Look” was named the top soldier of the squad. Three days in a row I was selected to stay back at the barracks for a free day off. On the third day, I felt terrible for being selected again. I informed my squad leader, in front of the squad, that I would stay for the shift. My squad leader told me to choose another squad member as the top soldier. So, I did what any good soldier would have done: I chose my buddy. That buddy has had a long, rewarding career in the Army. And yes, his boots were spectacular.
I learned many valuable lessons as a young soldier, and many of those lessons carried me to a military retirement. One of those lessons was the following: You are who you are, and how you present yourself says who you are. I always took pride in my boots, and the pride always translated to my work.
My current profession is in public safety. I know you’ll be shocked; I wear black boots, and they are shined to the highest standard. I don’t know anything else but spit-shined boots. Fellow officers I work with poke fun at me in good humor over my boots. I just laugh it off.
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Sgt. 1st Class Nick Strode, U.S. Army retired, served for 22 years in the Army before retiring in November 2017. His Army experience includes as a recruiting and retention NCO, Illinois Army National Guard Recruiting and Retention Battalion, and as a military police officer, Fort Shafter, Hawaii. He deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Currently, he is a field training officer, Department of Public Safety, Barnes-Jewish Hospital, St. Louis.