The night the shoe glue blew

TODDY Guppy, our fire chief in those days, had made a rule that nobody in town could have a fire unless he gave the firemen a half hour's notice. This safety regulation worked well some of the time, but we almost lost Toddy one Night Before The Fourth in a fire he set himself. It was the year that Sears, Roebuck closed its shoe shop. We had several shoe shops in our town, but the big one was operated by Sears. This was back when Sears made all its own shoes; in fact, the Davis shop was still making Congress Boots. Today, our Maine shoe industry is curtailing and closing because of foreign competition, and congressmen who never heard of a Congress Boot are being asked to intercede and save jobs.

Who does remember the Congress Boot? It came above the ankle, and instead of lacings it had elastic sides, so putting on and taking off was as easy as getting in and out of slippers. They were made of finest calfskin and were highly esteemed by our old sea captains. The captains went barefoot most of the time aboard ship but liked something quick and comfortable for entertaining customs collectors in foreign ports. When a customs officer admired the captain's boots, it was customary to send to the vessel's ``slop chest'' and make him a present of a pair. This cemented relations with customs officials and promoted trade harmony.

In foreign seaports the Congress Boot was the mark of a customs officer, and here in Maine it was the mark of a blue-water master mariner. Congressmen couldn't afford them, and in those times all we ever expected from a congressman would be seeds in the spring and patriotic remarks on holidays. We certainly didn't apply to our congressman when Sears, Roebuck played out on us. Instead, the hat was passed, and everybody bought stock in a realty company that came to own the closed plant. Then a search was on for somebody to start making shoes again.

Shoes, as they were made in those old-time shops, moved from department to department on great wooden racks that rolled on casters. A hundred or more pairs of shoes could be laid on one of these racks, shelf by shelf, and trundled from cutting room, through stitching and vamping and finishing, to shipping. Then, unloaded, the rack would be returned to cutting to start another cycle.

If you visited a shoe shop you wouldn't see much of the operation, because everything was done by workers behind, beyond, and among these racks. When Sears closed down, hundreds of these shoe racks were taken from the shop and piled mountain high in a field -- a new conveyor system had retired them.

We boys were pleased. From earliest times, upon the youth of our community fell the patriotic task of scrounging fuel for the annual bonfire on The Night Before The Fourth. The size and constitutional importance of the fire depended on us, and we were expected to do better than had been done before. The retired shoe-shop racks inspired us, and to this day we hold the all-time record. The things were not so heavy that two boys couldn't toss them about easily, and the four casters on each made it simple to trundle them up the sidewalk to the village square.

We had them mountain high in the village square well before darkness settled on that historic eve, and we were impatient for our firemen to arrive. It was traditional for the chief to touch off the blaze.

The firemen always had a baked-bean supper The Night Before The Fourth, lingering in the hosehouse for night to draw on, when they would disperse and station themselves against the hazards of the holiday -- skyrockets did have a way of finding dry shingles. Our bonfire was thus supervised, and in due time the firemen took their places and Chief Toddy Guppy came to kindle the community display. He stood, a kitchen match poised in his hand, and admired our Everest of shoe-shop racks.

Now, for nobody-remembered-how-many years, those racks had been exposed to accumulating cements, used in the making of shoes, until every half-inch dowel was an inch thick -- a combination for combustion and explosion nobody had foreseen. When Chief Toddy reached with his match, the combustion consumed the entire pile in seven seconds, and the explosion blew him back to safety among the crowd. It was our finest bonfire; it singed Toddy's eyebrows and scorched paint a mile down the road.

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