When I was a child, going barefoot spelled Freedom with a capital "F" and Summer with a capital "S." It started right after school let out. "Can we go barefoot, Mom, please?" my sister and I would plead, anticipating a refusal even as we asked.
After a long pause, she would say, "All right," in a tone that let us know she wasn't at all enthusiastic about the idea. Then she would add, "But do be careful."
My sister and I would run outside, untie our sneakers, and, with the toe of one foot on the heel of the other, push until the empty sneaker fell to the ground. After repeating this process, we would pull off our socks inside out and stuff them into the sneakers. These we would place on the doorstep. Then we would head out onto the cool green grass, flexing our toes in our newfound freedom. No matter how hot the sun, the grass always felt cool to bare feet. The hot tarred road was another matter.
Bare feet brought a whole new dimension to life. They were excellent for playing hopscotch on packed ground because it was a lot easier to avoid the lines without shoes on. Besides, the brown earth, cold and hard, felt good to our pavement-scorched feet. Bare heels rounded the marble hole for our games to perfection. Playing barefoot in the sandbox was perhaps best of all, because then we didn't have to worry about getting sand in our sneakers - and what's more uncomfortable than sneakers full of sand?
On hot days when we were allowed to "go under the hose," we would make tracks with our wet feet on the white concrete sidewalk that ran in front of our house.
A vacation of going barefoot in the country acquainted our feet with new surface textures, from the sandy beach in front of our camp to the pebbly driveway out back. After riding in the auto with its upholstered floors, we would jump out onto the hot pavement in the village, uttering ouches with each step, until we reached the worn wooden doorsill of the general store. The storekeeper had no problem with bare feet. Country children went barefoot all summer, too.
We would pad across the oiled wood floor with no thought of splinters or contamination. After we'd bought our Tootsie Rolls and Oh Boy Gum, we'd step out onto the hot tar, amid more squeals, get into the car with its soft flooring, and set off to camp and the pebbly driveway again. Then we would walk gingerly down the rutted path to the cool, fine sand of the beach and into the softer sand under the water. Going barefoot put us in touch not only with the world around us, but with the center of our being.
The soles of our feet grew hard, and the tops turned brown. Mother doggedly kept after us to wash our feet with a brush when we bathed. Otherwise, the dirt would get so ground in we'd never have clean feet again, she said.
When the first day of school came in September, we clothed our freshly scrubbed feet in respectable white ankle socks and tucked them into sturdy-laced brown oxfords. After a week of suffering from too-tight shoes ("your feet are spread out because you went barefoot all summer"), we settled into the restrictions of shoes and socks. Besides, the days were getting colder.
Summer and bare feet were synonymous then. Adults had not yet awakened to the joys of going barefoot in public places, and correspondingly our nation had not yet awakened to repugnance for adult bare feet in public places. To adults, going barefoot spelled Freedom with a capital "F," too, but to thousands of others it spelled Repulsive with a capital "R." Laws were passed prohibiting one from entering a store with bare feet. I guess that came in with the 1960s, because that's when no bare feet allowed signs began appearing in store windows across the nation.
These signs even found their way into the small country stores, because grown-ups with bare feet found their way there first. The signs and the laws made no age distinction. Children sadly put on their shoes to go to the village store and then forgot to take them off again. The fun of going barefoot was lost to a whole generation, who will never know the freedom of bare feet, all day, all summer.