For years I viewed the mailbox with the excitement of possibilities. The anticipation of a letter written just for me never waned. Letter-writing, taught in school curriculums in the past, has fallen from consciousness to the point that I’m sure some have never received a personal letter. Even Santa sends and receives emails and Dear John has lost its meaning, replaced by the convenience of ghosting.
Before a certain big company that borrows its name from one of the great rivers, catalogues abounded. Sears & Roebuck was king back then (who?). But they didn’t have everything a young boy needed if that young boy wanted a specific brand of sneakers. And cool sneakers were a requirement of the peer pack. But the sneaks I wanted as a 14-year-old were out of reach for reasons that may seem foreign today. The stores closed at 5 pm. My father didn’t get home till later and my mother didn’t drive. Too far for biking, so the adolescent mind concocts a plan, and it doesn’t have to make perfect sense—not that he would notice.
“Sneaker quest” began with a series of letters written to the owners who carried the coveted Puma “Clydes”, worn by one of my sports heroes, Walt Frazier. Each snappily written inquiry started with “To Whom it May Concern” for I did not know the storeowners (someone’s mother or father owned most stores back then), followed by carefully written attempt for someone to do business with me via mail. I shared that I would gladly pay the price of the shoes and shipping and included a SASE (Letter trivia for $200 in honor of Alex Trebek: What is a “self-addressed-stamped-envelope”?).
Each day a trip to the mailbox in hope. One letter out and hope for one in. Nothing. Until the owner of a sporting goods store in the neighboring town agreed to my plan. He shared the price and I sent him cash—yes, cash! A bulging envelope of fives and ones.
Back then most mail orders came with the fine print of “please allow 4 to 6 weeks for delivery.” I couldn’t wait that long! But for the better part of a month my hard-earned cash floated out in the ether along with the wonder if it had ever reached its destination. No evidence for forensics, and easy pickings for that cruel world out there.
But the “Clydes” came as did a note from the owner. The gentleman’s name, Cliff Ong, stays with me to this day. I did not know at the time that he was a fast-pitch softball legend. I do not know why he didn’t dupe a dumb teen and pocket the unmarked cash. But I can guess…
Like most adolescent adventures that matter, they change in flavor as as the years go by. Mr. Ong did not prey on my innocence or the cloud of ignorance formed by adolescent desire. Those sneakers were my first independent venture. My first push away in the teen rebel mind. My blue suede “Clydes” symbolized a fork in the road that became a long and tumultuous path of uncertainty. But each time I hung my head in doubt, those Pumas reminded of what could be.
Many years later I bought another pair of “Clydes” in the throw back era of sneakers. Mail order of a different kind, and a credit card transaction. No letter. No cash or adventure. No 4-6 weeks. My wife laughed at the purchase knowing I didn’t need these relics or symbol of any kind. And by that time, she had rescued me, lighting her light somewhere far from that fork in the road. I didn’t hang my head like a lost teen but enjoyed the nostalgic peek and the soft touch of blue suede. But, dang, they were so uncomfortable! Sorry, Walt.
Shortly after, I donated the “Clydes” to Goodwill offering a prayer of gratitude to Mr. Ong. I shook my head and laughed as I dropped the goods in the bin.
Probably like Cliff did when he got my letter.