Stephen Hunter Essay: 'I'm Just Not a Flip-Flop Kind of Guy'

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By Stephen Hunter
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 9, 2009

I know that the Viet Cong managed to win a war wearing flip-flops. I know that people fly in them, go to ballgames in them, get married in them, work, run and sword fight in them. Lindsay Davenport wore them on Letterman. People even shop in them.

But I have this problem: On my feet they don't flip . . . they don't flop . . . they flounder. Recently, I had an ordeal in a giant Lower Manhattan outlet store that was more like a barbarian convention than a retail site. Huns, Goths, Vikings, Mongols, Saxons, Tartars, even Kipchaks and Kambojas (everybody is somebody else's barbarian) by the thousands slithered, shoved, lugged, looted and pillaged their way through the place, competing for clothes at alleged if doubtful wholesale. The vast majority of this mob happily churned onward in the ubiquitous rubber-thonged footwear, utterly fearless and unconscious. You could hear the music of the flopping -- SNAP, POP, CRACK, SQUEAK -- as the rubber hit the road. It seemed never to occur to them that someone might step on their toes or they might stub those same toes or that their traction might yield, depositing them, with sundered tendons, into an undignified position.

I cannot even make it to the bathroom in them. Stairways are out of the question -- outside a horror. Driving? How can you drive in them? Slippage has to occur, and you'll kill yourself and all who are in the 7-Eleven into which you smash.

Running, fighting, even moving briskly as if an important destination lay ahead? All inconceivable.

In fact, my wife -- one of the world's great flip-floppers -- does an extremely amusing imitation of me in flagrante: Imagine a golem with concrete knees and cast-iron boots, stomping through petunias, all heavy metal, rivets and rust, crushing clumsily all that comes before. I'm just not a flip-flop kind of guy.

Where did they come from? Weren't they first called shower shoes? I seem to remember them in locker rooms first, or upstairs at the dorm. For a while they were more or less seen as a part of hippie culture, a first cousin to the sandal. They knew their place then.

Yet somehow, like the little guerrillas who waged war so efficiently they could defeat our guys in the cool rubberized jungle boots the Army began issuing about year three of the Vietnam War, the shower thong won out. It infiltrated, it insinuated, it seduced, it tunneled, it presumed. Now, kids wear them to the White House.

My problem is part psychological. I fear pain. Feet out in the world are terribly vulnerable. Look at them: little genius-level miracles of engineering, with their delicate web work of linkages and hydraulics, superbly flexible, able to propel a fellow out of a saber-tooth tiger's leap or to a mile-relay state championship. You'd risk them? Boy, I sure can't.

Another cool thing about feet: They look real good in shoes. Me, I like a big English brogue, pebble-grained, the color of old mahogany. Or those butterscotch-y Alden tasseled loafers, proportions perfect, tone rich and traditional. Or New Balance sneaks, festooned with weird glittery grommets, strange space-age exoskeletons and that brilliant "N" that announces itself to the world. Why risk the ability to wear such treasures by endangering your feet?

And part of it is biological, the genetic play of variation and inheritance in the birthing game. It so happens I have thin feet. No other part of me is thin, but the feet are like the talons of a sparrow, bony and fragile and the color of some dead creature's belly; moreover, veins and arteries seem locked in some kind of purple Laocoönesque struggle for dominance just under the delicate skin.

I cannot even bear to look at them, and showing them to the world seems sinful.

Thin feet mean the rubber thongs have no place against which to bind or adhere. The darned things -- particularly on a forward thrust of a step -- keep slipping off and suddenly I'm barefoot, a pretty frightening way to discover the true nature of the surface of the planet (it has a lot of sticky, protuberant things). To compensate for this slipping-off tendency, I flex my toes to provide some grippage. Big mistake, but I cannot order my body to do otherwise; it seems like natural self-preservation. And of course in just a little while, my calf muscles begin to cramp and ache. The thing turns quickly to ordeal, then to fatigue and finally torture.

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