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Earlier this week, I had to attend the funeral services for a good friend. Since our friendship began in the State Police Academy, I wore the black oxford shoes that always accompany police dress uniforms. Most retired cops keep these shoes, spit-shined for “marrying and burying” events in the police community.

These are a horrible form of footwear.

Black dress oxfords manage to be simultaneously uncomfortable to wear and treacherous to walk in. They are hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and the hard smooth soles make them perfect for falling on slippery surfaces. One of my more memorable experiences, under the heading of “I meant to do that” involved a call about an ice fishing problem received while on the way home from a meeting. Class A uniform for the meeting mandated black oxfords so, rather than going home for different boots, we decided to undertake the short hike across the glass-smooth Lake George ice to check the two fishermen who were supposedly way over their limit of fish.

Shuffling like penguins into strong wind gusts, my partner and I got nearly to the men before they noticed us. They felt secure having listened on the scanner as everyone checked out at the office for the meeting. When they became aware, one rushed for the big plastic pail, hoping to dump the fish down an ice hole. In his haste, he slipped, face-planted on the ice and launched the pail skittering across the ice past me, like some sort of redneck curling event. The wind kept the pail moving and, as I turned, the minimal grip of the oxford soles gave out entirely and I found myself kiting across the ice at ever-increasing speed.

Crouched to lower my center of gravity but still presenting a larger surface as a sail, I caught up to the pail and scooped it up as I went past. This time the odd gods let me maintain my balance and I did my iceboat impression all the way back to the beach where we had left the car. Back on dirt where I had some control, I counted the fish, waved to my partner to bring the bad guys to the car and got started writing the tickets. One fellow allowed as how paying the fine was well worth the show of watching me skate 100 yards carrying a bucket of fish — while not wearing skates.

Before I left for the funeral, I renewed the glossy spit shine on the oxfords — toe and heel as per regulation. Melancholy often brings contemplation for me and I began to recall my lamentations during my academy experience and those from every academy class I taught after that time. Why did we have to waste so much time shining shoes, gun belts and anything else made of leather just so instructors could berate us for not doing it well enough?

This actually goes back to Roman times. Part of the strength of the Roman legions was the equipment: short swords kept sharp by leather scabbards and hobnail, open-toed leather boots called caligae. This represented a great expense and logistic difficulty for supply so keeping them from being destroyed by the weather was important. Soldiers were required to keep them shined to repel water and commands often stood inspection just to make sure this was carried out.

For quite a while, I have been using my own concoction as polish. It is very like the Roman version with the primary ingredients being olive oil, beeswax and a bit of turpentine as a solvent to flow everything together. This brought to mind a trip to the south — I was sent by my now deceased buddy to do an undercover investigation. During this time, I became intrigued by a particular type of scarring found on some loblolly and long-leaf pine trees. Turns out, much like maple syrup or natural rubber production, turpentine is produced by collecting tree sap and processing it.

When certain species of pine are damaged, they flood the area with a different sap containing oleoresin to seal the wound, resist microbes and insects and prevent the loss of nutrient-carrying sap. The oleoresins, when purified from the rest of the sap components, become turpentine. This was traditionally done in a standard steam distillation system. Since this is exactly the same as the equipment used to produce moonshine whiskey, turpentine production often provided a seasonal cash-flow to buy the materials needed to produce the white lightening that paid the big bucks.

Perhaps as a spin-off of this equipment sharing, a bit of turpentine was and still is added to some of the finer gins. Nowadays, there is a more destructive distillation process that can remove the oleoresins from chipped up roots and branches of harvested trees; far less expensive and labor intensive than the traditional methods, although not yielding as pure a result. Another case of efficiency triumphing over elegance.

In its heyday, turpentine was used in all phases of ship building from paints and polishes to caulking and cordage. The advent of metal hulls and steam propulsion reduced this huge industry to a few specialty producers keeping the solvent market going. This was important for the ecology of the southern United States because traditional “turping” was decimating pine forests, especially the slower-growing longleaf pine. This caused concern because the longleaf was particularly vital to southern ecology.

Strongly pyrophytic (fire-loving), the longleaf keeps the forests viable in spite of periodic burns. The red cockaded woodpecker lives only in longleaf pine forests. Nine salamander species, 26 frog species and 13 reptiles are completely dependent on the longleaf forests as well. Traditionally, the pine sap was collected by stripping off the bark, from near the ground to as high as a man could reach. Large V-grooves were carved into the wood to channel the sap into one downward flow into a collection pot. Trees typically did not survive sap collection and whole forests were left as dry dead trunks, ripe for fire.

Reacting to what he correctly predicted would be the complete loss of the long-leaf pine resource across the south, a chemist named Charles Herty invented a process using a peculiar ceramic trough and specialized cup to collect pine sap. Since this generated as much sap, without girdling the tree, a schedule of collection and bark regrowth would leave the trees perfectly viable and able to be used for timber production after they grew too large to be collected for turpentine.

The scaring and regrowth leaves a distinctive V-shaped pattern in the bark. Locals call it a “cat face” and this is what first piqued my interest as I sat under a big pine tree doing some very boring surveillance. Herty was also, by the way, the one who organized and coached the first football team at the University of Georgia.

Perhaps Herty will be a better subject to contemplate as I touch up the oxfords before putting them away until the next marrying or burying detail.

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Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.

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