Carefree days of childhood

19:10, Jan 12 2012

They used to wear leather boots most of the time around the farm when I was a kid.

The boots were big and heavy, with several thick layers of leather welt in the soles, and long leather laces. The soles were studded with hobnails, which either my father or grandpa use to hammer in, using a weighty shoe last and a small-headed hammer. They also put shiny toe and heel steel plates on the boots too.

Every now and then, my father would sneak an empty baked-bean tin inside and secrete it at the back of the huge cooking plates on the big Aga coke-burning stove in the kitchen, hoping to warm the neat's-foot oil contents enough to make it properly liquid, before my mother discovered the intrusion into her domain, and demanded that he "get that wretched smelly stuff out of my kitchen".

Then he would take it outside, sit on the back steps, and, using a stumpy little paint-brush, he would baste his boots with the oil, including the laces. Those boots were always supple, and they lasted for years.

When we were little kids, my brother and I had leather boots too, although they weren't for use around the farm. Instead, these were black, polished leather, with woven thread laces and smooth leather soles, and they had toe and heel plates nailed on by dad or grandpa. But those boots were for Sunday best only, or for special outings. Shoes hadn't been invented for little kids then, I don't reckon.

Of course, when anyone went to the milking shed, they always wore gumboots. My brother and I didn't – we went bare feet almost all the time, summer and winter, and like pukekos, pied stilts and herons, our legs were so skinny I am sure there was no feeling from the knees down.


Occasionally, we would tread on a much-hated barberry thorn, or an old-man scotch thistle somewhere around the farm, and then the spike would drive deep through the otherwise elephantine hide that covered the soles of our feet, and we would limp, weeping, home to our mother.

Usually, and with what we considered totally unnecessary delay, she required us to wash both feet first before we were allowed into the carpeted dining room-lounge. There, she would put on her glasses, run the point of a fine sewing needle through a twist of cotton-wool soaked in iodine, and then use that same iodine swab to wipe the agony area. Often, the iodine stained the stump of the prickle or thorn, making it easier to locate and dig out.

Then mum would take a seat in an easy chair beside the huge picture window in the lounge, where she could get the best light. That picture window, put in when my parents built the big farm house in the early 1950s, was something of a departure from the norm in houses at the time, and it always attracted the attention of neighbours and other visitors.

It looked north and was huge, and from up on the hill where the house was, it looked away down the farm to paddocks we called the Middle Swamp, North Point, the Rugby Field and the Waipa Flats. Pirongia, which I consider my maunga, towered squarely in the middle of that window, endlessly solid and strong, and forever a symbol of kaha.

But with a thorn in our foot, we had to lie flat on our backs on the lounge carpet in front of that window, unable to see anything, and, with the crippled limb clamped firmly between her knees, mum squinted at the upturned foot and started delving.

Inevitably, whimp kids that we were in such circumstances, we would wriggle and squirm and gasp and whimper and plead for her to stop, and she would croon quietly that "it's just about there". We could hear the needle-tip as it pick-pick-picked away at the rhino-hide skin, and then suddenly there would be a blinding bolt of spiking pain as she broke through the leather and hit pay dirt.

Then it was simply a matter of convincing us to "lie still while I just squeeze it out", and sure enough, after a little pressure from both thumbs, there on the nail of her forefinger lay the offending barb.

The wound was given another cursory wipe with the iodine swab, and it was out the door and into the mud and sludge of farm paddocks immediately. Little brats that we were, we probably hadn't bothered to say thank you.

I think most of us country kids broke or bent a minor toe or two in those care-free barefoot run-around days when there were hundreds of acres of yours and the neighbours' farms to roam across at will. Running through swamps was always a little hazardous – those were the days when much swamp land was being drained and, although a great deal of it was drying, there were still big patches that were boggy and full or hidden stakes, stumps and sticks. They wreaked havoc on racing bare feet, but we soon discovered that if you kept running, the pain went away.

Probably that pain would return later, in the bath that evening, where the originally clean water always seemed to miraculously turn rather murky, but that was hours away yet, and there were pukeko eggs, eels, frogs, skinks and centipedes to discover between now and then.

Stone bruises were about the only other form of foot-anguish we suffered in those days. Tarseal hadn't been invented, at least not in the Otewa Valley, where we lived, and the road along the front of our farm was good, solid crushed river metal, three wheel-tracks wide, requiring opposing vehicles to slow down considerably and each ease over, so they had a wheel-track to themselves and the central track was the equivalent of today's white line.

The rooster-tails of dust along that road in the summer were prodigious.

That same road provided an endless source of shanghai ammunition for me, my brother and several mates who now and then visited on a Saturday for the day. It's perhaps best we draw a fairly thick curtain over what we did with much of the ammunition as we sauntered along the road frontage, but I do recall that both the power and the telephone lines sometimes sagged a little because of inexplicably shattered porcelain cups on the arms of the poles. I trust the statute of limitations applies here.

But it was those same stones that also inflicted painful stone bruises on our feet, usually in the heels. The bruise was deep and black and miserably painful, and the only way to relive it was to open it up with a needle and let the black blood out.

We soaked our feet in Dettol-infused hot water until the skin went wrinkly and white and soft, and then our extraordinary mother again took up her iodine-wiped needle and began her determined digging, despite the howls and snivelling from the floor.

At last there would be a break-through, and the relief was enormous, both from the agony of the needle and the hobbling misery of the stone bruise itself. Again, the wound would be wiped over with the iodine swab, and away outside we would race, intent immediately on the next piece of adventure.

Isn't that how kids should be brought up?

I wouldn't change those memories of being a farm kid for a million bucks.

Kingsley Field can be contacted at

Waikato Times