"I read somewhere of a shepherd who, when asked why he made, from within fairy rings, ritual observances to the moon to protect his flocks, replied: 'I'd be a damn fool if I didn't!"
I had those words of Dylan Thomas' in mind the other day when I headed for Wayne Propst's annual Shoe Fling in a pouring rain.
Outside his barn loomed a cyclone-shaped tower woven of fence wire which excited the same sort of awe that the stone faces of Easter Island do. The 16-foot tall colossus was filled with shoes of every description; brogans, loafers, pumps, high heels, boots, booties, sandals, espadrilles, galoshes, moccasins, mules, platforms, roller skates, pumps, jodhpurs, slippers A Babel of footwear.
I am not of pagan leanings, but I am a prey to fears and the fear of a shoe famine or the wrath of some Shoe God was enough to bring me out in the downpour. Like the shepherd said, I'd have been a fool not to.
I approached the shrine with my pitiful offering: a pair of New Balance tennis shoes I'd bought 10 years ago for exercise (the tell-tale soles barely worn). I remembered my dismal showing a year before a dozen shots, a dozen misses. It's not as easy as it looks. And it's hard to keep your concentration when shoes are falling down around you from the sky.
"One of the few rules of a Shoe Fling is that you have to call out when you're throwing an ice skate," said Propst.
My first timid toss fell far short of the goal. The second flew ridiculously over, far and wide. Was it that I craved a score too much? Once again, this time with a Zen-like insouciance, I launched my shoe. It worked. My shoe dropped neatly into the funnel's mouth. I felt the lifting of a burden, as if my shoe-related sins had been absolved.
According to my speculation, the Shoe Fling originated in the middle ages when crafty cobblers convinced the simple townsfolk that if they didn't throw away a pair of shoes every year the Shoe God would cripple them with bunions, hammer toes, hell spurs, athletes feet, club feet and other foot-related torments. Thus the shoe makers assured a brisk market for their goods.
Wayne Propst has a somewhat different explanation. On a long cross-town trek in New York City some time ago, he noticed discarded shoes everywhere. A barefoot man asked him for money, pointing out that he had no shoes. The bounty of abandoned shoes around them made Propst suspect that the man was lying. He offered a handout for a peek at the man's shoes. Sure enough, a nice pair of sneakers was stashed in a nearby doorway.
Propst was again struck by a shoe surfeit in his role as a board member of a local social services organization.
"We had so many shoes donated that, to borrow from the nursery rhyme, 'we didn't know what to do.' We tried to sell them, to give them away. Nobody wanted them. They were going to the landfill.
"I got to thinking We live in a society not that everyone's aware of this but it's consume, consume, consume. Back when you were a kid you had The Shoes one pair. Shoes were valuable. When someone died, people salvaged his shoes. You'd tape them to keep the soles from flapping. Today, my son has so many shoes he loses them. When he goes out to play tag he asks where his tag shoes are. If he wants to hop he puts his hopping shoes on."
Propst sought a way to raise consciousnesses. Thus, the Shoe Fling was born. Everyone has his own Shoe Fling style. Some fling with the daintiness of ballerinas, others with the brute oafish force of a shot putter. Donated, unwanted shoes provide an almost infinite supply. There were shopping carts filled with them in Propst's barn. According to his estimate, the funnel contains in excess of 2,000 shoes.
"We could have created a mountain of clothing or appliances," said Propst, who was dressed in a World War II motorcycle duster that went down to his feet. Bearing a wrench like an icon, he looked like a kind of priest, a flickering apparition in constant motion, orchestrating the festivities. Mason jars were on display like ossuaries containing the bones of saints. Their labels read: Uncle Weenies' Dried Shoe Parts, Pickled Shoe Tungs, Shoe Part Soup.
Do you know Wayne Propst? I find it impossible to believe you don't. Wayne Propst is everywhere, sometimes in more than one place at a time. He just pops up. So it must have seemed to the woman who approached a friend, unaware that Propst was working in a nearby window well. After the two ladies had conversed for a minute or two, a feeble, forlorn voice rose from beneath the metal grate: "May I come out now?"
An indefatigable raconteur with an inexhaustible supply of anecdotes and jokes, Propst is like Yorick, "a fellow of infinite jest." The Shoe Fling, like almost everything he does or says, shakes up the tumblers of the brain and causes you to consider familiar phenomena in new ways.
Why is it, I asked him, that you never see a pair of discarded shoes, only singles.
"It's the one-legged hitchhiker," said Propst.
Activists may some day declare that shoes also have rights. New Age devotees may practice ritual footsie. Bumper stickers may say, "Save the Shoes." When that day comes, remember that Wayne Propst got there first, as he so often does.
George Gurley is a Lawrence resident who writes a regular column for the Journal-World.