My father is in his seventh decade and probably on his seventh pair of Red Wing boots—homely things in an unremarkable shade of brown, bulbous at the toe, tapered as they lace up the ankle, scuffed along the outer edge. His Minnesota-made footwear is among the rare articles of clothing he purchases for himself, sometimes right in the river town, fresh from the factory we toured for this month’s cover feature, Travel by Design.
The boots have never been Dad’s most glamorous possession—that would be the Triumph he drove when he met my mother or the antelope jacket he acquired on a trip to Spain after college—but they are the ones that endured. (My mom was tasked with selling the sports car when she was seven months pregnant with me; when the buyer asked why she was getting rid of it, Mom, who was toting my brother on her hip, arched her brows and stated the obvious: “We’re not going to fit.” The antelope jacket I’ve only seen once, when I discovered it while rummaging the depths of my parents’ front-hall closet. Dad tried it on, strutted through the living room, returned it to the hanger, and has never, to my knowledge, worn it since.)
Every time my dad does work that takes place outside the office, he wears his Red Wings. The boots have kicked up dirt, taken on water, been caked in mud; they’ve eased up on the accelerator and pumped the brakes; they’ve crushed a few peanut shells strewn across a saloon floor and endlessly, ceaselessly been scolded for tracking dirt across the living-room rug. I’ve seen my dad do a lot of things in those boots that I wish I hadn’t: climbing to the top of an extension ladder, scaling a steeply pitched roof, crossing on an I-beam spanning a deep coal chute, balanced like a tightrope walker. Through it all, his footing was sure. Those Red Wings seem to represent everything my father inherently knows how to do that leaves the rest of us baffled.
Well-designed things are imbued with more meaning than the flimsy or the trendy because they last so long. As I write this, Dad is in my basement, wearing the boots, helping my husband with an electrical project. They ask me to tighten one of the connections because my fingers are the smallest and don’t seem to mind—too much, at least—when I ask for the third time, “Are you sure the power is off?” There’s one more memory soaked into the leather.