Is That A Mirror On Your Boot Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?

Brace yourselves – I’ve got another life lesson based on footwear.

I’m in Minneapolis this week for work and leaving the airport found inspiration for today’s post. (There must be something magical in the air out here. A prior trip provided this nugget.) Monday was a travel day. More importantly, a travel day that started in the snowy, slushy, salty, sloshy mush of a Syracuse blizzard. A trip to the Syracuse airport that should have taken less than 20 minutes took almost twice that. While I’ve brought my new pink sneakers (because I always people to know Where I Stand) I didn’t want to expose them to that slushy, salty… you get the picture. My travel footwear of choice? My good old Doc Martens.

I’m a fan of Docs. Over the last 15 years, I’ve owned two pairs of Docs. The first pair was about 12 when they finally had to be replaced. The “new” pair is only 3 but have logged plenty of miles and have all of the scuffs, stains, and wear that you’d expect.

My flight landed at MSP and I made my way from our arrival gate all the way through the terminal to baggage claim. The information board at the baggage carousel told me that I had 10 minutes to kill before my bag would appear. I had just passed a shoe shine stand and, after assessing the state of my poor Docs, decided I’d spend a few of those minutes getting a quick shine.

I circled back to the stand, asked the attending gentleman for a quick shine, and sat down. I then had the pleasure of spending all 10 of those minutes as the most satisfying portion of my day. But first, the shoe shine guy gave the Docs a sad sentence.

“You need a dye job, my man. See how faded these are? I can dye them but it’s another $2 a boot.”

Added to the $8 shine, that would bring the total to $12 for the job. I agreed. Let’s do this.

As I said – this was the most enjoyable part of my day. I had the sublime pleasure of watching an expert ply his craft. He quickly applied the black dye, then in turn, black polish, leather conditioner, and finally another layer of polish. He grabbed a toothbrush and quickly cleaned the boots’ welts. A brisk brush completed the first layer of polish. He used a succession of cloth scraps, twisting the rags around his first two fingers then cinched tightly around his wrist. (A particular technique that I’d expect any veteran to recognize.) Finally, with a few drops of water on each boot, the soft rag brought each one to a mirror shine. Looking down, I couldn’t help smiling remembering all of the nights I’d spent polishing my basic issue LPCs (leather personnel carriers – the venerable leather combat boot) as a US Air Force Airman.

At the time, in basic (BMT or Basic Military Training) and technical school, I hadn’t been quite as thrilled with the daily grind of maintaining the shine on those boots. Long days, maximum stress, minimum rest, a ton of new information to absorb, retain, and synthesize each day – why require this archaic task as well? Surely there must be better ways for us to spend the little discretionary time available to us…

But – what if there was something a bit more nuanced in the objective behind this task? Of course there was. Requiring Airmen to keep a mirror shine on their boots – regardless of whether they had spent all day sitting in classroom training or tromping through the dust of a blistering San Antonio summer day – instilled a core value into the wet clay of us fledgling troops. The simple work underscored the importance of taking care of your equipment – regardless of whether that was a pair of combat boots, a rifle, or a jet engine – because your life, or that of the troop next to you, might depend on it.

Like most things in the military, the reinforcement of this lesson was neither casual nor haphazard. My class in tech school had seen it firsthand. As prospective Security Police troops (then abbreviated SP but since renamed to Security Forces or SF), our post-BMT technical school comprised a few successive and distinct modules, each with its own set of instructors, environments, and parameters. After we expanded on the foundational rifle course in BMT with our more advanced weapons training, we progressed to the Air Base Ground Defense course. Air Force doctrine holds that its most effective weapons – aircraft- are most vulnerable on the ground. It is the SP whose mission is to ensure the safety of Air Force resources, whether personnel, aircraft, or facilities.

We had spent a long month at Camp Bullis learning the elements of ground combat. Classroom, fieldwork – this section of our training concluded with a week-long field exercise that pressed each of us to demonstrate competency in this craft under all of the stress our instructors could inflict upon us. If you can’t do it here, in training, you won’t be able to do it in combat. And failing in that critical task will get someone killed. It will jeopardize the mission.

Our class completed the exercise. We were exhausted and dirty. We strutted through our Friday commencement ceremony signifying success in this phase of training with all of the swagger of those troops who march past those slightly behind them in progression. Those troops just starting Bullis? Pfft – they’ve got no clue. We’ve been there.

On Saturday, we prepared to turn in the sundry gear assigned specific to the ground combat school before starting our next, and final, phase of Security Police training – the Law Enforcement academy. Except – more than a few of us, myself included, didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the gear we were turning in. None of the training gear that we’d been issued weeks ago was new when we got it. Some of it, like the rubber wet weather gear affectionately termed “Gumby gear”, wasn’t even in use out in the actual operation. We’d been in the rain and the mud during our final exercise. So what?

We spent a long afternoon having the specific shortcomings in our character, intelligence, and motivation detailed by the incredibly passionate instructor cadre. Every pair of rubber boots that we attempted to turn in with dried mud crusting them from sole to ankle? Unacceptable. Is this the pride that we show for our equipment, our mission, and ourselves?

Sunday saw a very different tone in the latest class of Security Police troops. We’d spent the rest of Saturday and well into Sunday cleaning every bit of equipment issued to us. Each of us, myself included, had our swagger taken down by an order of magnitude. Those troops just starting ground combat? Well, at least they hadn’t screwed up like WE had. Yet, anyway.

That lesson about taking care of your equipment? Delivered. With all of the certainty possible in a group over which the instructors have complete and utter control – delivered. We turned in our equipment which was, most importantly, accepted by our instructors.

Perhaps even more importantly, although less dramatic, polishing those boots taught another lesson. It is a value that I understand to be echoed in the formal ritual of the Japanese tea ceremony. It is a lesson that has stayed with me all of these years and one to which I attribute to a great deal of the success I have had in my post-military career. It is a perspective that I strive to pass on to my sons.

There is merit in the pursuit of excellence, for its own sake.

I have met people who make a “value of quality” decision. They determine whether the job or role they are executing at the time deserves their full effort. I know people who think that “good enough” is all the effort they need to exert.

I disagree. Strenuously, passionately, and with all of the weight of my life experience.

Truly, I am grateful for the life I have. My wife (The Queen) and I both come from humble origins. Our parents struggled to provide for us. We’ve worked hard to offer more to our children. Professionally, my employer has offered me opportunity – and rewarded me for the achievement that has followed each opportunity. I’ve shared, both unsolicited and when asked, my perspective on success and achievement. My advice to those who are interested has never changed.

Become the expert in what you do. Demonstrate quality in your work. Master your role.

Strive for excellence.

You can pursue promotion, salary, or recognition. But I’d opine that those are traps. You may attain them but at a cost you don’t anticipate. Perhaps you’ll pay with your integrity or the relationships with those around you. In contrast, I see the pursuit of excellence as a worthwhile goal without the same potential pitfalls. I think that it brings ancillary benefits – like success – but it’s an objective that is pure.

That’s it. The thrust of today’s post. And it’s exactly what I saw as I sat in the airport on Monday, watching my beat up Doc Martens brought to a mirror shine.

The man, older than me, was demonstrating his commitment to excellence in what he does. Considerations about whether or not the work he did “mattered” were clearly not factors for him. He pursued and delivered excellence. If you don’t think that there is undisputable value in that simple fact than I would suggest that either you’ve never seen excellence in action or you’re not paying attention to the world around you.

I offer this as an axiom. I can’t prove it but present it as a self-evident truth. Set it as a guiding principle and I think you’ll be happy with the results. Pursue excellence. Good things will happen.

If you happen to pass through Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport (MSP)’s Terminal 1, be sure to stop and grab a shoe shine with Sherman Gray. He’s been shining shoes for 35 years and commits – 100% – to what he does. Watching his pursuit of excellence is inspiring and, perhaps, a bit humbling. You’ll be a better person for having seen it!

(And tip him! Excellence may be its own reward but cash still pays the bills. Do the actions you take make the world a better place? Rewarding excellence helps!)

A beautiful spit shine on my Doc Martens

Excellence in action – a spit shine on my boots!

[As an aside, I will acknowledge that today’s troops no longer know the frustration and satisfaction of bringing those same combat boots to a mirror shine. Today’s standard issue boot has a suede coating that requires little maintenance. I offer my condolences to them, not in the nostalgic “things were better in my day” bias, but rather as one who has experienced the pleasure of knowing that you’ve demonstrated your commitment to excellence. I trust that today’s commanders have substituted another vehicle for teaching this lesson to our nation’s defenders.]



Filed under Essays

7 responses to “Is That A Mirror On Your Boot Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?

  1. Michael Crinnin

    Loved it! Thanks for the ‘excellence’
    of this post

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  5. Matt

    I gave my 20 year old docs a spit shine this morning. Then for whatever reason I Googled “spit shine dr martens” and your blog showed up. I retired from the AF last year and this was a cool story to reminisce the days of shining boots.

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