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Reading the Tracks We All Leave Behind

Feet to Beat. KIDSPACE

DID you know that film-star Gary Cooper wore size 14 shoes? Bi-ig! There's a photo (in a book I have called ``The Book of Lists'') of his shoe prints at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. I think they must be set in concrete. That's fame - giant footprints fixed forever. Have you noticed how dogs and cats, just like Gary Cooper, have a fatal attraction for putting their feet in wet concrete? Make a new concrete floor in the basement, and what happens?

The cat, thinking it's solid ground, meanders gingerly across it in the middle of the night on the lookout for local mice, and in the morning you come down to find a perfect, delicately placed track of pawprints, like a string of blackberries, marking in the now hard-set concrete a beautiful cat route. Little does that cat know the evidence he has left so permanently behind him.

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I always imagine, when something like this happens, that in thousands of millions of years' time some archaeologist will dig down through the earth and discover irrefutable evidence of our basement and valuable knowledge of the eccentric behavior, after dark, of our cat. After all, that's what they've done with dinosaurs.

DO you realize that in Texas, in Connecticut, in Arizona, and other places, fossils of dinosaurs' footprints left in the mud in the Mesozoic period are known? And from such fossils the experts believe they know how dinosaurs stood, walked, ran, and jumped. They reckon that some of these extinct creatures could travel 25 miles per hour. But they have also decided, from fossilized tracks of footprints with short gaps between, that many of them did quite a lot of slow ambling....

Of course, one of the most famous modern and human footprintmakers ever was the ambling man who said, ``That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.'' But Neil Armstrong, planting the first footprints of any man ever on the dry surface of the moon, June 20, 1969, was no gigantic creature: He was only wearing size 9-1/2 boots. Rather small, don't you think, for the first man on the moon? (Maybe they should have sent Gary Cooper.)

On the other hand, size isn't everything. That film star's shoe prints are notable for something else which is rather dull: They are completely plain - there isn't a pattern on them. Flat as pancakes. I think it would be different today. The bottoms of shoes - soles and heels - have now become regular works of three-dimensional art, a place where designers can let their imaginations go. Places to carve and mold. There hardly seem to be two shoe bottoms alike.

I can't say I often get down on the ground and investigate the underside of people's shoes and boots, so it's only when exactly the right kind of snow falls in exactly the right kind of way that the opportunity to make a detailed study occurs.

That's just what happened where I live, in Scotland, the other day. This snow was not too soft and not too frozen hard. It was like good cookie mixture. Tread on it, with a satisfying ``crump!'' and you leave a crisp footprint with all the furrows and ridges precisely in place.

I walked the dog quite early that morning, but the path already showed evidence of two or three other people who'd gone that way. Without the snow, I might have thought I was the first.

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At lunch time we were out again, and my own earlier prints (these particular boots leave prints that are a crisscross network combined with wiggly waves) were still as good as ever but now they were joined by hundreds of others. There were shoe prints everywhere, like shoals of fish.

While the dog sniffed for smelly memories and hints of dogs and cats, I looked with increasing fascination at all that inventiveness and patternmaking that normally lies hidden underfoot.

Here were shoe prints that looked like the layout of miniature cities. Shoe prints like heraldry, chevrons and zigzags, suggesting old family connections of aristocratic bearing. Shoe prints that were just a host of dots or studs, suggesting athletic prowess. Others like diagrams of radio waves. Sherlock Holmes could have had a ball!

Someone with American sneakers - if the stars and stripes were anything to go by - had walked in the other direction from me. One strange passage of prints had been made by boots that didn't seem to have toes and heels at all, but were like fat sausages. I couldn't guess which way their owner had been walking ... or hopping?

Some of the marks had the names of the manufacturer - but of course inside out! It was only later that I found my shoes (rather than my boots) also had the maker's name in relief between toe and heel. I danced about trying to imprint it perfectly in the garden. This manufacturer was clever. Maybe he had even thought about snowprints. The name there is ``Ecco,'' and when that is inside out it is still quite readable. Everywhere I walked I left an advertisement. Later still - next day - I found someone else in the neighborhood also had ``Ecco'' shoes! I wonder who?

Of course all these shoe prints washed away when the thaw came, and since then, while walking the dog, it has been a lot less interesting looking at the ground. But it strikes me that someone could make interesting pictures out of shoe prints. Printing is a great way of making pictures: You can do it by cutting or gouging linoleum, or wood, or by engraving or etching flat metal plates. Lots of ways. These surfaces are then ``inked'' - you can do it with a special roller, very carefully and smoothly rolled in ink on a sheet of glass, this way and that. Then you lay a sheet of paper on top of your ``plate'' and rub the back of the paper all over with a small spoon ... and then, presto! the magic moment: You very carefully peel off the paper, and there on its surface is your picture. Some people have made prints by cutting and inking halved potatoes. But I don't know of anyone (I'm sure there must be someone) who makes pictures with footprints.

SO I've tried it. You roll the ink on the raised parts of the heel and sole, put the paper flat on the floor, put your foot in the boot or shoe, and carefully place it - pressing down firmly - on the paper. Then lift off. (Before you go walking away in that shoe again, and if you want your mother to go on loving you, it's best to clean off the remaining ink. Or better yet, have her help you!)

I was quite pleased with my first results, just using black ink. Like Gary Cooper, I felt I'd announced for all the world to see, ``I was here!''

I'm not sure my shoe prints will last quite as long as dinosaurs'. But they've already stayed around longer than the snow.

`Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles will appear once or twice a month, always on Tuesday.

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