John D. Bridgers M.D.
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Naval Years
Big Foot, Aviator Fashion, 1943

Big Foot
Aviator Fashion

(See this foot story too.)

As has been said, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans."

It's just one thing after another.

However, when you're involved you're like the thread in a string of beads -- seemingly unrelated things hang together simply because they happened to you.

Disconnected events can be strung together to make a story, and, for me, most stories beg to be heard.

Sometime during adolescence, my feet grew larger than my father's, and they began to attract attention.

They are odd because they're flat with little horizontal arch and though stretched out long they have the width of a much shorter foot.

The come-uppance of this is that I wear a size 14-AA shoe -- a very unique size with a long, slim configuration I've always considered elegant, but most folks seem to find grotesque.

Due to this teen-age development of my feet, I found I could no longer be fitted off the shelf in the shoe store, and my father had to have my footwear ordered from the factory.

As an adult this remained a problem though I was usually able to find in the specialty stores of the larger cities a pair of shoes that didn't hurt my feet.

Now, things are easier, I can simply order something through a catalogue.

When I went in the Navy I despaired I would never be able to find shoes that fit and, in fact, I never did buy my shoes through the Ship's Stores or commissary, but would still order them from home.

This became a problem for me in the mid-Pacific in June 1942 after I had been treading water for about an hour, waiting to be picked up by one of the destroyers in our screen.

The U.S.S. YORKTOWN had been struck twice by the Japanese, was dead in the water and listing.

We had been ordered to abandon ship.

Swimming, I was tiring and my waterlogged shoes were much at fault.

It was with great reluctance that I untied them and let them sink into the abyss.

I wondered, if I managed to be rescued, whether I might find another pair that would fit.

I was finally hauled aboard a destroyer, and there, much to my relief, one of the junior officers donated a pair of moccasins which I could wear.

I had to wear them for about three weeks before I could find another pair of shoes back at Pearl Harbor.

By the time we got back the "set-to" in which I had lost my shoes was being called "The Battle of Midway," which some years later Winston Churchill would term the crucial sea battle of the Second World War.

A friend offered, that considering the size of my shoes, they should have been added to the list of vessels lost in that battle.

After some shopping around I found a pair of "Jodhpur" half-boots, the tops of which stop around ankle height.

I was pleased with these for such foot-wear was rapidly finding favor with Naval Aviators as part of their unofficial personal uniforms. 

This was a time when Army Air Force pilots were removing the grommets from their billed caps.

Before long these affectations of head and foot spread from the flyers per se to other officers attached to flight squadrons in both services.

Lieut. William Chase was one such.

Bill was a New Englander, an Ivy League product, obviously to "the manor born," but at once a good fellow.

He did some noteworthy things before all was said and done.

In "real-life" -- as reservists were wont to say -- he had been a stock-broker, and had taken a crash course in the emerging field of short-wave radio applications.

He had been sent to our squadron as officer in charge of what would come to be called "electronics" -- a field that in time would replace the Industrial Revolution with the Information Age.

At the time we were flying from the U.S.S.  SARATOGA.

Due to the influx of extra officers, an extra bunk was rigged in the relatively roomy sea-cabin I was sharing with "Sieb" Siebert and Chris Fink, both squadron pilots.

We all had Jodhpur boots and Bill Chase could scarce contain himself 'til his wife found him a pair in Boston and shipped them out.

He often commented how he admired my boots, standing in their mammoth splendor by my bunk, worn to a "warm" shade of mahogany.

He spent hours burnishing and polishing those boots trying to give them the patina of wear our older ones had acquired.

At that time we were in the southwest Pacific, working out of Noumea, New Caledonia, a French-colonial possession the United States had taken over and from whence Admiral Halsey flew his flag.

When our ship put into port, the air group would fly on to Tontouta Airdrome about 50 miles down the coast from the harbor.

We lived there in a primitive tent camp, and would generally come back aboard ship with our foot-wear caked in mud.

When we cleaned away the dried mire and polished our boots, they would look even better than before.

Bill finally figured out that this weathering was giving our boots the finish he wanted.

In time we recognized that Bill's fixation on his jodhpurs was really a symptom of his unfulfilled yen to fly.

We didn't take his interest for the asset he would make of it.

When he could convince the Skipper that he should be allowed, he went on flights with several of us.

He also talked his way onto flights with the air group's torpedo bombers and taught himself how to operate the airborne radar that were then only found in those carrier-based aircraft.

When our air group broke up and returned to the States, Bill teamed up with Cdr. William Martin who was organizing the first carrier-based "night" air group, which was to fly from the U.S.S. ENTERPRISE.

That outfit had an active and exemplary tour in the central Pacific campaign.

From these beginnings, it's not hard to trace a direct line to the extensive role of the navigator-radar officer in today's high-technology Naval air forces.

I like to think that my big Jodhpur boots had some part in the odyssey of Bill Chase.

Long after the war when I was practicing medicine in North Carolina we dressed casually because white coats and smocks disturbed the children.

My discipline of shoe shining became casual also, and the size of my feet made my lapses in this department hard to over look.

Then I came by some "canned" shoe spray with which a reasonable gloss could be applied quickly.

Several mornings a week I spent a minute spraying my shoes and would let them dry while I ate breakfast -- it usually took about 10 minutes.

Because of the odor of the solvent, my wife Edie insisted that I do the job in the carport, and so I habitually put my sprayed shoes on top of the garbage can to dry.

One such morning, while at breakfast, the garbage collectors came, emptied the can and took the shoes, apparently thinking I was discarding them.

I was put out for a bit, then the humor of the situation hit home.

I was still chortling over this when I went to the hospital and made my morning coffee stop in the Surgeon's Dressing Room.

Dr. Robert Cross, an obstetrician and good friend, was there and asked me what I found so funny.

I told him the story of my shoes and the garbage collector -- almost breaking up as I told it.

Bob started laughing heartedly telling me that he didn't think it was funny that I'd lost my shoes, but that he was tickled because I found it so funny.

This put me in mind of my old friend, Walter.

Walter -- a good-natured man -- looked after the parking lot at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

One bitter wintry afternoon, as dusk neared, I came to pick up my car and found Walter banging away with a large wrecking bar at a burden of ice that was rendering some of the parking spaces perilous.

He was singing lustily, obviously happy.

I said to him. "Walter, you surely seem in a good mood for someone with such a thankless job."

He replied with an adage that I've heard since but was new to me then, "Doctor, smile and the world smiles with you, but frown and you frown alone."

I hope that someday, somewhere and sometime, someone will remember that when the world laughed at my big feet I laughed with them.

There's an epilogue to my big feet.

They seem even bigger now because some of my toes hurt from arthritis and others are tender from podiatric surgery a couple of years ago.

In retirement I no longer worry whether or not my shoes are polished.

I never used spray polish again because Edie didn't like the way the shoes looked or the carport smelled.

There's one thing I know for sure -- when I go to my glory left behind will be some "big" shoes for someone to fill.


May 31, 1996


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