Ode to Giant Cowboy Boots

From The Oxford American

Here are some essential facts: The boots were sculpted in 1979 in Washington, D.C., by artist Bob “Daddy-O” Wade of Austin, Texas. They were then trucked to San Antonio. (Three 18-wheelers were required to make the haul.) Unofficially, they’re now called “the boots by the mall,” or “The Giant Justins,” as in Justin Ropers. The mall, which is actually named North Star Mall, is now called “the mall with the boots” because the boots have become the North Star by which drivers navigate the serpentine, orange-barrel-studded freeways of San Antonio. At forty feet tall and thirty feet from heel to toe, they are billed as the “world’s largest boots,” which seems inarguable even without extended research. They were erected with steel skeletons and a urethane foam skin, textured and painted to resemble ostrich hide. Daddy-O estimates that each of the boots would hold 350,000 gallons of beer. Around the holidays, the boots are strung with star-shaped Christmas lights. At night, from far away, with those lights, they look like a grounded constellation.

Here are some weird and cool facts about the artist, and some stuff about machine guns: Daddy-O basically grew up in hotels and motels, because his father managed them. He has also erected a forty-foot iguana in New York City and a seventy-foot saxophone in Houston. He once paid a Dallas man $110 to perforate the side of a van with a machine gunÑten bucks for labor, a hundred for bulletsÑthen titled the driveable art The Bonnie and Clyde Mobile, which he entered in various art shows/contests. Another Daddy-O piece, 1977′s Texas Roadside Museum, which consisted of a fake two-headed calf and a stuffed horse on its back on a flatbed trailer, disappeared from a Paris art show and later “ended up in the hands of gypsies.”

In D.C., the boots sat in a vacant lot by the White House before North Star Mall owners from Texas procured them for twenty grand in 1980. After a transient cut a hole in one of the boots and started camping inside, the artist was called to repair the sculpture and cover it with cement. At one point during the repairs, smoke started billowing from the breached boot; the transient had gotten back inside and was warming his lunch with Sterno¨ Canned Heatª when it caught fire. In 2007, after almost thirty years in the sun, the boots were faded and flakingÑwhich actually makes them look authentic and distressed and kind of ruggedly sexyÑso they’ve been coated with a NASA sealant to repel further ultraviolet rays.

Here’s something strange about your odeman: For some reason, I’ve always thought of them as women’s boots. Maybe they remind me of boots my mother used to wear. Or maybe it’s because I’ve always liked how cowboy boots look on women. (And no, Dr. Freud, it’s not lost on me that these two possibilities are likely rooted in the same subconscious soil, but I have neither the time nor space to unpack that handy and educational juxtaposition, so we’ll just carry on.) Also, they always make me think of butterflies.

About the butterflies: I first remember seeing the boots when I was sixteen. I was in love with skateboarding, and every other week, my three buddies and I would cut class on Friday afternoon, pile into a rusted-out pickup and drive to Dillo Skatepark in Austin. (DilloÑas in ArmadilloÑSkatepark commanded a large warehouse and had a near-perfect spine ramp that looked like an arrested wave.) We pooled money for gas; we pilfered peanut butter and bread from our parents’ cupboards and ate nothing but for three days; we listened to cassettes of Willie Nelson, Eric B. and Rakim, and Slayer. The drive from Corpus Christi to Dillo Skatepark took four hours. When the boots rolled over the horizonÑusually about the time the clouds started growing heavy with duskÑwe knew we were exactly an hour away from the skatepark, and Jason, my best friend in the truck, would say, “The butterflies are landing on my palms.” Which meant his palms were tingling with excitement because Dillo was only an hour away. He’d described excitement that way since he was young; birthday parties, school field trips, “couple’s skate” at the roller rink, Blue Angel shows at the Naval Air Station, and the like would all reliably summon the invisible butterflies that tickled his palms. We all co-opted the image. It became a contest to be the first to claim the butterflies on those trips to Austin.

Jason is a university administrator/musician/father now; another one of the guys became an electrician/insurance adjuster; another, a preacher/father/father/father/father. On my trips to San Antonio over the years, I’ve sometimes wondered if any of them still remember those drives, if they remember how we used to look out for the boots. I wonder if they even still notice them, or if the boots mean something different to them now, or if they ever tell their lovers or children about the butterflies that used to crawl on our palms. I wonder if they still feel them landing there from time to time.