News / USA

Reporter's Radioactive Boots Keep On Trekking

VOA correspondent Steve Herman's boots, before recrafting, after nearly a quarter century of wear. (Steve Herman/VOA)
VOA correspondent Steve Herman's boots, before recrafting, after nearly a quarter century of wear. (Steve Herman/VOA)
This is a love story about a man and his favorite boots.

I am the man and the boots are known as Danner Lights, purchased on a whim in a Tokyo shop around 1991. They are full grain leather and totally waterproof with a breathable liner. At times, I have worn them for up to 36 hours consecutively with no complaint.

They kept my feet dry when I waded across streams in Sichuan, China. They navigated sizzling sands in the Middle East, stepped into toxic muck in Bhopal, and precariously maneuvered icy sidewalks in Seoul. Their grip secured my balance as I perched on open doors of military helicopters traversing war zones.

I am not superstitious, but having emerged unscathed from potential peril for so many years, I consider them my lucky boots.

Recently, the time came to decide whether I could, or should, continue to lace up the best-fitting footwear I've ever owned.

The decision was forced upon me, in part, because the now-scruffy boots were on my feet in March 2011, when three reactors melted down at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. I was close by and made subsequent reporting trips to the off-limits zone around the plant, as well as a brief foray to the front gate of the crippled facility.

I wanted to have the old boots reconditioned, but was it safe to do so?  

Safety check

To find out, I queried the National Atomic Testing Museum, which referred me to Ralf Sudowe, an associate professor of health physics at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

He explained that it's not uncommon for hikers and soldiers to accumulate radioactivity on their shoes from man-made or natural sources.  

When he held his Geiger counter over my boots, nearly three years after their Fukushima visits, the device emitted audible clicks at a rate of up to 150 times in a minute.

“The frequency of the clicks is increasing as I move it over the toe cap of the boots," Sudowe told me. "So there’s definitely something on the tip of these boots, on the toe cap, that is more radioactive than the normal background."

Another, more sensitive, handheld meter determined the clicking was coming from beta radionuclides, not alpha emitters—a good indication.   

  • Recrafter Oleg Shyshkin begins to remove the outer sole of one of VOA correspondent Steve Herman's boots at the Danner factory in Portland, Oregon, Jan. 20, 2014. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • Delicate work to remove the collar which had to be replaced at the Danner factory in Portland, Oregon, Jan. 20, 2014. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • The boot is stripped down to the shell, Portland, Oregon, Jan. 20, 2014. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • Danner's recrafting shop in Portland, Oregon, Jan. 20, 2014. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • Putting replacement stitching around the old boot, Portland, Oregon, Jan. 20, 2014. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • Dozens of countries are represented on the Danner factory floor, Portland, Oregon, Jan. 20, 2014. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • Footwear made for the US military must have all materials sourced in the United States. These boots are being made at the Danner factory in Portland, Oregon, Jan. 20, 2014. (Steve Herman/VOA)
  • Steve Herman trying on for the first time his newly recrafted old boots at the Danner factory, Portland, Oregon, Jan. 20, 2014. (Steve Herman/VOA)

“An alpha particle can basically be stopped with a sheet of paper. If it is somewhere around you, it would never penetrate your skin,” he said. “A beta particle has a longer range. It can basically fly longer in air. But, at the same time, it would not be biologically as damaging if it was in close contact with a cell, for example.”

Further tests in the ion chamber put us even more at ease. The physicist ascertained the small amount of radioactivity present in my boots was negligible “in terms of health consequences.”

Sudowe then conducted a sodium iodide gamma spectroscopic analysis to determine which isotope was present. A small peak, which rapidly forms on the screen, pinpointed it as cesium-137.

“That means it’s definitely more than you would normally have in the environment just from remnants of atmospheric weapons testing,” he said. “So, yeah, there’s cesium on this boot and I would guess it is associated with the Fukushima event.”

A wet swipe test verified no radioactive material coming off the boot. The professor reiterated my boots were “definitely safe to handle.”

Reassured, I transported them to where they were made—the Danner factory in Portland, Oregon—where several hundred pairs of boots arrive each month for a total makeover.

The supervisor of the recrafting department, Marci Uselman, said customers get very attached to their boots, no matter the condition, and not only because they are broken in after years—or decades—of wear and tear.

“For a police officer, it could be the first pair of boots he had when he began his service," Uselman said. "In the army, they’ve obviously fought and been standing next to their fellow soldiers, and it means a lot to them.”  

My boots turned out to be among the oldest and most battered pair ever returned for retrofitting.

Delicate surgery

The arduous task was assigned to Oleg Shyshkin, who began repairing boots as a teenager in his native Ukraine, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

In a day-long process, he literally ripped my boots apart, sprinkling decades of ingrained dirt onto his workbench.

Shyshkin replaced the liner, including the box toe, the midsole, the outsole, the shank, the collar, what was left of the foam, the heel counter, the damaged stitching, the eyelets and, finally, the laces.

There were complications because the shell of the leather boots was very dry and cracked. A hole in the upper heel opened as Shyshkin delicately removed the old stitching. He inserted a new piece of leather inside before re-stitching.

Some of the work, using pliers and a hammer, would have been familiar to a cobbler centuries ago. Shyshkin also used more recent technology, an Italian toe laster machine, from the mid-20th century.

After the day-long restoration, he deemed the job a success, comparing it to a risky medical procedure in which the patient could have died.  

“Surgery is done," he proclaimed. "The operation is good. Still alive.”

“How long do you think before they’ll need another surgery?” I asked.

Shyshkin asked how long I have been wearing the boots.

“About 23 years,” I replied.

“I think it’s the same.”

Painstaking process

My boots were put together around 1990 in much the same way they are still crafted today...by hand. Everything is done under one roof, from inspecting the hides of leather for strength, flexibility, durability and blemishes, to the application of customized Vibram rubber outer soles.

The only process in the factory off-limits for photography: the bottoming section where the final platform is put on boots.

Public relations coordinator Taylor Towne explained the trade secret here, involving stitching through the upper into the midsole, is not state-of-the-art.

“It’s an extremely old machine and unique, obviously. It’s very strong in terms of what the needle can do,” she said during a tour of the factory. “It’s actually so old I believe that those machines cannot be replaced. If they ever do break down, we have to have our in-house mechanics work directly on them because they don’t make them any more.”

As we passed by, the machines were stitching the US Marine Corps’ Rugged All Terrain boots.

To fulfill U.S. military contracts, footwear manufacturers are compelled by the Berry Amendment (originally passed by Congress in 1941) to ensure their products are thoroughly domestic.  

“All the way down to the grain that the cow is fed, where the leather comes from, has to be 100 percent US-made, sourced in the US,” Towne said.

Nearly all of the domestic US shoe manufacturers that managed to stay in business until the late 20th century shifted production to Asia where wages were lower. Besides Danner, others still making some or all of their footwear in America include Alden, Allen Edmonds, Frye, Justin’s, L.L. Bean, New Balance, Red Wing, Walk-Over and Wolverine.

International twist

While Danner can certify much of its footwear as totally American, its workforce is truly international.

Only about a dozen of those on the factory floor are American-born. The largest nationality represented is Vietnamese, with 87 employed there. There are 14 Burmese and 14 Chinese and, among others, nine Somalis.

Ya Sin, from Burma, also known as Myanmar, removes excess glue from finished boots. But when the production process is really busy, he also works on other processes.

Company officials say they want their internationalized workforce to learn as many different tasks as possible so they do not get bored.

The bootmaker itself has a new boss speaking a different language.

Danner, established in 1932, was acquired—along with its parent company, LaCrosse Footwear—for nearly $140 million in 2012 by a Japanese retailer, ABC-Mart. It was at one of that retailer's stores in Tokyo that I bought my boots in the early 1990s.

Expansion plans are now afoot to take the Danner brand beyond its mostly American core customers of soldiers, law enforcement officers, hunters, hikers...and perhaps an intrepid foreign correspondent or two.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs