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

Republican Majority in Congress Off to Rough Start

Standoff over Homeland Security funding exposes philosophical, tactical problems within party More

Pakistan Blocks Baloch Activist from US Trip

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan slams Islamabad officials for stopping people from leaving country to attend human rights conference More

Video Muslims Long Thrived in North Carolina Before Students Killed

Idyll shattered February 10, when three Muslim university students living in Chapel Hill were gunned down by a neighbor More

ILO: Women Still Losing Out in Global Work Place

International Labor Organization says women are marginally better off now than they were 20 years ago More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Muslims Long Thrived in N Carolina Before Slaying of 3 Studentsi
X
Jerome Socolovsky
March 05, 2015 9:04 PM
The killings of three Muslim students in North Carolina early last month came as Muslims across the United States have felt under siege, partly as a result of terrorist attacks being committed internationally in the name of their faith. But Muslims have long thrived in university cities in this part of the American South. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Muslims Long Thrived in N Carolina Before Slaying of 3 Students

The killings of three Muslim students in North Carolina early last month came as Muslims across the United States have felt under siege, partly as a result of terrorist attacks being committed internationally in the name of their faith. But Muslims have long thrived in university cities in this part of the American South. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Fuel Shortages in Nigeria Threaten Election Campaigns

Nigeria is suffering a gas shortage as the falling oil price has affected the country’s ability to import and distribute refined fuels. Coming just weeks before scheduled March 28 elections, the shortage could have a big impact on the campaign, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA.
Video

Video Report: Human Rights in Annexed Crimea Deteriorating

A new report by Freedom House and the Atlantic Council of the United States says the human rights situation in Crimea has deteriorated since the peninsula was annexed by Russia in March of last year. The report says the new authorities in Crimea are discriminating against minorities, suppressing freedom of expression, and forcing residents to assume Russian citizenship or leave. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video 50 Years Later African-Americans See New Voting Rights Battles Ahead

Thousands of people will gather to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic civil rights march on March 7th in Selma, Alabama. In 1965, dozens of people were seriously injured during the event known as “Bloody Sunday,” after police attacked African-American demonstrators demanding voting rights. VOA’s Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights pioneers who are still fighting for voting rights in Alabama more than 50 years later.
Video

Video Craft Brewers Taking Hold in US Beer Market

Since the 1950’s, the U.S. beer industry has been dominated by a handful of huge breweries. But in recent years, the rapid rise of small craft breweries has changed the American market and, arguably, the way people drink beer. VOA’s Jeff Custer reports.
Video

Video Video Claims to Show Shia Forces in Iraq Executing Sunni Boy

A graphic mobile phone video is spreading on the Internet, claiming to show Iraqi forces or Shia militia executing a handcuffed Sunni boy. Experts have yet to verify the video, but already Islamic State followers are publicizing it across social media, playing on deep-rooted sectarian fears. VOA’s Jeff Seldin reports.
Video

Video Ukrainian Authorities Struggle to Secure a Divided Mariupol

Since last month's cease-fire went into effect, shelling around the port city of Mariupol has decreased, but it is thought pro-Russian separatists remain poised to attack. For the city’s authorities, a major challenge is gaining the trust of residents, while at the same time rooting out informants who are passing sensitive information to the rebels. Patrick Wells reports for VOA.
Video

Video Volunteer Gauge-Watchers Help Fine-Tune Weather Science

An observation system called CoCoRaHS is working to improve weather science, thanks to thousands of volunteers across the country who measure precipitation in their own backyards, then share their data through the Internet. VOA's Shelley Schlender reports.
Video

Video NASA Spacecraft Approaches a Dwarf Planet

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will make history on Friday, March 6, when it becomes the first man-made object to orbit a dwarf planet named Ceres. It is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, almost 500 million kilometers from Earth. Among other objectives, Dawn will try to examine two mysterious bright white spots detected on the planet’s surface. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Muslims Radicalized Online

Young Muslims are being radicalized ‘in their bedrooms’ through direct contact with Islamic State or ISIL fighters via the Internet, according to terror experts. There are growing concerns that authorities and Internet providers are not doing enough to counter online extremism - which analysts say is spread by a prolific network of online supporters around the world. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More