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 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

Guatemala Mudslide Death Toll Rises to 86

Death toll is expected to continue to rise as emergency crews dig through tons of earth for an estimated 350 people still missing More

Goodbye Pocahontas: Photos Reveal Today's Real Native Americans

Weary of stereotypes, photographer Matika Wilbur is determined to reshape the public's perception of her people More

Debris Found in Search for Missing Ship

Objects located Sunday have not yet been confirmed to be from the 240 meter container ship, El Faro, which disappeared in the eye of Hurricane Joaquin, according to US Coast Guard More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europei
Luis Ramirez
October 02, 2015 4:45 PM
European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video Russia’s Syria Involvement Raising Concerns in Europe

European nations are joining the United States in demanding that Russia stop targeting opposition groups other than the Islamic State militants as Russian warplanes continue to conduct raids in Syria. The demand came in a statement from Britain, France, Germany, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States Friday. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.

Video First Self-Driving Truck Debuts on European Highways

The first automated semi-trailer truck started its maiden voyage Friday, Oct. 2, on a European highway. The Daimler truck called 'Actros' is the first potentially mass-produced truck whose driver will be required only to monitor the situation, similar to the role of an airline captain while the plane is in autopilot mode. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Migrant Influx Costs Europe, But Economy Could Benefit

The influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants is testing Europe’s ability to respond – especially in the poorer Balkan states. But some analysts argue that Europe will benefit by welcoming the huge numbers of young people – many of them well educated and willing to work. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

Video New Fabric Helps Fight Dust-Related Allergies

Many people around the world suffer from dust-related allergies, caused mainly by tiny mites that live in bed linen. Polish scientists report they have successfully tested a fabric that is impenetrable to the microscopic creatures. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Video Burkina Faso's Economy Deeply Affected by Political Turmoil

Political turmoil in Burkina Faso over the past year has taken a toll on the economy. The transitional government is reporting nearly $70 million in losses in the ten days that followed a short-lived coup by members of the presidential guard earlier this month. The crisis shut businesses and workers went on strike. With elections on the horizon, Emilie Iob reports on what a return to political stability can do for the country's economic recovery.

Video Fleeing Violence, Some Syrians Find Refuge in Irbil

As Syrians continue to flee their country’s unrest to seek new lives in safer places, VOA Persian Service reporter Shepol Abbassi visited Irbil, where a number Syrians have taken refuge. During the religious holidy of Eid al-Adha, the city largely shut down, as temperatures soared. Amy Katz narrates his report.

Video Nigeria’s Wecyclers Work for Reusable Future in Lagos

The streets and lagoons of Africa's largest city - Lagos, Nigeria - are often clogged with trash, almost none of which gets recycled. One company is trying to change that. Chris Stein reports for VOA from Lagos.

Video Sketch Artist Helps Catch Criminals, Gives a Face to Deceased

Police often face the problem of trying to find a crime suspect based on general descriptions that could fit hundreds of people in the vicinity of the crime. In these cases, an artist can use information from witnesses to sketch a likeness that police can show the public via newspapers and television. But, as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, such sketches can also help bring back faces of the dead.

Video Thailand Set to Build China-like Internet Firewall

Thai authorities are planning to tighten control over the Internet, creating a single international access point so they can better monitor content. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from Bangkok on what is being called Thailand’s own "Great Firewall."

Video Croatian Town’s War History Evokes Empathy for Migrants

As thousands of Afghanistan, Iraqi and Syrian migrants pass through Croatia, locals are reminded of their own experiences with war and refugees in the 1990s. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from the town of Vukovar, where wartime scars still are visible today.

Video Long Drought Affecting California’s Sequoias

California is suffering under a historic four-year drought and scientists say even the state's famed sequoia trees are feeling the pain. The National Park Service has started detailed research to see how it can help the oldest living things on earth survive. VOA’s George Putic reports.

VOA Blogs