— 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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.