Dad’s Brogans or Why isn’t Mt. Fuji a Mountain?

If you’re wondering what a “brogan” is, and what this has to do with anything, read on . . . There was talk about clothing this week and dad’s brogans came to mind. Dad gave his pair to me when I started going on hikes around the Japanese countryside. We could take off any time we wanted and my parents did not seem to worry when I was gone two or three days.

Looked up the word to see what it means and all the dictionary said was what I already knew. A brogan is an ankle high boot or shoe depending if you think the glass is half full or half empty.

Dad had been giving me his left over Army OD and khaki clothing as I grew and the Air Force replaced it with their new “wild blues.“ When the Air Force was pealed away from the Army, the uniforms did not immediately change. I did not even see any Air Force stripes till after he came home from the Korean War. Still, they were merely sewn onto Army gear. The color of the footwear had also changed. Instead of brown, it was now black in the Air Force while the Army and Navy kept wearing brown for a while.

They even came out with short pants like the Boy Scouts including the knee socks. Somehow the hairy, knobby knees of the GI’s did not look as neat as the boys’. Do they still have them? We all had a good laugh when he tried his on.

Funny how things come around. Once all the clothing was finally changed over to its unique Air Force colorings, McNamara is brought in from Ford Motor Co. to run things. Making uniforms, well, uniform throughout the military was one of his many controversial ideas so the Air Force had to go back to base one. The money it saved is probably enough to gas up one B-52 each year. Politics!

Black was now the official color for all footwear, though. At least each branch got to keep its own unique dress uniform and Navy got to keep the blue jeans and blue shirts on board. I still get a kick when I see sailors wearing camouflage. Doesn’t that spook them? Camo is the color of the ocean floor.

Long before McNamara, the Air Force had already gone from the Army brown footwear to black. This is the reason dad’s brogans were so special. The pair he gave me were black and, at that time, Army was still brown. They were not dad’s surplus but part of his current Air Force gear. I would keep them shiny and would only wear them on hikes.

We were in Japan. Mt. Fuji is so large, it can been seen out at sea before entering Tokyo Bay. I had no idea, as we were pulling into the harbor, I would some day stand at the top of that thing ceremoniously relieving myself into the crater with a bunch of other exhausted guys.

It would be a couple of years till the summer came for us to go to the camp the Marines set up every year in the Japanese Alp region. Dad’s brogans were packed with care. Before the climb, the custom is to get a six foot Fuji pole that would be branded at each station on the way up as proof of how far a climber got. It really did not help with the climb much but it was an absolute must for a rapid descent

After living in Japan for a while, we all learn that Fuji is not really a mountain, it is a volcano. When it last erupted, it threw up thousands of tons of cinders no larger than you see at the bottom of a small coal stove. This is why its contour is such a beautifull smoothly arching slope. The climb up is along a single trail worn pretty wide after hundreds of years of pilgrimages. Towards the top, it went straight up. Many climbers would fail to make it to the top due to lack of oxygen and fatigue. A sight that will always stay with me were the young men carrying an old women on their backs.
“Obasan?”  we would ask.  “Hi, obason” they would answer with a big toothy grin.  In every case, it was their grandmother.  Elderly care is taken very seriously in a Japanese family.

At one point, we would only be able to move five or ten feet at a time then spend five minutes trying to pump oxygen back into our bloodstream .   The military require oxygen masks at altitudes above 10,000 feet.  Fuji is over 12,000 feet high.  That last 2,000 is half the climb.

After spending the night on the slopes, we made it to the top.  The platoon of Marines we raced up were half an hour behind.   We watched them enjoying their cigarettes at the base before making the challenge.  Then came the obasans with our cheers to the grandsons.  We climbed the straight up section in the dark so have no idea how they did it.

After reaching the summit, the best way back is to ski down the lava ash flows. This is done by taking a wide stance, tuck the Fuji pole under an arm just like the Olympic down hill racers tuck their ski poles and lean back while facing down hill. This made a tripod. The pole also acts as a rudder while you hold onto it with both hands. Gravity and the loosly packed cinders does the rest.   It was easy to master and an absolute blast. Just as wild as a black diamond run down Heavenly at Lake Tahoe with twice the view.

Ecology was not a word back then.  It is possible that this is no longer allowed.  Does the Sierra Club have a far eastern branch?  Besides, after the next eruption, nobody will notice. If anyone has climbed Fuji recently, please drop me a line.

Skiing down the flow got us pretty far down, too. Along the way, the pole gets rounded off at the rudder end by the jagged cinders. I had not given the brogans any thought… till we reached the bottom.

There was not one bit of black left on the leather. It had been transformed into a blue gray suede (where were my Elvis 45’s) and the soles were rounded off all around

Dad was not upset. When we arrived in Japan, I was still recovery from the worst asthma attack of my life. I was bed ridden for three months and lost 30% of my body weight. Started hiking back in the states and it took progressively longer ones to get in shape for Fuji. After two years, I had felt I was ready. Those beat up GI boots became a badge of courage in my closet. They were now officially my brogans.

The asthma mysteriously disappeared two years after we came back from Japan.

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