Inside, part of Charlie Merriam is still the young naval officer who tried on a whim to climb Mt. Fuji when he was a member of the U.S. occupation forces in Japan in the months after World War II.
In March 1946, the 21-year-old LST skipper and two 18-year-old crewmates took a shot at topping Japan’s tallest and most sacred mountain, more or less as a lark.
“We thought it would be a snap,” recalled Merriam, now 92, who lives with his wife, Pat, in the Kingsway Community retirement complex. “We had boots, but we didn’t know anything about how to climb.”
When the going got tough, the shipmates turned back, maybe halfway to the top of the 12,388-foot volcano.
The failure to conquer the mountain would haunt Charlie for the next 60 years, even as he traveled all over the world, though he didn’t say much about it.
That first unsuccessful attempt set in motion a quest that lasted nearly three-quarters of a century and spanned three generations of the Merriam family.
“That was one of those failures in my lifetime,” Charlie recalled recently. “I didn’t tell anyone. It was a secret.”
After his discharge in 1946, he returned to Schenectady, and to the Merriam Agency, the insurance agency his grandfather started, and which his son Brian now operates. He lived in Niskayuna and later Burnt Hills, and was successful enough in business to have plenty of time for travel.
But Mt. Fuji never left his mind. “It grated on me all the time that I hadn’t succeeded,” Charlie acknowledged.
Other people climb it. Indeed, going up Mt. Fuji is a pretty common thing for the Japanese, a form of religious pilgrimage.
There are 12 “stations” on the way up, operated either commercially or by Buddhists catering to pilgrims. But there’s a defined “climbing season,” from late spring through mid-September, when the journey is considered safe.
Return to Japan
In November 2006, at age 82 — an age when many people are giving up climbing the stairs — Charlie tried again. He took his son Brian and Brian’s older sister, Sondra.
He took them to Japan ostensibly to see the places he knew as a young man — but then the climbing story he had mentioned casually in the past took on new life.
“The story didn’t become detailed until 10 years ago, and then he told it over and over and over again,” Brian recalled.
As they traveled, Charlie would ask people they met where’s the best place to begin a climb. Everyone told him it wasn’t the right season — it was November, well after mountain cold and snow set in.
Finally, his children realized what was on his mind. They protested, and he ignored them.
“He said, ‘62 years is a long time to regret something,’ ” Brian recalled. “I said, ‘But Dad, you’re 82.’ ”
They were at the base of the climbing trail. Brian walked away to confer with his sister, turned around, and his dad was gone.
“He wasn’t about to let his son and daughter talk him out of it,” Brian said.
As with the 1946 expedition, the climbers had no proper equipment. For insulation, they doubled up on clothing. Charlie put socks on his hands for warmth.
This time, they reached about 10,000 feet, but were defeated by deepening snow, cold and the thinning air and gasping for oxygen. Charlie might have gone on, but his children insisted.
“It was all snow, it was very steep, and we were falling a lot,” Brian Merriam said. “Somebody would have gotten hurt.”
But Brian had to promise to come back someday.
Fulfilling a promise
That’s where things stood until earlier this year, when Brian Merriam’s son Tyler reminded him of the promise.
“He said, ‘Pappy’s 92-years-old; if you’re going to go, you better do it soon,’ ” Brian recalled.
It should be noted that son and grandson are accomplished climbers. Brian, 56, is an Adirondack Winter 46er, and Tyler, 28, a mountain guide in Saranac Lake. This time, they’d at least be prepared.
And so, on Sept. 24, Brian and Tyler set out to climb Mt. Fuji — and this time, they made it.
They took along the 48-star United States flag from Charlie’s old LST, to flap for a moment in the mountaintop wind, and so prove that they’d made it.
“I figured if we were going to do it, I had to get him a memorable photo,” Brian said.
The 70-year saga was ended.
“I think it’s marvelous,” Charlie said a few days ago.
Brian, who has climbed taller mountains in Colorado, said Mt. Fuji was one of his most difficult climbs.
It involved constant climbing, he said, and gets steeper the higher you climb.
He brought his dad a piece of volcanic rock from near the summit. Charlie has added it to his other precious relics, including a World War II scrapbook.
Brian said he made the climb because he loves his father, but he acknowledged being enthralled with World War II since he was a boy, hearing his father’s and his uncle’s war stories.
‘I was 21, so I was the boss’
Charlie joined the Navy in 1942, while his twin brother, now deceased, went into the Army and fought in Europe. Charlie became executive officer and later commander of an LST, the giant landing ships that delivered tanks and other heavy equipment to a beachhead.
“I learned a lot of leadership I didn’t know I had,” Charlie said. “There were 12 in the crew. The oldest was probably 20. I was 21, so I was the boss.”
To his regret, he never saw combat. But he was on the island of Saipan being prepared for the invasion of Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped in August 1945.
“If the bomb hadn’t have been dropped, I would have been one of the first ones [to die],” Charlie Merriam said.
The National World War II Museum estimates nearly 500 World War II veterans die each day, and that there are just 855,000 of them living, out of 16 million who served.
Brian Merriam, like many boys of his generation, was fascinated by World War II and remains so today.
“I’ve heard stories that are just amazing, that it took such tremendous sacrifice in order to restore the world back to peace,” Brian Merriam said.