THE WEEKLY - Where gods and mortals meet

A College Place couple who met in Japan returned in August to climb Mount Fuji.

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COLLEGE PLACE - To Ron and Kyoko Plucker, climbing Japan's iconic Mount Fuji took them far higher than the dormant volcano's 12,388-foot peak.

"I felt this emotional rush," said Ron Plucker, a retired Navy captain and aviator whose career put him in the vanguard of America's two wars against Iraq. "I almost came to tears, because I finished something that was a goal."

For the former Kyoko Okuma, whom Ron met in February 2001 during a visit to Sasebo Naval Base in her native Japan, their climb together last month was his first and her ninth. But her elation at making it to the top once more was similar to her feeling in her first ascension and the following seven, when she was part of a team with Sasebo Naval Base's recreation office that guides military tourists and their guests up the mountain.

"OK, I can do it," she recalled of her first sight of the mountain from its 5th Station, a highway- accessible starting point about halfway up Fuji where most hikers gather for climbs to the summit, the 10th Station.

"I was so happy at the top," she said. "Everybody cheered and some people cried because they made it, supported by the gods."

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The Pluckers, who married in 2009, made climbing the peak together their goal this year during annual trips to Japan to visit her family.

"I wanted to feel closer to Kyoko, to know what she's experienced," said Ron, 55, who now works in personnel relations for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Walla Walla District.

Such family and cross-cultural bonds are evident among the memorabilia in his study at their College Place home near the runway at Martin Field. On one wall the Touchet native keeps a picture memorial of relatives who've fought in the nation's conflicts going back to the Civil War. Below photographs of two relatives who fought in World War II he added pictures of Kyoko's grandfathers, one who died serving the Japanese navy during the Battle of Okinawa, and the other who survived the war in the Japanese Imperial Army.

He tenderly recalls Kyoko's father hugging him when he saw the memorial during a recent visit to America.

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About 320,000 people climb Fuji in the July-August season when the mountain is relatively free of snow and sudden storms.

That so many make the hike does not mean it's an easy uphill cruise.

Ron said he kept up a five-month training regimen at the Walla Walla YMCA for five months, but still found himself straining to summit Fuji

"The air is thinner up there; you get a little light-headed and tired," he said, recalling that more than once he thought: "No way am I going to make it up that."

His fatigue -- and his will to continue -- is captured in a photo Kyoko took of him at the 7th Station, where he is sitting with other climbers looking up, his face sweaty but his eyes and jaw set with determination to go the final distance in his 6-hour trek to the top, with a 4-hour descent to follow.

Along the way they encountered two omens for good luck, seeing a perfect shadow of Mount Fuji on the clouds below them, and spotting a rare Japanese serow, a goat-like forager that Ron said had features of a boar, hyena and antelope.

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Reverently and affectionately called Fuji-san, the near perfectly shaped, solitary volcanic cone for thousands of years has inspired the contemplative nature of Japanese.

Asia scholar Edwin Bernbaum writes in his book, "Sacred Mountains of the World," that Buddhists use the word zenjo - meaning a flawless state of perfect concentration - to describe Fuji's summit. Japan's Shinto religion holds that many gods dwell on the mountain.

"The Japanese say that the clouds that cover the tops of other peaks only curl around the foot of Fuji," Bernbaum writes. "Its summit, a lofty place of contemplation, provides an attractive sanctuary for the deities, who dwell there free from the sorrows that trouble the world below."

Ron, too, felt such a freedom when he and Kyoko finally reached the top. He's seen his share of troubles in the world, some of them up close and very, very personal.

He was a navigator in an EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare jet that flew off the USS Saratoga and deep into hostile skies over Iraq during the opening round of the 1991 Gulf War. He lost a friend that night, Lt. Cmdr. Scott Speicher, whose nearby F/A-18 Hornet was shot down by an Iraqi missile and whose remains were not found until 18 years later, years in which Ron held out hope that Speicher might have survived and been held captive.

In 2004, he volunteered to go to Iraq in the difficult, deadly days after Saddam Hussein was brought down in the U.S.-led invasion the year before in a second war.

His assignment then was with Gen. David Petraeus' command staff overseeing the initial building and training of Iraqi security forces. It was not uncommon to experience bullets and shrapnel "hitting around us" or seeing the aftermath of insurgent improvised explosives, he said.

"I wanted to feel that (exhilaration) again, that feeling of crossing the finish line like in combat," he said. "The pinnacle of my career has been in combat."

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Standing at the pinnacle of Fuji provided a different rush than the physical adrenalin of being in and surviving combat, he said.

"Flying is 99 percent boredom and 1 percent terror," he said. Landing and taking off a moving aircraft carrier is in the latter category, "an adrenaline rush," he said.

Making it to the top of Fuji, on the other hand, came with more of a "mental, emotional, spiritually cleansing rush" of having set, worked toward and achieved a longtime goal, he said.

There's something else often said about the mountain in a Japanese proverb that goes: "Anyone would be a fool not to climb Mount Fuji once, but a fool to do so twice.

To the Pluckers, however, it's not foolish to climb Fuji-san again given the exhilarating rewards.

"I was teasing Kyoko to see who's the fool here," Ron said. "She's been up it nine times, but I want to go back and do it again."

Kyoko, 41, said her repeated ascents were more out of an altruistic sense in bringing joy to the groups she helped guide.

"The first time was for me," she said. The others were "for everybody in the group to help them experience it."

Thomas P. Skeen can be reached at 509-526-8320 or tomskeen@wwub.com

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