Friday, August 19, 2011

Litterbug - Part 1 of 3

© 2009 by Henry Melton

"Dad!"  Jerry yelled as his father tossed the banana peel out the open window of the pickup truck.
He turned toward his 17-year-old son, mildly surprised.  "What?"
Jerry Foley sighed, "Dad, don't litter like that!"
"Why?  It was just a banana peel."  As always on this subject, he was unrepentant.
"Because," he declared, "littering is against the law."
The elder Foley shook his head, "Son, you'll have to do better than that.  Illegal isn't the same thing as immoral.  These days, there are so many laws that you can't get through a day without breaking some of them.  I refuse to live my life by the rules a high paid debating team comes up with."
"There is a big fine.  Several hundred dollars."
Mr. Foley slowly, and pointedly, looked up and down the little country road they were traveling.  There was no other traffic, and the farmhouses were far apart.  "You gonna turn me in?"  He grinned.
Jerry crossed his arms.  "That's not the point.  Littering is wrong.  You shouldn't do it."
His father was enjoying himself.  "We have a couple of minutes yet before we reach town.  Go for it.  Convince me you are right, and I am wrong."
Jerry hated it when his father opened himself up for argument.  Greg Foley never lost his temper, nor lost his grin.  And he almost never lost the argument either.
But he knew his father played fair too.  
He quickly ran his reasons through his mind.  The littering laws and being a good public citizen were already crushed.  He would have to think of something else.
Luckily there was one reason immediately obvious.  
"It takes tax dollars or other people's efforts to clean up the mess you leave."  He pointed down at the plastic trash bags he was going to be using in a few minutes as part of the Hutto clean up campaign.
"Good point for an abandoned refrigerator, or even an old newspaper.  But that was a banana peel.  In a day, it will be black, dried up and invisible among the weeds.  Before another month or so, the county will have a crew through here to cut the roadside weeds.   Litter or no litter, they will be here to turn Johnson grass, baby trees, and old banana peels into mulch.  No additional cost to anyone, as far as I can see."
Jerry pointed, "You gave a bad example."  His father had harped on just that point in another argument earlier in the week.  Not that he would have smoked the cigarettes anyway.  He just wanted them to test his gadget.
His father pursed his lips and nodded, "In other circumstances, I might agree.  But, who was here to see this?  Only my environmentally brainwashed son who would never litter so much as a used blob of chewing gum if his life depended on it."
"You were also giving me an example of ignoring a public law if it didn't suit your private preferences!  What if I see you doing this, and I use the same logic to stay out past curfew or slide through the stop sign at Jake's Hill road."
"Would you?"
Jerry put a pause on his tongue.  There were hazards no matter what he said to his parent.  He decided to go with honesty.
"I don't know."
His father nodded.  "Good enough.  Obeying the law is a good solid default behavior, and you should never break one just on impulse.  But following every little subsection of the traffic code when a tornado is bearing down on you is suicidal.  I have purposely ignored stop signs with as little excuse as being very low on gas.  If you get caught, then pay the fine with a smile, because it was your decision.  Just don't be brainless, and break a law on a whim."
Jerry smiled, "So, what was your reason for tossing the banana peel, other than your whim?"
Greg Foley curled his upper lip.  "Fruit flies.  I hate 'em.  Leave a dead banana in this pickup for any time at all and they appear as if by spontaneous generation.  You ever snort in one of those critters by accident?  Murder!  I tell ya."
Jerry shook his head in capitulation, grateful that they were pulling to a stop at the Highway 79, Ranch Road 685 intersection.  He got out with his bags and looked along the stretch of railroad tracks that were his personal cleanup duty.
"Call me when you are done."
Jerry tapped the pocket where he had his cell phone and nodded.  After the pickup drove off, the first thing he picked up was the note trapped under a large flat rock.  His part of the cleanup was the rails and southern side of Highway 79 from the intersection to a marker he would find closer to town.
He opened his first bag, stuffed the note in and got to work.
The cleanup was inspired by the Presidential whistle-stop campaign now working its way through this part of the state.  The President's special Amtrak train was due to arrive in Hutto tomorrow morning, before heading east.  Stopping only at small farming communities, it was the President's latest attempt to repair the PR damage he had taken over last year's Omnibus Farm Bill.  
Hutto farmers who shared morning coffee at the little diner room at Wag-A-Bag next to the Co-op hadn't said a kind word for the President there all year.  Yet the community had pulled out all the stops to sweep the streets and polish the stop signs on the half-dozen streets that faced the Union Pacific rail siding.  There was still glitter in the Presidency, no matter how hard the actual politicians tried to tarnish it.
It also helped that the locals were being given the prime seats.  The press were relegated to a special parking area over amid the metal silos at the cotton gin.  By doing his part in this cleanup, Jerry had locked up one of the limited seats on the bleachers hastily erected next to the tracks.
Beer cans, stained paper plates, shiny candy wrappers, and plastic drink cups emblazoned with the sun-faded logo of a fast food place eight miles away in Round Rock, Texas -- there was plenty of trash to fill his first bag.  It was taking a lot longer than he had thought.  His stretch of roadway was much less than a mile, but there was a lot of stooping and picking.
Jerry wished he had one of those remote grippers or even a spike on the end of a stick.  He could already feel it in the muscles of his back.
Still, this was a good selection of stuff for his gadget.  Household trash wasn't the same as road litter.
When he saw his end-point memo next to the switch where the siding left the main line, he was ready to quit.  He picked it up and added it to the little bit of stuff he had in his second bag, and then called his father.
As he waited, he looked at the switch.  Even though he had lived in the Hutto area all his life and on most days trains barreled through town about every fifteen minutes, he had never really gotten this close to the tracks.  The local police were pretty quick to chase off kids who played on the rails.
He patted his pocket where he had stashed a rusted railroad spike, an unexpected treasure.  There were lots of them in the rocks next to the tracks but he had not realized they were there.  
The switch was interesting as well.  In the back of his mind, he had wondered what would happen if someone switched the tracks as a joke.  Now he realized it would never happen.  The switch was simple.  It was clear how to make it work -- step on the release and flip that heavy bar over to the other side.  But the most massive padlock he had ever seen latched the bar down.  It made the padlock on his school locker look like a toy.
Plus, there was some kind of wiring hooked to the switch and he suspected there was some huge central office that could read the position of every track on the line. 
His father drove up after a while, and rolled his eyes as Jerry put the full and partial trash bag into the back of the truck.
"We're taking that stuff home?"  he asked.
Jerry grinned.  "I want to test my gadget."
"I've raised my son to be a trash man."  He shook his head.
At home, the first order of business was getting a canned coke out of the refrigerator, and then he hauled the bags out to the barn.
His gadget stood over twelve feet tall.  A roller coaster for trash is what his father called it.  He called it a Refuse Separator.
All three switches on – click click click, and the barn was alive with the hum and rattle of the fans and the conveyer belt.  Unceremoniously, he dumped the first bag into the hopper, and then fished out the railroad spike and placed it on the top of the pile like a cherry on a sundae.
Already, the bottom of the pile was being dragged off, up the conveyer belt and dropped from the top.  The fans separated the paper, while a huge electromagnet attempted to bend the fall of the iron and steel into a separate catcher bin.  Glass and aluminum and other inert stuff landed in the center bin, which was shaking in an attempt to sort light from heavy.
Jerry still wasn't happy with it.  The gadget started as a science fair project last year, and although he got a second place, he couldn't stop playing with the design.
"Having fun?"  His father came out, sipping a drink of his own.
"I'll know in a minute."  He pointed at the railroad spike.  "I want to see that drop into the iron bin."
His father nodded, finishing his drink, and then tossing the aluminum can into the trash.
"Dad!"  Jerry fished it out and dropped it into the aluminum recycle bin.  "I told you.  Aluminum is prime recyclable.  Old cans are valuable."
"As valuable as my time?"
Jerry spoke slowly, as if his father was too stupid to understand.  "Separating the recycle streams at the very beginning is the most cost efficient method!"
"Ah ha!  Cost efficient for whom?  It's not cost effective for me.  I could care less whether I make a penny by tossing the can into the pretty colored bin.  It's only cost effective for the people like you who are trying to manage the environment.  And the way I look at it, I'm doing you a favor."
His father gestured at the separator.  "Your gadget will be most valuable, not for managing new trash, but for mining out the valuable metals that are already stashed in the existing landfills.  So I am doing you a favor by making sure that the mine has good quality ore."
Jerry just shook his head.  He would never make his father understand.
But just then, the spike started to climb up the conveyer belt, and Jerry moved closer to watch it drop.
Ker-chunk!  Success!
His father patted him on the back.  "Good job son."
After his father left, he reached for the little bag and dumped its load into the hopper.  Even with the limited range of things the separator could handle, it still made his job of sorting the recyclables easier.  His father ribbed him about the electricity he spent on the job, but at least he was willing to chalk that up as an educational expense.
The smaller load went fast, but just before it was done, he caught sight of something shiny shooting out of the drop stream.  He walked around to the backside of the gadget and retrieved the silvery candy wrapper.
"'Brokies' -- I never heard of that one."  He tossed it back into the input hopper and a few seconds later, just as before, it shot out of the drop path in an unexpected direction.
"What is going on?"
A third time, he sent it on its way.  He kept an eye on it the whole way.
It was the magnetic separator.  The wrapper was being pushed out the back by the electromagnet.
"Why is it being pushed?"
He grabbed up the flimsy wrapper and looked it over.  It looked just like all the other aluminized plastic wrappers so popular with candy makers.  He went over to the paper bin and fished out a peanuts wrapper that looked identical in material and put the both of them into the hopper.
They flickered through the separator one after the other.  The Brokies hit the magnet and was ejected, but the peanut wrapper dropped past it without a wobble and hit the airflow that pushed it over into the paper bin.

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