By CHRIS CARBAUGH
One of the goals of the thirty-plus members of the University Park Garden Club was to carry out an annual project that promoted environmental awareness and the beautification of their city. A secondary goal was to engage as many citizens as possible in the project. This year, under the direction of their president, MamaLu, the club took on the cause of eliminating all litter within the confines of their community. The members agreed that the thoughtless tossing of trash onto the streets from cars, trucks, and other vehicles was an aesthetic and environmental blemish. It was destroying the sanctity of the very name of their city, Greenville. The random trash just did not look respectable lying on the ground, particularly near the Bird Sanctuary signs on the streets that served as entrances to the city. How could visitors enjoy the beautiful robins, bluebirds, and Carolina wrens that resided in the area when the preponderance of litter was their first observation? MamaLu had pushed the issue verbally as far as she possibly could with some sense of decorum. She eventually resorted to the scarcely uttered “t” word to describe the disgrace to the ladies of the club—it was, in fact, “tacky.” Tacky could only be used to imply the complete lack of taste, pride, and caring, the absolute lack of gentility, and the general state of being lowdown. There was a crisis, and it needed to be addressed immediately and thoroughly. Perhaps the ladies of the University Park Garden Club could demonstrate how to conquer the blight in at least one area of the city and then other clubs would follow suit and also adopt needy areas. The city would be free of litter in no time at all.
At the September meeting of the club, MamaLu explained as best she could the increasingly dire situation facing Greenville. She made an earnest appeal for the club to adopt an anti-litter project. Several ladies volunteered to serve on what became the “Don’t be a litterbug” steering committee, outlining an enthusiastic and vigorous campaign. They suggested that members of the club, their families, their friends, and anyone else they could enlist should target a busy intersection that was a well-known eyesore. All volunteers would stand there holding large signs with various anti-littering admonitions. They would also give a “Please don’t be a litterbug” bag to all of the motorists who stopped at the intersection’s traffic light. Someone, a convincing volunteer, would ask the local radio stations to announce details of the campaign and then another person, equally as convincing, would get in touch with the local television station and ask that a reporter film the activities for showing on the six o’clock news. And yet another member would ask both newspapers, the morning edition, The Greenville News, and the afternoon edition, The Greenville Piedmont, to cover the club’s efforts.
The plan seemed simple enough, exciting, and universally accepted by the club members. They officially adopted it by voice vote and decided to carry it out in the spring. It was a joyous acceptance of a worthy cause. MamaLu expected Johnny, BB, Curt, Paul, and me to participate. BB suggested that the members tie red, white, and blue balloons on the nearby telephone poles to give the effort a patriotic flare and purpose. MamaLu concurred and bought a bag of birthday balloons for us to inflate and some kite string to tie them to the poles.
As the date of the campaign approached, MamaLu enlisted the aid of our grandfather, called Grindaddy because he smiled all the time, in making the all-important signs. He printed very well and made the letters large on the poster board signs so that passers-by could see the appeals from their cars and trucks:
“Don’t be a litterbug!”
“Don’t throw out trash!”
“Don’t be careless!”
“Use a litter bag in your vehicle!”
“Keep Greenville G R E E N !” This one was my favorite sign. Grindaddy outlined the letters of the word “green,” then Johnny, BB, Curt, Paul, and I filled them in using several dark green crayons. Then he attached the signs to some sturdy yardsticks. He produced eight very effective signs to promote a cause that he felt was worthwhile.
Concurrent with the sign-making activities was the printing of several hundred sandwich-sized white bags with the directive, “Please, don’t be a litterbug.” The bags were small, verging on being dainty. Perhaps someone could place two or three tissues or a candy wrapper or two in them. They certainly would not hold the remnants of anything from a fast food visit, but they did get the point across. The ladies of the club were sure that motorists would welcome such a practical gift and that they would feel good about returning the city to its pristine beauty.
This marketing campaign for a more beautiful, litter-free, environmentally aware Greenville took place during the first Thursday of the month of March, when it was still cold and windy. MamaLu unexpectedly faced some difficulties in recruiting the initially excited garden club members to stand outside in such weather, particularly at the busy and usually congested intersection of Wade Hampton Boulevard and North Pleasantburg Drive. The members had only one of two tasks to perform: either hold a sign or present motorists with a litter bag when they stopped at the traffic light. Perhaps it was more than appropriate that this intersection was positioned directly across from an expansive graveyard, Woodlawn Memorial Gardens, because 18-wheelers went whizzing through the area as did every other type of vehicle. It was almost a death wish in the making to position a mortal’s body at that location, much less to distribute litter bags and to hold signs appealing to the best side of the human psyche. But for the garden club ladies, these concerns were minor details merely detracting from a truly superior goal.
Evidently, as the date of the event approached, word traveled quickly that MamaLu might be calling members of the club to request “litterbug” duty. There was a higher percentage than usual of non-answers to telephone calls as well as a high percentage of excuses for non-participation. The excuses sounded sincere and honest—and occasionally creative and spontaneous:
“Oh, sweetheart, you precious thing. I’ve already made plans to help so-and-so move on that day, and you know what a wreck her house is. And that husband of hers is not very helpful, bless his soul!”
“Oh, I forgot to put that on my calendar, and I am in charge of the bazaar at the church on Friday, and we will spend all day Thursday preparing.”
“Oh, if you had just called yesterday before I made my doctor’s appointment. You know how my back has been acting up, and doctor so-and-so was able to work me in.”
“I promised so-and-so to accompany her to the doctor. You know she has …” Then she would mention with hushed words that the afflicted had some type of “female” ailment.
The doctor’s appointment excuse was so sacred that it was practically untouchable. People receiving it were stopped dead in their tracks. It was secondary only to funeral duties. And it seemed that, unfortunately, there was a rash of recent deaths with funerals planned on or around that designated Thursday of the campaign. So many long-lost relatives of vast, extended families were suddenly lost forever: “My husband’s great-aunt by marriage, a dear of a woman, although we hadn’t seen her for years, went peacefully in her sleep.” Such passings were the equivalent to a “pass” on the litterbug duty. The morticians in town had to be working overtime, perhaps to the degree of bringing in reserves from nearby cities. And, of course, there were visitations, casseroles to be made, sad words to emote tearfully, appropriate wardrobe to consider, hairdo appointments, and then, the actual funeral services—such a busy time for the “relatives” and friends of the deceased.
Reduced to a skeletal crew, MamaLu took three of my four brothers, Johnny, BB, Curt, and me, along with three garden club volunteers to the aggrieved site to perform our civic duty. Although a small group, we were ready to challenge Greenvillians and others to end the scourge of random and thoughtless tossing of litter. It was one of those March days when the shirts and pants on the clothes line froze instantly and with the slightest wind assaulted anyone dealing with them. No sooner than the patriotic balloons were tied to the telephone poles, the wind whipped them off and sent them whirling into the sky. The three garden club volunteers must have been the first ones called upon before the alarm had been sounded and excuses could be fabricated. One of them, totally oblivious to the nature of the task, wore high-heeled shoes, white gloves, and a hat that had a ring of fabric flowers and a plastic yellow canary on it. Bless her heart! The canary did survive the wind, however, and remained intact, just bobbing back and forth.
The adults were given the job of holding the signs. The wind was whipping them back and forth, making them barely readable. My brothers and I were given the assignment of providing every driver of any moving object with the delicate, prim and proper, “Please, don’t be a litterbug” bag. Every motorist, be it the driver of a car, a truck, a tractor, a motorcycle, a bus, whatever, needed a bag in order to maximize the environmental impact. We assumed that we would mostly encounter cars and trucks, but each of us had at least one unusual vehicular encounter.
Curt delivered to a Meritta Bread Merry-Go-Round truck used for birthday parties; he placed a bag in two of the horse’s mouths. Johnny had a mini-military convoy of two olive green trucks filled with soldiers and another truck carrying a tank. He threw a handful of bags into each of the first two trucks. One of my unusual encounters was with an Avon lady who gave me some free samples of hand cream and several cards, and told me to pass them on to the Garden Club ladies, then she smiled ever so kindly. Also, people of various persuasions gave me religious tracts. “Have you found the Lord?” “Are you living a righteous life?” “Do you know the Way?” They seemed more concerned about the ultimate salvation of my soul than the clear and present dangers to both my body and soul on the highway.
Johnny said that someone had cursed him and that he had responded by saying, “Don’t litter the road with trash, and don’t litter the air with trashy words,” then he had made a quick exit. I was glad that the cursing episode involved Johnny rather than BB, because BB assuredly would have cursed him back with even worse language. It was a known fact that BB could always win in a curse-off. He did have one motorist who gave him a Gideon Bible and then asked him to recite his favorite Bible verse. “Jesus wept” was stated rapid fire.
I was tenacious in my efforts as were my brothers. We were determined that we would not miss anyone for any reason. It was as if we were working on commission, a quarter for every delivered bag. In general, I found the comments and conversations interesting, especially since they were being held in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in the city. A few people were kind and thanked me as I slid a bag through their barely opened windows. Some assured me that they never littered but would give the bag to someone else who might need it.
One lady said that I was brave to take on such a dangerous task. “Aren’t you afraid that someone might run over you?” she asked sympathetically. Then she gave me a dollar bill, which I did not decline, and I thanked her, stating that I would donate it to the cause. I also told her that I wasn’t afraid, that I had crossed this road on many occasions. At that point, however, I considered asking others if they cared to make contributions, but my conscience would not allow me to do so. In contrast to the kind lady, there were several motorists who told me to get out of the road before someone ran over me.
One yelled, “You’re too little to be standing out in the middle of the road.” I responded with a thank you and a plea: “Please don’t litter.” He sped away. A few people demonstrated less-than-kind hand signals to me.
My determination earned me a brief and exhilarating ride on the step-up of a large oil truck as it traveled down North Pleasantburg Drive. The driver of the truck would not lower his window when he stopped. I could barely reach it, but I was insistent that he would receive the bag that would change his life’s habits. But he took off when the light changed to green, completely ignoring me. He did not know that he had chosen the wrong person to dismiss. He must have thought that I had left the truck when he waved me off as if to say, “Get lost.” I was hanging on for dear life to the door handle, even dangling, when he made the turn to enter North Pleasantburg from Wade Hampton Boulevard. But I was not frightened, just tenacious.
I saw MamaLu throw down her sign and come running after me waving her arms and raising her voice. It was an event. MamaLu truly stopped traffic for several minutes. In the midst of it all, I was still trying to deliver the bag and its important message. A motorist who had witnessed my plight started blowing his horn trying to get the attention of the truck driver. He pulled up in front of the truck and slowed down considerably, waving his arm out the window. He was eventually able to stop the oblivious driver. When he did, I knocked on the window again, and the perturbed driver looked quite surprised. He lowered the window, and I proudly gave him the bag followed by a squeaky admonition: “Please don’t litter.”
“Get off of my truck, you dumb kid,” he shouted, “You could have killed yourself.”
I jumped off, waved an acknowledgement to the man and woman in the car who had stopped the truck, and started running back to my “station.” I had succeeded in attacking the dark, careless, littering soul of this particular motorist. I knew in my heart that he would never litter again. MamaLu was grateful that I was not hurt in any way and advised me to avoid the big trucks if they did not appear to be friendly. She did not take me off the sparse work detail, and we continued our efforts for about two more hours. The sun began to set, and a damp chill was penetrating the air.
As we were closing our campaign, I realized that the same activity that was designed to end litter forever in this small piece of the universe was, in fact, littering the highway. Some thoughtless and probably passive-aggressive people had thrown the delicate bags out their windows once they had passed the do-gooders’ station at the intersection. They totally discounted the pleas of the earnest voices of four children. So we completed our project at the end of the day by collecting litter bag “litter” at the chosen intersection. Someone had written on a bag in capital letters a suggestion of a place we could go for eternity, and it wasn’t heaven. We decided to redistribute the bags on another day, perhaps a warmer one when there could be more Garden Club participants.
After almost five hours on the road, everyone went home. MamaLu gave us some slices of a homemade pound cake to eat with hot chocolate. She assured us that we had made a difference if we had reached even just a few people and convinced them to change their habits. Our beautiful city would be more beautiful and more green because of our efforts. We felt accomplished and proud! We watched ourselves on the evening news for our less than 15 seconds of fame, and the two newspapers did carry a small photograph touting the garden club’s efforts, showing prominently the well-dressed woman with the pearls and the canary. Later we learned that several garden clubs had seen the publicity and had decided to replicate our efforts. That was one of the goals of the project. Perhaps we had performed a valuable community service after all.
The following month, MamaLu made a glowing report to the ladies of the Garden Club about the success of the campaign. She chose to leave out the dangling child incident, the balloon failure, the potential curse-off, the freezing temperature, the littering of the litter bags, and anything else that could be considered negative. Instead, she stressed all the positive aspects, the number of bags that were distributed, the publicity, the well-wishes of some of the motorists, the names of some of the other garden clubs that were replicating their club’s efforts, etc. She also mentioned that there were “surplus” bags, so there would be a follow-up date to complete the mission. She did not want to diminish zeal nor commitment. Afterwards, she made mention of all of the personal losses that various members had experienced recently, reminding everyone to keep the “bereaved” in their thoughts and prayers.
MamaLu came home after the meeting, opened a Dr. Pepper and a Hershey bar, kicked off her shoes, commended us on our work to change the habits of litterers so as to preserve the beauty of our city, and then told us how much she loved us.
Chris Carbaugh encouraged his students to write and publish in the literary journals they created—Possum Kingdom and Sekaishugi, both recognized with highest awards by scholastic press associations. Now retired, Carbaugh writes the stories that his children and grandchildren have asked him to recount numerous times. They are the adventures of five boys, him and his four brothers, and their incomparable mother, MamaLu. As a new writer, Carbaugh is honored to be published, or soon to be published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, THEMA, Broad Street, The Bitter Southerner, Kestrel, Valley Voices, The South Carolina Review, and The Broad River Review.