I saw them picking up garbage. At the time, I was at a filling station, located in the wilds of rural Alabama. I was pumping gas when I saw three men.
They wore neon vests. They carried sharp sticks. They were meandering along the county highway, collecting litter and placing it into satchels.
They were old guys. Dressed like your granddaddy’s generation. Pants pulled up to their armpits, á la Fred Mertz. Between three of them, there were six hearing aids.
“We do this just because we can,” said one guy, using a sharp stick to stab a crumpled Wendy’s cup in the grass.
Another man chimed in. “Everyone claims they care about this country, but when you see the litter we see, most of’em are lying.”
They are in their eighties. The oldest is 86. The youngest is 81. “It’s good exercise, gets us outside, gets us moving. Gets the blood going. Cheaper than a membership to one of those gyms where everyone wears tight britches.”
Another man puts it a different way. “You don’t stop going because you get old, you get old because you stop going.”
A few times each week, the old guys meet in the morning. They eat breakfast at some restaurant. Eggs and bacon and toast with lots of butter. All the things their doctors tell them not to eat.
They drink too much coffee. They tell the same stories they’ve been telling since Americans drove Packards. They flirt with their waitress. They visit the men’s room, which, at this age, they tell me can take about as long as dental school.
Then it’s time to go to work. They hop in the truck. They find a stretch of highway.
“We just drive until we see trash. Just last week, we saw a bunch of Mountain Dew cans scattered on the median, like someone just threw cans from their car. So we started there.”
They’re ordinary guys. One man used to sell steel products. Another man is a retired millworker. The youngest among them was a bricklayer. Salt of the earth. And I do mean “salt.” Their cusswords never stop flying.
The men wandered along the tall grass, occasionally stooping low to pick up Styrofoam boxes, Coke bottles, plastic wrappers, and deceased bags of Fritos. And they never quit cussing.
“See this?” one said, picking up several crushed beer cans. “This is just stupid. There’s no excuse for this kind of crap.”
Another man picks up plastic water bottles. “I don’t know what it is with people and water bottles. I could build a house out of all the water bottles I’ve picked up.”
One of the men uses a mechanical grabber to collect refuse. He tells me he does not bend at the waist for fear that he will require a forklift to get his body back into an upright position.
“If I can’t grab it with this thingy, it means the Lord wants it to stay right where it is.”
Before I leave the men, I bid them goodbye. They all wave and wish me well. I ask them if they have any final words for my column.
“Yeah, I got some final words,” said one old man. “Everyone is always saying how they wish there was more good in this world, well hell, get out there and be it.”
Out of the mouths of octogenarians.