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.

41 comments

  1. PMc - January 20, 2023 6:38 am

    Amen Amen Amen

    Peace and Love from Birmingham 🙏♥️

    Reply
  2. PMc - January 20, 2023 6:40 am

    Amen Amen Amen

    Peace and Love from Birmingham🙏♥️

    Reply
  3. SweetOnion - January 20, 2023 6:46 am

    I don’t understand litterbugs…there use to be fines for littering – do they even do that anymore?

    Reply
    • Susie - January 22, 2023 9:01 pm

      SweetOnion, I wonder about that,too!! I wonder why they don’t employ the trail/wildlife cams. Seems to me like you could catch quite a few litters that way. Put them everywhere and have people monitor them. I’ll bet it would bring in a lot of revenue, such as red light traffic cameras!!

      Reply
  4. oldlibrariansshelf - January 20, 2023 7:00 am

    This SO reminds me of my dad who used to say “You have to keep going to keep going.” He kept going for 99.5 years and was definitely one of the good guys. Thanks, Sean.

    Reply
  5. Ceejay - January 20, 2023 7:06 am

    A lot of wisdom right there! Be the good!!

    Reply
  6. Pat Patton - January 20, 2023 9:34 am

    Thank you, guys, for picking up litter and thank you, Sean if the South, for highlighting the litter problem and the goodness of these men.

    Reply
  7. Sharon Chewning - January 20, 2023 11:29 am

    These older gentleman have it right!!… First, pride in their country because of picking up trash from real losers, and I mean real “trash”.. so many litterbugs out there, and second, realizing how important exercise is at this age!!! I’m 70 and pick up trash everyday on our street that is either dropped or tossed out of cars. Kuddos to their wonderful efforts and to you Sean for recognizing another good Deed!!!!❤️❤️👏… love your blogs!!!!

    Reply
  8. chris - January 20, 2023 11:40 am

    Nothing short of AWESOME!!!!!

    Reply
  9. Wanda Wilson - January 20, 2023 11:55 am

    These men are the salt of the earth. May they be blessed with many more years of healthy lives. Thanks for posting Sean.

    Reply
  10. lesliehanson411hotmailcom - January 20, 2023 11:56 am

    This is a wonderful story – it is wisdom from those aging, it is encouragement to do better and it reminds us that we cannot do everything but we can do something! I used to attach a grocery bag to the baby stroller when taking the kids out to walk and not one of my grown kids can throw as much as a gum wrapper on the ground! Now it is pick up trash while walking our dogs!
    Thank you once again for a good reminder for each of us to be a better person today than we were yesterday!

    Reply
  11. Nancy - January 20, 2023 12:02 pm

    True story as told to me by the home team coach of a sport’s event. After the event ended, and the crowds cleared the bleachers, Coach noticed two men picking up trash. He approached the men, thanked them, and told them they did not have to pick up trash as a crew was hired to do so after each event.
    The older man told Coach, they like to leave a place better than they found it. Coach introduced himself, and in turn Truett Cathy introduced himself and his son.

    Reply
  12. Susie - January 20, 2023 12:41 pm

    Thank you, Sean, for telling it like it is!!!

    Reply
  13. Susie - January 20, 2023 12:44 pm

    I’m with the old guy when he said, People will swear they care about this country, but then litter…. and vote for an autocrat. Look it up.

    Reply
  14. Jenna P Jones - January 20, 2023 1:02 pm

    “Everyone says they care about this country, but when you see the litter we see….” Years ago, one of these men could have been my dad. Over 40 years ago, when I received my first microwave as a gift, he saltily asked, “where is that thing going after it dies? The landfills are full.” As landfill smoke lingers among our communities, how very relevant are both your words, Sean, and my dads. If we love this country, take care of her.

    Reply
  15. Nancy Robertson - January 20, 2023 1:13 pm

    I LOVE this piece!!

    Reply
  16. denise - January 20, 2023 1:24 pm

    Love it. It takes so little to make a difference!!!

    Reply
  17. mccutchen52 - January 20, 2023 1:34 pm

    I know what they mean but they are braver than I am. I live on a residential street close to all the fast food places. I used to pick up garbage to the end of my block but people throw things out while speeding down the street. My wife told me just to pick up in front of the house because people don’t care. I guess trash cans or bags in your car is to much trouble.

    Reply
  18. Judy - January 20, 2023 1:48 pm

    There is another circle in Dante’s inferno for those who litter, especially right by the sign that says, no dumping. I try to understand why one would just throw trash on the roadside and the madder I become. These gentlemen should receive accolades and medals for their work.

    Reply
  19. Pamela Davis - January 20, 2023 1:59 pm

    In my rural country community, we have a man and his wife who pick the trash. Everyone know them and we wave when we go back. My husband, who has passed, did this too. In fact, the day before he died, he was walking and picking up the trash. So I know what these men are talking about. We live in a curve in the road, and people feel free to throw out whatever they have in their cars. My daddy always told us , take your trash home and throw it away. At 70, I still never throw anything out of the car window.

    Reply
  20. Farris Jones - January 20, 2023 2:18 pm

    Thank you guys!! Such an example we all should follow!

    Reply
  21. David Britnell - January 20, 2023 2:43 pm

    Thank you guys for making the world a better place! Thanks Sean

    Reply
  22. bubbastubbs - January 20, 2023 2:50 pm

    “You don’t stop going because you get old, you get old because you stop going”, wisdom INDEED! There’s certainly a lot to be learned from our old-timers’ philosophy.

    Reply
  23. Rhonda - January 20, 2023 3:11 pm

    Angels among us.
    Good men are angels

    Reply
  24. Ht - January 20, 2023 3:24 pm

    Saw this sign in Alabama:
    “Only trash litters”

    Reply
  25. Marie - January 20, 2023 3:27 pm

    Double AMEN!!

    Reply
  26. Gigi - January 20, 2023 3:27 pm

    My parents taught me not to liter and 70 years later I still don’t, it wouldn’t even cross my mind. I return my grocery cart too, a pet peeve of mine. I also taught my children by my example. My son still holds doors open for women. It seems to me, parents don’t teach their children anymore, at least not like we taught ours.
    Kudos to those 3 gentlemen for making their part of the world a better place. We should all follow their example.

    Reply
  27. Stacey Wallace - January 20, 2023 3:30 pm

    Sean, thanks so much for this wonderful story. My grandmother, who lived to be 104, once told me, “Antiques are worth a lot of money. So old people are like antiques; they’re worth a lot of money, too.” And they’re very wise. Love to you, Jamie, Marigold, Otis Campbell, and Thelma Lou.

    Reply
  28. Linda Moon - January 20, 2023 4:15 pm

    Heck yeah. The octogenarian got it right!

    Reply
  29. Shirley Jones - January 20, 2023 4:34 pm

    Sean, I have made a trade, the news for your stories. Much better for the mind and body. Your stories give me something to think about and they amuse the mind. Thanks for the smile/laugh as I read.

    Reply
  30. LIN ARNOLD - January 20, 2023 5:08 pm

    GOD BLESS THEM and keep them safe as they do their “work”. These are awesome “young” men. Maybe they aren’t young in years, but definitely young in spirit.

    Reply
  31. pattymack43 - January 20, 2023 6:42 pm

    Thank you for always showing us that there is another way – a different way – to live our daily lives than the “rubbish” that we are given by main stream media. Hats off to the three heroes in today’s column! Blessings!

    Reply
    • Michael Bishop - January 20, 2023 7:35 pm

      Ever day my wife and I would canvas three miles in our small town to pick up trash strewn along our streets. Once a stranger stopped and asked why we did that. We told him as a joke that we were doing community service. He asked us what they had convicted us of. I said that I kneecapped a litterer. His eyes grew wide and then he got it and laughed.

      Reply
  32. Ellen C. - January 20, 2023 8:52 pm

    AMEN!!!

    Reply
  33. Renee Welton - January 20, 2023 10:48 pm

    😊

    Reply
  34. MAM - January 20, 2023 11:08 pm

    So simple, yet so effective. I walk the same roads every day, and I happily rarely see trash, but if it’s there, I try to remember where it is and get it picked up. I guess I should stick a plastic bag in my coat pocket.

    Reply
  35. Buddy Caudill - January 21, 2023 1:57 am

    I’ll “Amen” to that final comment !

    Reply
  36. Sue Rhodus - January 21, 2023 1:52 pm

    I love the philosophy…❤

    Reply
  37. Julia - January 22, 2023 11:10 am

    Thank you to these octogenarians. Another trash picker upper here in Louisiana. Thank you Sean.

    Reply
  38. Andy Gartman - January 24, 2023 8:32 pm

    Be the change you want to see happen.

    Reply
  39. Jeanne Fries - February 6, 2023 8:00 am

    I do believe this is happening everywhere., god bles them! We adopted a 5 mike stretch on wadsworth in honor if Ali when she left us, until it went to 4 lanes an event center added and condos and businesses took it over! Was abiut 10years ! Then we’d gi to breakfast together! For a while the ciunty jails did most of the maintenance but we don’t see that anymore either!

    Reply

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