One Man’s Trash


By Neal Wooten

I was 16 years old, working a summer job in Fort Payne, when one day my boss gave me the keys to his pickup and asked me to take a load of trash to the landfill. I had no idea what he was talking about. He laughed and said, “Sorry, you probably refer to it as the ‘city dump.’”
I was still lost. I knew about garbage trucks and people in towns putting out their trash once a week, but I guess I had never considered what the trucks did with it after they collected it. The entire chain of events was as foreign to me as anything.
On the farm on Sand Mountain, our system was simple. We brought home groceries in paper sacks, unpacked them, and then put the empty sacks in the designated area to be used for trash. And we threw everything in there: paper, cardboard, plastic, tin cans, and bottles.
Once a couple of the bags were full, one of my chores was to haul them down to our burning area, which was just a grated-out patch of ground. I’d pile them up and take a match to light the bottom bag and walk away. Paper would burn, plastic would melt, and the cans and bottles just became darkened. When those built up over a few years, we’d cover them and dig out another burn area.
There were also several dump sites near our house. I assume they were not legitimate since they were all hidden in the edge of the woods down barren cornfield roads. And I never saw anyone using them, but I know they did because I went often and there was always new stuff. You’ve heard the expression, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Well, that was sure me when I was a kid.
One of the things I loved to find was old speakers. It was the age of loud music and lots of people had big speakers in their homes or cars, so finding discarded ones was often. And those yielded the greatest treasure of all. I knew just how to tear them apart to take out the powerful magnet in the back.
I guess we’re too civilized now to handle our own trash. Now my system is waking early Thursday morning, turning the kitchen light on, gasping in terror as I realize what day it is, rushing the trash out to the plastic can, hurrying down to the end of my long steep driveway just as the truck comes through, then dragging that sucker back up to the house, sweating, panting, and too tired to do anything else for the rest of the day.