Leave It Better

The local Post Office is a major crossroad for small town folk. This is where most of the grape-vine-stories take root and begin their travels from one person to the next. No one here calls it gossip. That would imply that we have some less than respectful intentions with what we tell around town. The stories a person gathers here is just news. That and nothing more.

“I saw where they cleared the lot down next to the dollar store.” This is a casual way of asking the other person if he knows anything about it.

“Yep. I saw that. I hear the Dukes are gonna move their pizza shop and put up a new place on that corner.” This, plain and simple, is news.

“How ‘bout that. They’ve been around a long time. It’ll be nice to have a new place in town.”

In fact, that is exactly what happened.

So, when I go to the Post Office I expect to stand out on the sidewalk for a spell, shake a hand or two and gather up local information that could prove to be useful.

Max stays in the truck. As I approach the door, I see Miss Annette coming. She just lives down the street a little ways across from the Methodist Church, even though she is Baptist through and through. This is her daily walk.

I lean in to open the door for her. The door comes open before I can get to it. A young boy is with his mom, and he pushes the door open in gentlemanly fashion. He steps off to one side holding the glass door against his backside.

“Well, thank you, young man.” Miss Annette is amused.

This boy knows his manners. “Yes ma’am.” His mama beams a proud smile.

Inside, Miss Annette chats with me for a bit. She always asks about the kids. She still sees them running around the church in her head like they are still school age.

She pauses. “I sure am sorry to hear about Beth.” It’s been a while since I last ran into her, and this is her first chance to express her condolences.

“Yes ma’am. It’s sure been different. But you’ve been at this much longer than me. How long since Mr. A.D. passed away?” I ask because I know that she knows in spades what little I know about loss.

“Twenty-one years now,” she says. “I still miss him every day.”

We part ways and I head to the back to check my mailbox. On the way out I bump into John Willis. John is a character. Hardworking. Taught all his kids to work with their hands and their brains. I met John on a Habitat project probably twenty-five years ago. He was up on the roof putting down shingles and lost his grip. He came sliding down off the edge, hit the ground, and rolled up right in front of me. He dusted off. “Whew, that was exciting.” Then he went right back up the ladder. I knew then that I wanted to get to know this guy.

“What’s going on with the Scouts these days?” John is the local Scoutmaster, and always has some adventure on the burner. I’m interested in his stories because of the years I spent as a Boy Scout.

“Funny you should ask,” he says. “We’re loading up this evening and driving down into to Florida for a canoe trip.” He goes on to tell me about all the details. Where they wanted to go, but the water is too low. So, they’re headed to a different spot.

“They’re actually closed for the season, but we’ve been going there for years, and they know us. They promised to let us in and leave us alone. Besides, I promised them we’d clean up all the trash along the river while we’re there. It’ll be like a service project.”

“Leave it better than you found it,” I said.

“Yes sir. Every time.”

The Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared.” A close second is this unwritten code of ethics. I know I had it drilled into me. It could be a camping spot in the middle of nowhere. We could leave a mess, and no one would ever know that it was us.

But Billy Dan was having none of that. Every campfire was soaked and buried. Every tent site was raked out and leveled. Every square foot was combed for trash that we bagged and packed out, whether we made the mess or not. When we left, it was like no one had ever been there.

As I drove back out to the farm, I kept thinking about those boys headed to Florida. I don’t know who they are, but I know John. They will have the time of their lives out on that water. They’ll slap the water with their paddles and spray the canoe next to them. They’ll sit around a fire and eat what they cook. They’ll paddle by moonlight in the dark if John has his way.

They will bring home a ton of good memories.

But, more than that, they’ll bring home a sense of pride in something accomplished that no one will ever know about except them. And me. And now you. Okay, a few hundred folk might know, but that’s it.

In the middle of an adventure, they will take the time to make one small place on this planet cleaner more beautiful and leave it better than they found it. That’s it. And it will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

“Why are we doing this?” Every Tenderfoot wants to know. “This is not our trash.” The new guy might complain. “We didn’t make this mess. Why should we have to clean it up?”

These are the questions asked by someone who doesn’t understand the code. That no matter where you go, no matter what condition you find when you get there, we all have it in us to leave that place better than we found it.

My Dad and I went down to the fishing camp on High Falls lake one time. Just a little peninsula on the upper end of the lake not far from where the Towilaga flows into the main body.

Whoever had been there before us left the place a mess. The old campfire was full of trash. Paper plates and cups and chip bags were scattered by the wind all out through the woods down toward the water’s edge. Even the boats chained up to the old oak tree had a dozen cans crushed and laying around. One or two floating in the water.

We made camp. But before we went fishing, my dad said, “Let’s clean this place up.” I complained. He was quick to respond. “You want the privilege of fishing here, then you got an obligation to take care of it.” We bagged every piece and put it all in the back of the truck to take home with us.

When we left the next day, the old fish camp was better than we found it.

I’ve never forgotten that.

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