Chain Reaction


Doug shared his parents’ dismay as they left their car and looked around at the littered highway rest area. What should have been a cool, green oasis for weary travelers looked as though it were part of a garbage dump! There were plenty of trash containers, but most of them were practically empty. Around them were scattered cans, paper plates, and plastic cups and utensils. Napkins and old newspapers blew along the sidewalk ahead of them.

“I don’t know how we can possibly eat our picnic lunch in this dirty place,” Doug’s mother sighed. “And just look at that! Vandals have chopped out the center board of the only picnic table left.”

“It’s disgraceful,” Father said angrily. “It costs the government a lot of money to provide these little mini-parks for the public. The trees and lawns are beautiful and well trimmed. Why can’t people appreciate such facilities and care for them?”

“Because they have no pride,” Mother murmured sadly as she fanned flies away from the baby.

“I’ve read that people in some countries don’t tolerate such abuse of parks and other public facilities,” Mother continued. “Bystanders shame any offender into picking up discarded objects. And if that doesn’t work, one of them picks up the rubbish even though he didn’t drop it. Can you imagine what a terrible impression this mess would make on visitors from other countries?”

“Well, we certainly can’t eat here,” Father said. “We’ll use the rest rooms and then try to find a cleaner spot farther down the highway.”

“Why don’t we clean up this one instead?” Doug suggested. “All the others will probably be just as dirty. We need to stretch our legs after the long ride anyway. The exercise will be good for us.”

His parents looked startled but pleased as their dark-haired son began picking up and depositing handfuls of litter into one of the trash cans. They smiled when they saw two other children from a nearby table join him. Soon other boys and girls scrambled after the litter and suddenly everyone made a game of cleaning up.

A station wagon pulled up and parked. The occupants climbed out and headed for the outdoor drinking fountain. A teenage girl watched the children and then returned to the station wagon and took out an overflowing litter bag. She was careful to see that every scrap was emptied inside the trash can. She stooped to catch a blowing paper and deposited it in the container too.

Doug’s mother smiled. “Neatness seems as contagious as littering. I’ll bet I can clean up this pile of litter before you can gather up that stuff over there by the fountain!” she challenged Father.

A few at a time, the people who had eaten at nearby tables began to pick up around them, some a little self-consciously. Even travelers who seemed in a hurry took time to pick up a few cups or bottles before leaving. Children giggled and raced after the few remaining plates and napkins that tumbled about in the wind.

An elderly couple smiled as they watched. In a very short time the rest area was spotless, and the many travelers from different places had taken time to get acquainted with each other. The people in each car honked and waved as they left to resume their journey.

Doug was very hungry by the time the family had all washed up and spread their lunch on a shaded redwood picnic table. A cool breeze rustled leaves overhead, but there were no pieces of litter blowing about. Everyone had a feeling of pride as they ate their lunch and enjoyed the now-beautiful spot.

A young couple parked their van and got out. “What a lovely place, and it’s so much cleaner than the others we’ve seen,” the blond girl said, stopping in the shade. The man tossed his paper cup at a trash can. It hit the rim and bounced off, scattering ice. The girl dropped a pink tissue and shrugged as it tumbled across the lawn. They looked startled and embarrassed as Doug picked up their litter and deposited it in a trash barrel. “This place was filthy, too,” he explained, “but my family and a bunch of other travelers took time to clean it up.”

A big semitrailer truck pulled into the circular drive and parked. Two weary-looking men got out and started up the walk toward the rest rooms. One man dropped a candy bar wrapper. The young couple was leaving now but the blond girl stooped to retrieve the wrapper and place it in the trash barrel. The truck driver glanced down at the tattered road map he had started to toss, then took a few extra steps to drop it into the barrel. “I’ve never seen one of these places so clean. It’s a nice change,” he said. His driving companion nodded in agreement.

“In a way I hate to leave,” Doug murmured, as his mother folded the tablecloth and packed the picnic basket. “We won’t find another place as nice as this.”

“Then we’ll just take the time to make it as nice,” his mother countered. “Look what happened when you started picking up litter. It started a cleanup campaign like a chain reaction. Maybe all those travelers who worked together here today will keep fighting thoughtless pollution wherever they go. Pride in our country has to start somewhere. Who knows, maybe you started it here today!”

They were back in the car, preparing to leave, when a woman put a leash on her dog and started strolling up the grassy slope where the two truck drivers had spread blankets for a nap.

One man raised up on his elbow and called, “What’s the matter, lady? Didn’t you read that sign? There’s a roped-off area over there for walking dogs. How do you expect to keep rest areas clean unless you keep the rules?”

The flustered lady hurried back down the slope and headed toward the area set aside for pets.

“I guess I did start a chain reaction, didn’t I?” Doug remarked with a grin.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dick Brown