In this post I described my first Saturday working with the Appalachian aid volunteer program when I was a freshman in college. Unfortunately, not all the Saturdays were as pleasant as that one.
I think it was my second trip to Adams County when I was partnered with an awkward, blond-haired Xavier student. We were dropped off at the house of an elderly lady who needed a few tasks done, including burning her trash. Her home didn’t seem that remote, so I wasn’t sure why she had trash to burn in the first place; possibly there was no pick-up there. She was frail and obviously wasn’t up to the job of burning it herself.
She led us into the backyard and showed us a small area that served as her fire pit, although it wasn’t much but a scorched place with four short metal poles around it. The trash was in a small nearby wooden tool shed. Piles and piles of trash in open brown paper grocery sacks greeted us when she opened the rickety shed door. She also pointed out some rakes and left us to it. (Plastic sacks weren’t in use yet, thank God. As it was, I hate to think of the toxins we wound up releasing into the air.)
My partner obviously didn’t know any more about burning trash than I did. We got a fire going, then set in on the distasteful chore of hauling those spilling grocery bags out of the shed and tossing them onto the fire. Eggshells, rotten fruits and vegetables, moldy wet paper, plate scrapings and general rubbish filled every sack to bursting. Some of the sacks did burst, and we had either to pick up the refuse with our hands (I don’t think we had gloves) or use our rakes to drag the remnants into the fire. We took turns watching the fire itself, making sure the edges of our little conflagration didn’t wander outside the perimeters of the “pit.”
What we didn’t realize was trash bags sometimes included aerosol cans. I was a distance across the yard from the fire, possibly raking leaves, when I jumped at a sharp explosion. I looked up in time to see my blond-haired partner hit the ground. I was afraid he was hurt, but he was unharmed; I never figured out whether he’d been ducking or the detonation itself had knocked him down.
After that we tried to keep an eye out for potentially dangerous items and rake them away from the fire before something worse happened. It wasn’t easy. We didn’t have another accident as loud as the first, but at one point we heard a hissing sound and saw something sputter and shoot across the grass. One of us checked to make sure another fire wasn’t about to start.
It wasn’t nerve-wracking, and it wasn’t the kind of noble task that made you feel you’d really assisted someone. It did give us a good story to share with the other students on the way back to Cincinnati.
NUDGE: Bet you thought I was going to tell you to write about burning something. Okay, you can do that if you wish, but for this prompt I’m focusing on the distasteful aspect of the experience. Write about some chore that was absolutely gross. This is relative, of course, because different things bother different people. It doesn’t have to relate to garbage. Maybe you had to clean out house gutters and found something disgusting. Scrubbing a toilet may be such a turn-off for you that you could write chapters about it. In an episode of “Undercover Boss” last season, Cincinnati’s Mayor Mallory had to help pick up roadkill. What about you? Any roadkill stories or other nose-wrinkling tales? It’s not pleasant to write about, but you might as well face it—writing ain’t always pretty.