Finishing the job

Our many wondrous advances count for naught if we leave cleanup for our grandkids.At the tender age of about 10, I got my first lesson on the subject of cleaning up after oneself. We’d gone to visit Gramma and Grampa in Watertown, Mass., a little way out of Boston. I always liked visiting their home, a really old-fashioned place with a parlor – a small room off the living room, home to a couple of rocking chairs no one actually sat in. In fact, the big set of double French doors to the parlor was rarely not closed.

My favorite room was the living room, the centerpiece of which was a nearly wall-to-wall carpet with geometric patterns that evoked, to a young boy’s imagination, highways in all directions. Blocks of wood could be pushed under the rug to make hills, and more blocks of various sizes became cars and Big Rigs, and youthful drivers were off to explore places that didn’t exist to most grown-ups.

Grampa taught me important things in that house. One was the purpose of a four-inch wide piece of leather hanging in the bathroom. It was a razor strop, used each morning to sharpen the razor blade which Grampa used to smooth his face. The strop also could be used to sharpen the memory of a lad who had trouble recalling how to not do whatever thing Grampa had specifically said to not do. Somehow, I avoided being treated to a practical demonstration.

He taught me how electricity works. Grampa was an electrician with the Massachusetts Transit Authority, which ran the electric trolley cars in the Boston area. More than a half-century later, I have passed to my grandkids his analogies to water, hoses and pressure to explain the relationships among amps, ohms and volts.

One of the most memorable lessons involved a hedge the gentleman across the street wanted trimmed. Grampa came in one Sunday afternoon and asked would I like to earn some money. He issued me a pair of humongous shears that nearly took two hands just to carry them across the street. Grampa demonstrated a few slices, explained the desired results and turned me loose. I have to say, I did an excellent job, for which I was paid a pleasing wage.

I was driving block-trucks around the living room highways when Grampa came in, sat down in his easy chair, and lit up a Tareyton. (Only one time he sat in that chair without lighting a cigarette, but that’s another story.)

He looked down at me and gave me “the look.”

“If someone does a job, especially a job he is paid to do,” he asked, “don’t you think he should clean up any mess he’d made?”

I didn’t need more than a few seconds to realize his point. I had left all the hedge trimmings lying on the sidewalk. I pretty immediately went across the street with a lawn rake and finished the job I’d been paid to do.

I recalled that lesson as I thought about the truly amazing things my generation has done – cell phones, nuclear power, oil and gas from thousands of feet below the planet’s surface. Unfortunately, we’ve left a mess for the next generation to clean up – and they are going to have to hurry.

Science fiction writers foretell domed cities in response to an unfriendly atmosphere. Sealed air terminals and rail conduits enable traffic between cities, and individual home air conditioning is made obsolete by artificial weather systems.

I wonder what solutions our grandkids actually will come up with to clean up the messes their ancestors have left lying on the sidewalks of history.

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