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The Green Backpack

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Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.)

     I really wanted that green backpack. It had green and white stripes with a large “ecology” symbol on the back. The symbol was essentially an upside down peace symbol within a circle. Its aluminum frame and nylon construction weren’t particularly comfortable, lightweight or even useful; but, in 1972 it was groovy. I imagined I would explore the wilderness with it on my back. I never imagined the journey it would take me on.
     I had a paper route and with the money could buy whatever I wanted. My parents were disconcerted by the green backpack. Although I was a straight-A junior high school student; a Life Scout; in the band; and, played little league - for my parents the green backpack with the ecology symbol was a gateway drug to the hippie movement. Right after the purchase I got the “drugs are bad,” “birds and the bees,” and the “college” speech. Maybe it was turning thirteen earlier that Spring, but I think it was the backpack that shocked them into defensive action.
     Scouting was different in 1972. It was centered on Patrol activities and was made up of a group of eight or so boys whose Patrol constituted the larger Troop. Mine was the Rat Patrol. While Patrols would be, generally, named by the boys based on forest animals, we picked the name as a dual reference to the popular TV show. The Rat Patrol, on television, were a group of World War II desert guerilla fighters who outfoxed the Nazis in North Africa. This was us - a small group of mobile, active guerrilla Boy Scouts.
     We were a backpacking Patrol. We carried what we needed; went where foot trails took us and despised Base Campers. Base Camping Scouts, with their pop-up trailers, outdoor kitchens and fancy meals were restricted to the roads and more importantly, to wherever their parents drove them. In truth, our blue collar Patrol carried what it had, as opposed to what it needed.
     In the early 1970s, Southern California was different, too. Suburbia was just beginning to devour the foothills and farmland. Out neighborhood was wedged between large rolling hills of barley. The barley gave us our seasons: green was Winter and Spring; brown was Summer and Fall.
It was mid summer and out Patrol was planning a trip. There were no permission slips, insurance forms, or adult supervision. There were eight members of the Rat Patrol, a plan and the green backpack.
The plan was to hike seven miles over the soon to be harvested foothills to a campground. We would leave Friday and return Sunday. Vincent was the smart kid. He had been Mr. Spock since the third grade whenever we played Star Trek. He acted the smart kid part with his thick black framed glasses and even thicker black hair that stuck out like a crows wings underneath his Scout cap. Vince had a map; albeit a Union 76 gas station map. He showed the route from Dwayne’s house to the campground. He ended his briefing, pointing to spot on the map, “By cutting through the dump, we could save at least a mile.”
     None of us had seen a dump. Our backpacking trip was taking on the air of secret mission. We would have to time our departure to arrive at the dump after closing, cross unknown fences, navigate the dump and leave enough daylight to reach the campground. And, of course, not tell anyone of the plan.
     Late on Friday afternoon we set off. We quickly realized the defect of a gas station map. There was no accounting for terrain. The hills were steeper and the sun, though waning, hotter. For the first mile we moved along, singing our Patrol’s official hiking song (sung to Colonel Bogey’s March; or the title song from the Bridge over the River Kwai):

It’ll make your mouth turn green.
It tastes like Listerine.
It will make you vomit.
So get some Comet and vomit today.

     Soon laughter, whistling and singing gave way to the personal groans, sighing and jostling of the increasingly longer and steeper hills and switchbacks.
     We smelled it before we saw it. He had been hiking for nearly two hours when the first faint, sweet sick odor of decay hit us. Although none of us had been to a dump before, we all somehow knew the scent. As we climbed a hill the odor became stronger we came to a three strand barbed wire fence on the crest of the hill. From here, at the fence, we could see it. A deep man-made hole in the ground surrounded on three sides by small mountains of garbage. Sleeping yellow bulldozers, stopped mid push, were poised near the edge of the pit and ready to shove another blade full of trash into the hole. Dirt access roads wound in and around the heaps of garbage, quiet conveyor belts, assorted machines and trucks; even portable toilets.
     Our stop at the crest seemed longer than it probably was. We dropped our packs and started to assist one another across the barbed wire fence. After I had crossed, Walter, my best friend and the biggest and only Black Patrol member (in 1971, we were Black, Brown and White) handed me my pack. He passed it over the top strand of the fence and by the pack’s metal frame. The back of the pack with the ecology symbol was at my eye level. It was a stark contrast, looking back over the ripening summer barley, smelling the dump and holding the ecology symbol over a barbed wire fence.
     We followed Vincent down into the dump. We were resilient. Our momentary pause at the crest of the hill was now a full-tilt exploration of the waste of Los Angeles County. There was everything: rotten food, animal corpses and even a discarded avocado green refrigerator. Of course, Dewayne found a discarded Penthouse centerfold. For a few of us, it was a day of firsts; the dump and nudity. As we wandered through the dump, the odor began to change. Increasingly, it became a heavy sulfur-laden chemical smell.
     Beyond one of the trash heaps we found a large pond, the source of the chemical smell and in the center of the dump. It was a football field across and perhaps twice as long. Except it wasn’t water. It was a clay red, thick looking sludge with a blue twinge. Several large and small pipes fed liquid to the pond. Some flowed like water, but foamy and dirty, others like the brightest red liquid, oozed. On the far shore, there were scores of 50 gallon drums; some capped; some open; some swelling; and, others clearly corroding. We didn’t know that in the future this place would represent criminal charges, million dollar lawsuits and a superfund clean-up.
     Dewayne called it the Vulcan Lake of Fire. No one found it amusing. It looked and smelled serious and dangerous. We felt like we needed to get away from it - it was the birthplace of the Blob - we felt it might grab us. Pushing Vincent along, we quickly skirted the lake, climbed a service road and hiked out the other side. Two hours later, we climbed a chain link fence and hiked through official parkland to our campsite.
     That night around our fire, we talked about the garbage dump. We took the trash cans out on Wednesdays for our parents. We had seen them lining our street like drunken soldiers, leaning this way and that, but nearly at attention. We had seen the huge truck lumber from house to house and the men swing the cans into the truck bins. We had heard the bins labor up, and the crashing and mixing of our neighborhood refuse. We’d even smelled the trucks. But, we had no idea where the garbage went, or how people could create so much. We knew, based on the pit and the bulldozers, that we were only viewing a small percentage of what must have been dumped. How could the small amount of garbage our families produced create such an open sore? We were only beginning to understand.
     Vincent, the smart-acting kid, correctly identified the pond as industrial waste. He explained in a 13-year-old way that the production of our bikes, our television sets and even our packs created waste. It was the extra paint and chemicals, the washing of machine tools that had created the Vulcan Lake of Fire. Great, I thought. My green backpack with the ecology symbol was part of the problem it was purporting to champion. Well, 35 years ago I didn’t think it exactly like that, but the sentiment was the same. It was the first of three environmental dilemmas that were beginning to form in my mind. Everything we use, even that with a noble purpose, creates waste.
     As we talked we began to discuss solutions, what to do with the garbage. Walter came up with a solution. It was the hay-day of the Space Race. Walter said we should pack the garbage into a rocket and blast it to the sun. I know, other kids in other stories have mouthed those words. But, I heard the solution come from a member of the Rat Patrol. As I have gotten older it never ceases to amaze me how people seeing similar problems and having a similar mindset will come up with similar solutions; even bad ones. We all laughed at Walter. It was obvious immediately that the cost for so many rockets would make the solution improbable. I know, it was the cost, not the practicability - - we didn’t even consider that. We were American Boy Scouts and given enough time and money we knew you could do anything.
     Vincent said of Walter’s suggestion, “The problem is the weight of the garbage, getting it into orbit is only one problem. The real problem is the transferring of weight from the Earth to the Sun. As the Earth got lighter, the gravity would get less. Less gravity means the air would float into space. We’d suffocate and die.” I had never heard silence like that before. Vincent had killed us with Walter’s solution to a problem we were all creating. Fortunately, Dewayne broke the spell when he said, “Don’t worry Vince, your sister will survive, she has gills.” We laughed, changed the subject and the conversation eventually died with the fire.
     As I settled into my sleeping bag underneath my lean-to (okay, we had plastic sheets held up with clothesline and close pins, but it kept the dew off us), I began to think about the second dilemma posed by Vincent. It was the first time I thought about how our solutions to problems can have unintended consequences. Fortunately, we didn’t begin to shoot the Earth’s mass into the Sun. But, I can rattle off time after time that a human intervention designed to alleviate a human created-problem, created yet another, often more serious problem. After all the centralized collection of refuse is a good thing. The good thing led to the massive problem of landfills.
     On Sunday we broke camp, climbed to the top of the park and then over the chain link fence onto a dirt service road. Vincent stopped, broke out his gas station map and oriented it. He said, “If we go this way, we can go around the dump.” Dewayne turned and started to walk into the direction Vincent had pointed. There was no discussion. No one wanted to back to the Vulcan Lake of Fire.
     We were tired on Sunday and everyone was in their own heads. I began thinking about what good conservationists we were. This was only a conditioning trip. Over the next three years we would go on many wilderness hikes with our larger Troop. We competed and won as a Patrol and many Camporees. We knew our stuff: setting up a proper camp, making fire with one match, first aid, animals and knots. We were dedicated to leaving the wilderness as we had found it. Even this Sunday we had properly “policed up” the camp, even packing out garbage left by others.
     As we walked along, my pack partially filled with food wrappers and other garbage, I started to feel hypocritical. I didn’t know what the feeling was then, but I certainly do now. Yes, we were good conservationist, but my pack was filled with that which would fill the open wound of a landfill. The green backpack with the ecology symbol made me uneasy: it created waste and it carried waste. I felt like the boys behind me were staring at the symbol all the while knowing what I knew. And, to top it off, thus far, all the solutions we could come up with only made it worse.
     Around this same time, in the late 1960s or early 1970s, the phrase “Think Globally, Act Locally” came into our consciousness . At thirteen, I hadn’t heard that phrase, yet. But, as I hiked home that is the commitment that began to form in my mind. Indeed, years later, when I did hear it, it struck a strong cord and summed up what I had thought. As a 13-year-old, I realized that it was the cumulative actions of human beings which created the massive problems. Once the problem was massive, only massive intervention with all the potential unintended consequences could be applied. On the other hand, if the many human beings made small changes in their behavior, the problem could be addressed as small, not large.
     If my 13-year-old self had any wisdom it was the recognition that the massive pit and the Vulcan Lake of Fire were symptoms, not problems. That interventions on large scale symptoms don’t solve the problem, but potentially create other, even larger problems. I knew then, as I know now, that a single person doesn’t make much of a difference, but they do make a difference. I did make small changes. As an example, in a few years my father would demonstrate shaving by running water over the razor blade to wash away the shaving soap. I decided to fill the bowl with just enough water and swish the blade. Over 35 years that small half gallon or so that I save has made a huge difference.
     It’s those small, seemingly insignificant changes that really matter. The plastic grocery bags seem silly. But I know from experience it isn’t just the half dozen I use at the store, it’s my half dozen times millions. What happened to the green back pack? I haven’t seen it since I returned from Basic Training. I suspect my parents got rid of it while I was away. I am afraid it’s in a landfill, somewhere.

About the Author

Raymond E. Foster was a sworn member of the Los Angeles Police Department for 24 years.  He retired in 2003 at the rank of Lieutenant.  He holds a bachelors from the Union Institute and University in Criminal Justice Management and a Masters Degree in Public Financial Management from California State University, Fullerton.  Raymond is a graduate of the West Point Leadership program and has attended law enforcement, technology and leadership programs such as the National Institute for Justice, Technology Institute, Washington, DC.


Raymond has been part-time lecturer at California State University, Fullerton and California State University, Fresno and is currently the Department Chair of the Criminal Justice program at the Union Institute and University.  He has experience teaching upper division courses in law enforcement, public policy, technology and leadership.  Raymond is an experienced author who has published numerous articles in a wide range of venues including magazines such as Government Technology, Mobile Government, Airborne Law Enforcement Magazine, and Police One. 


His first book, Police Technology (Prentice Hall, July 2004) is used in over 100 colleges and universities nationwide.  Raymond E. Fosters second book, Leadership: Texas Hold em Style is widely available.


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