In July of 1980, Don Corrigan decided to profile the local sanitation engineers and give readers a look at their daily dirty jobs. The best way to do this? With a little immersion journalism. Want to know what it was like dumping waste in a landfill in the 1980s?
The adventure you are about to read is a tale of rotten watermelons, sweltering heat, exhausting work and trashy jokes. Don’t worry, even the faint of heart should read this story!
By Don Corrigan (Webster-Kirkwood Times 1980)
Author Tom Wolfe recently hit the jackpot with a bestseller entitled, The Right Stuff, which describes the tough breed of men who became America’s first astronauts.
With The Right Stuff very much on my mind, I recently launched an investigation into the makeup of the men who man Kirkwood’s sanitation trucks.
The investigation was done first-hand, Dan Rather style. Most of my research was completed on a morning haul, with Robert Lee Hurst at the wheel of the truck accompanied by sanitation engineers Dan Franks and Clarence Holmes.
Early on in the investigation, I learned that this business of trash pickup is risky. City Administrator Arlan Dohrmann asked that I sign a document absolving Kirkwood of legal responsibility should I get caught in the trash compactor.
I weighed the risks, looked through back issues of the Times to see if the city had any reason to rub me out, then I signed the document. The next morning I showed up at the sanitation office at 208 E. Monroe and waited to be dispatched to a truck.
An ability to cope with bad jokes is absolutely essential in meeting the demands of a sanitation engineer. While waiting for a truck I listened to jokes that could only be described as coming from the bottom of the barrel.
“Hey, buddy, you know you’re going to find everything on the menu this morning,” quipped one fellow from the streets department. “You’re going to find everything from cantaloupe rinds to the T-bone in the T-bone of T-bone steaks.”
At this point, I was beginning to wonder if this whole story idea was in bad taste. I must have been turning kind of green because another fellow tried to give encouragement.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “Once you get out on the truck you’ll find the job is always picking up.”
I finally got assigned to the rig of Robert Lee Hurst, A 19-year veteran of Kirkwood sanitation. Hurst has a brand spanking new truck with his name inscribed on the door of the cab.
“They’ve got my name there because they wanted an experienced man driving this new truck,” explained Hurst. “They don’t want some new guy tearing up the transmission.”
As we lurched down the street, Hurst started telling me how it was in the old days. Those days when children walked 10 miles to school in the snow and sanitation engineers were called garbage men.
“Up until a few years ago, we used to have to go in back of the house or to the garage for the trash. People didn’t bring it to the curb,” Hurst recalled “We had to dump the trash into barrels and carry those to the truck. We carried those drums on our shoulders. We didn’t have any wheel carriers – the only thing that has wheels was our trucks.”
While Hurst said that he feels the city has been “pretty fair” to him, he said the job itself is a mixed bag and there are hazards. He said local residents should be a little more thoughtful about the sanitation worker’s side of the trash problem.
“People put everything in those bags,” Hurst complained. “Rocks, bricks, tree stumps – those things don’t hurt the men’s backs as much as their feet when rip through the bags.
“People just don’t go by the rules. Each house is supposed to be limited to nine bags a pickup. But during the fall we’ve picked up as many as 85 bags at one home. Sometimes we can only get down two streets before we have to take a load out to the West County landfill.”
Hurst said the sanitation crews begin hauling about 6:30 a.m. and are supposed to be finished with their routes by 1:30 in the afternoon.
“In the winter we get done at 11 in the morning sometimes because nobody puts their trash out in the cold and ice,” Hurst said. “Then comes the big thaw and we have to work until 7 at night to get done.
“You can’t get behind in this job. These hot summer days are really hard on the men, but they have to keep working with out much of a break.”
Hurst proved that point when the truck got full and it was time for a trip to the landfill. Dan Franks and Clarence Holmes on the back of the truck didn’t get to enjoy the 20-minute ride to the landfill. Hurst took them back to East Monroe so they could work on another truck.
For those who have always wondered where all the garbage goes, a quick trip to the landfill could quench that curiosity forever. It’s located south of Big Bend on Sulphur Springs Road. Keep your eyes peeled and your nose open and you can’t miss it.
Garbage trucks from all over the county grind up garbage hill for a chance to unload at the landfill. Things were baking pretty good on the 90-degree morning I visited the landfill, but Hurst said it gets really pleasant after a steamy summer rain.
“Sometimes in the spring after a couple days’ rain the trucks just sink in it, and you have to get a tractor to pull you out. this whole place is built on garbage,” Hurst laughed.
While Hurst got out to dump the back of the truck, I thought I’d better stay in the cab to get a bird’s eye view of the place. As we were leaving, a trailer half-full of rotten watermelon started rolling of its cargo. As the plump melons split on the ground, I thought I could hear about 10,000 flies cheering in the landfill.
“that place is something,” laughed Hurst as we headed back to Kirkwood.
“Yeah, it’s something,” I said through the sleeve of my shirt. “Listen, I think I’ve
“Listen, I think I’ve probably got enough to write this story,” I added.
Want to read Don’s latest opinion column about recent local trash hauling efforts that mentions this article? CLICK HERE.