Sunday, June 25, 2017

Island Legends: the Dump

As you drive, or bike, or walk, on the roads of the island, you will come across furniture, flower pots, appliances, remodeling leftovers, and other miscellany left at the side of the road, usually with a sign that says, “Free.”
As I noted a couple of these offerings along the Westside Highway this morning I thought, gee, we didn’t used to have all these free things set out beside the road. I wonder why we do now.
Then I remembered.
Back in the days of yore, when Vashon wasn’t an upper middle class moated community, we had a dump.
Bulldozers carved huge holes in the ground. We backed up our vehicles to the edge, and tossed our trash into the pit. Everything, and I mean everything, went into the pit. First time I was there I saw a cow’s head lying down at the bottom, a byproduct of someone’s home butchering job.
If you had something that wasn’t quite garbage but you wanted it out of your life, you could leave it on the ground next to where vehicles backed in to offload. Someone else would find it and take it home.
It was fun. We never knew what sort of free treasures we might find.
There was a down side. Your spouse might come home from the dump with, say, a truck full of old Styrofoam pipe insulation for which he had big plans, and dump it in the yard, and never touch it again. I’m not mentioning any names here.
Bill Speidel once told me of the time his wife, Shirley, came home from the dump in absolute transports of delight. Someone had left some dishes that matched her pattern. Now she would have a complete set. Her joy lasted until she realized that the dishes she’d picked up were her own dishes, which she had taken to the dump the previous week.
So it wasn’t a perfect system, but mostly it worked.
Then for some reason the county began to object to people removing items from the landfill. After all those years of carefree “leave some garbage, pick up some garbage,” we were told we could not do it anymore.
The new rule was not well received. There was grumbling. Scrupulously honest citizens began to resort to sneakiness.
One day I went to the dump with a scrupulously honest friend, and it goes without saying that I am scrupulously honest. Don’t smirk. I’m honest, as human beings go. The two of us had combined our accumulated garbage to split the dump fee.
She backed her truck up to the garbage pile and we began to empty our garbage cans. By that time, the landfill was so crammed that there was a hill instead of a hole. You had to throw your garbage up on the garbage pile. No one left items to be claimed now that it was illegal. Although you could sometimes see things in the garbage that looked tempting, you resisted the urge to pick them up.
Or did you? As we worked, we spotted a VCR not twelve feet away, sitting atop a garbage pile.
My scrupulously honest friend’s eyes grew wide.
“Ooh,” she said. “My son needs a VCR.” Her son was in his teenage movie making phase.
She looked at me. I looked at her. We both looked at the entrance booth, and the bulldozer, to see if any landfill employees were looking our way. They weren’t.
So we casually moved around, trying to look natural. I continued to move garbage cans around, blocking the view between her and anyone who might object to her darting over the garbage and grabbing the VCR, which is what she did. She stashed it in the back of her truck. We loaded up our empty cans and left, a couple of law-abiding citizens dizzy on the heady wine of civil disobedience.
Eventually the dump was sculpted into the trapezoidal contours of Mt. Trashmore, a methane torch was lit that burned for years, and the transfer station was built. Now we don’t even know where our garbage goes.
Our recycling of still usable items has been taken over by Granny’s Attic, and what Granny’s won’t accept, the side of the road will. It was easier when castoffs were all in one place, but we are an adaptable species.
It is nice to catch a break, finding something you can use for free, maybe especially so when there have been laws passed making it harder for breaks to happen. So far the Roadside No Profit Mart is operating without let or hindrance. Let us enjoy it while it lasts.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Circumstantial Evidence

In 1998, my late husband, Rick, a Vietnam vet, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was 52, which I thought was young to have prostate cancer.
In Vietnam there were troops who were on the ground. There were also “brown water sailors,” who manned the river boats. Then there were the blue water sailors, on ships. The blue water sailors were Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine personnel.
In 1991, Congress mandated pensions for everyone exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Vets were getting sick and having children with birth defects, among other things. Because of the lack of historical data, no one could prove or disprove exposure to Agent Orange, but it was assumed that if you were in Vietnam, you were exposed. Prostate cancer is one of the diseases associated with Agent Orange (dioxin) exposure.
In 2002, the Agent Orange pension was taken away from the blue water sailors, because they did not serve on land and therefore were not exposed to Agent Orange. So the reasoning went. This despite their having the same illnesses and problems as vets who served ashore.
When Rick went to the VA around 2010 and spoke with a woman there about getting a pension, he was told that a pension was not coming to him because he had never set foot on the soil of Vietnam.
Last week I received an email from a Navy vet who also served on the King, Rick’s ship. He said he was sorry if he was bringing up bad feelings, but thought I might be interested in a paper called “A Re-Analysis of Blue Water Navy Veterans and Agent Orange Exposure.”
You can read this paper at a site called
So how about it? Were blue water sailors exposed to Agent Orange?
Well, yeah.
Agent Orange was sprayed in the jungle of Vietnam by airplanes, and the mist blew out to sea, where it could travel for miles, so it was in the air that those on shipboard breathed.
A second mode of exposure was the dioxin-contaminated dust that clung to every item and person that was transported from Vietnam, especially Da Nang, out to ships.
But here’s the one that really gets me: Agent Orange, which was distributed by airplanes, the river boats, and guys with backpack sprayers, flowed from the jungle into creeks and rivers, and from there into the ocean. The ships out along the coast were floating in Agent Orange (dioxin) contaminated water.
Ships need fresh water, for drinking, cooking, and washing for the crew, and to produce the steam that powers the generators that run the ship. How do you get fresh water at sea? You desalinize sea water.
Australia had Navy in Vietnam, and they studied the effects of Agent Orange on their vets. I will quote from the paper here: “In 2002, an Australian Study found that the water distillation process, which used a high heat flash to evaporate the saltwater and to collect the condensation which would then be salt-free, would actually enhance the toxicity of any dioxin present in the original saltwater.”
As I read this paper I felt more and more angry. What? My husband, a guy who devoted thirty years of his life to providing safe drinking water for people on our little islands, was drinking dioxin in his coffee, eating it in his food, and taking showers in it, in Vietnam? Him and all the other souls on that ship, and on all the other ships out there?
I wished he was here so we could rant and rave together.
I want blue water sailors to be awarded pensions for their Agent Orange exposure, period. It would make a difference to those who still live, and their families. It sure would have made a difference for us. Will it happen? How many people have sickened and died since 2002? How many are sick and dying right now? How likely is it that the current administration will want to cough up money for sick Vietnam vets, who, let’s face it, are dying off every day?
A word on prostate cancer: it is the second most common cancer in men (the most common is non-melanoma skin cancer). Most prostate cancer is highly treatable, and many men have it and never know, and die of something else. The prostate cancer seen in people exposed to Agent Orange is a more aggressive and deadly variety, and that’s what Rick had.
But of course, this is all circumstantial evidence. I thought Rick died of smoking and his own stubbornness – refusing to go to the doctor. Now I think he was killed by cigarettes, stubbornness, and Vietnam.
It sounds like a country and western song, doesn’t it?

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Living Derangements

The new property tax assessments for 2018 arrived in the mail. You could hear the howls of pain and rage all over the island. Some of those howls were mine.
The assessed value for my house is going up to what I had speculated would be a reasonable asking price should I decide to sell. I wanted to call the county and ask, “Are you sure you were looking at my house when you set this value?” Which is more polite than screaming, “Are you people out of your #$&!%&@ $&^ @%^$ minds?”
I went online and looked up Vashon Island real estate listings and was boggled to find out what land and houses are going for on Vashon these days. Suddenly my assessment didn’t seem so out of line. Clearly, I have not been paying attention. But really?
The new assessments were the jumping off point for a conversation among some older people, mostly women, the other morning. We talked about how tough it is to keep a roof over our heads with the property taxes skyrocketing and our incomes remaining the same. We asked, if we can’t afford our property taxes this year, how will we be able to pay them next year?
I have heard and read about the poverty of older women for years, but now it has gone from theoretical to personal. Older women and men living in poverty are but one of the populations who feel the walls closing in as the national policy of siphoning all the money to the tiny part of the population that is already obscenely wealthy continues.
I have applied for the senior property tax exemption this year. I called the county assessor’s office to ask how that was going, and was told my application had been received, and there is a four-month backlog of processing of applications. When my application has been processed, I will hear about the decision by mail. Looking forward to that.
Meanwhile, the older women in this group got to talking about options for those of us who live alone and are on fixed incomes. What do we do? Sell our houses? Rent out our houses? Get a reverse mortgage? Take in roomers?
If we rent out or sell our houses, where do we live? Buy an RV and become snowbirds? Do we take up our adult children on their offers to come live with them? What if our adult children have not made those kind offers? What if we outlive the proceeds of house sales or reverse mortgages? What if we can’t afford to rent or buy anywhere else? Do we start looking for that quality cardboard box?
What struck me most about this conversation was that I’ve been agonizing for months over this dilemma – how do I pay the property taxes? How do I keep my house? What do I do if I can’t keep it? How do I live? What about the dog and the cat?
Now I find out that many other women my age are wondering the same things and wrestling with the same questions. Those of you who have already had these conversations and made these decisions are nodding your heads, aren’t you?
My older son and his sweetheart have told me I’d always have a home with them. That was good to know, but leaving my house, leaving the island, leaving my friends, leaving my singing partners, leaving my church, in fact, leaving everything familiar and dear after forty-five years? That is a wrenching thought, but it may come to that.
There were times after my husband Rick died when I felt like there was nothing more for me in this life, no purpose, no direction. Those were hard times. I stuck around, anyway, determined to see what kind of rollicking clusterfricks this new part of life had in store.
So. How to be old and alone and still alive, with declining health and probably losing my mind, too many bills and not enough money, in a country that is doing its best to kill off its most vulnerable citizens.
Well, I’m not bored, and I understand that as poverty goes, I am a rank amateur. I still have a house. I have a car. It is now an old car which I’m patching together with duct tape, but it gets me where I need to go, like the food bank. This is Vashon Island poor, comfortable poor. I haven’t figured it out yet, but I will, poor. I’ve led a privileged, wonderful life, and now it’s getting tight, poor.
Deep breath. Carry it on.