This magazine is not all celebs and glamor. We don’t flinch from the hard news and thorny issues of the day. When a significant anniversary came to our attention recently, we sought out a journalist with a reputation for covering the tough ones. Reporter Erma Bombeck, who developed her investigative skills on Ohio’s Kettering-Oakwood Times and the Dayton Journal Herald, filed this report:
This is my first assignment for PEOPLE magazine.
I didn’t expect to interview Warren Beatty right off the bat, but I thought I’d have a fun time, like covering the varicose entries in the Boston Marathon, or a reunion of the six people who attended the McGovern victory rally in ’72.
I was assigned to report on the centennial celebration of pollution. There are those of you who might ask, “What pollution centennial? Who says pollution has been around for a hundred years?”
And I would say to you, “Do you honestly think L.A. was polluted in a day? It takes work to pollute a country. Hard work. We’re talking about 3,615,122 square miles of land, 78,267 square miles of water, 12,383 miles of coastline, and only 218 million people to do the job.”
The first report of pollution in an official capacity was printed in a New York City publication called Spirit of the Times on Sept. 28, 1878. The story noted, “Gas factories were ruining the quality of eels and bottom-biting fish throughout the East River.” Fishermen didn’t complain but “within the past year the waters have become impregnated by the refuse from the kerosene-refining factories to such an offensive degree as to have not only deteriorated all bottom-feeding fish, but the striped bass as well have become so permeated by the offensive refuse as to be unfit for the table.”
It wasn’t much, but it was a beginning.
The pollution centennial celebration was masterminded by Dan Taint. It took four months to track Dan down. At first he didn’t want to talk about the centennial. “Everyone enjoys the results of pollution,” he said, “but no one wanted to pitch in. It could have been such a great birthday party,” he said bitterly, “a real fun year of dancing, playing, feasting, coughing. I wanted to stage a birthday party that America could be proud of.” He shuffled through a desk full of papers. “Listen to this:
“I was going to have 180 oil tankers sail into Boston Harbor, leaking oil.
“Arizona was going to dedicate a new nuclear plant.
“The Concorde had plans to buzz all the Army hospitals in the United States and drop leaflets saying, ‘We’re doing our litter bit for the centennial.’ Don’t you just love it?
“I had a caravan of cars ready to leave Detroit in August with faulty emissions, drive to California, be recalled and drive back again.
“Montana was going to open a new strip mine.
“In Florida, there were plans for 50 crop dusters to spread insecticide over a 200-mile radius and make people sick.
“I had eight billion bumper stickers reading, ‘Take a Smoker to Lunch’ ready to go.
“Even the schoolchildren were part of the celebration. We were going to drop off one junked car per student in schoolyards all over the country, and let the kids go at them with bright paint. I’m talking about conversation pieces for years to come.
“I was going to have everyone turn in their old stick deodorants and give them a free aerosol can. Doesn’t that just blow your ozone?
“In New York, we were going to give prizes for the best calling card design left on a hydrant by a large dog.
“Every airport in the country was going to send up its planes and spell out ‘Happy Birthday’ with jet trails.
“In Tennessee, we were going to have a ‘Fish-In’ downriver from an industrial plant that was dumping waste.
“And I was trying to get Cronkite and a lot of celebrities to do a centennial minute—something dramatic about how on April 22, 1970, Earth Day had to be postponed because of a smog alert and that’s the way it was…good stuff that makes you feel proud.
“It was all going to come together on September 28. We were going to cap off the entire year with a bonfire in the middle of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland.”
“The river burnt down two weeks before the celebration.”
“No, I meant the entire centennial.”
“Apathy. Lack of vision. You know the trouble with Americans? They don’t think big. They’re penny-candy-wrapper droppers, beach litterers, hole-in-the-muffler supporters. When you stage a 100th anniversary, you have to think big. Oh, well, as Doris Day once said, ‘Que Sierra, Sierra.’ ”
“That’s ‘Que será, será.’ ”
“Whatever. All I know is,” he added, “the bicentennial of pollution in 2078 is going to be a success if it kills us.”