Monday, June 15, 2009

Patriot, or trash-picker?

It has been a week since I first learned of the activities of Jeff Olsen, and I have to confess that I still don’t know what to make of him.

Olsen is employed by Waste Management, and the old-school term for his job is “garbage collector.” He’s on the crews that work around the Elgin area, going from house to house to pick up the trash cans and haul the waste away.

BUT WHAT GOT Olsen some public recognition last week, and has led to follow-up stories in recent days, is the fact that Olsen makes a point of going through peoples’ trash cans, and takes his action if he finds anything resembling a U.S. flag.

It could be one of those little 3-by-5-inch flags on a stick that one waves with their thumb or index finger, or a full-fledged flag that once was rung up a flag pole as part of a patriotic display.

Olsen told the Chicago Tribune that he has managed to find about 250 flags by going through peoples’ trash. In some cases, he tries to repair them. In other cases, he takes it upon himself to give them a more dignified disposal than being dumped in a Glad bag along with someone’s pizza box and rotted tomatoes that didn’t get eaten in time.

In theory, I don’t really care what Olsen or anyone who gets worked up over his “cause” does. After all, these are items that were disposed of by their owners. So it certainly is not theft.

BUT IT BUGS me to think that someone has the potential to rifle through the trash of someone else, and start making judgments about what those people chose to dispose of.

Now I know some people are going to read this and start giving me a rant about patriotism and proper respect for the symbol that is a U.S. flag. Others may get overly anal retentive and start quoting precise portions of the U.S. Code that relate to proper display and disposal of a U.S. flag.

I suppose I can’t stop you from sending me your messages, but be forewarned that I have read the code. You won’t be informing me of anything I haven’t already seen.

And what I have seen has been vague to the point where I don’t know what constitutes proper disposal of a U.S. flag.

I KNOW SOME people swear by giving their tattered old flags to a local veterans’ organization. Those groups are good about collecting such flags, then periodically holding rituals in which they pay tribute to the nation – before disposing of the raggedly old flags into a pyre.

In short, they burn them.

But somehow, I get the feeling that the people who are most likely to want to make some sort of hero out of Olsen these days would be greatly offended if any of those people who threw their tattered flags into the trash were to have tried to create a bonfire in the backyard and had dumped the flag into the flames.

Police would have been called. Reports would have been filed. Tax dollars would have been spent to pay for the prosecutors who would have had to convince judges about whether someone’s backyard fire was dignified enough to be a legitimate disposal.

IT WOULD HAVE become a fiasco because someone thought the best way to get rid of a tattered flag was to dispose of it quietly, rather than make an elaborate ritual of the affair.

Now I will agree that dumping a flag into the trash bin, then taking the trash can out to the curb probably is not the most dignified way to get rid of a flag of any type. Just envision the stains it would gain from leftover Chinese food cartons that would spill onto it.

And what would people think if the kitty litter had managed to get onto the flag? What an outrage.

But Olsen told reporter-types he thinks people who throw the flags into the trash are the same as those who stomp on them as an act of political protest. That is just absurd. And that is why I have my problems with the patriotic trash-collector (who to the best of my knowledge has never picked up the trash anywhere near my neighborhood).

THERE HAS TO be some sense of degree. I don’t know that I want to start blaming the people who disposed of their flags for doing something all that improper.

After all, I have seen the flags that Olsen chose to have his picture taken with. They were more than just tattered. They were torn. They were definitely battered to the point where it would have been wrong to run them up a flagpole and claim they were a part of any patriotic display.

If it reads like I’m praising these people for at least having the sense not to fly a torn rag (which is what these flags had become) to score some “patriotism” points for themselves, then you’d be correct.

Should we really be trying to make a heroic figure out of someone who is “refuse rummaging” – a practice that most of us quit doing when we were about six?


EDITOR’S NOTES: A Northwest suburban American Legion post used Flag Day on Sunday ( to pay tribute to a trash collector who has spent the past 18 months picking U.S. flags from peoples’ garbage cans.

Is this what it takes to turn the burning of a U.S. flag from an act some want to think is un-constitutional to one ( that gives the symbol its proper due?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what to say about your article, but I guess the freedom of speech allows me to say it sucks! Remember the American Flag is our national symbol. If this media hype about an ordinary guy making sure that every flag found in the trash is disposed of properly and doesn't end up in a landfill that's great. But for you to sit and tear someone down to make yourself sound intelligent is absurd!! Jeff Olsen did not ask for this media attention, but it happened and if it makes people understand how to discard a flag the right way, how can that be a bad thing. You sit here and throw around these immature name calling to a gentleman you have never met nor spoken to. Maybe all this blustering windbag is mad about is you didn't break the story first. I know Jeff Olsen and I work with him everyday, he's not out for the glory, he just want to make sure the American Flag is disposed of properly. And just for information, most people never have refuse rummaged, so I would definitely not want to pick up refuse in your neighborhood if that's what you do there. Next time you want to take pot shots at someone maybe look at yourself, and maybe there is a reason your a freelance writer, and not with one of the major newspapers.