Iron Eyes Cody was an American actor who I’m pretty sure many, especially guys, of my generation would recognize. The 1950s and early ‘60s were the golden entertainment age for Westerns, both on TV in the form of weekly series like Tombstone Territory and Cheyenne as well as in the movies. Cody played the role of an American Indian more than 200 times in so many of those shows and movies.
Despite the impressive body of work for the American actor who, ironically, was actually of Italian descent, he is perhaps more widely known for a Public Service Announcement that ran on television in the early 1970s. The highly effective spot won two CLIO awards, given annually to advertisements and public service spots considered excellent.
It was the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign that showed Cody in full Native American regalia paddling through polluted waters past factory stacks belching out noxious fumes. Cody guides the canoe to the shoreline, gets out and walks past several piles of litter off the shore. The next frame shows a car speeding by as an arm comes out of an open window and another bag of trash lands at Cody’s feet. The camera pans up from the garbage to a tight shot of the actor’s face to show a teary rivulet sliding down his cheek.
The spot’s musical soundtrack is then replaced by the voice of actor William Conrad (well known for his playing the role of the rotund crime solver Frank Cannon in the eponymously named weekly detective series Cannon that ran for five seasons in the early 1970s). Conrad used his rich baritone voice to deliver his line: “People start pollution; people can stop it.”
I’ve been thinking about that commercial often as I drive my labor and leisure roads and also as I take my frequent walks.
When those PSAs ran, officials in several states reported improvement with the litter problem, and, newly formed in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency ramped up efforts to address industrial pollution as well. Sprinkle in Lady Bird Johnson’s efforts to organize groups to clean up the roadsides and plant scores of wildflowers as a means to accent the raw beauty of an unsullied America, and it appeared we were well on the way to solving the problem.
Sadly, though, raw beauty and unsullied landscapes aren’t often what I’m seeing these days.
As for pedestrian pathways, the one that caught my eye recently is the Rotary Riverwalk that runs for a little over eight miles. The stretch Lady Jane and I were walking took us in part on the asphalted path that runs parallel to Collett across the street from the refinery and beside the Ottawa River. There, on both sides of the path, I saw a wide array of litter, from Styrofoam fast food containers to plastic water bottles to the occasional disposable diaper as well as a lot of other trash.
While driving, I see a lot of landscape just off the roads throughout Ohio and Indiana getting to my accounts. Sadly, I’ve frequently been just as appalled with the litter while driving. The discarded refuse is especially bad when I’m on exit ramps at a stop sign waiting to make my turn. These off-road areas are even worse, especially the staggering number of discarded cigarette butts that I’m not sure smokers even consider litter.
I wonder if they’d change their minds if they knew that the plastic fibers in a cigarette’s filter can take up to 10 years to decompose. At times, I’ll be behind someone at an off-ramp exit and see the car door in front of me open and a hand holding an ashtray dump the entire contents of the tray along the roadside.
As for the psychology behind littering, environmental psychologist Lee Chambers feels that if any area is well maintained, people are less likely to litter, and, conversely, if an area shows a lot of litter, such as the landscape just off those exit ramps I just mentioned, many are more likely to litter as well. There are also those in environmental psychology who feel that many who travel long distances to places where they have no real emotional attachment, the more likely they are to litter.
While I suppose some of the above theories have some merit, I will tell you I travel a great deal both for business and for pleasure and can honestly say, no matter how much litter I may see or how far away from home I am, I have no impulses to fire a Styrofoam food container or an empty Dasani water bottle out the window.
Yes, indeed, I’ve been thinking a lot more about Iron Eyes Cody these days. And, while I know having lived as long as I have that we have made societal improvements in the 50 years that have passed since Cody’s commercials helped to awaken a nation that trashing the environment was simply not cool, I just can’t help thinking that those Iron Eyes would still be weeping were he here today.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a division of AIM Media Midwest, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at [email protected]