Peter Pringle's America: It's a rubbish job, so I got it

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The Independent Online
MY sympathies are with people who have a job like Al Gore. Being a vice-president can be a thankless task. Some of the things you have to worry about are, well, just rubbish.

This summer I was elected vice-president of the Black Bear Lake Fish and Game Society. The 20-year-old community organisation has nothing to do with fishing or hunting. It is a fancy title for a group trying to preserve the natural beauty of the lake, which is in New York State near the Canadian border. The society strives to keep the water clean, the air fresh and the lake, which is less than two miles long, free from the horrors of modern small-boat technology such as jet skis and hovercraft.

A few people with more money than sense have brought boats on to the lake with 100 horsepower motors. That's like trying to put a battleship in your bath tub and, more important, it violates our society's rule that limits boats to 50hp. The rule has been locally enforced, without the backing of law, by residents who confront violators with colourful indigenous phrases of the North Woods. But recently we have been overwhelmed by hi-tech boaters.

The society's president wants to turn a blind eye. The violators come on holiday each year from all over America as unfailingly as the migrating humming bird, and freedom is what this country is all about, they say. Even to reprimand them, the president suggests, would cause a sort of uplake, downlake situation; or conservation snobs against people who are simply having fun.

As elected officials, I argued, we have a responsibility to uphold the rules of the society. I suggested a letter to the 70 family residents most of whom live in log cabins like mine and come here seeking peace and a little fishing. I thought we should ask the members what they would like to do: keep the old 50hp rule and pressure the offenders to take their big boats elsewhere, or scrap the rule and start again.

I drafted a letter, as a dutiful vice-president should. But the president refused to sign it and immediately put me on the garbage detail. At first, I felt like the Mensheviks in 1918 who were elected to the Moscow city council and then immediately assigned by Lenin to sanitary work and keep the canteens in order, as he put it, to 'tire them out'.

Then a visiting friend reminded me that the first two rules for vice-presidents are that they should not have strong opinions and they must be team players. Think of the most recent alumni - Gerald Ford, Walter Mondale, George Bush, Dan Quayle. They're all good team players. George Bush was so good at it that when he became President what the country really needed was a leader.

I've been a team player. I played wing three-quarter for Oxfordshire - just once; I did not have a great game - and was finally persuaded my physique was not up to the task. If I hadn't been dropped I would have quit. Then I trained as an RAF pilot. After character evaluation on a survival course in the Cairngorms I was recommended for fighters. On no account should this man be let loose with a bomber crew, my flying instructor wrote in his report.

Understanding my limitations, I did not seek elective office with the Black Bear Lake society. But then vice-presidents rarely seek the job. They are woken at dawn by a White House hopeful who has just won the primaries and is offering them a chance to run on the ticket. They accept, of course. Most famous perhaps was Dan Quayle, who was called on his bleeper by George Bush as he was strolling down Bourbon Street in New Orleans. I was in my apartment in New York when the call came from the 70 fine, upstanding residents of this lake. I accepted.

Big mistake. Now I am spending my holidays in the lake's garbage house. This is a robust but very smelly wooden hut that I helped build several years ago to protect refuse from marauding black bears. Instead of dumping their garbage bags at the end of the lake, residents bring them to the hut. But the house needs a regular clean. It turns out that people can make more of a mess of garbage than bears.

New York State has a rigid recycling programme - paper, bottles, metal cans and plastic must be separated. There are so many different types of plastic that people get confused. Those afflicted with the bug of American freedom simply don't bother - and someone has to delve into their garbage and do it for them.

Being a good Democrat, I don't mind being trashed for my opinions. For spiritual comfort, I dug up back issues of environmental magazines. You remember them - journals with such alluring titles as Garbage, Buzzworm and E Magazine. They're hard to find now with the recession and a decline in Americans' concern with the environment - 20 per cent today compared with 25 per cent at the start of the decade.

But on the rubbish detail, these magazines are invaluable. It's always good to know there are others out there worrying about such things. Every vice-president should take out a subscription, just in case.

PS: I changed the name of the lake to avoid more unwanted powerboats.

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