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Essay: What I learned on the very first Earth Day

A stock photo of a man on a

A stock photo of a man on a bicycle. Credit: iStock

I am not what you would call a tree hugger, but I am concerned about the environment, and I like to ride my bike. So when I heard about plans to observe the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, I thought I would do my part.

A year earlier, in an event that awakened environmental concerns, 3 million gallons of oil fouled beaches and harmed marine life off Santa Barbara, California. An oil rig had punctured a high-pressure pocket of petroleum. Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin proclaimed, “We only have one Earth, so we need to take care of her.” He was concerned that our environmental problems were not being addressed, so he created the first Earth Day, to be celebrated each April 22.

I was 37 years old, with a wife and three children, and worked as an aeronautical engineer on navigation and guidance systems for the Apollo moon program. I decided to ride my bicycle to work on that Wednesday, from Greenlawn to Bethpage. I expected to be surrounded by other riders, all promising to be one with the Earth and dedicating themselves to a “green” way of life. It was reported that 2,000 colleges, 10,000 schools and hundreds of communities across the United States were taking part in Earth Day activities.

I thought people taking their cars that day would be embarrassed at their wastefulness of the Earth’s limited resources, and scorned by hordes of folks going to work under their own power.

However, as I rode 13 miles on the shoulders of Jericho Turnpike and Pulaski, Oakwood, and Round Swamp roads, heading for my job at Grumman Aviation, none of those tens of thousands of Earth Day supporters were on the road with me. (Maybe they were all in California — or on the South Shore.) Cars whizzed by me within inches. I was an intruder in their territory. I was the threat to their environment.

That day’s trips to and from work were without mishap, but filled me with much trepidation. I never rode my bike to work again.

This year’s 48th anniversary of Earth Day falls on Sunday. Although I still bike on Long Island (it has many scenic and safe roads), I never ride on any road during the morning and evening peak traffic periods. I drive my car.

Reader Bill Domjan lives in Melville.