The heaps of rusting cars multiplied unchecked for years on tiny Smith Island, Md. in the Chesapeake Bay -- multiplied until there were about 3,000 junked cars for the 562 people on the island.
Almost six junkers for each man, woman and child.
But yesterday, after four years of negotiations, U.S. Army helicopters finally arrived to begin airlifting the clunkers to nearby Bloodsworth Island, where they will be used for Navy target practice. The Army made a modest start and removed six cars and four fuel trucks.
"We're right pleased," said Reba Tyler, wife of the deputy sheriff and fire chief. The Army told Rep. Roy Dyson (D-Md.) that it may not be able to take all the old vehicles, but that it will try.
Smith Island's troubles with the automobile started as far back as 1940 when, for as little as $50, local watermen began buying cars and trucks they called "mainland rejects," which they used for hauling their daily crab harvest.
The vehicles were walkaways: machines driven until they stopped and were walked away from; walked away from on lawns and all along the island's roadsides, walked away from until residents began calling for relief from their self-inflicted blight. Which is what the U.S. Army has promised.
Grateful islanders -- who get by with no formal local government -- are vowing that the cleanup will bring a wave of island reform, as residents grapple not only with the urban woes of the auto but also with drugs, alcohol and garbage.
They welcome a new county effort to end car-dumping in their crabbing community and to require that junked cars be shipped to the mainland at the owner's expense. Residents even voted last Thursday to invite Maryland State Police to set up a station on the island, which will mean that Smith Island's many unlicensed autos and drivers finally will need tags and operator's permits.
"In years past, Smith Island really didn't need no law enforcement," said Otis Ray Tyler, fire chief and deputy sheriff, who says he gladly will give up his job to the state police. "But it's getting to the point where it does. Alcohol is much heavier, the drugs is coming, and all the cars with no license tags and insurance. We've had three serious accidents this summer already.
"We don't have a dump, at least, it's not maintained the way it's supposed to be. It's not fenced in, and we're hoping the county commissoners will soon do something about that. A lot of people just take their trash bags and throw them anywhere they want."
"We need the full-time law here," agrees Harry Kitching, who runs a general store in Ewing, the largest town on the 20-square-mile island. "Right now we have a deputy sheriff, but his hands are tied. He can't issue tickets or nothing. This island is more or less one big family."
Tyler says the state police can set up headquarters on the second floor of the fire station.
"They have a state police radio there already, and it works fine," he said, explaining that the room usually is used for meetings, and adding: "But we adjourn all meetings in the summertime, and we'll just have to work something out in September."
Tyler has dumped every car and truck he ever owned on Smith Island's rusting piles. How many is that, he was asked.
"Save my life, I couldn't tell you how many," he says. But he's ready to face the future: He recently bought a new pickup truck and motorcycle -- and both are insured and licensed.
But Kitching says he's going to wait for the new era to arrive before he gets rid of his old truck, which certainly would fail any inspection.
"I'm willing to get rid of it," he says. "But I'm going to wait until we get the law. I'm not going to be the first."