My PBS station rebroadcast American Experience Civilian Conservation Corps tonight. I cried. Again.
Is it possible that we could be even more in need of such an institution now than we were when drought and dust ravaged the land? Along the Gulf Coast we can only watch in helpless, impotent rage as another manmade environmental disaster destroys habitat, wildlife, livelihoods, and lives. On par with, perhaps exceeding, the devastation of the "Dirty Thirties."
From the program transcript:
Jonathan Alter, Writer: When Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933, it was almost a perfect match of man and moment. He was somebody who could inspire people and used the crisis to redefine what we owe each other as a people. That’s one of the reasons why the New Deal really was a "New Deal" between the public and the government.
For those of us who voted for Obama we hoped he could be another FDR. But he faces the same forces that Roosevelt did only now they are more entrenched.
Huey Long, Senator (archival): The national debt today is $30 billions as compared to $19 billions under Hoover. And God knows Hoover was bad enough.
Watching the program again and listening to the comments of the men, I could only think that they must have worshiped FDR.
Clifford Hammond, Joined the CCC in 1934: The Civilian Conservation Corps had the army style. You know, you had Reveille and sort of roll call. And then we’d go back to the barracks, had to keep your bunk all made up nice and everything clean. In a little bit, breakfast would be ready.
Vincente Ximenes, Joined the CCC in 1938: Good breakfasts, with eggs and bacon and sausage, and they had pancakes and waffles, you know, juice of all kinds. Plenty of everything. You could eat all you want. Then, by 7:30, I was on a truck on the way to the site where we were gonna work.
Houston Pritchett, Joined the CCC in 1939: You get out there in that hot sun, it’s 100 degrees, and you’re working all day. And you sweatin’. And you worked right up to lunchtime. Then they bring you food out to the field. Now, that was quite a thing, too. We wasn’t used to nothing like this.
Vincente Ximenes, Joined the CCC in 1938: Food that you wouldn’t believe, good food, sandwiches, I mean, with a lot of meat and plenty of— plenty of everything. Apples, bananas, I mean, you were waiting for that food. Then you’d be back to work.
Harley Jolley, Joined the CCC in 1937: We were hardworking boys. By four o’clock you’re back to the barracks, and you have a little time for recreation. Six o’clock it’s chow time. And we were always ready to eat more. I firmed up. I became much sounder in body, built good legs, that territory as well. And I wound up a fairly good, healthy young teenager.
Clifford Hammond, Joined the CCC in 1934: Fed you good, yep. I come out of there weighing 174 pounds, and the most I ever weighed in my life. [laughs]
Our society is different now than it was in the '30s. Maybe some aspects of the program wouldn't work as well as they did then. But just as in the Depression we have too many people who are unemployed and homeless. A recent diary told about the need for food in a tent city.
I got quite frustrated during the debate over the stimulus when opponents would say that government jobs didn't contribute to the economy. Yes. They. DO!
Harley Jolley, Joined the CCC in 1937: Each man would send home twenty-five dollars each month and keep five for myself. Now the dollar had enormous precious impact in the 1930s. So twenty-five dollars sent home, multiplied across the nation by thousands, that’s a lot of economic improvement nationwide.
And then not only were the boys there employed, remember they had support people — foremen, superintendents, engineers, all this. So here are skilled people employed as well. Then supplying the camp food, all the things it takes to run a camp for a week, that went to the local economy also. So it was a major impact on all the economies wherever the camps went. And they went everywhere.
And the CCC and WPA projects still contribute to the economy 70-some years later. How many of our states could have the same recreation and tourism industries without the foundation of the CCC projects? I will venture to guess none. The Gulf Coast has/had a vibrant tourism economy. How much of that will remain when/if the oil stops spewing? The area will need major remediation. The people whose livelihoods have been stolen will need work. A CCC type program will provide both.
Many of us have/had family members who were in the CCC. My dad supported his parents and four younger siblings on the farm through his term in the CCC.
When this topic has come up before, others have shared similar stories. Dad's camp was Camp Narrows in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Much of the recreational infrastructure in the Hills dates back to the CCC. Dad's unit built the Needles Highway that threads through the Hills to Mount Rushmore. It only had three faces when Dad was there. When he wasn't working, he played baseball, he learned leathercraft and ham radio, and he went on field trips such as when the National Geographic Society launched one of its stratospheric balloons.
His time in the CCC informed his thinking about the environment for the rest of his life and in turn mine.
At this juncture in time, with the costs of our environmental policy so shockingly playing out, we need another CCC. We need the jobs for people. We need the work to be done. But most of all, we need the ethos of environmental conservation. I have no data to support it but I'm willing to bet that men who were in the CCC came out with more environmental conscience than those who weren't. They saw first hand what people had done to the land. They worked to fix it and they lived to see the longterm benefit of their work.
Jonathan Alter, Writer: The CCC not only was a major foundation of our ethic of national service in this country, but also an ethic of conservation. After generations of Americans essentially raping the land for whatever it was worth economically, as happens in so many other parts of the world, suddenly there’s a break in that in the ’30s. And you have a pretty large chunk of a generation, three million people, who have some experience in conserving the land instead of exploiting the land, who care about what we leave behind.
Houston Pritchett, Joined the CCC in 1939: Recently, we went back to find the camp we was in. I went back up there and seen them trees, where they got them where you can’t cut them down. And my little granddaughter, she was telling them, "All these trees," she said her grandpa planted all the trees up there. [laughs]
Jonathan Alter, Writer: Who were the people who pioneered the environmental movement in this country and who now are helping us to transition to more of a green ethic? Many of their parents and grandparents were in the CCC. An ethic of conservation is then born and developed and nurtured and built, because it’s all a generational conversation that takes place, that one thing builds on another, builds on another.
We need this. We need this NOW!