Chapter 12

The Civilian Conservation Corps

It is necessary at this point to explain the Civilian Conservation Corps.

The camps were set up under the jurisdiction of the regular army with regular army officers in charge. Of course, they did not have the military training but they did have the regular complement of non-commissioned officers such as First Sergeant, Supply Sergeant, Mess sergeant, Corporals and platoon leaders who were in charge while in camp. At work, however, we were in the charge of the Federal or State Forest Services. The corporals were then under the orders of the Forestry Service, with several Foresters as foreman who were under the orders of the district Ranger.

We were issued bedding. We were also issued a heavy woolen underwear which were called John L's, a name which you can understand if you have ever seen a picture of John L. Sullivan in his fighting togs. Our uniforms were olive drab uniforms left over from World War I without the army insignia. Many of the boys attempted to modernize the cuffs of their pants by stealing someone else's blanket and having a local farm wife sew a triangular shaped patch in the inseam near the cuff, narrow cuffs not being in style at that time. Since the blankets and pants were the same color and weight, this presented no problem. But the stealing of the blanket did present a problem since the boy who had been robbed had to either steal a blanket from someone else or pay the commissary for it. Since these were excellent blankets, much desired by the people in town, a brisk trade developed between the thieves in camp. When going home for the weekend, it became necessary to spread your blankets under the mattress of a trusted buddy who kept an eye on them, as well as slept on them. Of course, you were required to return the favor when he desired to go home.

 Five Bucks a Month

We were paid the magnificent sum of thirty dollars a month. Twenty five was sent home to the family and five was given to the boy in camp. Five dollars a month would seem very little to last a whole month, but five dollars bought a great deal back then. Since I smoked Bull Durham or Duke's Mixture, I would buy a carton which would last me the month.  Beer was five cents a bottle for those who wanted it.

Movies were shown in camp for five cents, and a two pound bar of Nestle's chocolate ran around twelve cents. Five-cent candy bars then were enormous. In all my time in the CCCs, I never ran short of anything. In fact, I would often have moochers bumming smokes off me toward the end of the month since they gambled or drank their money away. 

Every morning after breakfast we would pile into stake rack trucks, hooded with canvas, and with benches for seating. In this area, the winter work consisted of cutting down trees with little timber value to allow room for those which did.  We then stacked the trees and brush in piles and set them afire.  These fires were quite large, and deliberately so, since some days it was well below zero. You can imagine how welcome the heat was. The trees that were cut were hardwoods, and in the Spring this same area would be planted with evergreens. One man went ahead with a mattock, two or three paces, and made an incision in the ground. Another man came behind him with a pail full of seedlings, dropped one into the incision, and closed it with a twist of his heel. After the rhythm was mastered, a crew could plant an enormous number of trees in one day. If one ever sees evergreen  planted in symmetrical rows, especially around the Colton area, the chances are good that I had a hand in it.

 World's Best Coffee

I believe I have already mentioned how finicky I was at a kid. I got over this in the woods.

The kitchen would pack us all a lunch consisting of three sandwiches in bags.  Towards noon, a couple of men would be designated to make coffee.  The coffee was boiled in several regular size galvanized pails over a wood fire. If you have never been in the woods in the spring, I can tell you that the air it saturated with deer flies, black flies, horse flies, carrion flies and house flies.  The tiny black flies and the larger deer flies are vicious biters and after swatting at them constantly, some of them must felt rejected and decided to end it all by diving into the boiling coffee.  At any rate, by the time we were told to knock off for lunch, there was at least a half inch of dead flies floating on top of the coffee pails.

For the first couple of days I would not touch it, but everyone else seemed to survive and when I finally did drink it, I can say that I have never drank such delicious coffee in my life. Whether the fresh air drowned by scruples or the dead flies enhanced the flavor, I don't know, but from then on I skimmed the dead flies out of my coffee routinely and gave it little thought.

 Snow Blindness

One of the most peculiar things that happened to during my days in the CCCs happened at Pierrepont on a day in March. We were out on our usual job, the sky was overcast, so it could not have been snow blindness.  At any rate, it one of the men complained that he could not see. It soon became an avalanche and inside of an hour, eight of the ten men were blinded.  All work stopped, of course, and those who were able to see led the rest out of the woods and back to the trucks. I was not one of the fortunate ones, and it was agony trying to open my eyes. 

Doctor DePew, a general practitioner, was called to the camp. He called this ailment "red-eye", possibly because he had no idea what it was. I have never heard this term used since then. The doctorís solution to the problem was copious amounts of Argyrol dropped into the eyes, and as Argyrol has an intense red color, and as it inevitably worked its way to the nose, and then out, the camp looked like the aftermath of a riot, with everyone having bloodshot eyes and an apparently bloody nose. The doctor was assisted by hit son David, who was in charge of the dispensary and who eventually became a well known surgeon in the Ogdensburg hospital. The camp was out of commission again for several days, at which time most had recovered. I was probably the worst case, possibly because of my weak eyes, and I rubbed them with snow several times to try to deaden the pain. At last a boy who worked in the PX loaned me an eye cup and some boric acid solution, and it cleared up fine.

 The Guitar Band

It was here that I met a boy named Bunny Rocker, who played Spanish guitar. Since I was already familiar with ukulele chords, it was only necessary to learn the bass strings and I was in business. Another boy from Ogdensburg also played the guitar, and a southern boy named Mule Henderson played a fantastic fiddle. Another southerner played the banjo.

The boy from Ogdensburg was Bunny Lesperance. I don't know his real first name since all the Lesperances were called Bunny. We managed to get a job in Canton at a place called Infantine's. The job did not last very long. There was a bathroom in the cellar which we used, and there was also a keg of wine which we also used. When Infantine found out, he fired the lot of us.

Another Camp

Sometime in the summer this camp was phased out and we were all transferred to another camp at Benson Mines. This camp was somewhere between Star Lake and Cranberry Lake. At that time, both of these places consisted of little more than a general store and a tavern and hotel, since the idea of a summer home in the mountains had not yet become popular.  At I remember, Cranberry Lake was strictly a lumber community, and Star Lake was noted for its extremely cold spring-fed lake and a few Indians who wove and sold baskets by the roadside.

There was an isolated tavern called Spainís between our camp and Star Lake which I never went to. It was frequented by lumberjacks, whose sole aim in life seemed to be getting drunk and beating the hell out of each other. A free-for-all was almost a nightly occurrence.

Our work in this place consisted entirely of building a new state park on Cranberry Lake.  We put in cisterns, pumps, washer lines, fireplaces, camp sites and toilets and trucked load after load of sand to make a beach on the lakefront. Many years later I still felt a sense of great pride in our work. 

I met two boys from Ogdensburg in this camp named Bill White and Edward Dubrule. I was destined to know them a lot better in later years. I also met a boy from Morristown whom we called Gramp Dunn, since he was always so sober. Another boy I remember was Bill Baxter, from Fine. He was a short muscular boy with a non-existent neck. He was determined that I should meet his sister, so I stopped at his place in Fine. When I discovered that hit sister was even more squat and muscular than he was, I rapidly lost what interest I might have had.

It was at this camp that I first met boys from New York City. One boy was from a place called Sandpoint and he grew up in a neighborhood close to the Navy yard where riveting guns were going day and night. In a confidential conversation he could be heard for several blocks. He was an amiable soul, and I always shuddered at the thought that he might be aroused and really shout. Even his whispered conversations had caused irreparable damage to my eardrums, from which I never recovered.