Chapter 13

      Off to Camp Dix

 The state camp was more or less completed in the fall, so this camp also was phased out. We were given a chance to go home and bid our families good-bye, then we were put on a train for Camp Dix, New Jersey. We were required to first go to New York City.

Railroads were still in their heyday and the approaches to New York were something that I shall never forget. The roadbed was elevated above the city streets. As we looked out the windows, the blocks seemed to stretch out of sight, all more or lest the same height, ten or eleven stories, as our train passed seemingly endless blocks. New York, from this vantage point, struck me with the enormity of this city. Eventually the track came closer to earth and we soon entered a tunnel. After some time in the dark, we came into the depths of Grand Central Station.

This station was enormous above ground, with a concourse larger than a city block. But I believe most of it was below ground. We stopped at one point in this station and walked up iron stairs for two or three levels.  At all levels trains were either waiting, coming in, or going out, all in dimly lit caverns. We went through the concourse and took other stairs downward, where we took a shuttle to Penn Station. This station, while not so elaborate, had a concourse even bigger than Grand Central's. It consisted of a glassed over roof and it was not heated, as if one had roofed an ordinary street. 

We then entrained for Camp Dix, which at this time of the year consisted mostly of mud. We were continually required by the regular Army non-coms to clean out the barracks.

Camp Dix was a staging area where troop trains were made up for all boys going west or other points. We were soon put on a troop train consisting of twenty cars or so, and headed west.

The Trip West

The train at this point was pulled by electric locomotives on the Pennsylvania Railroad. They had a heavy frame on top to make contact with the overhead wires, and the lines ran to Chicago, where we ran on other lines pulled by the conventional steam engines. The troop train had a couple of Pullman porters who showed us how to pull down the upper berths at night and set up the curtains. These two men went west with us.

These porters were black, as were all porters then, and very likable.  They were always smiling and it was a pleasure to have them with us. Several baggage carts had been converted to kitchens by building an enclosure of sand and putting the very heavy army coal ranges in these enclosures, with a stove pipe going to the ventilators on top of the cars. We had our mess kits filled by standing in long lines through the cars, and went back to our seats to eat. 

I did K.P. duty for a day in the kitchen but I enjoyed it as they kept the baggage doors wide open, and we saw a lot of the country at we went along. It would be hard for anyone today to imagine how much I enjoyed the trip. Going by train is a great deal different than any other mode of travel. We would come to a large city during the night, and we were all awakened by lights as far at the eye could see. We would call to the porters and ask where we were and what city this was. To a boy who had never been far from home, it was quite exciting until we passed St. Paul and Minneapolis and entered the Great Plains.

The three days it took to cross the plains were the three longest of my life. I have never seen such a dreary place. The land stretched to the horizon in all directions, completely flat with no trees. The rivers we came to were, without exception, muddy and shallow. The few houses and barns we saw were more or less alike. Unlike the cowboy in the song, I sure as hell would not want to be buried on the lone prairie. I get lonesome just thinking of that endless and totally uninteresting part of America. I find it difficult to understand why people live there.

Into The Rockies

Somewhere in the Dakotas we came to the Black Hills. They were well named, since they resembled large dunes covered with grass. The train stopped at a small village called Round-Up where we were allowed to get off and stretch our legs. While wandering around I found a peculiar red rock, somewhat egg-shaped and worn very smooth. Since it was out of place in this terrain, I concluded that it was a stone from the crop of a dinosaur and took it with me. I subsequently lost it on our return trip.

As we crossed Montana we came to the Rockies. In this day, when most people fly over these mountains, they have little idea of the terrifying heights as seen from the tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The roadbed was a maze of tunnels and switchbacks. Anyone who has played with model trains probably remembers that when you have a long train going around a sharp curve, you invariably pull all the cars off the track. Imagine my horror then, when on one side of the cars there was nothing but a rock wall and on the other, far below, a river that looked like a small silver thread.

Looking across this vast gorge was the end of our train going in the opposite direction. This was the one time in my life when I wished I had been more diligent in my church attendance. If we were not going through tunnels, seemingly miles long, with millions of tons of rock overhead, we were clinging precariously to a cliff edge. Although the scenery was fantastically beautiful, I must confess that at the time I could hardly appreciate it. I was very much relieved when we reached the more open country of Idaho.

 Arriving At Camp

Northern Idaho is very mountainous but the mountains seem to be further apart. The tracks followed the valleys rather than trying to pierce the clouds.

Some of us disembarked at a small town called Emida, a name gleaned from the founders: the Emmets, the Millers and the Dawsons. There we were transferred to trucks of the Forest Service and brought to our camp. It was a somewhat dreary place since it was in the center of a vast area which had been burned out in a fire around 1910. This area was so large that the forest was unable to renew itself, and the land had been taken over by blueberry bushes as far at the eye could see. You have to wonder where all the blueberry seeds came from, but they seemed to thrive on the burnt over lands. At any rate, the following summer I ate so many blueberries and blueberry pies that I lost my taste for them for all time.

Oddly enough, although the varied trees in this area had long since rotted away, the snags were still standing intact. This was the term used locally for the dead trunks of Port Orford Cedar, more commonly known at Aromatic Red Cedar. I knew the value of this wood. I had wanted to make my mother a cedar chest while I was in school, but the cost would have equaled a week’s pay for the average adult. You can imagine my distress, therefore when we spent the winter sawing down those priceless and well seasoned trees, cutting them into sections, bulldozing them into piles, and setting them afire. Some of them were four or five feet in diameter. Even if the Forest Service had wanted to save these snags, I suppose there was no way of getting them out of the area since the roads in Idaho were then a disaster.

I never saw a paved road all the time I was in Idaho. The roads were bulldozed out of the sides of the mountains and were periodically washed away during the rainstorms. The main state road in this section was made the same way, full of switchbacks, no guard rails and drops of hundreds of feet. It is claimed that there are no atheists on the battlefield. I can assure you also that there were no atheists in our trucks, especially when we met a large, overloaded logging truck coming the other way on these narrow roads and disaster was only inches away.

Another interesting fact of the 1910 fire was the loss of more than 150 men who were trapped by a crown fire. They were buried in a mass grave on a large ridge, ever afterward called Cemetery Ridge. They were fighting the fire when the wind changed and they had little chance. We worked on this ridge, and after I came home an airliner crashed on this same ridge with the lost of all lives. It was a great disaster for the time, but since airliners were not that big at that time it could hardly compare with airline disasters of later times. 

 Trees of the Northwest

We spent some time in logged out areas cutting down trees that were worthless to the lumber industry, in preparation for reseeding in the Spring. These worthless trees were mostly Western Larch, or Tamarack as it is otherwise known, as well as evergreens that were not much in demand. I would like to digress for a moment to describe some of these trees.

The more valuable were Sitka Spruce, Norway Pine, Western Red Pine and, where it could be removed easily, Port Orford Cedar. These trees grew to enormous size, and it was not uncommon to see any of them five or six feet in diameter. Bear in mind that this area had been worked by lumber companies years before to remove even larger specimens. Unlike eastern evergreens, these trees had no large branches or gnarled trunks, but extended to the sky with one mighty shaft, with small branches going clear to the top and stating many feet from the ground.

The one exception was a peculiar tree called the Lodgepole Pine which, although it rarely exceeded five or six inches in diameter, grew to an astonishing height. It was of no value except for firewood or poles, but as there was little demand for poles, we were required to get rid of them. This was easy since, due to their shallow root system, we could uproot the smaller ones and push over the larger ones by hand. I understand that the woods Indians carried on a trade with the plains Indians for these poles, which were ideal for lodges or to move their camps by means of a travois.

One of the most exasperating trees was the Tamarack. These were of no use whatever except for firewood, and no one in his right mind would saw down a forest giant for this purpose when so many smaller trees abounded. These large trees had a vein in the middle which was filled with resin. The moment your saw hit this vein, the resin would pour out and foul your saw at which point it was necessary to pull the saw out, wash it off with kerosene, saw a couple more strokes and wash it off again. After a great deal of cursing, washing and sawing we would fell the tree, only to move over to another and repeat the process.