A proposal last year for an American Conservation Corps was allowed to die in the Senate without a vote, contrary to an impression left by a Washington Post story yesterday. A new bill, endorsed by the National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni, passed the House 301-87 on March 1.
"My father was in Washington looking for work in the Depression," said Norma Burnette. "He came up from North Carolina, and he had no job and no money. But he heard on the radio about this new thing, the CCC. So he went right out and found the place and signed up."
His name was Henry Rich, and he discovered that he was the first man to enlist in the Civilian Conservation Corps. That was April 7, 1933, just 37 days after Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated with a ringing pledge to get the country back to work.
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the CCC, and the Postal Service had a ceremony in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to dedicate its new 20-cent commemorative stamp. The dedication was held at the Big Meadows park center on Skyline Drive, and they had speeches and a color guard, and they were selling stamps like crazy, but what it really was was a reunion.
Because the place was busting out the seams with former CCC boys, now in their sixties and seventies, a little heavier maybe, wearing billed caps and down jackets or formal blue suits, and they were talking to beat the band, and every so often one of them would take his wife and kids out onto the deck and point across to the meadow and the wooded hill behind it, where Camp Fechner used to stand.
It was the second one built--the first was Camp Roosevelt, just a few miles over the mountain at Edinburg--and it was amazing how many people there yesterday remembered it.
"We took the train to Elkton Va. and then got into trucks," recalled W.A. Burcham, 69, who had joined up that same April. "It was the first time a lot of us had been away from home. The first mountain we ever saw. On that first day we put up our tents, big tents that held 20 boys each with their cots. By 4 p.m. a big windstorm came up and carried 'em all across the meadow. Cleaned 'em right out."
They were surplus World War I tents, and the first uniforms were brand-new surplus from the same war, with the overseas cap and even, briefly, the puttees inherited from a still earlier war. The food was plain but plenty. It did the job: Burcham, then 19, grew two inches and gained 20 pounds of solid muscle in his year's stint.
"It was a wonderful thing for us," he said. "Some of those boys couldn't read or write, and they got schooling. Got a toothbrush and a razor, learned you had to take a shower before supper. It taught us to get along with one another. It made men out of boys."
It was a hard life, and not all of them were farm kids, either. Many were from the cities. There was no Skyline Drive in those days (it was completed in 1939), just a dirt road, and the Model T truck that brought the food had to turn around halfway up the mountain and back up the rest of the way.
Anthony Manili, 70, of Salisbury, N.C., was a driver at Camp Roosevelt. He was the eighth to join the CCC in that first incredible rush to work--in the first three months of the program, 275,000 youths flocked into 1,300 camps--and he hauled supplies and men all over the hills.
"The Army was in charge of us," he said. "They kept order. If there was a fight, they'd bring out the gloves and put the boys in the ring. It was a rowdy bunch sometimes. I ran the ambulance too, took a kid into Harrisonburg hospital who split his leg with a double ax he didn't know how to handle. Another one I was rassling with and broke his collarbone and drove him in too. It got cold up there: Once a guy stuck his lip on the pail at the spring that was a half-mile from camp, and it froze, and he had to hold the pail to his lip all the way back to where we could get some hot water on it."
But they were a healthy group. Eddie Ruple, 67, of Yorktown, Va., said, "People didn't get sick in them days. It meant so much to us. I was working for 25 cents a day carrying water when I joined up. Most of 'em didn't even have that."
The pay was $30 a month. Paul Vermette, head of the CCC's national alumni association in Falls Church, joined up in Portland, Maine, in '36 after being rejected by the Navy and Marines. "I thought it was a great deal--even the Army only paid $21 a month--but they never told me that you had to send $25 of it back to your family."
That left $5 a month spending money. Which wasn't too bad in a day when you could buy three beers for a quarter and a meal for 15 cents. "It did a lot for some of the small towns around the camps," said James Trainham, who signed up in Louisa County, Va., because he was "tired of looking at the southern end of a northbound mule." Boys would be trucked to nearby dances on weekends, and Edinburg became a mecca of sorts. For years, CCC boys in their blue denims hiking the country roads to get a bottle of pop at the village store were part of the national landscape.
In fact Henry Rich married an Edinburg girl and settled there, said Norma Burnette, his daughter. Burnette lives in Woodbridge, Va., with her family. She has heard about the CCC since she was a girl.
For many of the youths, it was the great adventure of their lives. You had to be 17 to join, but some slipped through at 15. Older men, war veterans mostly, added a sober note to the group and did their part in turning out a remarkable generation of young Americans: 3 million of them, spread over the nine years of the CCC in every state, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. "It did something for us," they like to say.
And they worked. They planted 2.4 billion trees, opened 126,000 miles of trails, stocked a billion fish. They put up 89,000 miles of telephone lines, built nearly 7 million dams, thus saving many millions of acres from erosion. They spent 6.5 million man-days fighting fires. Their reforestation and flood control projects helped add hundreds of acres to the national forests.
Last week the House approved an American Conservation Corps modeled on the CCC, over the opposition of the Reagan administration. The bill goes to the Senate, which has already turned back a similar proposal. The old boys of the CCC seemed interested, but some were skeptical.
"It'd get these guys off the streets," one said. "Give 'em something to do."
"Do you think it would work today?" asked his friend. "They wouldn't live like we did, in barracks and tents. You'd have to put 'em in the Hilton. Would they eat what we did? I don't care if I never see another plate of white beans."