There was nothing. Less than nothing. I mean you couldn't buy a job. So what else could I do? It was a dollar a day, brother, and that was a lot better than nothing."
The man is 63 now, and a prosperous home-builder. But 43 years ago, he wasn't a prosperous anything. "I was starving was more like it."
But there was a new President named Roosevelt, and a new program to creat work for young men 18-24. It was called the Civilian Conservation Corps, and to judge from its first year, it was a resounding success.
So Rhoe Sheets, of Smithsburg, Md., joined up. "And it may have been the best thing I ever did."
That was the unabashed consensus last Sunday, as Sheets and about 65 other Maryland men who had served in CCC camps got together for a reunion at Cunningham Falls State Park near here.
Appropriately, they gathered beneath a lean-to built 44 swapped photos, memories and fried chicken. And they had little trouble agreeing that those too young to remember "hard times" might benefit from a CCC experience today.
Maryland has certainly benefitted from the CCC. According to William A. Parr, director of the Maryland Park Service, CCC workers cleared all eight Maryland state forests and helped clear and build 13 of the 38 state parks.
Although forestry and conservation work were CCC's two specialties, crews also did light construction and gardening. And not all of it was deep in the woods. In the immediate Washington area, Rock Creek Park, the National Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville and East Potomac Park were all CCC camps or projects.
In all, about 300,000 young men took part in the CCC before the program ended in 1941. A similar effort, the Job Corps, was tried in the 1960s, and President Carter proposed a new CCC last week. But to the men at Sunday's reunion, the first CCC was the one and only.
Run much like the military, with ranks, uniforms and serial numbers and with military reserve officers serving as squad leaders, the CCC signed up young men for as much as three years.
Bob Gordon of Cape St. Claire remembers how spartan the life was.
Assigned to help build Douthat State Park in Clifton Forge, Va., Gordon spent nearly a year living in a tent. He ate well, but simply. "What it mostly was was hard, hard work," he said. Much of it consisted of clearing dense underbrush with a scythe, eight hours a day, for a year and a half.
"We built fire trails and bridle paths," said Gordon, who recently retired from a supervisor's job with a Baltimore oil company. About 30 men served in Company 1386. "We went in with our ribs showing, and we came out with a gut," Gordon recalled. "But it was healthy, best thing in the world for young men."
Sunday's reunion had an added dimension for Gordon.
The park service had called him a few days before to ask if he would mind giving a ride to a man who lived in Severn. Gordon agreed. The "hitchhiker" turned out to be John Hoppa, a former companymate of Gordon's. The two men had not seen each other in 43 years.
Their lives have taken remarkably similar turns. Both grandfathers and both retired, they were among the few members of the Company 1386 to save some of their pay, little though it was. And when they left the CCC, both men bought their first cars with the money - a 1937 Chevy for Hoppa, a 1934 Ford for Gordon.
"The thing I liked," recalled Hoppa, as he flipped through a scrapbook, "was that people were from all walks of life. I was always kind of shy. After I left there, I could mix with anybody."
One CCC policy the "alumni" recalled with amusement was the method of settling disputes. "They would bring out the boxing gloves and go at it," said Michael Abe, a fruit dealer from Winchester, Va., who served with the CCC in Beltsville. "And that was usually the last of it."
There was also pride in and about the CCC, the men recalled, and some doubted it could be reproduced today. "If you did it today," said Bob Gordon, "they'd all want color television."
"We did more federal work for $1 a day than they do for $40 a day today," said Dennis Abe of College Park, Michael's brother and a veteran of the CCC camp at Garrett Park.
But Michael Abe saw some hope. "There was discipline," he said, "but I don't think that would be so tough to have today. Kids aren't as bad as people think they are."
Maryland plans to honor its CCCers with a permanent memorial and museum. Parr said the park service hopes to have opened it by next year.The tentative location, he said, is Fort Frederick State Park west of Hagerstown, where CCCers did the original clearing.
The site is very near Rhoe Sheets' home. He said he would not only visit often, but with a much different outlook than he had in 1934. "We knew times would get better," Sheets said, "and what do you know? They did."