Edward Roybal, a Democratic congressman from California, still remembers the government program that gave him sweat, callouses and $30 a month building roads in the Sierras in the 1930s. It was, he says, "the best thing that ever happened to me."
Robert Griffiths, a 63-year-old retired federal employe in Northern Virginia, remembers, too. He recalls how in 1933 neither he nor his father had a job and the family couldn't afford to eat regularly. The same program paid Griffiths to plant trees in upstate New York and he sent $25 a month to the folks back home.
The program was the Civilian Conservation Corps. Franklin D. Roosevelt's Depression-era scheme to put the jobless to work by creating a "tree army" -- a quasi-military band of 300,000 men a year who swarmed over public conservation projects across the nation building bridges, roads and canals -- and pride in their own accomplishments.
The corps left its mark in the Washington region with building and repair projects at the National Arboretum, the C & O Canal, Roosevelt Island, the Custis-Lee mansion, Fort Washington and dozens of smaller projects.
Today Griffiths is executive director of the 5,500-member National Association of Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni, a Manassas-based organization that publishes a newsletter and brochures and holds an annual memory-laden convention to honor the achievements of 45 years ago.
But Roybal, Griffiths and others aren't living entirely in the past. With esprit de corps worthy of the huskiest work gang, they are pursuing a major goal: the resurrection of the federal program that once helped cure some of the nation's economic and social ills.
"This is a bare-knuckles project," says Griffiths as he sits in his small Manassas office. "We think that the kids, once inspired, will give something to their government."
Although a Roybal-sponsored bill to recreate the CCC went nowhere 12 years ago, and existing job corps programs have their place, the idea's backers believe their time is coming, if it is not already at hand.
Citing the nation's energy woes, a jobless rate of 7.8 percent, and renewed registration for the draft that might make alternative forms of service more attractive, Roybal plans to reintroduce his bill when Congress reconvenes. Rep. Lester Wolff (D-N.Y.) has agreed to co-sponsor the measure.
Griffiths acknowledges it might be harder to recruit the urban unemployed of the 1980s than it was decades ago. "Some of these kids don't know what the hell a pine tree looks like," he says. "If we say, 'Listen, we're going to take you out to plant trees,' a city kid is probably going to ask where the nearest pool table is."
But with more than 3 million unemployed Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 -- the age range of the original CCC recruits -- Griffiths believes there could be a solid core of potential workers who would appreciate the rigors of camp life.
"We don't want to waste time on any youngster just looking for a handout. Either he gets with it, or we don't have time for him," he says.
Although the CCC was strictly a men-only operation in the 1930s, the new corps would recruit women as well. The alumni, however, would like to keep the sexes segregated. "We're pretty straight about that," says Griffiths.
The Roybal proposal, still in the drafting stage, would call for a 600,000-member force concentrated exclusively on forest and park work over the next 40 years. Proponents would like to get the $1 billion President Carter had earmarked for youth employment programs in this year's budget channeled into the CCC.
In addition, the bill would make the corps a form of alternatives service if the military draft were reinstituted. A draftee who didn't want to join the armed forces could serve with the CCC for two years.
The bill calls for recruits to be paid the minimum wage ($3.10 an hour) for their work, an idea that makes the alumni association uncomfortable, but one that will make it acceptable to the AFL-CIO, which has endorsed similar programs with minimum wage conditions.
The alumni members believe the proposal will sell this time because it contains a major project that they say would beautify the nation's forests and at the same time make the corps self-sufficient.
With an initial investment of $1 billion and about $5 billion more over the next four years, the corps would produce enough wood alcohol to reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil by as much as 10 percent, the idea's backers believe.
The concept is to have thousands of recruits remove what foresters call YUM -- Yarnable Unmerchantable Material, the insects, fungi, fire remains and tree stumps -- from the floor of 500 million acres of national forest land. a
One-fourth of the material could be used to produce wood products, while the remainder would be converted into wood alcohol for use in making gasohol, according to the propnents.
Related projects would involve thinning 150 million acres of overstocked forests and replanting the land.
Although the wood alcohol program would be a departure from the original CCC concept of less centralized projects, Griffiths and his colleagues hope Congress will see fit to act on their new proposal.
"If they don't need more evidence that Miami [rioting] to do something, I don't know what they need," he says.