Friday, June 16, 2017

A Tree Army & a Godsend: The Civilian Conservation Corps



(An updating of a very old piece from The Way-Back Files –The Farmington Valley Herald, July 1979.) 


“I propose to create [the CCC] to be used in complex work, not interfering with abnormal employment, and confining itself to forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control and similar projects. I call your attention to the fact that this type of work is of definite, practical value, not only through the prevention of great present financial loss, but also as a means of creating future national wealth.”
                               -- Franklin D. Roosevelt 


Roosevelt’s Tree Army. That’s what they called it. In April 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps were established by executive order of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Always passionate about conservation – what else would one expect from a cousin of Theodore Roosevelt? – he had set up a smaller but similar program in New York when he was governor and knew that it could work on a national scale as well.

The CCC became one of the most successful and most popular of all the New Deal relief programs, providing unmarried young men between 18 and 26 across the country with work, housing, and food. During its nine-year run, it supervised such projects as the construction of roads and trails through state forests; fire prevention and control; and forest planning. Other projects involved re-seeding grazing lands; soil-erosion control; stream improvement; the erection of fire towers; and the building of wildlife refuges, fish-rearing facilities, and animal shelters.

There were also educational programs in the camps. The success of these programs “was determined by the initiative and qualifications of the Educational Adviser stationed in each camp,” observes the National Association of the Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni. “The attitude and cooperation of the camp commander was also important. These programs varied considerably from camp to camp, both in efficiency and results. However, throughout the Corps, more than 40,000 illiterates were taught to read and write. Since most of this training was on the enrollee's own time, undoubtedly each gained that for which he worked the hardest, be it high school diploma, learning to type, or wood carving.”

In Connecticut and New York state, workers doggedly fought the gypsy moth epidemic, Dutch elm disease, and the European pine shoot moth. When the Colt Dike in Hartford burst in the spring of 1936 and flooded one-fifth of the city, the CCC offered its services to Governor Wilbur Cross.

The state “turned CCC men out of camps to help wherever they could,” recalled former State Forester W. F. Schreeder. The program was, he added “cheap for what they [the government] paid.”

Schreeder, who had worked for the CCC as a surveying engineer, said that when the program began, each state had the “privilege” of maintaining camps. There were 20 of them scattered throughout Connecticut.

George Mueller, one of my parents’ oldest neighbors, had worked in a CCC camp as a young man. The work was, he told me, “a wonderful opportunity for the boys who liked it. Jobs were nil – there just weren’t any.”

Mueller had worked on gypsy moth control with the CCC in upstate New York for a year. He remembered going through given sections of the woods, checking each tree, and cutting down infested brush. Forest rangers would occasionally put up false egg clusters made of clay to make sure that the men were doing the job thoroughly – and they “raised particular hell if they found out you hadn’t.”

The program was semi-military in its insistence on following regulations. Inspections were held in the mornings, and “if you took a day off, you were AWOL, same as you were in the Army.” Repeating offenders would be dropped from the CCC: there were always more men looking for work.

The army “actually ran the camps,” feeding, clothing, and housing the men, Schreeder explained. They received $30 dollars a month: $25 would go home to their families, and they’d keep $5 for personal expenses.

One camp in Connecticut was, Schreeder recalled, made up entirely of World War I vets. They more than appreciated the work. The Hoover administration had denied them their bonuses, and they had suffered heavily from public disapproval of American involvement in the war.

“After World War I, Army enrollment lowered,” Mueller corroborated. “The government didn’t want a big standing army. Being assigned to the CCC camps was good duty for them [the vets].”

Both he and Schreeder agreed that the program was run satisfactorily for the amount of time and money put into it. “If we had a program like that today, the state would be better off,” the latter declared. “It took the boys off the streets, taught ‘em to work, and made men out of ‘em.”

Mueller compared the CCC favorably to some of the current Comprehensive Employment and Training (CETA) programs, which he viewed as being sloppily set up and a waste of money. Perhaps, he speculated, being run along military guidelines kept the New Deal program from taking a similar turn.

“I’m not sure if young men would work for those wages now,” he remarked. “At the time, we thought it was a godsend. People were able to say, ‘I’m still working and supporting my family. I’m earning what I’m getting.’”

Schreeder took a slightly more wistful tone. “I wonder,” he said in a letter written after our interview, “how many people realize that many of the facilities they now enjoy at state parks and state forests were originally provided by the work of the CCC.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Twice-Given Gift

I remember waking up with excitement the morning after my daughter M’s birth. The feeling was the same as the one I’d had back in my childhood, when my parents had bought me a “surprise” – a book, a stuffed animal, or some small toy – and slipped it under my pillow. I couldn’t wait to see her. But hospital’s day nursery wasn’t open yet. In the meantime, a friend’s wife came in to visit: they had a daughter, too, and we chattered away about how much fun girls were to buy for, how you could do so much more with them, etc. etc.

And it was fun. I’d always liked kids, but I’d never realized how fascinating babies could be. I watched M. discover her own shadow, delight in the family cats, and sit spell-bound in the tub, watching the bubbles I blew for her. We had our own rituals and, once she learned to talk, our own catch-phrases, too…the most important one being right before she went to bed. “I like you, and I love you,” I’d tell her.

“I like you, and I love you,” M. would sing back.

My husband Tim died in a car accident when M. was just three-and-a-half-years-old. Family and friends did what they could to help. But, at the end of the day, it was the two of us. We watched movies, did board games and puzzles, went trick-or-treating together, and had picnics on an old quilt in the driveway on Sundays. She pulled me out of my comfort zone: I found myself volunteering at her grammar school; putting together a couple badge-worthy programs for her Brownie troop; playing miniature golf with her; and trying to help her learn how to ride a bike. This last one was especially tricky because I’d never been taught to ride one myself. So I just walked alongside her, holding onto the handle bars and doing my best to keep her upright.

At the end of 7th grade, M. began talking about being bisexual. I was surprised – I’d seen no indication at that point that she was attracted to other girls – but I figured it would all sort itself out somehow.

Only some things, I was to learn, don’t sort themselves out nice and neatly. Her confusion was deeper than I’d realized, and it was about a lot more than orientation. It merged with what a psychiatrist told me was “a low-grade depression” over the father she couldn’t remember, creating an emotional firestorm that I didn’t think we’d ever come out of. She cut herself, had suicidal thoughts, and once even tried to run away. There were emergency-room trips, hospitalizations, outpatient therapy, and a slow, often painful re-building of our relationship.

We got it back, though – enough so that when M. told me she thought that she was “full-on lesbian,” I accepted it unhesitatingly. After all, I had family members and friends who were gay, so it wasn’t such a big adjustment. Her girlfriends came over, and we talked about what was happening in her various relationships.

But by her sophomore year of high school, there was a new bend in the road: M. had come to understand that the issue was not one of orientation but of gender. That she was a male trapped in a female body. M. began dressing as a boy and calling herself/himself Zeke.

This was a harder issue for me to deal with but not for the reasons you’d think. There had been a lot of loss in my life already, and all I could think was that I was going to lose the daughter who had been my joy and comfort since Tim’s death. Selfish but true.

A woman said to me, “You have been given as great gift. You had the privilege of having a daughter for many years, and now you have the privilege of having a son.” She was right, of course – my brain realized it the moment she spoke. But hearts take a lot longer to catch up.

Oddly enough, it was Zeke who found the words I needed. They had been written by a father whose daughter, like mine, had realized that nature had made a mistake. “I find that I am not ready to give up the little girl that I loved so much,” this unknown man had written. “She is special to me – I love her and don’t want her to go, even though I know I must. In a way, this is like a death and a birth in the family at the same time. Allow me to mourn the loss of my daughter and, I assure you, I will rejoice at the birth of my new son.”

I sat in on a support group for parents with trans children: mostly, I just listened, but it helped knowing that there were other parents wrestling with the same issues. I went to some of the counseling sessions that Zeke had with his therapist, who was transgender herself, only MTF (male-to-female), and read some of the articles she gave him. And slowly, I came to understand how much Zeke needed to do this.

Then came the surgeries. I went out to Arizona with him for one of them, and we stayed at a condo not far from the hospital. A couple of nights after the operation, Zeke called me into his bedroom. Would I feel weird, he asked, checking the surgery site to see if everything looked O.K.?

I gave a mental shrug. “No,” I replied. “After all, if you had been born in a male body, I would’ve seen it by now.”

That was when my heart and I finally got where we needed to go. I had a son, and he needed looking after. Heart and I were good with that.

In a later episode of “Merlin” – a brilliant re-imagining of the Arthurian legend, courtesy of the BBC – the Great Dragon, who has mentored the young warlock, says, “From the moment I met you, I saw something that was invisible. Now it is there for all to see.” I feel that way about Zeke, and it has nothing to do with his change from female to male. He is living his truth and doing what he can to help others in the trans community live theirs. And, as Albert Schweitzer once said, “[t]he one essential thing is that we have light in ourselves. Our strivings will be recognized by others, and when people have light in themselves, it will shine out from them.”

Zeke has that light. I like him, and I love him, and I still have much to learn from him.