Editorial: CCC veterans’ pride a reminder of the value of productivity

I should start out by admitting I’m not a big fan of government social programs, which typically, in my view, are incredibly wasteful of tax dollars and generally not very effective in solving problems. 

But I’ve always been impressed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. 

Throughout east Linn County the CCC’s legacy can be seen in the campgrounds, forest roads and trails that remain from the program, which was active here until the start of World War II, nearly 77 years ago. 

That’s a long time and the fact that only two local CCC veterans were able to attend the annual picnic hosted last month by the U.S. Forest Service that honors them – down from eight a decade ago, reminds us of how time flies and the world changes. 

It’s worth recalling those days, when America’s “Greatest Generation” pulled themselves up by their bootstraps at the tail end of the worst economic period in our history, and got busy. 

I’ve often wondered whether  the U.S. government and the state of Oregon wouldn’t be far better off putting folks who need public assistance, who are capable, to work as was the case with the CCC. The benefits in terms of improved self-esteem and to society as a whole would seem to far outweigh the challenges of such a program. 

However, I’m not here to argue that now, because simply remembering the CCC veterans’ contributions should help make that case. 

It’s easy to sit in the rustic beauty of the outdoor amphitheater at Longbow Organization Camp, east of Cascadia, and sort of romanticize the process that led to the construction of that and the other U.S. Forest Service camps that line the South Santiam River east of us. It’s easy because it was a significant achievement and we weren’t there to watch the young men operate under military-style discipline, through harsh weather and all manner of adversity to accomplish what they did. 

They planted nearly 3 billion trees, built 100,000 miles of roads and trails, fire towers, campgrounds, lodges and other facilities in more than 800 parks nationwide, fought fires and developed methods for doing so that still impact us (positively) today. 

Every time I go to the picnic, I enjoy hearing the CCC veterans recount their exploits. What strikes me most is how obviously proud they are about their participation in what was, essentially, what we would call a welfare program today. And it really did provide “well”-fare. It provided money for the family back home – participants got to keep $5 of the $25 they made each month and the rest was sent by the CCC to the folks. It provided job skills and discipline, which paid off in spades after Pearl Harbor. 

Lebanon resident Bill Albright told me that he joined the Navy after World War II broke out and served 25 years. One day, he and a bunch of his shipmates were sitting around the chief petty officer’s quarters on their ship during the Korean War when the subject of the CCC came up. 

“Between a third and a half of us who were there had been in the CCC,” he said. 

When I say these guys are “proud,” I’m not talking about the shameless self-promotion so prevalent in our day when someone cooks up a beautiful stack of pancakes and posts it on social media for the world to see. 

Their pride is the quiet confidence of hard work well done, often under difficult circumstances. I look at Longbow and I’m struck by how well the place is constructed – well thought-out, good-quality materials – OK, I’ll say it: Good old-fashioned American excellence. The CCC veterans don’t have to say much. Their work speaks for them. 

I’d say well over half the CCC vets I’ve spoken with over the years at the picnic also served in the war, and many went on to really significant achievements – military officers, business owners, professional men.  

Albright, who made some creative adjustments to his birth certificate to get into the CCC when he was 16 (the age limit was 17), went on to retire from the Navy as a lieutenant commander, before becoming a school teacher and real estate agent (after he retired from teaching) in Lebanon. 

At these picnics, local history expert Tony Farque always recounts some of the exploits of the local CCC Camp 2907, which built Longbow 80 years ago. 

There’s the one, from the memoirs of the late Ken Molver, who served with 2907, about how the local crew was returning from an extended firefighting operation in Northern California in a retired Army truck and, during a stop for victuals, came into possession of a German shepherd that they adopted as mascot until, on their return to Sweet Home, they were met by an state police officer. 

Apparently, the road they had been on was not well-traveled, so the suspects were quickly narrowed down. They paid the price in weekend leave restrictions and chipping in to take care of the cost to return the dog. 

If that sounds like military life, that’s essentially what it was, but they clearly had fun – or at least they have fun remembering it now, and that’s what hard work and clean living does for you, which is the sense I get listening to these guys. 

As I said earlier, the era is almost over. Albright (who served on the East Coast) is 93 and the other CCC veteran at the picnic this year, Harold Lil of Warren, who actually served in Camp 2907, is 98, though you’d never guess it watching him stride into the event. 

If you’ve never been to the CCC picnic, it’s a rich cultural experience – one worth taking the kids to. It’s held in mid-August and we always announce it in this newspaper. 

There were a lot of kids at this one, most of them from the Linn County Search and Rescue program which, come to think of it, might be one of the closest things we have today to CCC, at least in terms of teaching discipline, developing skills and learning commitment. 

But I digress. 

My purpose right now isn’t to advocate for a revival of the CCC or some similar program. To be honest, I wonder if it could be done in today’s culture and certainly, during the economic crest we’re experiencing, the need isn’t what it might have been 10 years ago.

But it is interesting – and sobering – to consider whether it could. Are we the same society today we were when the Greatest Generation was in their teens and 20s? 

If there are lessons to learn from them, the clock is ticking.