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Reminisence of CCC Days

ONLY YESTERDAY

My name is Robert Winston.

There are as many stories about the CCC camps as there are men who knew that experience. One thing they all have in common is that those days in their early lives made a profound difference.

For me, my time with the Civilian Conservation Corps was only four months and eighteen days, but that time was an experience that has, every day since, stood me in good stead.

My story will not be unique, but each of us who had CCC experience tend to think that ours was something special--something that was unique, something that made our time in the camps apart from all the others.

I thought I was an adult when I went to Curtis Creek CCC in Old Fort, NC , but it takes a tempered steel file to put the edge on an axe. I had this experience in two ways. In one of those ways, I actually learned how to sharpen an axe and a cross cut saw. In the second way, I had the edge put on my manhood by learning how to live with others whose background was not mine, whose experience was not mine and who shared only one thing with me and that was youth.

The CCC was not my first work experience. In those days, I think most of us young fellows knew how to work, especially those boys who came from a rural area, as I did. I had many jobs as I was growing up--on the farm and in town--but the one job that stood me in good stead was the one I had just before my CCC experience.

I’d been living with my sister in Charlotte. After I graduated from Berryhill High School, with my good friend A. W. Haynes, I hitchhiked home to see Mama and Papa and my brother, Maynard. I didn’t know what I was going to do now that school was over, but I knew I’d have to look for a job, even at a time when it was almost a wasted effort for a mere boy to find a job.

These were hard times, but there was not much stealing or crime. There was more brotherhood then, it seems to me, than there is now We were all kinder to each other, maybe because we were all in the same boat. I’m talking about the Depression. No one who ever lived through that time will ever think of it in the same breath with the recessions we now have from time to time. I’m talking about years when whole families were without jobs, years when people would be willing to work just for food to put on the table.

As I say, A.W. and I spent a week with my parents in Franklinton, and then his parents told me I could stay a week with them in Charlotte. I really didn’t know what I’d be doing after that.

It was the very last day of that stay with A.W. and his folks. That night we took our dates to the Steele Creek Presbyterian Church, and after church we were in a group of friends, and I asked if anybody knew of a job I might get.

I don’t know who mentioned that the owners of Borden Acres Farm were building a barn and converting a tenant house into living quarters while the old house was being demolished and a new one built. That’s all I needed. I was looking for work--any kind of work. I welcomed the chance to stay in Charlotte, because I knew there was no work for me in Franklinton.

The next day I was at the farm. Major Borden, a surgeon in the U. S. Air Force, owned the place, and he lived there with his wife and two sons, Lt. Mitchell Borden and his brother, Captain Beard Borden, both in the U. S. Air Force Reserves.
They were all skeptical at first, because I was fairly well dressed and, because I was right out of high school, I had no blisters on my hands. I persisted. They said they couldn’t pay much and I assured them that I was looking for work, that pay didn’t matter, that food and a place to sleep was more important to me. They agreed to pay me a dollar and fifty cents for a five-day work week.

I’ve had many a job since, but never one that was more welcome.

I slept in the pump house. I helped with the milking--a job I had to learn how to do. I took over the job of watering and feeding the animals and gathering the eggs. I learned how to operate the cream separator. There was nothing on that farm and there was no part of the construction going on there that I wasn’t willing to learn how to do.

The odd pieces of our lives seem to all fit together, especially when, years later, we have had time to reflect on our earlier years. This is where one of the important pieces of my life fit into another.

Lt. Mitchell Borden had been the Commanding Officer of a CCC camp in Monroe, NC. He told me I would have a better chance of furthering my education in the CCCs, and that I would have more pay than I was getting there on the farm. Better than that, Mitchell Borden had seen firsthand that I was a worker, that I was willing to learn, and that I had a good basic education, so he wrote a letter of recommendation in which he said that, in his judgment, I “was capable of performing any position in the Overhead.” The Overhead I later learned consisted of the Top Sergeant, the Supply Sergeant, Mess Sergeant, Office Clerk, First Aid Attendant, First Army Truck Driver and Second Army Truck Driver.

When I reported in at the Curtis Creek CCC, I went directly to Lt. Kirkpatrick, who came from Charlotte. By happenstance he knew Captain Carl Mason, a man who had worked at Charles H. Stone, Inc. where I had done odd-jobs while going to high school. Another piece that fitted together.

Is it any wonder that I became Second First Aid Attendant? I am a firm believer in the axiom that you make your own luck, but I had a lot of it going for me from my first day at the camp. I would not always be so fortunate.

When I decided to go into the CCCs, I talked another of my buddies into going along. Bob Lynn was a friend who had dropped out of school. It can be dangerous to talk someone into anything, because, in a way, you take on a responsibility for them. In Bob’s case, that responsibility was increased because his mother made me promise I would look out for her son, since he was younger. I made that promise and I kept my word.

There were two men in First Aid, because it was a twenty-four-hour-a-day job, five days a week, with full duty every other weekend. I was able to do the work required in short order. The other man in First Aid, for his own reasons, shied away from giving vaccinations or stitching up the hurt or wounded. I found that both these things, and the other duties that were required, were duties I had an aptitude for, and that was a lucky thing for the camp. Let me tell you why.

Dr. Gilbreath was glad to have an eager helper; I quickly became an able assistant. This was not a “no-work job.” Mr. Tom Murphy, who was in charge of all the work outside the camp, had anywhere from six to eight men directly under him, and each of these men would have a crew of 25 to 35 boys who were out there cutting roads, fighting forest fires, building trails and removing dead chestnut trees for the local lumber mills.

These were big crews, doing hard work in the outdoors. There were blisters and sprains, there were colds and illnesses, and there were accidents and fights. There was work enough for the First Aid man.

It was lucky that I was quick to learn, because Dr. Gilbreath was divorced and had a girl friend, a nurse that worked at the Veterans Hospital in Oteen, NC. It was a drive of only about 35 miles, but the roads couldn’t be compared with the Interstates of today, and even though the doctor had a beautiful 1933 Cadillac roadster, the “necessity” for him to be in Oteen was also complicated by the fact that he was an ardent fly fisherman. He could be gone for days at a time. This meant that my skills as a medic were tested sorely, and fortunately I learned what to do in a hurry. Ours was a safe camp with well-cared-for boys.

But, my stay at Curtis Creek CCC was not without problems. One day, one of our foremen, Mr. Claude Carver, came to me with what amounted to a real dilemma for the young man that I was then. He didn’t want to be given the required vaccinations.

“I had them shots,” he said, “over at Buck Creek Camp. They made me sick when I took ‘em. Is there any way you can get me off taking them shots?”

That was a new problem for me, a whole new set of circumstances. Here was a grown man, more than old enough to be my father, asking for something I knew was wrong, and yet my experience had not prepared me for just how to handle such a predicament.

“I can’t do that, Mr. Carver.”

“Why not? You know I already had ‘em. You can’t go from one camp to the other without taking shots. It ain’t like you don’t know the fact of it.”

He was right, of course. To be on the safe side, everyone had to take or retake the shots when they transferred in.

“Come on now, boy. You know I done had them shots, don’t you, and you know they make me sick?”

I told him I was supposed to give the shots and that I could get myself in a heap of trouble by bending the rules for him, and I asked him not to tell anyone what I had done.

I guess he didn’t feel he had told a story out-of-school if he only told kin. Maybe that’s the explanation. I can only tell you what happened.

The next day, Mr. Carver’s son, a man of about 45, came to see me. It was about his vaccinations. The worry for me went on from there. In time, the deviation from the vaccine schedule included the whole group of local men from the Forestry Department, included Mr. Tom Murphy himself.

You learn your lessons from life, No amount of reading will ever teach me that kind of lesson, but, remember, I was barely 18, and somehow, right then--at least the first time I bent the rules--it was a judgment I felt I could make.

Maybe I should tell you I had to pay for my misdeed, or my series of misdeeds. That was not the case. I was a lonely kid away from home, but from that time on there was not a single free weekend when I had nothing to do. I was invited into the homes of these men, I met their families, I was treated like a son, and I got to know mountain people.

Some of those friendships have gone on until this day. Years later, when I married Lettie, I took her by to see my friends in the mountains. And, good folks that they are, they took her into their lives, just as they had me. Maybe now you know why I have a home among the friends I made back when I was a not-dry-behind-the-ears, 18-year old kid.

Another of our jobs as First Aid Attendants was to treat our water supply with chlorine, and if I wasn’t careful, it could mean a trip up the mountain to our reservoirs in the middle of the night, by the dim light of a kerosene lantern, knowing that we were in snake country.

At one time, I had a nice little business going. As I said, we were in snake country. It was common for the boys in the crews to bring in four or five foot timber rattlers for me to kill and skin. I would charge twenty-five cents to skin, stretch-tack on a board, and salt those skins. I made a few dollars doing this, but, it seems to be a fact of life, that all good things must come to an end. This one did.

One day, one of the guys bringing in a snake on one of the Forestry trucks, let it get loose. Well, some of the boys got injured climbing over the seats (boards strung between the stake body on each side of the truck), and after I had patched them up, the order came out: “No more snakes in camp, dead or alive.” So, you can see how government regulations killed a business enterprise, even in those days.

But, does the real entrepreneur ever quit? You decide.

The Army dentist from Ft. Bragg would visit our camp every thirty days. That dentist did not put in a permanent filling, he only pulled teeth, or he might put in a temporary filling.

On one occasion, one of our guys had a temporary filling put in. It only lasted a few days, and by then the dentist was gone. The kid came to the infirmary late at night with enough pain that it was keeping him from sleeping. I made a filling of plaster, cotton and oil of peppermint, and told him he would have to have the tooth pulled the next time the dentist came.

He told me his religion would not permit having the tooth pulled. I told him that my religion kept me from getting up at night when I had no light other than a lantern to work by, and that I couldn’t tend to my work, fix his tooth and maybe run up to the reservoirs, all in one night.

He told me that if it happened again--if he had to have something done at night--he’d pay me twenty-five cents to do it. So, I told him he’d have to wait until morning for his dental work, but if the pain got to be too much, and if he couldn’t wait, I’d accept the twenty-five cent offer.

That boy had a bad tooth problem. He continued to have me fill his tooth about once a week, so I made up for the lost snake income.

Now, I’ve already told you about my promise to Bob Lynn’s mama. I had what might be considered a cushy job at the camp. Bob was not doing that well out there on the hillside clearing brush and making roads. So, I went to Lt. Kirkpatrick, told him of my promise to Mrs. Lynn, and, on my recommendation, Bob was given the job driving the Second Army Truck.

His duties included driving a young Second Lieutenant to Marion to buy supplies for the camp, to be one of the guards, and to awaken the cooks at four a.m. each morning. Bob did real well for a couple of weeks and then one night someone brought some “mountain corn” into the camp and Bob got loaded. He had to sleep one off, so the cooks were not called and breakfast that should have been at seven was served at nine or ten.

Do you think I’d learned my lesson? No. When I make a promise to a lady, I mean to keep it. Bob got KP for a couple of weeks, but I talked Lt. Kirkpatrick into giving Bob another chance.

Once again, Bob did well for a couple of weeks, and then there was another incident with “corn.” Bob got into an argument with Sgt. Beasley. Someone came running to me to see if I could come and get Bob settled down. When I got there, Bob had knocked over a big pot belly stove. Ashes and smut were everywhere. He was a wild man.

I picked up a piece of stove wood and I said, “Bob, if you don’t sit down and do it now, I’m going to have to put you down.” I’m glad he believed me. Bob had a very hard head and I had a very soft heart.

Yes, I went to bat for him again. I kept him from being discharged, but for the second incident, he lost the truck driving job. He was put on the explosive crew--using a jack hammer, setting dynamite, moving the heavy air compressor. Hard hats, gloves and dust-masks were not in use in those days. He managed to hold that job.

No, that’s not the end of Bob.

There’s so much more to the Curtis Creek CCC Camp, the Old Fort story, but all good things come to an end.

That camp was closed the first or second week in October, 1935. There were six of us from Charlotte. We were reassigned. We were transferred to the CCC Camp in Barnardsville, one of the older camps.

I lost my rating, but I didn’t care. I was looking forward to a five-day work week, with weekends to play baseball or basketball--or even to have time to go courting.

It wasn’t long before I found out there was a local foreman named Carver. I asked him if he was one of Mr. Claude Carver’s sons and he said he was. He even said, “I know who you are. My folks have already put in a good word for you.”

It follows then, that I was assigned to his crew. Since I had done no real hard work for months, my hands were not ready for what was now my lot, but I had a lot of pride, and I told him I could use an axe.

I was the axe lead boy; I was the one who notched the tree on the side of the saw cut, determining the way the tree would fall. Well, now, the average virgin chestnut tree was more than four feet in diameter, so I had to start my notch about three feet up from where the saw cut was. You’re talking about a man-sized cut. But I had never shirked from work and I didn’t then.

I was the axe lead boy for one day.

The next day when I started to swing the axe, those blisters on my hands broke and the skin peeled back. I tried wrapping rags on my hands so I could work. I had the strength to swing the axe, but the pain in my hands wouldn’t let me make the cut properly.

Mr. Carver saw I was trying. He came over and asked me if I had ever done work like that. I told him I had, but not since I got in the CCCs. I told him I thought I’d be back in shape in a few days, but he said my hands would only get worse until they healed. He asked me if I had ever sharpened tools. I told him I had helped papa sharpen hoes, chisels, hatchets, mattocks, picks and axes.

So, right then, I had a new job of peddling the tool, the device, that turned the large grinding stone that ran through water. This was work my hands could take, and soon, I had sharpened all the dull axes that had accumulated. That job done, Mr. Carver asked me if I had ever sharpened crosscut saws. I told him I had seen papa do it and that I could give it a try I learned how to set the teeth in a saw.
Since I had been in Overhead at the last camp, Captain Gardner promised me an Overhead job when one opened up, but that never happened. I kept the job sharpening saws and axes for the rest of my stay at Barnardsville, but I didn’t really care. I liked my work and I had time to play on the basketball team, to compete with the local teams and to make a lot of wonderful friends.

And, here again, I managed to bend a few rules. The local men who hauled the logs out of the area were wearing worn-out army issue: shirts, trousers and jackets. On many an occasion, I traded for their worn-out shirt, and then took my “worn” one in for replacement. I must have done this once or twice too often, because the Supply Sergeant finally asked me how I wore out so many clothes. I told him some of the local workers helped me. He was a mountain boy, and he knew at once what I meant. He never asked the question again. And, radical that I have always been, I soon had two or three buddies who had clothing “wear out too soon.” Do I feel any guilt for this? Not a bit. These were poor people and these were hard times. Since then, I have paid so many taxes that I have more than made it up to the government. I’m sure it’s all about balanced out by now.

Now, while I was getting along well with all the people in the camp, Bob Lynn--my friend from Charlotte, the one whose mother I had made a promise to--was not handling himself too well. We were the newcomers to the camp and the last batch of us were what might be called “city boys.” There were highjinks in the barracks, and it started shortly after our arrival.

We’d all get in our cots at about nine when the lights in the camp were out for the night, and then a group of boys would come into our barracks and overturn our cots. We’d get things set straight again, fumbling around in the dark, get back on our cots, and the whole process would start all over. I knew this kind of ‘fun” would wear itself out, but Bob’s tolerance was not great enough or his fuse was too short. One night I heard him talking to another boy named Roy Simms.

Of course, it happened again. My cot was flipped, and then I heard what sounded like a mighty blow. It could have been Bob or it could have been Simms, but someone had retaliated and that was clear.

There were no more cots being overturned that night.

That I know of, the incident was never reported. The guy who got socked simply bided his time. But, one of the pranksters had been attacked, so it wasn’t over, and that gang was all ready for pay-back-time.

They were clever and persistent. There were threats and harassment. You had to be on guard everywhere you went. All of us got some of the trouble, but they seemed to zero-in on Bob and Roy Simms, but mostly on Bob.

From bad it went to worse. It finally got so severe that I went to Captain Gardner and told him the whole story. I told him some of those boys had knives and that I feared for Bob’s life. Of course I remembered the promise I had made to his mother and I knew I couldn’t let anything happen to her son. Captain Gardner was concerned, and he had Bob sleep a few nights in the infirmary, hoping it would all pass over.

When Bob came back to the barracks, it was worse than ever, and the rough treatment had spread to a couple of other boys in our barracks--to anybody who was from Charlotte.

Again I went to see Captain Gardner. I told him I feared for Bob’s safety and for the safety of several of the other boys in our barracks. I told him the five boys from Charlotte felt it was time to get out or resign before someone got killed.

He promised me an Overhead job if I would talk them all out of leaving. He didn’t want something like this incident on his permanent record. He didn’t want the report of such a disturbance, resulting in five people resigning, to be a part of his tenure. I thanked him for the offer, but told him that I thought the danger was too great. I had not been threatened, so I could have stayed, but I also told him that, even if I considered staying, the other five were leaving before it got completely out-of-hand.

He told me that he would have to state, for the record, that our work was unsatisfactory. I told him I knew my work was entirely satisfactory, here and at Curtis Creek, and that all of us had satisfactory reports when we transferred in from Old Fort.

He said he knew this was true, but, even so, he was still going to discharge us from Barnardsville with an unsatisfactory work record.

I certainly didn’t want that kind of history, but I also knew that leaving was the only way. I wanted Bob back with his mama. I wanted the other Charlotte boys safely back from this unfortunate situation. And, more than that, I did not want to be left alone in a hostile environment, even though I was never the direct object of the pressures. The mob had won a battle. I’d be the only one left for the victory celebration. That kind of thing could get out of hand.

We were taken to Asheville. We were given train tickets for Charlotte.

That was how my time in the CCCs ended.

Did this incident at Barnardsville leave me beaten? No. I was disappointed. I would have preferred fair treatment--for me and for the boys from the city--but I learned something about the world, even with this kind of outcome.

I may have thought I was an adult when I first went to Curtis Creek CCC Camp; I know I was when I left Barnardsville.

Life has disappointments, it is never fair, but when you learn to meet the problems--when you learn to make room for yourself without harming others--you are on your way to coping with the world around you.

— Robert Winston can be reached at NACCCA North Carolina Chapter 175, P. O. Box 888, Linville, N. C. 28646. He has been an avid supporter of NACCCA, enrolling nearly two dozen new regular and Life Members in the past couple of years, and generously funded design and installation of NACCCA’s Web Page (www.cccalumni.org).

This story was published in The National Civilian Conservation Corps Alumni Journal, Volume 22, Number 11 (November 1999).

 

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