Friday, February 23, 2018

Benjamin F. Alexander's "The New Deal's Forest Army"

Benjamin F. Alexander teaches American history at the New York City College of Technology. He is the author of Coxey’s Army: Popular Protest in the Gilded Age.

Alexander applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The New Deal's Forest Army: How the Civilian Conservation Corps Worked, and reported the following:
At the very top of page 99 of my new book on the Civilian Conservation Corps, this little ditty appears:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
While CCCs around me creep;
May no other CCC take
My shoes and shirt before I wake.
It's part of the chapter on social life in the CCC, it's an example of how both camp newspapers and the systemwide paper Happy Days often printed enrollees' creative outputs. More specifically, it comes in the section of that chapter about the pranks that enrollees pulled on each other and especially on newcomers. Under that verse, I write:
An initiate might be woken up late at night and told it was his turn for flagpole duty, a totally fictional assignment, or given a flashlight and a bag and told to go out into the woods to catch a snipe, an equally fictional creature. During the day, he might be sent to the supply room to ask for a nonexistent item such as a skyhook, a clipboard stretcher, a can of striped paint, some elbow grease, or a left-handed monkey wrench.
Soon after, I mention that some snakes got put in beds, both fake and real, and that any enrollee who didn't bathe adequately could get a rough and painful scrubbing with an industrial brush, or "GI Bath."

The motto of the CCC was “We can take it,” and indeed, CCC enrollees did a great deal of hard work. Enrollees planted trees, set up forest fire preventions systems, fought forest fires sometimes losing their lives, built dams and other flood control structures, landscaped public parks, and cut many of the hiking trails that outdoorspeople enjoy the use of today. They did all this under civilian supervision while living in camps of 200 that the Army ran. They were mostly young men whose families were on relief rolls, in a decade marked by the worst depression in the country's history, and indeed most of their pay went not to them but to their families, in most cases their parents.

Not all of the pranks were harmless, and not all of the men who joined the corps could “take it.” Like everything else in the Roosevelt New Deal, the CCC had its good and its bad side. On the balance sheet, what stands out the most is that many (though not all) unemployed Americans got desperately needed jobs, and permanent improvements to America's physical landscape got made. But when you put 200 male teenagers and young adults in barracks for six months, some beds are going to get short-sheeted, rigged to collapse, and outfitted with real or phony snakes for their occupants' displeasure.
Learn more about The New Deal's Forest Army at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue