A Generation of Happy Campers

Images courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

U.S. Route 2 runs as smooth as an office hallway between St. Ignace and Escanaba. It was somewhere west of Seul Choix Point, a forested finger that scratches the neck of Lake Michigan, that my father suddenly recalled the night he’d had too much blackberry wine.

“It was two miles from this saloon in Cedar River to Camp Wells,” he said. “I had to find my way home alone. It was pitch black out. I remember the wind blowing, making those wires sing.”

I tried to picture the wizened man sitting behind the steering wheel as a fresh-faced babe in the woods, alternately whistling and sprinting past curtains of tall pines. In the fertile imagination of a youngster slightly addled by wine, those trees probably sprouted legs and chased him halfway back to camp.

“I was just hoping no bear would jump out of the woods and get me,” he admitted.

Such candor was unusual for my father, whose past, as far as his five children were concerned, had been tucked away like snapshots in a shoebox and never examined again. Growing up in Detroit in the 1960s, we knew the basics about the man in the living room we called “Dad,” but that was all. His real name was Eddie, he was married to a mom named Lillian, he worked in an auto plant during the day, and liked peanuts on his ice cream at night.

Everything else was a blur. We were vaguely aware that he had served in the Merchant Marine during World War II, and before that, had spent time in some camp with a lot of C’s in its name. My younger brother and I got it into our heads that he had been in a concentration camp, a revelation that, to our father’s chagrin, we shared with neighbors up and down the block. It wasn’t until later that we learned that, while the Great Depression had been rough, no one had actually been put behind barbed wire for being poor.

Few young people today have heard of the Civilian Conservation Corps, or the CCC. However, the CCC was one of the earliest and most successful work-relief programs to come out of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ambitious New Deal. Between 1933 and 1942, some 2.5 million unemployed single men between the ages of 18 and 25 were part of the greatest conservation effort in history. Under the supervision of army officers, CCC members built roads, firebreaks, trails, dams, and lookout towers throughout hundreds of state and national forests and parks. They restocked lakes and streams, improved campgrounds and beaches, and battled fires. Most of all, they reforested countless acres of cutover land. In Michigan alone, the CCC planted a staggering 2.4 billion trees.

Included in what the press dubbed “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” was a skinny 17-year-old from Detroit named Eddie Bak, who was able to sneak in with his older brother Rudy because “no one checked birth certificates in those days,” he said. Despite the culture shock of trading well-lit city sidewalks for dark dirt paths, my father once told me that the time he had spent in the CCC between 1936 and 1938 were the best years of his life.

He never elaborated. Perhaps he didn’t think anyone would be that interested. After the concentration camp fiasco, I really wasn’t — until I hit middle age and started developing a curiosity about a father who was rapidly running out of years. Certainly something had come before the age spots, thinning hair, and weathered face.

For this reason, one autumn day I impulsively invited my parents to join me in a two-day drive from Detroit to the western reaches of the Upper Peninsula. My father was excited over the prospect of visiting an area he had not seen in more than 50 years. My mother was excited that my father was excited. As it turned out, I probably got more out of the odyssey than anyone.

“We got paid a dollar a day,” my father said as we headed for Cedar River, near the site of Camp Wells, the camp to which he had been assigned in the summer of 1936. “The government took $25 out each month and sent it to our parents. That left us with $5 to last a month.”

Not much pocket change, to be sure, but then pockets weren’t very deep in the Depression. My father’s father, Stanley, tried to support seven kids with his on-again, off-again assembly-line job at Hudson Motors. The Depression hit him particularly hard. The family had always raised chickens and rabbits in the car barn, but even feed cost money. The $50 my grandfather received each month from having two boys in the CCC must have seemed heaven-sent.

Despite the unaccustomed spirit of openness during our trip, my father remained vague about his activities from the time he quit school in the fifth grade until he joined the CCC — a span of several years. The best that I could figure out was that, while he was probably no angel during this period, he was no drugstore gangster, either. He was simply one of those many young men who, through no fault of their own, had had too much time on their hands.

The CCC wasted no time in filling those hands with shovels, hoes, and rakes. In the parking lot of a Big Boy restaurant in Manistique, where we stopped for coffee, my father reproduced the backbreaking choreography of “operating a Number 2 shovel.” The thought that my father was personally responsible for tens of thousands of pines and birches that will almost certainly outlive my children’s children produced an odd sensation. Not a bad legacy, when one thinks about it. I felt a surge in my chest, and it wasn’t the caffeine.

It was clear from my father’s enthusiasm that the CCC had restored human as well as natural resources. His recollections centered on the camaraderie of shared responsibilities and mutual fun. The young men of his company may have gotten up early each morning and labored long hours building dams and digging ditches, but there also was plenty of free time spent swimming, playing baseball and six-man football, pitching horseshoes, and exploring the natural wonders of their pine-scented surroundings. Shortly after my father arrived at Camp Wells, his company was ferried to Isle Royale. There, they spent several weeks working 12-hour shifts helping to fight a devastating forest fire on the remote island. Until the end of his days, he would always recall with delight the spindly-legged moose that emerged dripping from the cold, clear waters of Lake Superior at dusk — a magnificent sight to a kid recently removed from the noise and congestion of the big city.

In time, my father was made a truck driver. His first lesson behind the wheel was driving a load of drunk, singing campmates back from a saloon in Cedar River. CCC members were not allowed to have their own vehicles, but one camper managed to hide his Model A Ford in the woods. On weekends, they would push it out of earshot of camp officers, crank it up, and then follow the single-lane blacktop into Escanaba. Roller-skating was the big attraction in town. One Friday night, my father outlasted a field of skaters in a five-mile race that included his good friend, Malott. “He was from Missouri,” he recalled. “He was always saying, ‘I’m from Missouri, so you gotta show me.’ So I showed him. I won a silver cup. It got all tarnished, and then one day, I lost it. It’s the only thing I ever won in my life.”

There also was an early girlfriend, a red-haired secretary named Elaine Ferguson. “She was 18, a year older than me,” he confided, out of earshot of my mother. “I broke it off with her. But don’t worry, I didn’t do anything that would make me ashamed if I saw her today.” A reunion seemed unlikely, though there was a gray-haired woman peddling an adult tricycle down the sidewalk as we passed through Escanaba on the second day of our trip. “Who knows?” he said. “That may have been Elaine Ferguson pumping that bicycle.”

A short while later, we arrived in Cedar River, about 40 miles southwest of Escanaba. We learned from a state policeman that whatever might still exist of old Camp Wells was now part of J.W. Wells State Park. This being a Wednesday afternoon in the fall, the 970-acre park was practically empty. A helpful park ranger filled us in on what the CCC had accomplished here: the construction of parking lots, a vehicle bridge, miles of trails, and several beachfront cabins. The CCC also had developed scores of acres of picnic grounds and installed miles of phone line.

All of this was still in use. While the CCC’s handi-work was everywhere, casual park visitors would be hard-pressed to know it. There was a refurbished officer’s cabin with a dusty wall display that featured a faded blue-and-yellow pennant, but that was it. “There’s been a reunion here in August for the last couple of years,” another ranger offered. “Of course, every year fewer and fewer show up.”

That got my father to musing aloud: Geez, whatever happened to Malott? How about Dragovich, the lanky first baseman who snored so loudly we once carried him and his bed onto the beach? “A lot of those boys went right into the service after Pearl Harbor,” he said. “I’m sure some of them didn’t come back from the war.”

We made our way to the beach, where Camp Wells sat in the 1930s. There was no breeze, and the temperature was in the 60s. Lake Michigan was hypnotically calm. The sky was so blue it hurt our eyes. Despite the postcard setting, I was slightly disappointed. There was no flagpole, no barracks, no markers, nothing to signify that hundreds of young lives had once been shaped at this very spot. Watching my father move excitedly around the deserted beach, however, it occurred to me that although little of Camp Wells had been left behind, its members clearly had brought something back.

Surely the CCC accounted for my father’s storied self-confidence. The skinny kid who had battled a forest fire, stubborn truck transmissions, and other youths in inter-camp boxing matches grew into the man who never backed down from a challenge. Whether it was wiring a room, overhauling an engine, or building a bathroom from scratch, he just picked up a how-to book and went at it. His home-improvement projects were notable for their ambition. “I’ll have to knock out the kitchen wall, of course,” he’d tell my mother. Of course. After all, the CCC’s motto had been “We can do it!”

The seed of a marvelous entrepreneurial spirit also was planted in those drafty barracks. The boy who had supplemented his income by ironing his campmates’ shirts for 15 cents (25 cents for trousers) had grown into the man who spent his lunch breaks in the factory selling cold soda and homemade sandwiches from a cooler. For as long as I can remember, my father made ends meet by painting a neighbor’s living room or tuning a relative’s car in his spare time. It was that kind of drive that spelled the difference between squeezing by on a factory hand’s salary and giving a family of seven a few extras.

“I don’t know where I would’ve wound up if not for the CCC,” my father said. “It got us kids off the street corner, put us in the right direction….”

Daylight was fading as we left the park. Within an hour, we had passed through Escanaba and were back on Route 2. I set the cruise control at 65 and glanced at my father. He was looking out the window, lost in thought. We drove in silence. The trees sprinted by, as fast as a city kid in the dark.