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Three generations ago, my great-grandfather’s family was in the throes of poverty unlike anything most of us could possibly imagine in modern-day America.
Things were so bad that his mother died and his sisters were on the verge of starving to death.
His salvation came from the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCCs), a Federal work program in which unskilled and unemployed young men were paid $30 a month to serve in various work projects across the nation. The men were placed under supervision of the US Army and made to learn military discipline as they lived in camps thousands of miles from home.
Upon hearing of this new program, my Papaw Tom (who was barely 15-years-old at the time) got in touch with a relative who worked for the Federal Government inside the post office in Williamson, West Virginia. Together they forged some documents and enlisted him in the CCCs. Illegal, yes. Crooked Mingo County politics, probably. But these were extraordinary times and as we all know, extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures.
Just weeks before his death in 2014, I had the opportunity to talk with my great-grandfather about the time in his life he left West Virginia for some mysterious place he only referred to as “Out West” (click here to watch the video).
“There wasn’t a damned thing around here to do,” he recalled, using the only language he knew.
Continuing, he told about how the lieutenant “knowed damned well that I wasn’t old enough to be there.”
“I said to him, ‘don’t send me back home because there ain’t nothing back there for me to work at.'”
To make a long story short, the fifteen-year-old boy from West Virginia soon found himself sitting atop a Caterpillar D-8 dozer.
“An ole boy rode in the seat with me and taught me how to run the thing,” my dying grandfather recalled with a twinkle in his eye. “It wasn’t very long at all until I had the big D-8 under control – I could really push the dirt…. Going into the CCCs was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he concluded.
The poor boy who left the hollers of Southern West Virginia with peach fuzz growing on his face returned a man – a man capable of operating any piece of construction machinery invented by man.
Following the Second World War, he returned to Bloody Mingo and began constructing a home for his new family. The lessons he learned building roads helped him as he graded the steep mountainside and dug a basement. The skills he picked up while building mess halls and tool rooms in the CCCs gave him the confidence and knowledge to build a house in which his great-great-granddaughters would spend Christmas inside.
He left a poor boy without any future, but would return with the knowledge necessary to lead a multimillion dollar trucking business… all with nothing more than a seventh grade education.
Not only did he benefit personally from his stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps (he received a real-life education and was able to send money back home to his destitute sisters), but the nation as a whole owes a debt of gratitude to the public work relief program: Were it not for this program, we wouldn’t have the Blue Ridge Parkway, stone walls at the Grand Canyon National Park or the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – the world’s most visited national park.
Perhaps even more important than the stone walkways at the Grand Canyon are the lasting impacts the program had upon an entire generation of young people. The CCCs offered the training ground for boys to become men and provided an opportunity for the nation to groom 3 million individuals for an impending world war – a war that would determine the fate of humanity.
Fast-forward some 74 years later and we find ourselves in a critical era in human history. The percentage of Americans now receiving federally-funded aid (not counting unemployment, pensions, SSI or Medicare) is more than 35% of the total population. Unskilled laborers are being forced to work 2-3 jobs just to pay rent, as millions of young kids have been deceived into running up more than $100,000 for useless degrees in studies such as music therapy and ancient literature… Meanwhile, the plumber and brick mason across town are banking three times their take home pay.
Though the overwhelming majority of educators serving in our schools are giving their job everything they have (and then a little more), we must recognize that the present education system is failing far too many students.
We’ve convinced an entire society that one must go to college, or else. One must run up a huge debt studying “general studies” for two years before they will ever be successful. All the while factories are scouring the planet in search for communities where an above average number of welders and machinists live and are willing to work.
Yes. College is necessary for many, many jobs. But at the end of the day, we’re still going to need someone digging a ditch. We’re still going to need someone willing to carry a bundle of shingles to the top of the library and patch the roof. Shouldn’t we be a little more concerned for the future of these people?
The dirty secret that no one wants to talk about is this – our nation’s infrastructure is aging and crumbling all around us; we’re roughly a decade away from huge catastrophic disasters if we don’t get to work; meanwhile an entire generation of 25-year-old boys, without any skill or future are sitting at home playing Xbox waiting for Uncle Sam to make his next direct deposit.
We’re already spending the money — isn’t it time that we should start seeing results from it? For the sake of everyone?
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