THE TREE ARMY
June 1936–September 1937
They were waiting for us in North Dakota. I saw the crowd as soon as I stepped off the train in that little town. At least fifty of them—men, women, children—were all dressed in leather with feathers and beads, head to toe. And bells. I heard bells jingling when they moved toward us. I was not afraid of them. I was just curious. I didn’t know what they were going to do until they began to chant and step to the beat of the drums. The first dance was very slow and swaying, with lots of arm movements. It felt like a prayer or a blessing. As the drumbeats got louder and faster, the dancers were whirling in lines and circles all around the train station. It was more than beautiful. It was amazing. How anybody could dance like that for a whole hour on such a hot, dusty afternoon was beyond me.
No one told us the name of the tribe, and I have never known why they chose to dance for us that day. Maybe the Army or the government paid them, or maybe they just did it because they wanted to. Either way, I thought it was awful nice of them. I had never seen Native American ceremonial dancing before. The local townspeople must have thought it was pretty special, too, because over a hundred of them came out and watched it with us. And there was a little black and white mongrel puppy. He was just wandering through the crowd, like he was looking for somebody. We tried to find his owner; the station workers said he was a stray. So we smuggled him aboard the train and took him with us.
I had a window seat through the rest of North Dakota, into Montana, and across the Rockies. I’d never seen such high mountains and thick forests—we didn’t have anything like that back home in Arkansas either—and I think that’s when I knew for sure that my high school principal was right. When I told him I was planning to quit school at the end of tenth grade, he advised me to enlist in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). My parents had to sign the papers, of course, because I was only sixteen. I doubt that they would have agreed to it, if not for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The CCC was one of his ideas, so it had to be good. Mom and Dad practically worshiped FDR.1 If they needed another reason, it was me: Of their seven children, I was the renegade. My parents probably knew I would have just run away if they hadn’t let me go.
I boarded that train in Little Rock in the summer of ’36, along with seventy-five other guys from Arkansas. There were a few older men in my group, like in their twenties, but everybody else was under eighteen. I don’t think any of us understood that the CCC was actually run by the military until we got to Idaho. The buses that picked us up from the train station in the town of Worley had Army markings, and when they dropped us off at Camp Peone, the first man who spoke to us was a captain in the Army. He was the camp commander. The assistant camp commander was an officer in the Navy. They gave us each a couple of sets of Army-looking olive drab uniforms, and all of the camp buildings had military-sounding names: the “mess hall” was for eating, the “barracks” were for sleeping, and toilets were “latrines.” But we never had to salute or march around the camp or anything like that. They even let us keep our puppy. He slept with us in the barracks that night. We called him Camp Dog.
The next morning, and every morning except Sunday for the next six months, the LEMs—“local experienced men”—took us somewhere outside the camp to work. Most of the time, they had us planting trees on the hillsides, which was supposed to stop soil erosion.2 We also dug irrigation ditches for the farmers in northern Idaho and built roads for the loggers. I’d be lying if I said I liked that kind of work, but it was a whole lot better than farming. I didn’t mind milking cows and feeding chickens, but I hated the rest. I especially hated pitching hay in the barn on a hot summer day. All those little stickery pieces go down the back of your neck and get stuck in the sweat underneath your shirt.
For me, the CCC was just a way to get out of working for my dad on the family farm. It was probably also the only way. Some of the guys at Camp Peone had high school diplomas, and even they couldn’t find a job anywhere else. But the CCC gave us each a five-dollar bill at the end of the month, plus a twenty-five-dollar check that we never saw because the government mailed it directly to our families. My parents could have got by without it—farmers always had something to eat, even in the worst of times—but I think a lot of families really depended on those checks every month. The older men didn’t even keep their five-dollar bills. They sent those home to the wife and kids, too. I never heard anyone say this was all because of “the Depression.” We just called it “hard times.”3
From 1933–1942, about 3 million Americans chose to live and work in CCC camps much like this one. The CCC “Tree Army” was the first organized attempt to restore and preserve the nation’s natural environment. COURTESY OF NATIONAL ARCHIVES.
Most of us at Camp Peone were just killing time until we were old enough to join the real military. I was thinking about going into the Army myself, until I heard the Army was still using mules.4 That didn’t sound very modern to me. I was afraid I might end up pitching hay for a string of mules. I didn’t know there was such a thing as an Army Air Corps, and I’d never even heard of the Coast Guard or the Marines. As far as I knew, there was only one other choice. I started asking questions about the Navy.
The CCC officers told me all about the Navy’s service schools, which sounded a lot like trade schools. They claimed you could learn to be a mechanic or an electrician or a baker, or just about anything in the Navy, and it only took four years. The camp commander told me I should try for radio school. “Son,” he said, “the future is in communications. If you can get the Navy to teach you about radios and electronics, you’ll never be out of work again.” That was all I needed to hear. Right then and there, I decided to join the Navy, and patriotism had nothing to do with it. I doubt if I could have even spelled the word.
If anyone had told me America was about to go to war, it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. I didn’t know the meaning of war. It was just History, something you studied in school. Oh, there were lots of World War I veterans around then, but not in my family. I’m sure my great-grandfather could have told me a thing or two—he was a Civil War veteran—but he died when I was four. I didn’t even know which side he was on. I did get scared when I overheard my parents talk about an invasion somewhere. 5 I went right out, loaded my granddad’s shotgun, and stashed it under my bed that night. I thought I was ready if anybody tried to invade Arkansas. I think I was about ten.
By the time I got to high school, I’d heard so much war talk, I was sick of it. I tuned it out. I didn’t care which country was invading which country. They were all on the other side of the world, anyway, and Current Events class was boring. The only class discussion I really remember was when the teacher told us about the Nazis and all the crazy laws they were making against the Jews in Germany.6 We even had to listen to one of Adolf Hitler’s speeches on the radio. My classmates and I agreed that Hitler was the craziest Nazi of all. We had no idea what he was saying, of course, because none of us understood German. It wouldn’t have mattered if we did. You couldn’t make out the words, what with all the crowd noise in the background. It sounded like cheering, so I assumed Hitler was popular in Germany. My parents couldn’t stand him. They called him “that crazy paperhanger.” I guess he used to be an artist before he went into politics.7
Mom and Dad were just sure we would go to war with Germany again. “It’ll be just like World War I,” they said, “only bigger.” I don’t know where they got that idea—probably from listening to Kaltenborn. Of all the different news programs on the radio, they liked H. V. Kaltenborn the best.8 I can’t recall if my folks thought we might also go to war with Japan at that time, but I knew better than to tell them I’d decided to join the Navy. They still had it in their heads that I was going to come home and finish high school. So I wrote and told them what they wanted to hear, that I was taking classes at Camp Peone. Some of it was even true.
The CCC did offer a few high school–level courses. I took a couple in soil conservation, mainly to get out of digging ditches. I signed up for typing because the camp commander said it would help me get ahead in the Navy. He also advised me to visit the high school English teacher in Worley and ask her what books I should be reading. She recommended The Canterbury Tales. According to her, if I could read that book and pass the same test she gave her students, I would have no trouble with the Navy’s technical manuals. So I read The Canterbury Tales. Took me weeks to get through that sucker, and I hated every minute of it. But it sure felt good to pass that test. I guess I just needed to know that I could.
The CCC took us on field trips, too, just like in school. The one I remember best is when they let us ride in the seat behind the pilot of a small airplane. That was my first plane flight, and I loved it. Couldn’t wait to go again. When they told me that the Navy had planes, too, I was all the more determined to join up. Of course, I didn’t put that in the letters I was writing to my parents either. I told them I was going to church. That was quite a stretch. I’d always been the family rebel that way, too. When Dad read the Bible out loud every night after supper, I usually went to bed early so I wouldn’t have to listen. But there was that one Sunday at Camp Peone when the Baptist youth group from Spokane came out and conducted church services for us in the mess hall. One of the girls was pretty cute, too. You better believe I got her phone number.
CCC workers who took classes sometimes wore a school sweater over their uniform. Ray Daves, 16, models his new P sweater at Camp Peone, Idaho, December 1936. Building in background is the camp administration building. COURTESY OF RAY DAVES COLLECTION.
Adeline Bentz was older than I—nearly seventeen when I met her—but that was all right. And even though she lived in Spokane, which was in the state of Washington, it was only an hour’s drive from Camp Peone. I didn’t have a car, of course, but the CCC bought most of our supplies in Spokane. Well, somebody had to go along and help load all those groceries on the trucks. I got to visit her two or three times a month that way. I met her parents, too. They didn’t seem to mind that I was in the CCC, and they never made fun of the way I talked. Frankly, I thought they were the ones with an accent, but I never said so. I wanted them to like me, because I really liked that girl. She had a lot to do with my decision to reenlist for another six months in the CCC.
CCC worker Ray Daves, 17, said goodbye to “that girl” Adeline Bentz, also 17, at her home in Spokane, Washington, August 1937. COURTESY OF RAY DAVES COLLECTION.
When I passed my typing class at Camp Peone, I got promoted to company clerk. That raised my pay to thirty-six dollars a month, and I got to keep ten instead of five. The best part was, I didn’t have to plant trees or dig ditches any more. I just sat in the camp office all day and listened to the radio while I did the commander’s paperwork. I kept the radio tuned to the music stations at first, but I soon got hooked on the news about the king of England. He was threatening to quit if he couldn’t marry Mrs. Simpson, but she was married to somebody else when she took up with the king, so she was trying to get a divorce, and it was just one thing after another, like a soap opera. Every day there was some new development. Sometimes I stayed past quitting time—typed the same report twice—just so I could keep up with the king of England’s love story on the radio.9
I could have signed on for another hitch in the CCC after I turned seventeen, but I was anxious to go home and join the Navy. When I said goodbye to Adeline, I didn’t think it was very likely that we would ever see each other again. I just promised to write and let her know if I made it in the Navy, and that’s where we left it in the summer of ’37.
See Time Line and Historical Notes.
RADIOMAN. Copyright © 2008 by Carol Edgemon Hipperson. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.