Darrel Smith's friend Velmar Mack grew up poor. One time, when Smith asked for a definition of "poor," Mack told the cornflakes story.
Mack had eight hungry siblings. One day during the Depression his daddy came home with an astonishing treat: a bottle of milk and a box of Kellogg's. Momma filled three bowls with cereal and milk. She let the older kids eat first, but made them use forks to make the milk last. The middle three kids also had to eat cornflakes with forks. The youngest children got spoons, what was left of the cornflakes and most of the milk.
"That's what poor is,'' Velmar Mack told Darrel Smith.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the Civilian Conservation Corps part of his New Deal for America, Mack signed up. He ate three square meals a day and slept in a cot under a roof. He received $30 a month, though $25 went directly to his parents to feed the young 'uns.
In return, he and 3 million other young CCC men (and 10,000 women) dug roads, planted trees and built bridges. They battled soil erosion, cleaned up polluted rivers and stocked the now-clear rivers with fish.
In Florida, they built picnic tables, shelters and bridges. If you want to see an example of their handiwork, visit Highlands Hammock State Park, a 9,000-acre wilderness a few miles from Sebring. CCC buildings have stood in Highlands Hammock since 1935. One houses the state's CCC Museum, where Darrel Smith is the curator.
At 62, Smith is too young to have served in the CCC, which began in 1933 and ended in 1942. Earlier this year, his good friend Velmar Mack died at 93. At the museum, Smith has tried to keep alive the stories and the voices of CCC men now gone.
Smith believes the CCC helped save America during a dark hour. "There was 25 percent unemployment and people were literally going to bed hungry,'' he says. "The CCC put many of those people on their feet. It gave them the dignity of work. And the work they did really helped our country.''
The CCC performed one other good deed. Walking through the museum with a noticeable limp, Smith tells people:
"This is going to sound strange, but I think the CCC saved my life.''
• • •
He used to commute to the museum every day on his bike. These days, though, he drives a VW Beetle convertible. Maybe one day he'll try riding his bike to work again. Like the CCC, cycling has always been a passion.
He is a retired teacher and photographer from Ohio. He discovered Highlands Hammock State Park 25 years ago. First he was a volunteer who picked up litter. Eventually he became a full-time ranger who helped establish the CCC museum.
Two years ago, Smith climbed onto his recumbent bike and pedaled toward home. A motorist, crossing an intersection, apparently never noticed him. Smith catapulted over her car and landed so hard both his helmet and body shattered. For six weeks he lay in a coma. Friends and family didn't think he would make it.
But he did. The CCC Museum needed him. The ghosts of the CCC workers needed somebody to tell their story.
"Come on in. Come on in, folks.''
Sometimes he is wearing a CCC uniform when visitors enter the museum. If they ask a question, he answers as if he were one of those CCC ghosts, alive again in 2010.
"Yeah, the Depression was hard on us,'' he says. "We were hungry and needed work.''
He leads the tour through the small museum. Talks about the stock market crash in 1929. Talks about FDR. "A Civilian Conservation Corps was among his first ideas.'' Some liberals disliked the CCC plan. They thought the government should pay workers more than a dollar a day. Conservatives disliked the plan even more. They thought it sounded like socialism. But the plan went ahead.
Many CCC men were actually boys. They were supposed to be at least 17, but some desperate parents lied and signed up their baby-faced 14-year-olds. Initially they lived in tents. Eventually they built their own barracks. Each camp had about 200 workers; some camps had their own doctor. Some young workers saw a doctor for the first time in their lives while in the CCC.
They worked 40-hour weeks. Some brought guitars and harmonicas and started weekend bands. Some workers — 40,000, in fact — earned high school equivalency degrees while serving in the CCC. Some received formal lessons in etiquette. Some learned to type or fix trucks. Others became blacksmiths, carpenters or bookkeepers. Many worked with picks and axes or their hands.
In nine years enrollees laid 89,000 miles of telephone lines and constructed 3,400 fire lookout towers. They restocked rivers and lakes with 972 million fish, dug 13,100 miles of foot trails and developed 52,000 acres of American parks. All the while they planted 2 billion trees.
In the museum, Smith sits in a chair built by CCC hands in front of a fireplace built by CCC hands.
He has a dream.
"I know there's lot of unemployment in our country now,'' he says. "There are lots of men and women, especially poor men and women, who need work. Congress ought to create another CCC.''
• • •
Smith has a new Trek. He rides the racing bike with friends on empty rural roads. He suffered 20 fractures and a crushed pelvis in the accident on a busier road. His brain was hurt, too. He takes a lot of medicine, sometimes feels depressed and has short-term memory problems.
But he seems to remember anything he has ever heard or seen or read about the CCC.
"We worked hard, but it was a vacation from poverty.''
He likes to quote an old CCC vet named Clarence Novak, who is still alive at 90. Smith likes to collect CCC tools, CCC mess kits, even CCC bed linens for his museum. Florida workers shook out linens before making up their cots at night.
"Just in case there were snakes or scorpions.''
In a back corner, he enjoys watching an old CCC recruitment film taken at Highlands Hammock State Park in 1935.
Boys build roads using shovel and picks, turn, grin for the camera.
Seventy-four years later, Darrel Smith grins back at them. As far as he's concerned, they are very much alive.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727.