EDWARD YANOWITZ (1918-2003)
Things went sour in fur and I was on the street again. Hy and I held on to the room the old-fashioned way: we stalled. My father was out on the road again; and even if I could have overcome my pride enough to ask him for help, he wasn't available. So I couldn't look for any help from him. Gotham had no job for me; I was part of the one-third of a nation "ill-housed, ill-fed, and ill-clothed."
I finally succumbed to my baser urges. Beaten down by my protesting hollow center, I went to a place on the Bowery where free meals were given to hungry people. There were plenty of us. The long line stretching into the street from the second floor of the building was made up of all kinds of men–no women; maybe they had a safer, more respectable bread line. There were grizzled, wrinkled drunks; middle-aged, blank-eyed zombies; young men, down to boys my age and younger. I was twenty then. There was no smiling, no cracking of jokes. We were bums. There was always a letter in the newspapers to tell about the "never quit" attitude of successful job-seekers, intimating that breadliners were beggars looking for handouts and ought to bestir themselves to regain the dignity of the marketplace. There was a pall of what might have been shame that lay heavily on the queue.
We moved ahead pretty rapidly and I don't think I was on line more than a half hour before I got two hot dogs, some sauerkraut, a large ladle of mashed potatoes, a roll, and a mug of white coffee. I laid my tray on a shelf that ran along the wall and wolfed the food standing. Whatever else, it was a nourishing meal. My blood flowed again.
I slept that night in The Mills Hotel, a large building that had been converted into sleeping quarters for homeless men. It was around Thirty-Fourth Street and each patron had his own little cubicle the size of a small cell. The walls of the rooms reached to about a foot below the ceiling, providing ventilation. There was a community toilet and washroom. I half-slept through that night and enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps the next day.
A lot of young fellows, ages eighteen through twenty-four, were escaping from their hunger and poverty by joining up. We filled out scads of forms. We didn't know where we'd be sent, but we knew we'd get our food, our clothing, our medical care, and have a percentage of our pay saved until the end of our enlistment. Some fellows sent their money home to their families.
The CCC was run by the U.S. Army. The unemployed youth were becoming a problem; we were at a naturally rebellious age. Petty criminals were becoming violent and we "good citizens" were beginning to question goodness: "Where is it getting us?"
Some of us were the disinherited of society, the last-straw clutchers; some were parolees; some, convicted lawbreakers who had not been sentenced; and some were adventure seekers, travel lovers....The outfit had some of the aspects of the Foreign Legion. Enlistees were sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for orientation, medicals, blood tests, and shots.
We were like a pack of pups thrown together, running helter-skelter, sniffing at the strangeness, making overtures and dashing away, growling and raising hackles, the timid drawing into corners, the would-be leaders stalking about aggressively and bulldozing whoever looked like a possible threat. Cliques gathered for protection and I found myself drawn into a small group. I got into a friendly wrestling match with a fellow about my age, size, and weight, named Harry Goldschlagg. He had been on his high school wrestling team. I held my own with him.
After three days at Dix, we traveled by Pullman for four days and three nights to Priest River, Idaho. We were put on the cars alphabetically, so it was just luck if you happened to travel with any of your three-day friends. The atmosphere was friendlier on the trip. I slept in the upper and my two seatmates slept in the lower. One of them confessed to me, when we were alone, that he was Jewish but had hidden the fact because he was afraid of what might happen to him. He was smaller than most of the fellows so I couldn't criticize him. I was tall and comparatively strong and didn't even get into shoving matches.
The trip across the country was interesting though occasionally there was too much of a new thing. Newness palled quickly to my young mind. Changing landscapes became monotonous, towns were towns; however, rivers, streams, ponds, inland seas kept me, aided by fancy, enthralled. It was the sight of the Rockies in winter that I feasted on: the twisting climb of the long train in huge U-turns, where those in the front part of the train could look into the cars of those at the rear across deep chasms. The virgin snow, the pines and hemlocks, the bald peaks, the everythings plucked at the sleeve of my attention and pulled me away from one wonder too quickly to another wonder. The plume from the engines–I think there were two–changed from long feathers to Morse Code dots and dashes as we climbed slowly but inexorably up to majesty.
We came to a town. We stopped. We climbed onto stake-body trucks and stood swaying for about twenty miles up a narrow mountain road that ran along unbelievable precipices that dropped off forever. My heart took a pounding until we pulled onto the parade grounds of Camp 3277, Priest River, Idaho, which was twenty miles from the Canadian Border and forty miles from Spokane, Washington. We were in a hollow with the mountains towering above us. I looked around and thought, "My God, and they're paying me to be here!"
We lined up facing the flagpole, which stood in the middle of the camp. We were addressed by Captain Charles G. Cassell, a young, regular army officer, who greeted us, wished us well, introduced us to Top Sergeant Polo, and left.
The Topkick was surrounded by a brace of his underlings, plus the Mess Sergeant, who was nobody's underling. There were three-stripers and two-stripers and one-stripers. Rules were laid down about camp policy: lights out, reveille, keeping clean and neat, and what we would face if we didn't obey orders. We weren't in the army but we were next door to it. A dishonorable discharge could mark you for life, so watch your step. Polo didn't curse, and he didn't yell, but he sure sounded like he meant business.
It was an old story to the one- to three-year veterans to assign us rookies to our barracks. I was in Barracks Three with thirty-nine other guys. There was a huge pot-bellied stove in its center. Our barracks leader made up one cot after warning us to watch carefully, then he dumped the smile on the face of the guy whose cot he'd used by ripping off the sheets and blankets. I'd been taken in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum by a wise guy who pretended he had two left thumbs and who had responded to my kindness in making his bed with roaring guffaws. I took it, but I never learned. I finished making my cot pretty quickly and was besieged by requests, demands, and threats that I help a squadron of quitters. I started to be obliging to one poor, helpless schmo, but glanced up and caught the wise-guy glint in his eyes and scrambled what I'd accomplished. He started to puff up, and I turned my back on him. Nothing happened.
The barracks leader inspected our work, tore up some cots and made the guys redo them. He sent a couple guys outside to bring wood in from the woodbox on the side of the barracks. What they brought in were split hunks of logs about eighteen inches long. He showed us, after warning us that some moron was always cutting a finger or a hand off, how to split the hunks into smaller hunks and how to shave kindling from them if we needed to start a fire. Then he lined us up and marched us to the supply barracks where we got our gear: navy coats, woolen jerseys, very stiff pants and jackets that were called tin suits, woolen caps with earlaps, high leather shoes, woolen socks, o.d. pants and shirts, long johns with trap doors, dungarees, and sundries. We marched back to the barracks, stowed our gear in the wooden trunks in front of our cots, and were told to wash up for chow and be ready for mess call in fifteen minutes. The latrine was plenty crowded for a while; but when chow-call came, we were ready and hungry.
We had a good meal and were told by Polo that we had free time until taps to explore the camp. We were shown our rec hall where we could shoot pool, play ping-pong, buy candy, cigarettes and odds and ends at the commissary, and fool around generally. The only thing was that we couldn't shoot craps there. A lot of us went back to the barracks and shot craps there. I learned why the house always wins. Experienced crap-shooters owned the dice and cut something off every pot. They rarely bet. Craps was the only fun game in town and everybody was welcome to play. We were assembled in the cold for retreat, listened to the bugler blow taps, and were happy to get to bed, except for a few guys who were short-sheeted and had to remake their cots.
Most of us were used to giving authority its due, whether parents, teachers, or cops, so when our barracks leader and his assistant came through the barracks as Reveille sounded at 5:30 a.m. yelling, "Drop your cocks and grab your socks!" we hit the deck and started shrugging into our clothes. Some fellows covered their heads with their pillows and had to be jounced and bounced by the leaders and their cots overturned if their responses were less than immediate.
First on the agenda were assembly, the raising of the flag, and fifteen minutes of snappy exercises. The woolen jersey itched like hell. The crisp air was about twenty above; we wore no jackets, but even before we started our jumping jacks, we didn't complain. The dry mountain air fooled us. It felt comfortable if not warm. It gave us an appetite though. We ate and started our first work day for the United States Forestry Service in the Rockies. White pines were the money trees and it was our job to make room for them by sawing down the one-hundred foot hemlocks, trimming and burning them, and planting seedling pines that would grow to be 200 feet tall. We were on our way by seven, climbing the winding precipitous road. Looking back, we could see the three tracks our truck made, two deep ones from the tires and a shallower one from the rear end. After about twenty minutes we stopped, piled out, were issued double-edged axes, given a demonstration on the uses thereof, and sent off to start our individual bonfires.
After every Christmas on the East Side, the annual illegal burnings of the Christmas trees were eagerly attended events; the pungent odor of the wood smoke and the crackling of the pine needles transmuting our dingy streets into forests. New York's finest frowned on this innocent pastime, and firemen considered it a sin. But here in the forest of Idaho we were smelling and listening to an entertainment we'd never dreamed of, and nobody reproached us for our fun. We trimmed the trees with vigor, strove with each other to build our pyres higher and higher and so worked faster and faster; but it all ended in ashes.
Our tin suits kept us dry as the snow melted all about us. Chopping was a great way to let off steam or just to take pride in accomplishment. How many blows would it take, how hard could I strike? It was never grueling, and by the time we got tired we'd break for lunch.
The truckdriver was the cook for the men in his truck. He didn't exactly cook; he distributed sandwiches and made the coffee. The coffee was sometimes a problem–sometimes delicious and sometimes shitty. There was a reason for everything and a bit of woods-wisdom was often the difference. We were always accompanied by a member of the USFS, who was usually born and bred in Idaho and was always difficult to understand. The hours weren't too long, the food was okay, at least to little old hungry me, and I gave serious thought to becoming a forest ranger.
I learned a bit of humility when I tried to keep up with some of the veterans. They could move more quickly through the littered forest, chop down trees that would take me ten strokes of my axe with two strokes of theirs. They could be semi-giants, like Frank Paul, or half-a-head shorter than me, like Danny O'Connell. I never could make up my mind if it was born into them–they were both from Idaho–or if it was practice. I'd always thought I was strong, but Danny'd squeeze a beer can into a closed accordion shape with one hand; I'd tip it slightly. I understood how Thor had felt when lifting the Midgard Serpent. Neither Frank nor Danny was aggressive, but nobody, I mean nobody, ever tried them.
Some hitches were up and they needed a truckdriver. I'd indicated I could drive on my application form so they tried me out and I passed. The USFS man who rode with me was as taciturn a man as I have ever met. I'd converse with him and he'd respond with monosyllabic grunts that were supposed to mean something. I struggled but made little headway. We didn't speak the same language. I did learn that a 'cowt' was a coyote, but when he had to give me any kind of directions, we were both frustrated–he by my "What's?" and me by his casual assumption that I understood his most complex explanations. I quit trying when I felt there was too much dross mixed with the gold. I decided I'd work out my own destiny, fortified by my superbrainpower.
Now I drove the precipitous road, my truck made the three tracks, I ground down to lower and lower gears to gain power or to brake while my stoical seat companion would occasionally grunt as if in pain. He'd get out with a sigh of pleasure when we stopped.
Now I was the brewer of coffee, and my crew suffered because of my inflated ego. I couldn't excuse my failure by saying that the damn fool never taught me. He'd said something about a bucket and water and coffee and sugar and milk, but I figured, "Why strain?" I'd drunk the stuff and knew what it was supposed to look and taste like, so I just nodded my head and he just left me to my doom.
I filled the five-gallon bucket with water and brought it to a boil. I dumped in the bag of coffee, the evaporated milk and the sugar and stared a little uncomfortably at what I had wrought. I tasted the gloppy mess; the coffee grounds were sand in my mouth and the coffee liquid was neither black nor white; it looked like chicken egg drop soup, except the stringy floating stuff was a dirty white. At lunchtime I had to face twenty accusing tree-trimmers and one USFS man, who looked at me as though I were Benedict Arnold. I don't know how they chewed and swallowed that glop down. Hunger works wonders, I guess. But they weren't timid about complaining about curdled milk and suspended coffee grounds and they weren't timid about threatening either. "Learn!" was the unanimous order.
I learned. I learned a little humility on the side. All I had to do was to dump a canful of cold water into the boiling coffee before I added the evaporated milk. That settled the coffee grounds and allowed the milk to color the brew that lovely coffee color. I was accepted.
My chore consisted of starting a fire that would boil the water; that wasn't hard. Getting the water was sometimes a bit of a problem. There were no faucets around. Water is frozen at twenty above but not all the way down to the bottom of running creeks. I had to find a stretch of ice, break through and plunge my bucket into the water, bring it out brimming, and place it in the glowing embers. Simple? It was, unless I overreached myself and the ice cracked beneath my feet so that I was chest deep in the cold, cold stream. It would get a little scary as I failed to clamber out, the thin ice snapping under the weight of my pressing hands, but I learned to climb out wriggling my snaky way to safety. A few minutes in front of the fire tending the bucket would bring comfort to me and I'd sneer at minor cataclysms.
Paul Kustich was the blacksmith. He was twenty-four and came from New Hampshire. He rolled his own and always spoke with the fat, twisted cigarette in his mouth; his head tilted to catch the full effect of the smoke in his eyes. He was a great talker, a bit of a braggart, but quite a capable guy. I boxed with him once, and he complimented me while he directed me on how to improve myself. I thought I could have taken him, but we got along too well to ever have to prove anything.
There was a younger fellow watching us who wanted to box with me in the worst way, and even though I had everything to lose and nothing to gain, I allowed myself to be persuaded. Another time he boasted that he often beat the best arm wrestlers in his town. He got me into a stupid dare proposition then, but I'd put him down with ease. As the saying goes, he was built like a brick shithouse, short and squat. He put the gloves on and came at me. I was just going to spar but he came in for the kill. I succeeded in staving him off, but he hit my harm hard enough to make me wince. He kept boring in and I snapped out my left. I think I was more surprised than he was when it met his jaw and he went down on his back. I think it was his speed, not mine, that floored him. He jumped up quickly. Perhaps a wee bit shakier, but he repeated his charge with the same result. The third time he went down hard, I quit. I started tugging my gloves off but I needed help with the knots. The kid begged me to continue. I wouldn't. It seemed stupid as sin to me.
I found out that they had a photo lab in camp and asked permission to use it. I think the Educational Advisor was happy to see something used. I don't think he understood what his job was. Generally, it was meant to motivate the campers towards some educational goal. The specifics seemed to evade him. The photo lab was great. It had chemicals for mixing developers and fixers and stainers, and a print box; and it even had film and paper, besides a one-twenty Kodak box-camera. There was a scale for measuring metric weights, and there were easy to follow direction booklets. It was like stepping into heaven. I started taking advantage of it right away.
The Educational Adviser was pleased with the way I worked and I was informed one morning that I had been taken off my truck, given two stripes, a raise in salary, and appointed Assistant Educational Adviser. I was billeted in a barracks that contained the doctor's office, a pessimistic infirmary which contained a dozen cots with room for a dozen more and the Educational Adviser's office, which for all intents and purposes, became mine. A small area of the infirmary was sectioned off to be used for small club meetings or as a classroom. Several stacked desk-chairs were available for use.
I believed I'd found my true calling, but I had a come-down when I tried to teach illiterates who were eighteen to twenty-four how to read and write the English language. They weren't rebellious, though they were ordered to attend. I guess they'd quit trying long before, or else I just didn't have the knack. I'd get a rise out of the tiniest spark and encourage the hell out of them but in the end I felt like a betraying Judas. They needed more than I could give them, and they needed it a whole lot sooner.
I wasn't a good typist and I hadn't done any mimeograph work, but I improved my typing and learned how to put out a mimeographed newspaper with perfect margins. That was an accomplishment. I persuaded some fellows to feed me whatever they felt was interesting and I gave them by-lines. I did all the editing, the typing, the mimeographing, the stapling and the delivering. The fellows got a kick out of seeing their names in print. I also put out a premiere edition of an annual magazine that contained poetry and the usual dull greetings from administrators and camp personnel. I went a step beyond the ass-licking crap by inducing thru flattery or persuasion several guys, who had gained the respect of their campmates, to contribute creative material that I edited very carefully. Sometimes I'd just interview a prospect, put the article together and sign it with his name.
The issue was well received and Captain Cassell arranged for a few of the guys who had contributed to the magazine to be invited to Spokane, Washington, to go on the radio. I was included because of my dedicatory poem, "Welcome, You Rookies," inspired by Pere Lorentz's documentary The River.
The interviewer wasn't very well prepared. None of us had been on radio before and the fellows were nervous, a little hesitant, stumbling and flubbing. I ate it up when my turn came, and my quick responses threw the interviewer, and he flubbed. I covered for him so that there was no dead spot on the air. After air-time he shook my hand and thanked me profusely
I guess I was a kind of show-off. Dr. Eric Lehr's eyes bugged when I mentioned Hutchinson's Teeth, an indicator of hereditary syphyllis, to him. He used me as an assistant. I'd always been interested in the noblest of professions, medicine, until I had close contact with that butcher. He was in a blue funk during an emergency. Some unlucky kindling-chopper hadn't been wary enough and had almost severed a thumb; it hung by some shreds of skin and tendons. A butcher would at least have gotten through with it, but the nervous doctor took forever cutting it off. I think my presence from then on made him feel guilty about it because his attitude definitely cooled towards me. I think he convinced himself that I indulged in heinous practices. I never could get him to divulge what horrible, secret vice he thought I indulged in. It's possible he'd eavesdropped on something uncomplimentary I said about him. He blustered something at me one day, but wouldn't explain.
I had heard vices abounded in some CCC camps. Men in the full flush of their maleness, finding themselves in unrelieved isolation in desert land without women for six months at a clip, may have gone a little mad, or perhaps blown off some steam to remain sane. In a conversation at a bar about a half-hour from camp, a companion confided that a group of fellows would form a ring facing inwards, their flies open, and make up a pot which was collected by the one who, on the word "Go," ejaculated first. My prudish, prurient, Victorian soul was vomitoriously disgusted. The "Never, never, never's" dwindle through the years of passion. We lived in a pretty hypocritical haze then, as now. Boys were steeped in sin at an early age; I surmise that girls were too.
We at Camp 3277 had Saturday nights and Sundays off, and we had Priest River or a roadhouse-canteen to satisfy our wishes or needs. The barkeep at the roadhouse was a not-bad looking woman of about thirty with a mouth as salty as any I'd ever heard. She was polite enough, but she took no sass from anybody. Some nights the place would fill up, the juke box would see heavy service, and there were girls, girls, girls. One night I used my fake Irish brogue to fascinate the daughter of the head of our forestry service. I was just about to lead her outside for some smooching when she whispered, "I'm sick." I didn't get her drift, but I dropped her. I just didn't understand that Idaho language. Maybe I was still too damn naive.
That night was one of the most exciting and dangerous in my life. There were five of us left when we discovered we'd been left. Our camp transportation had gone without us! A hell of a long walk appeared in the offing until a couple of thirty-year old staggerers volunteered to drive us home. I was one of the three sitters who supported two guy who sat in our laps. The driver raced the motor, sang out, "Let's fly, buddies." And we scorched the tires taking off.
They were members of the Civil Aeronautics Authority, and they were flyers. They had imbibed a bit much. They treated those icy, downhill, horseshoe curves like they were asphalt straightaways. I don't know if they went over sixty; I couldn't see the speedometer through the guy sitting on my lap, but it felt like a hundred! We fellows were given a demonstration of high-flying on the ground. I wanted to beg them to stop and let me off but I'd die first. I held fast to my pride and just prayed I'd only break a leg or an arm or both legs because I couldn't believe those skids, those lurching swings, or whatever was going on with my eyes tightly shut. I'd been nervous going at sane speeds down these treacherous ruts. I guess somebody up there was looking out for us. We got back to camp, out of the car on quivering legs, and thanked them. They burned rubber leaving us. We staggered soberly to our cots.
Polo had quit after his last hitch and the Company Commander had searched for a new Topkick. The major qualification was toughness, with brains running a distant ninth or tenth. I suggested that the toughest guy in camp, a six-foot-two, two-hundred-fifty pound Italian from Brooklyn could control the camp, if he could be controlled. That didn't phase Captain Cassell and Tony was appointed.
A soft, good-looking kid from Wichita was billeted in the infirmary with me. He was the radio operator. He'd been transferred from Harry Goldschlagg's camp to get our radio operations going. Harry, by the way, was now the Topkick of his camp and Wichita told me that he'd gotten the shit kicked out of him by an Assistant Leader who, though smaller, was a great deal tougher.
Tony was taken by Wichita and flirted outrageously with him. Maybe he was just a big kidder out to get a rise out of the kid, but his face would swell up, redden, and look as lascivious as a comic-book rapist. I don't think he ever got anyplace. Wichita was unhappy by the attention and didn't want to be alone with him. Tony started to come into the infirmary after lights out. He'd entertain us with some immodest stories of his pugilistic prowess. He'd lead up to a climax and explode with a "Pow! I knocked that son-of-a-bitchin' cop right on his ass." It was hard not to believe him, his stories were too vivid. He was real Mafia material.
We got tired of his repeat performances and started greeting him with, "Fuck off, will ya. We're tired and we're tired of this shit." We'd yell and finally he'd leave and eventually he never came back.
I was asked by the Company Commander to call people down to the educational building and have them print their names and addresses on three-by-five cards. I suspected the reason and didn't feel good about being a stooge, but I went through with it. Somebody had been pinning notices to the camp bulletin board complaining about the food. He'd printed the notices in order to disguise his handwriting. Unfortunately, he had a particular way of printing which the Company Commander had noticed, and the culprit was caught and discharged. I didn't know what that meant. Maybe he was saved from the honor of being drafted. If not me, then...?
The main job of the USFS had changed from thinning out the forest to replanting seedlings and fighting fires. The fellows would come in after hours if a fire lasted. They'd come back with their faces blackened with smoke smudged by their teary eyes, their clothing scorched and having to be awakened before clambering wearily off the trucks to totter to their barracks or to the mess hall to wolf down some sustenance before retiring to bliss. Rules of cleanliness were temporarily dispensed with. I never had the pleasure. I regret the loss of the experience.
I was elevated to the three-stripe position of Company Clerk. I think I was the only one in camp who could type. One day, between enlistments, only the cadre and a few reenlistees were left in camp and Paul Kustich came to tell me he and a few of the fellows were going to town. He asked if I wanted to go along. I told him that I had some things I wanted to do, and somebody had to stay in camp. I was awakened in the middle of the night by the Educational Adviser, who while weeping, frantically told me that the truck had gone off a cliff and six of our boys were killed. I calmed him as well as I could and we sat up and mourned.
The Company Commander asked me to send the letters to the bereaved. It was deeply saddening to read the simply couched replies.
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