Leg-up for the Greatest Generation

Interesting – don’t you think? –  that so many people in the Greatest Generation grew up with little money but turned out well. Named partly for heroic effort during World War II, this “Greatest Generation”, born roughly between 1915 and 1935, managed some other heroic tasks. They were your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents.   

Buda and Kyle were hit especially hard by the Depression because an accompanying drought devastated cattle and crops for years. (Think of our recent drought and multiply that by 5.) People helped each other as they could, but no one had much. One pair of shoes was standard. Going to bed hungry wasn’t unusual. Farmers lost their land; stores went broke.    

Then came Franklin Roosevelt and a Congress more interested in saving the country than fighting among themselves. They formed the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) to put men to work on community building projects. Pay was small, but it put food on the table. Many of their structures are still in use, local school buildings and Five Mile Dam, for example.

A story from These United States: A Nation in the Making, by Glenda Gilmore and Thomas Sugrue points out something important about this project:   

Three young men, Walter, Ray and Bob, were without jobs, money, or hope for the future when they joined CCC at $30 a month and 3 meals a day. Walter, the son of Jewish immigrants, was 19 when he got a job clearing trees for a fire break in the Montana mountains. It was hard, muscle-aching work, but it was a job, and he sent money home to his family. Later he cut mountain trails and planted trees in national forests.Both jobs, he said, taught him to love the beauty of America’s vast natural spaces. 

The second teen, Ray, hadn’t finished high school when he went to work with CCC after his immigrant (and widowed) mother lost her store to bankruptcy. At 16, he learned carpentry while helping build bridges and fire towers in California, but mostly, he said, “I learned about this great country of ours.” 

The third teen, Bob, was the son of a Norwegian immigrant and a trouble-maker, thrown out of three schools. After bumming around the country looking for work, he got a job digging ditches for CCC. Not glamorous, but he could eat regularly, and the job, he later said, kept him too busy to get into trouble.   

Was the government’s investment in these three worth it?  It may not have worked as well for some, but these three did okay. Walter was Walter Matthau, Ray was Raymond Burr, and Bob was Robert Mitchum, three of Hollywood’s most successful stars.       

All three served in the Armed Forces after their CCC stints, Matthau in the perilous job of Air Force gunner. It would be interesting to know what they eventually paid in income taxes and how long it took to pay back that $30 per month investment in them.

You just never can tell about kids. Or immigrants.

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