Biography of Charles Willis Bird

CCC Man, Company 997, Camp F-34, Camp Middle Creek, Mendocino National Forest, Lake County, California

     My father in-law Charles Willis Bird (1915-1998) enrolled in the CCCs at San Pedro CA. He was the oldest of 8 children and sent his allotment back to his struggling family. He served as axeman and assistant leader in Company 997 Middle Creek Camp, Mendocino National Forest, Lake County CA until January 2, 1935. His personal ID was CC9-75941.

     Following are excerpts from his autobiography:

     As the depression continued the future looked rather bleak. With my parents' consent, I dropped out of high school and enlisted in the CCCs at Fort MacArthur CA on November 2, 1933. At the fort we were given a series of shots for a number of anticipated maladies, such as typhoid fever and smallpox. Some of the shots proved to be quite painful, and we had sore arms for several days. The next series of shots were given later at Middle Creek Camp.

     We received a whole new set of clothing, whether it fit properly or not, and a strawtick to be filled with straw for our bed. On November 6th we were loaded on a train and transported to Williams CA. Upon arrival we were assigned to army trucks for the last leg of the journey to Lake County, a distance of over 68 miles. Even sitting on the tailgate of the army truck it was a nice ride. As we approached Clear Lake, I recall how calm it was, much like a mirror with not even a sign of a breeze anywhere. Clear Lake, with a shoreline of nearly 100 miles, is the largest natural lake in California. Lake Tahoe is actually larger, but partly in Nevada.

     Middle Creek Camp (F34) was located in the Mendocino National Forest at the foot of Elk Mountain about 8 miles from the town of Upper Lake. Several large oak trees furnished nice shady areas, and the waters of Middle Creek flowed by next to the camp. At times during heavy rainfalls the water overflowed the creekbed and threatened one end of the camp builidings.

     The camp had 4 main barracks (A, B, C and D) for the crews and their leaders. Army personnel stayed in another long building about the size of the barracks. A recreation hall was in part of the Army personnel building. One end of the hall held a small store where we could buy toilet articles, candy or tobacco products. The hall had some game tables, reading material and a piano. Hank Kurtz, a fellow 3C'r, played piano very well. On one side of the hall was a huge fireplace, built by crew leader Tom Rhodes and his helpers. In winter we enjoyed this large hall very much. Sometimes Don Castlen, the Upper Lake Community Church minister, would pay us a visit and give a short sermon.

      There were also shop buildings for equipment storage, maintenance and repair. This is where minor repairs on trucks, bulldozers, and other equipment were done. Walt White did most of the tool sharpening. I remember the sandstone wheel he used was turned by a treadle. A water can hung above the grindstone and dripped on the grindstone as the tool was sharpened. USFS signs were made here for roads, trails, and campsites. Other buildings held USFS personnel, a kitchen and large mess hall, and a laundry and bathhouse. Of course, there was a latrine about 100 yards from camp.

     While in the camp, I was assigned to "B" barracks. We had two leaders, one in each end of the building. My barracks leader was Jim Jordan, a tall, part Indian, cowboy-like man who always wore a cowboy hat and boots. The leader at the other end was Hoyt McPherson, a tall lanky man. Each half had an area with a heating stove with benches for seating. All bunks were double deckers. My bunk was a lower one right opposite the heating area. I believe they could sleep at least 50 men. I received my assistant leader's rating in my second hitch, and I think Jim may have had something to do with it, for he and I were usually the first ones up in the morning. Everything had to be shipshape for inspection.

     During the work week we had regular hours to rise and shine, bathe or whatever, make up our bunks and get the barracks in shape for daily inspection. Then everyone lined up for the flag ceremony, or maybe a short speech, then to the mess hall for breakfast. After eating we joined our crews and headed for the job sites. The work week was 5 days, not over 8 hours per day. The crews that were away from camp at noon had their lunch brought to them. Those in camp of course got to eat in the mess hall. We always got back to camp in time for our evening meal. After eating it was free time for games, music, reading, writing, etc.

     We had weekends off work unless a fire developed in the area. We did our laundry, went on hikes, or took trips to the big city of Lakeport to see a movie or boxing match. Some of the 3C'rs even helped put on some of the shows. A transport truck was provided to Upper lake for those who wanted to attend church services or a movie shown in the I.O.O.F. Hall most weekends. On one occasion I had a date with a local girl. As the picture progressed, I was holding her left hand, but I noticed her right hand was being held by another 3C'r. That ended that short romance. I might add that this hall at that time also had two alleys for either ten or nine pin bowling, which used a small ball without finger holes.

     If we missed our transportation back to camp the only alternative was to walk the 8 miles back or hope someone would give us a lift. I walked that route on a few occasions and really enjoyed the experience. When the weather was nice I heard and saw things that weren't heard or seen when traveling otherwise. Stars provided the only light. Wildlife was heard rustling in the brush doing what comes naturally. Owls probably wondered what I was up to disturbing their domain. Sometimes a logger heading to Elk Mountain would give me a ride.

     Some other activities we participated in were baseball, basketball, and boxing. Baseball contests were sandlot games against the Upper Lake team. Our basketball team went to other towns to play. We played against the House Of David crew in Lakeport one time. When they gave the ball to our team we couldn't do a thing with it. They made us look like a penny waiting for change. Our transportation was army dump trucks equipped with benches for seats on each side. Some of the boys sat on the floor in the front. One trip to Auburn we were involved in an accident. I don't know just what the truck ran into, but when we came to a sudden stop those on the seats all piled onto those in front. One of our boys suffered a broken back. I didn't participate long in the boxing sport. Even with big fat gloves being used, upon getting punched on my kisser, I decided that boxing was not in my best interests.

     When the Deer Valley Camp crews moved to Middle Creek they left the camp's flagpole there, so one of my first assignments was to help bring it to our camp. The ranger chose about four of us to go with him in a USFS truck. The road to the old camp was a regular gravelly and dusty affair with lots of sharp turns and steep inclines. The pole was about 60 feet long, so when we loaded it on the truck's side and end racks there were several feet of overhang both front and rear. We had to adjust it several times in order to negotiate the sharp turns. Meanwhile, we got to see lots of good scenery and animal life, which I really enjoyed.

     Jim Jordan and forester Vane Pitney were my crew bosses as we built roads to fire lookout towers under construction on Hunter Point and Garrett Mountain. Before I got my rating I worked on one end of a 6-foot saw with a big guy named Bob Robinson on the other end. We felled trees that were in the new roadway, leaving the stumps for the powder gang. The powder gang dug holes under the stumps, then packed dynamite in the holes. When the work crew headed back to camp and everyone was accounted for, the powder crew set off the charges and blasted the stumps down into the canyon where we wouldn't have to worry about them anymore.

     I worked on the blasting crew for a short time, but really didn't care much for it. The blasting caps were small but highly explosive. Some crew members were a bit careless with the product they were using. When a charge was being prepared to blast a stump or move a large rock, they tossed the caps around like firecrackers. As I remember these detonators were a little copper tube sealed on one end and containing a high explosive with two small wires about 3 feet long protruding from the open end. The wires were connected to the mainline when ready to set off the blast. The powderman inserted one of the caps in a hole near one end of a stick of dynamite then packed it in with the rest of the charge. The dynamite we used was the low grade type and packed in wooden boxes with sawdust. Each box contained about 50 sticks.

     When we arrived at the job site in the morning each of us carried a box of powder up to where we left the job the night before. The powder and caps had to be transported in separate vehicles. I've seen boxes of dynamite dropped and go rolling downhill and still fail to explode, although if it gets old it becomes more dangerous. As it ages nitro has a tendency to gel and become more sensitive. Just a slight jar might set it off.

     We also ran an underground pipeline from a nice spring in the hills down to a large redwood storage tank near camp. It was perhaps a mile and a half long as a crow flies. On this job I was criticized for working as an assistant leader. I was supposed to have the crew members perform the work. Most of the young fellows hadn't used a pick and shovel or an axe or 6-foot saw. I was just trying to help them out.

      About this time I was transferred to a crew led by Charlie Lafferty. This crew's job was clearing brush under a telephone line that ran from Middle Creek up Elk Mountain. At that time the Ranger Station was located about half way up the mountain from our camp. The original lines were single wires and went in every direction from the station and hung on tree limbs. I patrolled one line with a pruning saw on the end of a long pole, cutting small limbs away from it. My first day with Charlie's crew was another unforgettable one. The axe I had must have been a little shorter than the one I was used to. The first swipe at a manzanita limb missed and I hit my left foot severing a tendon and chipping a bone. Dr. Adams, the camp surgeon, went with me to the Ukiah hospital, and it took 31 stitches to close the wound. I wore a cast for quite a while after that. Of course that's the way Charlie remembered me. Whenever I saw him in later years, he always brought it up.

     The army personnel wanted a private bath and toilet. While I was on crutches with my foot in a cast I led the sewer pipeline digging crew. A bulldozer crew dug a trench in the streambed about 6 feet deep, then a crew built a septic tank of small logs. It was about 8 x 3 feet in size and about 4 feet deep with two compartments, one small for solids, the other for the rest. With help from one of the lieutenants I figured the level of the grade to that septic tank. I know it was over 150 feet. I have often wondered what would happen if a person tried something like that today. I'm sure it would stir up a monstrous stink. I do believe at that time, the amount of waste that was put in the stream was completely leeched out by the time it reached the lake, which was about 12 miles from the tank.

     About this time one of the boys was homesick or did not like CCC life, and went AWOL. It was said he may have contaminated our water supply with some arsenic poison, as a few of the boys became ill and were passing out. The Army captain and Dr. Adams were very busy for a while. No one was hurt very bad, but the pathway to the latrine was well traveled.

     An incident on November 11, 1934 is very clear in my mind. What is now called Veterans Day we celebrated as Armistice Day to commemorate the end of World War I. A couple of our young guys decided to celebrate by making a big bang. One of them raided the powderhouse and came up with a full box of caps. He carried them around from one barracks to another in the large pockets of his fatigue jacket. During this time the fellows were sipping on a jug that was within their reach. At dusk, they decided to make some noise under a large oak tree and proceeded to do their thing. According to Charlie Lamphier who survived, the other fellow Cecil Stecter, was right over the box or caps when he struck a match to the fuse and a spark dropped into the box setting off the explosion. Cecil absorbed most of the blast and died within a few hours. Charlie was knocked down by flying rocks and blasting cap debris.

     Other incidents I recall concern trees we had a little trouble falling. One was a sugar pine about 4 feet across. It had a very large hollow area at the base and was full of a very sticky mass of pitch. After making the undercut and moving to the other side, we became acquainted with the pitch. We had to let it drain out before finishing the cut. Even then we used lots of kerosene on the saw to pull it through some of the sticky areas that were left. The tree finally gave up and went down the canyon where we wanted it to go to be followed later by its stump.

     Another tree I remember well was a large oak with a base of about 6 feet in diameter. The first thing we had to do was send for a longer saw. We made the undercut so when it fell it wouldn't fall across the road. Then, while making the cut on the other side, we discovered this tree also had a hollow spot. Instead of being filled with pitch, the hole was empty, but an upper limb contained some very upset bees. After using many wedges it still failed to fall so we decided to use powder. The tree came down across the road after all, so we hurried in to clear the road and were met by a swarm of very angry bees. To get away we headed for the creek in a hurry and jumped in. I don't remember how many times I was stung, but I remember that when I left the creek my hair was full of bees. I happened to be carrying a pocket comb and I combed angry wet bees out of my hair as fast as I could.

     In the spring and early summer I was on one of the crews sent to Bear Creek spike camp with the assignment of repairing storm damage to roads and trails. Bear Creek is northeast of Elk Mountain and drains northward into Lake Pillsbury behind Scott Dam. Foresters at Bear Creek were Tom Jackson and brothers Vane and Fred Pitney. I was on Vane's crew with leader Dave Hudson. Dave operated the bulldozer while my helpers and I did the hard work of pick and shovel or axe jobs. The road we worked on went through Twin Valleys, Crabtree Hot Springs, Bartlett Springs resort, and down to the Sacramento Valley. When returning to camp after work we stopped at the hot spring for a nice bath. I think the gas rising from this spring was sulfuric, as we could see dead birds and lizards that had succumbed to the fumes rising from the pool. After a short time in there we rinsed off in a nearby creek. It was very invigorating.

     At Bear Creek we had comfortable tents to live in, a mess tent and, most important, a cook to prepare our meals. I recall one unfortunate incident that happened here. One of the rangers was washing his dentures and accidentally dropped them into the stream. I think he was forced to eat soft food for a period of time.

     The Young's Peak fire had occurred before we new recruits arrived in camp. It had burned a very large area just north of camp and we got our first taste of what destruction a forest fire does. It turns everything to ashes, kills a multitude of animal life, and takes quite a long time for new growth to appear. Later the government declared the area a Game Reserve, making it illegal to hunt deer there for several years. When they opened it again, it was a regular shooting gallery and slaughterhouse. The day before the season opened, hunters ringed the whole reserve. The night before the season opened, a person could see campfires all along the edge of the reserve.

     The1934 Bartlett Springs fire destroyed the resort hotel and several other buildings. Our crew was the first to arrive at the scene. Even with the help of some other California crews, it took several days before we got it under control. Also that summer I led the firefighter crew at another wildfire in the Long and High Valley area for 36 hours before any relief came to our rescue with more men and food.

----- Garbird@aol.com

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