Biography of George Cannata

Enrollee, Company 1266, Camp Priest Lake, Priest River, Idaho & Camp F31, Mountain Ranch, California 

CCC Memories of George Cannata (1913-2008)

   My grandfather (1) ("Pop-Pop" to me) has always been a terrific pen pal. In 1990 he composed for me a long series of letters recording his life experiences, and frequently supplemented these over the years. For several months in 1993, he also contributed a regular column of early memories to the newsletter of his retirement community. I have type-scripted these below, rearranged the materials in chronological order and excluded repetitions in order to fashion a single narrative. The words, however, have remained entirely Pop-Pop's own. My comments and annotations have been placed in the footnotes.

* * * * * * * * * *

Dear Raymond,

   Working in the Bowery near China Town was tough. I had to commute from Staten Island. It was 1932, people were out of work. Roosevelt was elected President. He repealed the Volstead Act and people started to buy beer and booze and that put the rumrunners out of business. The barbershop I worked at was next to a pawn shop and bums would bring in pawn tickets. For $1 you could buy a gold watch, $5 a diamond ring. President Roosevelt started the NRA(2), the Civil Conservation Corps. (C.C.C.), bank laws, and the country was picking up a little.

   I had a friend in Dongan Hills named Sal Marsala, and we used to go to all the movies together. For 25 cents you got a Vaudeville act with it. One day in 1933 when I got home from work, Sal told me he was going to join the C.C.C. Very few young guys had work. My job was getting bad by that time. By the time I paid for the train, ferry boat, and subway, there was little left. You could not get a job on Staten Island. In those days its population was about 40,000. Today it is about 600,000.

   Well, he pleaded with me to go with him, and I told him I would. I did not tell anyone at home at the time. I thought after I joined I would. Well, we went downtown to White Hall Station, where everyone was lined up. We could not see the end of the line. We finally saw that they were giving all of them a needle in the arm. I looked back at my buddy and he had left. He was afraid of the shot. Here I was alone. I made my mind up to join, and I waited to see the rest(3).

   They put us in an Army truck and took us to Camp Dix in New Jersey. I called home and they were shocked that I would not be back for a year. Each outfit consisted of about 200 men and they were managed by an Army Captain. We were given G.I. issues from World War I, mess kit, uniforms, shoes, etc. Just like I was joining the army without guns. We were to fight forest fires, build roads, create huge fire lanes, and plant new trees.

   As luck would have it my camp is about to be sent to Bear Mountain in New York. Well, that's the last thing I wanted -- my sights were set to go West --period! I walked through the camp and noticed an Army Captain whose camp (1266) was going to Idaho. I talked him into having me transferred to his outfit because he needed a barber to cut the boys' hair in camp.

   So off we went to Priest Lake in Northern Idaho(4). We left Camp Dix and changed to a train on the northern route. Our train was a Pullman upper and lower berth. I had lower. One of our main stops was Chicago. When 200 boys got off the train for a stop we rushed to buy candy, etc. Most of the time you couldn't pay because we had only 5 to 10 minutes to get back on. It was some job to shave on a moving train with a straight razor. I have some pictures of trip.

   We arrived at a small town called Priest River where there were Dodge trucks to take us to the camp site. It was a beautiful place. The lake had a small island on it. The whole area had been burnt by a forest fire! Our job was to clear this whole area and build a camp. At first we slept in tents, dug latrines, brought in water by logs -- we would hollow them and attach them to a clear stream of water at the side of a cliff and brought into camp. I have never tasted such pure water in my life. Large bales of hay were there to fill our mattress and that's what we slept on. Eventually we built barracks which were much more comfortable to sleep in than tents.

   After we built our camp and cleared all the burnt timber we started building roads in the side of the mountains. I worked with a surveyor, a bulldozer man, and a three-man rock breaker for what the bulldozer could not move. We would make a hole with a hammer and chisel, put in dynamite, light it, and run like hell to hide.

   In the middle of one night we were awakened and went to fight a forest fire in Montana for 4 days. Two of our boys were killed in that one. We were fed by the forest department and the food was out of this world. The law was for civilians passing by fire that they had to help. No pay, but they were fed the best food.

George with Barrel Barber Chair

George Cannata with Barrel Barber Chair and friends

   We were paid $30 per month of which $25 went home and $5 you kept for yourself. By cutting hair on the side I made an extra $50 a month that I sent home. Big money in those tough days. I had a barrel and that was my barber chair. Haircuts were 15 cents. At payday everyone paid me. I did this after my work in the forest at 4 o'clock.

George Cannata Cutting Hair

George Cannata cutting hair in Camp

   We made buddies according to the area you came from. I had three from the NY area. One latched on to me because the boys made fun of him due to his Lower East Side dialect. I came from his hometown and we got along great.

   We had fun when a new boy was taken to go snipe hunting. The new boy was given a search light and a burlap bag. About six of us told him that we would spread out and scare the snipes to him. Of course there was no such bird to do that and we went back to camp. It was dusk and he got lost. I had to rescue him. He never left my side.

   I had a buddy in camp from New York who went to college for a year. He was a track man and I used to tag behind him. One day he said, "Let's run a mile." I said, "OK." I had never raced that far. Well, I beat him and he was really impressed. We used to have inter-camp competition. He urged me to get involved. There were six different camps with experienced runners of the mile. It was a mile course. I did not have any regular shoes, except a pair of soft Indian moccasins I bought. No support to them at all. The favorite was a runner from Washington and Lee College (5). I got behind him all the way, and on the last lap I passed him. The time was 4:40. He was in shock. They wrote it up in the local papers, "Dark Horse Beats Captain (so & so)."(6) I won all the races I got in. Cross country, ten miles, etc.

   We had a meet with a camp in Montana that included boxing matches. It was held at night. My buddy came to me and pleaded for me to enter the 148-pound class. I told him I was a runner not a boxer. He kept after me saying it was only 3 rounds of a few minutes each. Well, I knew how to fight a little -- you had to on the Lower East Side when you went from one neighborhood to another. Well, it was held at night and when I took my glasses off I couldn't see too well. Plus, this boy I was boxing was a Golden Glove veteran. You know, I think I was the first man to do the "Ali Shuffle!" (7) For three rounds I would jab, hold, and dance backwards. I survived and I told them not to ask me again!

   We were off Saturday and Sunday and we would hitchhike to see the country around us. We went to Spokane, Wash. and had a good time-- enjoyed those famous apples.

   We started hitchhiking back to Priest River, the town where our truck would take us back to camp. We missed it and had to walk 21 miles at night to camp! My buddy and I kept singing to scare away mountain lions and bears in the area. We made sure we never missed the truck again when we went to town.

   Priest Lake was a beautiful spot and we would walk along the bank for a mile or so where a man had a canteen and sold bait to fishermen. The fish were huge and we saw them off the pier. I gained ten pounds and was in great physical shape.

   In the middle of August the mayor, Mayor Tuder, asked if we wanted to join the CCCs for another 6 months. We had to leave Idaho in September because the snow would arrive early there. Of course I joined again for 6 months. Most of us did.

   We left Priest River and arrived in Sacramento, California. From there we went to our new camp, F31 in Mountain Ranch, California (8). We were in the area of the great giant redwood trees. The nearest real town was called Angels Camp in Calavers County. We went there one weekend, and every store had a jumping frog. I asked what this was all about, and they told me that this is the town of the story of Mark Twain's jumping frog which was filled with lead buckshot 20 so that it would lose.

   Our work differed from Idaho. We built huge fire lanes, miles wide, to prevent fires from spreading. We had to be very careful to watch out for rattlesnakes-- we killed some with our machete knives.

   I had a great time on weekends, panning for gold in the stream and I got a few bottles of gold dust but not many nuggets. But one day, in our camp's gravel brought in from nearby area, one of our men found a big gold nugget. Well, gold fever hit all the boys and I want to tell you we dug up that whole road until we were warned by the Captain that anyone caught would be sent home!

   New Year's Day 1934 was spent in San Francisco. My buddy and I hitchhiked to Stockton. We had a few dollars to spend. I had extra that I earned cutting hair. For 25 cents in restaurants you could get a full course meal. We then went to Oakland and took the ferry to San Francisco. The Golden Gate Bridge was just starting to be built. The ride made me homesick a little. It reminded me of my ride back home on the Staten Island Ferry.

   Then we rented a room for a dollar a night. We saw all the sights the next day: seals rocks, China Town, trolleys going up hill, the Italian area where Joe DiMaggio was from (9). New Year's Eve we bought a bottle of port wine and we both were drunk as a lord. The next day we bought some items that we sent home.

   Then we hitch-hiked back. It was a very care-free way to travel. Everyone would pick us up. They felt we were there to help the state conserve the area. For me who never went any further than Bear Mountain, I loved seeing how the rest of the country looked.

   Our next trip was Reno, Nevada. That was one that I will never forget. We went by train exactly how the hobos did it. Under the carriage of the train to start, and when we got underway we went to the top of the train. When we came to tunnels on the side of mountains we had to hurry below because the smoke from the engine would knock you out!

   Well, we finally got to a town called Sparks, and slept overnight in an old car. The next day we hitch-hiked to Reno. Wide open town; mostly just gambling halls then. Harrah's Casino started there in a store-front area. They had an area called the Bull Pen, where they had a prostitute from every country in the world. In Reno this was legal.

   We went to the Trukee River where the women threw rings after divorce. It was easy to get divorces there. We spotted a ring and fished it out. It was a 10-cent ring she threw in! We slept in the parks at night.

   It was time to go home. We came upon a used car lot, and they had a 1924 Model T for sale for $10, so my buddy and I bought it. We thought it would be a great idea to drive the car back to camp and then sell car. Besides it was a risky trip back in those hobo camps. What helped us a lot was that we were dressed like Army men and most people were good to us.

   Our trip began very smooth. I did most of the driving. I had learned to drive on a T. Model car back home. Our problems began when we hit the first hill. The car would make it half-way up and then would stop! I had to put it in reverse to get up the rest of the hill. We did this for a long part of the trip, until we hit this very steep incline downhill first going 60 miles an hour and trying to make the hill without turning around halfway up. The car was about to turn over on the curve. I took the path through the fields and got to the top of the road luckily without turning over. When our hearts stopped jumping I looked at my buddy. He was white pale! We got behind the car and pushed it over the cliff! When it landed at the bottom a voice yelled at us from below. Now we knew we were in trouble! Well, this big man came up the hill and said, "Is that your car?" We said, "Yes." You could have knocked us over with a feather. He said, "I'll give you $7 for it." It turns out he needed the car for the motor in it. His conked out and he was cutting timber with it. We eventually got back to camp after having to walk about 15 miles at night through cougar and bear country.

   One night we went to the movies in Angels Camps. It was the only movie I saw in a year. It was Bolero with George Raft and Carole Lombard.. We loved it. Last night (10) I saw it on an old movie channel. After 56 years it brought back wonderful memories.

   We had a track meet one day and they held a cross-country race. I entered it. It was 12 miles over hills and dales. I never ran that far but I paced myself and won by a large distance from the others. A man came up to me in camp and said, "Are you George Bertani?" (I used that name to get in the C.C.C.). I said, "Yes." He wanted to train me to be a miler. He saw me run. The best time in those days was 4:09, and I was 4:40, with no training and no shoes! I refused because I had to go home. I was getting homesick by then and I wouldn't be able to go home to Staten Island where my mother was not well and my future wife Jean also (we just celebrated our 60th anniversary).

   The year I spent in the C.C.C. was one of the best in my life. I realized my dream of seeing the country, and earned money doing it. One of the best projects President Roosevelt started. Too bad it can't be done again.

----- Giorgio Giuseppe "George" Cannata


(1) Giorgio Giuseppe “George” CANNATA (1913-).

(2) The National Recovery Administration, part of the “New Deal” program.

(3)His discharge papers show that he enlisted on June 6, 1933. He was 19 years of age, with brown eyes, brown hair, medium complexion, 5 feet 8 inches in height.

(4) He was at Priest River 24 June -9 Oct. 1933 (Discharge papers).

(5) Prestigious college in Lexington, Virginia.

(6) An article, “Company 1269 Digs Up Crack Mile Man,” is worth quoting: “...Company 1266 won the track meet by a wide margin. But the outstanding brilliant event was the uncovering of an unknown C.C.C. mile runner who took this event in 4:40 over a slow ten-lap track. In order to save the escutcheon of Company 1266, in this event, the recreational officer of this company, Captain Allen Haskell, Coast Artillery Reserve, entered himself, an old experienced miler from the halcyon days of Washington and Lee University milers. At the crack of the gun Captain Haskell, running with track shoes, took a commanding lead of five yards. He was followed by George Bertani, a C.C.C. enrollee of Company 1269, a dark horse, an unknown who hails from Staten Island, NY.

Lap after lap was reeled off with Captain Haskell still maintaining his lead and at the same time setting a grueling pace. At the beginning of the last lap Bertani moved up rapidly, passing Captain Haskell on the backstretch and gained a lead of three yards. Around the last turn and home stretch the struggle was fierce, Captain Haskell giving all he had to overtake the fleet Bertani, who ran with chamois moccasins for foot covering. Inch by inch the Captain gained but Bertani held his advantage and breasted the tape a scant one yard ahead...” (C.C.C. News, 18 August 1933, p.6).

(7) Referring to later boxing great Mohammed Ali.

(8) He was in Mountain Ranch 10 Oct. 1933 - 25 Mar. 1934 (Discharge papers).

(9) New York Yankee centerfielder and member of Baseball’s Hall of Fame.

(10) Oct. 19, 1990.

Email Mr. Cannata's family at : redeemer_nola AT

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