Biography of Paul J. Gilmet

CCCMan, Camp Wellston, Wellston, Michigan

     I graduated from high school at the age of 17 in l937, Number 47 in a class of 550. Finding a job was not an option - we were in the midst of the Great Depression. My father worked at Chevrolet Motor and was lucky to work a day a week. One day it occurred to me that all my friends had disappeared and I found that they had all enlisted in the CCC. I went to the recruiting station and discovered that I was not immediately qualified because my family was not on welfare. After a few trips back to the station I finally convinced them to enroll me. I really don't remember exactly what the age bracket was, however I don't remember anyone at camp under the age of l7 and we did have a few that were in their early 20's.

   We boarded a train in the early morning from Flint, Michigan and traveled for 3 hours to Manistee, MI. Upon getting off the train, we were piled into the back of an old Army stake truck and driven to Wellston, 50 miles distant. The camp was located in a deep forest and consisted of an office building, a mess hall, three barracks, a bathhouse and toilet, and a small hospital. All of these building were constructed of wood, single story and painted a dark forest green,

   Upon disembarking we were lined up and assigned to a barracks, given two sets of Army fatiques, two wool olive green shirts, a pair of green wool trousers, and a pair of work shoes. I don't remember how we got haircuts, but they were not like those I got in Marine Corps bootcamp - shaved head. We were given shots by the Camp doctor = our doctor lived in Cadillac, MI 50 miles away. He too, was unemployed and was hired to oversee two camps. He visited once a week, but came whenever the Company Commander felt there was a need for his service.

   Our camp maintained a jack pine nursery a quarter of a mile from camp. They grew the pines from seeds and when they were about 5-6 inches tall, the men in our camp dug them up, placed them in shallow wooden boxes and covered each layer with wet burlap. They were then sent out camps all over Michigan for planting. To this day there are large tracts of these planted seedlings, now 40-50 feet tall, straight row and row. I was assigned to this job of digging and packing.

    The job at the nursery lasted only a week or two as we had filled all the orders on hand for seedlings. I next found myself shoveling a trench, for what use I don't know. There were a half dozen of us in that trench and as fast as we shoveled the fragile walls of soft sand tumbled back into the trench. Lt. Paul Robe was our Company Commander. He was a reserve lieutenant in the Army and looked like a movie star in his Army uniform and carried himself straight as an arrow. He came around one day to examine our progress. Two or three days of that was about all I could tolerate -- I had to see some reason for all this activity so I stuck my head out of the trench and said "How do you go about getting a different kind of a job around here." Lt. Robe never said a word, but wisely let me stay in the trench a day or two longer. I really believe it was to show me that many people are stuck with manual labor and we should have respect for the hard work that is involved.

   Well within a day or two I was called up to the office and informed that I would be assigned as assistant to the enrollee hospital attendant. I was delighted. This meant moving into the little four bed hospital building with a separate room for Nickols and I. The hospital consisted of our bedroom, a treatment room across the hall, a large room with four patient beds, and a small lavatory. Nichols was there for only a month and did not reenlist so I was left in charge.

   Sending me to the hospital was a good choice. I fell into the job with every-thing I had. I enjoyed holding sick call every morning and evening, concocting cough medicine, salves and lotions from receipts the company doctor gave me. On a visit home I bought a small bag to carry some supplies with me when I attended baseball or boxing at another distant camp. I had the authority to send a man back to his barracks for the day if I felt he was not fit for duty that day. That authority was never questioned. At sick call I treated poison ivy, cuts and bruises, colds and headaches. If I felt the illness was important I would advise Lt. Robe and he would summon that company doctor from Cadillac.

   Let me digress a moment and I will come back to the hospital experience. I believe we were paid $28 a month. We were give $8 of that to purchase toilet supplies and candy at the Post Exchange (PX) The remaining $20 was sent home to our parents. I'm sure it was a Godsend to many families. At that time my mother was afflicted with multiple serosis and was bedridden. Once or twice a month I would hitchhike the 150 miles to Flint to see her. Occasionally one of the guys has a car stashed in Manistee, and for a small fee to cover gas, would give me a ride to Flint. I can remember standing in a very small town, on a very hot day, and watching car after car go by and no ride. I was sweltering in my wool shirt and trousers.

   We climbed into the back of a Army stake truck every Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. Saturday to spend the day in the little town of Manistee and Sunday to go to church. With frugality we were able to see a movie and have a soda afterwards. A few of the guys had girlfriends, the rest of us roamed around to the beach of Lake Michigan and taking in the sights of the little rural town.

   As a general rule the enrollees were a contented bunch. I can only remember one or two fights in the year I was there. We had a First Sergeant a 24 year old guy who had a pretty good hand on all the situations. You chose your friends and just didn't mingle with the rest.

   There were two types of enrolles in the CCC at this time. There were the young people and an older group consisting mainly I believe of veterans of WWl. They had their own camps and were generally engaged in building parks, etc. Our cook was about 25 years of age and he employed a few of the enrollees to help him in the kitchen. Food was nothing spectacular, but it was plentiful and during the depression, anything was welcome.

   Lt. Robe joined us, at my invitation, to the boarding house I live in with several former CCC enrolees, for dinner. Our landlady was a big buxom gal that was always upbeat and had an infectious laugh, she thoroughly enjoyed cooking for her boys. During the meal Lt. Robe asked Mrs. Simpson if I had ever made fudge for her. It wasn't until then that I knew he had not been taken in with my little ether trick and after I explained it all, we had a good laugh.

   The men going out into the woods and nursery every day certainly put themselves in a position to encounter injury. Cases of poison ivy were prevalent especially when they were clearing the woods of wild gooseberry bushes which apparently harbored some disease they were trying to eradicate. The windows in the buildins were hinged at the bottom and latched at the top, therefore they hung by a chain over the beds in the barracks. One day a guy came running up to the dispensary with his hand over his nose and blood all over him. A window chain had broken and the window crashed over his head and almost completely severed his nose. One of the guys went to get the ambulance we had at the camp, another ran to have Lt. Robe advise the doctor that we were enroute to the hospital in Cadillac. The blood was gushing from his nose so I applied pressure to both sides of his jaw bone to decrease the flow. We arrived at the hospital, the nose was sewn on and the doctor said he would have bled to death is I hadn't taken the action that I did.

   In the lavatory of the hospital was a kit to be used to avoid sexual diseases if an enrollee had contact while in town. No one ever came in to use it except one loud mouth, rather unpopular guy. He had me up in the middle of the night and bragged the next morning at sick call about his conquest in Manistee. I knew he was making it all up. What I did next I wouldn't do today because of the risk of infection involved. I filled a syringe with canned milk and shot it up his penis and told him to hold it until the doctor arrived in a few minutes. All the guys stood around waiting to see the doctor. He arrived and I had him examine the patient and when a few drops of milk exited the doctor told him he had gonorrhea and that he would be sent by ambulance to an Army hospital in Detroit. The kid turned white and denied before all the guys that he had not been with a girl. He was a changed guy after that and I got a little scolding, but I really think the doctor thought it was funny.

   Camp Wellston is in the northern part of the lower peninsula of Michigan. The area is a popular area for city vacationers and fishermen. During the summer I must have had four or five people come into the camp with fishhooks embedded in their flesh, mostly in their faces. l went into town and with a friendly druggist, traded a quart jar of quinine for a tube of a freezing compound, I think it was ethel chloride. I would freeze the spot around the hook, push the barb thru the skin, clip it off and remove the shank. Not too many people during the Depression could afford to go to a doctor.

   One of our enrollee leaders (promotions were available as they are in the Army) had a walnut size growth just above one of his eyes. It bothered him and I asked the doctor if he could arrange to have it removed. The doctor said we will do it right here in the hospital. The first sergeant stopped around to witness the operation. I was to sponge the blood so the site was clean and visable. As soon as the blood started to flow our audiance suddenly driffed away and we were alone to finish the job.

   It was a perfect summer day, not too hot or humid when a man appeared at the hospital inquiring if the doctor was in. It developed that his wife was in labor and on Thursday afternoons the doctors in Manistee took the day off. I called our doctor, explained the situation to him. I was to get my little athletic bag, a couple of clean sheets and two quarts of alcohol and he would pick us up.

   Doctor arrived and we piled into his car to drive back into the thick forest on a little one-way dirt road. How we ever found our way back baffels me. We arrived at a little one room log cabin that must have been build a hundred years ago. Upon getting out of the car the man disappeared. We went inside and found a woman in bed, a small child in a crib and not much else in the room. We each put on a pair of rubber gloves and I poured a quart of alcohol on the doctor's hands and he did the same for me. Within a few minutes the baby was born and everyone was well. The doctor jokingly told me on the way back, "No more mysteries of life for you, Paul" I floated on air for three week after that. I though I had just witnessed the most wonderful thing in the world -- to see that lady laying there in the bed and the next moment a new life had emerged.

   One of the two best friends I made that year was Robert Franklin, a rather short slender guy from a small town in southern lower Michigan. Bob had a gift of gab and I wasn't far behind him. We decided one evening that a camp newspaper would be a fun thing to do as there were a limited number of things to occupy your time in camp. The Educational Advisor, Mr. Charles Weilenga, secured a mimeograph machine for us and we put together a little two page compendium of the gossip of the camp and lists of activities on the docket. It was immediately a success, the guys were happy with it. I left the CCC before Bob did so I assume the paper was given a decent burial. It has been some 63 years since we were in camp together. We have corresponded all these years. Bob enlisted in the Army and was stationed for a short time near the Marine Base in San Diego. We had a few nice visits together. After the war Bob went to college and has a PhD in something or other Russian. Charlie Wielenga was a tall, very lanky Dutchman , single and much on the reticent side. Well educated but he always seemed at easy with someone he did not know well. After the CCC was dissolved, he returned home to Grand Rapids and I saw him on occasion.

   Every few months we would get a new group of enrollees in to camp. I recall a group of 8 or 10 that arrived from Detroit. They were a cocky bunch, trying to impress the rest of us of their superiority and that didn't set well with me at all. Within a week or two all new enrollees are given a series of vaccination and shots. I rode into town one day on the mail run and purchased a little pack of pills. The next day as the new guys were lined up for shot and while they were preoccupied anticipating the jab in the arm, I fed each one a tiny pill and sat back quite satisfied with myself. Four or five hours later two of them came running to the hospital, quite ashen, declaring that they had just gone to the latrine and were pissing a brilliant blue ! The news, somehow, had gotten out to the old members and there was much hooting and laughter and 8 or 10 boys from Detroit were quite subdued. The pill was methyl blue, a dye doctors use to trace something and was quite harmless.

   Lt. Robe, by the way, was a good friend until his death two years ago. After WWII he came to Grand Rapids, MI, was employed by a local bank and eventually became the bank manager.

   By the way there is a seven or eight page article published by the State Of Mich. entitled "Roosevelt's Tree Army, Michigan's Civilian Conser- vation Corps" I believe their email is http://www.sos.state.mi.us/history/museum/techstuf/depressn/treearmy.htm! I am mentioned in this article as helping the camp doctor deliver a baby.

   I am now 81 years old. I am the Orchid Conservator at a public establishment and have volunteered over the past 7 years over 7500 hours establishing and maintaining (with the help of 5 volunteers) a world class collection of orchids from all over the world.

----- Paul J. Gilmet

        orchidman@iopener.net

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