Biography of Ray Lower
CCC Enrollee, Company 920, Camp Orleans, Camp F-22-CA, Orleans, California
I began my brief stint in the C-s back in the summer of "38. I, Ray Lower, was a 19 year old high school student at the time, and will be 83 next week, so I am opperating basically from memory of the things that happened and the places I was in for brief periods. If anyone reading these words can relate to the places or incidents, I would appreciate being corrected if my memory is not too good. I checked my records for the number of my camp, but couldn't find it, so I will just relate the name as I understood it.
I was attending high school in Oakland in 1937, and living with my friends folks in a house located just North of Diamond Park. My stepdad, Bill Pro was working for the Bank of America at the time, and was giving vacation relief to the manager, who was away in Europe for six months. When he returned in the Fall, my folks moved to San Francisco, and I either had to change schools or find a place to stay in Oakland. My buddies folks knew me well and offered to add me to their houshold until June, and I gratefully accepted. When June came, I had to find a job in San Francisco and then find a new school for the Fall semester, my Senior year. Things were still pretty tight in the city that summer, with grown men finding it hard to earn a living, so I decided to try the CCC, if they would have me. I was a classic greenhorn in those days, living in a middle class neighborhood and attending a school with kids who were mostly in my culture and race. I didn't know that recruits in the C's were signed up for periods of time much more like a year or two, not six months. My first mistake. My second was not telling my folks of my intention, and frankly Mom did not take kindly to the idea, having read in the papers how the CCC people were not only doing nice clean projects like cleaning up camp sites, etc, but also were called upon to fight fires and do other potentially dangerous jobs. I didn't know about this, either. So, the CCC office in San Francisco signed me up and told me to report to the train station the next week. So I went home and threw a few things together for the trip, at which point Mother found out what I had done. After the lecture, we decided that I was stuck, so she took me to the train.
The train service to Eureka, where I would meet a truck to take me to Camp Orleans, my destination, was what they used to call a "Milk Train" It had only two passenger cars and a cargo car. The train's route hit nearly every small town between Sausalito and Eureka, and some whistle stops between. Going up it carried some passengers and mail, with some freight for farmers along the way in the box car. On the day of my trip, the passenger car was loaded with (mostly) teen-agers like myself who had signed on the CCC. They were a motley crew, being boys who had gotten into trouble with the law in various Bay Area towns, and had been given the choice of Juvenile Hall for six months or the CCC for a year. When the CCC staff loaded the train, they noticed I was the oldest kid in the bunch, so willy-nilly elected me the "person-in-charge", mainly to make sure all of the recruits stayed on the train on their way North. I was naive, but not dumb and saw that some of these kids were from pretty tough neighborhoods and not likely to accept any discipline from some guy from East Oakland. I developed some ways and stories to convince them that it would be in our best interest to stay put at the numerous stops. The went along with this because none of the places we stopped looked better to them than the place they were.
When at last we pulled into the old station in Eureka, and found some Army-type CCC trucks and drivers waiting, we were tired and hungry and ready for anything but a long drive in the back of a truck with no seats, over winding mountain roads and in the cool of the night, to a place we had no pleasant associations with in our minds.
Not one of my all-time good trips. But cheese sandwiches and coffee were available to us, and we consoled ourself that things could be worse. I don't remember anything about the trip, being asleep on the floor of the truck most of the trip, but when we arrived at our camp, I got my first lesson on how the U. S. Army manages it's populations of soldiers/recruits. The CCC camp authority in those days was drawn from the ranks of U. S. Army reservists, usually an Infantry officer at the rank of Captain in charge, and a staff of first-three-graders in charge of administration, supply, mess and first-aid. We were not soldiers, and as such were not subject to military laws, but the uniformed staff were there to feed and house us until some other authority (Forest Service, Park Service) took over to control our lives in the assigned chores that lay ahead. These officers were all experienced in dealing with rookies, and they did a good job of getting us clothed, fed and bedded down that night.
There were no campgrounds in our jurisdiction for us to clean, build on or build trails for, and the fire season had not yet officially begun, so we were all assigned to camp housekeeping details. I lucked out, with KP being my first experience in the CCC.
I had just been assigned to KP, for the first time in my life; most guys and gals who have been in the C's or the military can relate to the shock of having to work in a kitchen. Face it, most of us as teenagers were not invited into Mom's domain at home, and it was relatively rare to find us doing the dishes. Now, in the biggest kitchen I had ever seen, were dirty dishes, pots and pans stacked up everywhere, and someone had to clean them. After they were cleaned and put away there were the garbage cans (ugh!) that had to be dealt with. There are few things more smelly and hard to clean than a GI garbage can, right?! At Orleans, we had quite a few people to clean up behind, so KP was an all day assignment. I soon learned that the big bars of yellow soap were made with a caustic solution that removed grease and dirt quite well, and also did a pretty good job on your hands if you left them in the sink very long. We cut the bars up with a knife into a large can which had holes punched in the bottom, then hung the can over the hot water faucet and ran reall hot water into the can until the soap was dissolved and the huge sinks were almost full. All the dishes, etc were put into the tub and your job was to fish around and pull hem out, then rinse them in the next tub. The water was so hot that the drying process occurred naturally. Everything wound up on the drains which fed into the tub, and when dry the containers could be put away. Now we come to my third mistake: We always had two or three aluminum pitchers for cold drinks on each table, and when they were washed and rinsed, they were supposed to be hung up on hooks over the tubs, upside down to drain. I didn't know about upsidedown, so hung them with the tops up. What I didn't know is that some of the lye soap water remained through the rinse process and was still in the pitcher, to be used for the next meal. That particular night was very warm, so I couldn't sleep well, and sometime during the night I heard the thump of feet hitting the floor and running to the exit. The screen door slammed and pretty soon there was another set of feet making the same dash. I grew curious ane went outside and saw guys running up the slope to the outhouse from several of the barrracks. After while, the outhose was full and the next wave just headed into the bushes. The next morning the buzz around camp was the Great GI rumble, which affected almos everyone including the mess sergeant and the commandant. I hadn't had my drink from a pitcher that day, being in the kitchen and having it right from the mixing pot, so I was not able to share in the experience. This came to the attention of the mess sergeant, who tracked me down.
My next assignments were to clean all the cans AND the latrine, plus clean the grease trap down line from the mess hall twice a day. This latter job was the worst, as all of the fats and grease from the washing process, ran down and collected in a stinking stew in the box installed for that purpose about 50 feet down the waste water line. After a couple of cleanings of this obnoxious item, I hit upon a happy solution (somewhat typical of my nature in those days ( always look for a better way to do the job) , and so I knew that grease burns and all I had to do was put a little gasoline from the motor pool in with the grease and light a match. One thing let to another and I put in to much gas, which rose to the surface and trickled on down the line, which was a standard cement pipe. When I lighted the gas in the grease trap, it started burning the grease just as I knew it would. What I didn't count on was that the gasoline also rose to the top and a quantity went on down the pipe. There was a "thump" and the dirt on top of he pipe rose in the air and dust was flying. The grease trap was in splinters and I had the bottoms of my pants singed.
The next day I was on a truck and headed for the fire lines.
To be continued soon.
----- Ray Lower
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