The good old days were tough times for the men who gathered this weekend at Patapsco Valley State Park -- times of poverty and grit remembered in a reunion of Maryland's chapter of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
About 100 of them -- known as the CCC boys then, but in their 70s and 80s now -- traded stories underlying the Depression-era federal unemployment-relief program. They lifted their families out of poverty while helping build the nation's parks -- including Patapsco Valley.
"We were all starving to death," Harry Spurrier, 74, said of his family in the Baltimore of the 1930s, when jobs were few. "I was so skinny when I went in [the corps], I hadn't seen meat for years."
After cutting and planting trees for a year in forests around Frederick, he gained 40 pounds and became "strong as an ox," Mr. Spurrier said at the 19th annual reunion of the CCC Alumni chapter. "It changed my life. I probably would have ended up on Skid Row or in jail." Instead, like many corps veterans who entered without direction, Mr. Spurrier took his newfound discipline, strength and skills into the military, fought in World War II and became part of the bedrock of America's economic recovery.
As 18- to 24-year-old members of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "tree army," the CCC boys left home to live in camps, wielding shovels and axes in forests and national and state parks by day and attending school at night.
They cut decaying trees, planted seedlings, and built trails, bridges, roads, campgrounds and park shelters under the direction of the Army and park and forest agencies. Their reward: food, clothes, shelter and $30 per month, $25 of which was sent home to their struggling families.
Harry W. Dengler, 84, of Hyattsville, a forester and corps supervisor in Tennessee, said Mr. Spurrier was typical of those who entered the program as boys -- some sneaked in as young as 15 -- and came out men.
"You should have seen these kids come in pimply, unkempt, teeth actually green, stooped over," he said. "Then in camp they had to be disciplined and cleaned up. After regular hours, three meals and regular sleep, they began to strengthen up. The change in them was remarkable."
Mr. Dengler recalled with a chuckle the isolation of building a fire tower and log cabin on a Tennessee mountaintop. He told this story:
A teen-ager he supervised, known as Hodge, became smitten with a "mountain girl" and sought advice on how to kiss her -- a quest that vicariously entertained his whole troop. Mr. Dengler recommended for starters that Hodge buy the girl a soda or other treat in town.
The girl chose a 10-cent can of chewing tobacco. Hodge came back to camp angry and recounted the girl's rejection line: "I'm not going to spit out my snuff," she said, to kiss a "CCC boy."
Some corps members stayed close to home, such as Garrett County native Keith Paugh, 74. Others boarded trains to faraway lands, such as Joseph Bianchini, now of Prince George's County, who left the concrete and asphalt of New York's Bronx for Idaho's Big Sky country.
Many entered penniless, so $5 a month seemed like a fortune to Mr. Paugh, oldest boy of 13 children, who supported his farming family by driving a truck and building log cabins in Garrett's New Germany State Park. "It was more than I needed," said Mr. Paugh, now of Baltimore.
Of the nation's 2,600 conservation corps camps, 22 were set up in Maryland, where nearly 33,000 corps members worked.