Art Flores, the joker who used to brag that he'd never kept a job in his twenty years, is down on his knees in a muddy hole at Cardiff State Beach with an ax in his hand, hacking at the roots of a cypress stump, "I can hear what the brothers back home would say if they could see me now: Hey, daddy, how much you say they paying you?
"Minimum wage! You really need a job that bad?' ” He tugs on his gloves and stares at the stump, trying to understand the stubborn logic of wood. Scattered around behind him are a dozen or more other stumps from storm-damaged trees that he and the rest of his crew have cleared from the campground in the last few days. “I could break into one house back home and make more than I could here in a month." he says, only partly joking.
In El Monte, where Art grew up, he used to hang around with a bunch of local boys who called themselves The Thirteen Locos. Their pastimes included: “Partying, dope, girls, and burglary." he says. He's a big, friendly kid with a good sense of humor, and you want to believe him when he says he has put all that behind him now. But when a new car drives by on the highway, he has a way of looking at it that reminds you, if he doesn't have a future in the dismantling business, he's at least had a past. Still, there’s an element of honesty in his open manner. He isn’t selling anything, least of all himself, and he'll talk frankly about the events in his life which brought him here, to this muddy hole, wearing a khaki shirt and a blue hard hat with "CCC" stamped on the front.
"I did a lot of messing around on the streets," he says. "Gang fights, shootings, stabbings. I dropped out of school in the ninth grade because I was getting into too much trouble. I spent six months in the county work camps for burglary. They tried to get me for robbery, too, but that one wouldn't stick.” The way he says it, it sounds like they cheated him out of it.
No longer in school, but still just a kid, he was living at home, sleeping late in the mornings, going out with the boys at night. "My parents said to me, 'You got to start growing up. You got to start being like a man. You got to find a job.' But I didn't really have any qualifications, you know. I'd pumped gas, moved furniture, but I'd never really gone out and looked for a job before." It wasn't as if he needed the money, though. The Thirteen Locos didn't wait for the benefits of the trickle-down economy to seep into El Monte; they took a pipe wrench and re-plumbed it. "It seemed like I always had twenty bucks in my pocket," he says. He got busted from time to time, but that was part of the job, like working late at the office. He didn’t like it, but it wasn’t enough to make him look for another line of work, either.
What did change his mind, he says, was seeing the inside of a state penitentiary. "I never did any time in the pen, you understand, but I have some brothers who did. I'd go there to visit them, and I could see that place wasn't for me. Just a couple months in the county camps gets to my head. When I saw them doing time, I said to myself, ‘I got to straighten out my life. I got to do something.’ "
He first heard about the California Conservation Corps from a friend who had just spent a year working for them. "He said it was all right. He said it was hard, but at least you get away for a while." Art went down to the unemployment office and put his name on the waiting list. They asked him to sign something the CCC calls The Nasty Letter:
- Dear CCC Applicant:
- The CCC is a work program. You will do dirty, back-breaking work and no one will thank you for it. The CCC is not a summer camp. The CCC is not a high school or a college. The CCC is not a job skills program. The most important skill you will learn is how to work hard. You will get up at 5:30 a.m. You will be required to do physical training every day. You will have to do kitchen duties. You will live in close quarters with all kinds of people.
- If you don’t like people of different colors, if you don’t like the disabled, then you don’t want to be in the CCC. You may be stationed over 600 miles from your home town, so opportunities to go home will be severely limited. You will work in rain, high winds, intense heat, snow, mud and cold mountain streams. Above all, you must accept supervision. Please sign below, indicating you understand the CCC’s expectations.
Five months later, after he’s forgotten all about it, he got a letter from Sacramento saying he had been accepted into the CCC. Enclosed was a bus ticket to the training academy in Calaveras County.
“It was just like boot camp. Up at five-thirty every morning. Running, swimming, long hikes. They give you one day off a week; they call it ‘a mandatory fun day.’ I said to myself, ‘Whoa! What did you get yourself in for now?’ ” He was given a uniform, hard hat, and boots; he took courses in fire fighting, first-aid, tool use, and tool repair. Nearly half the people in his session quit before they completed it. To his surprise, he wasn’t one of them. “I was glad to be out of that place. They told me I was assigned to the Escondido center. They said I was lucky, that it was one of the best centers. All I knew was that it was somewhere near Tijuana. ’’
On his first day on the job at Escondido, he was put to work clearing debris from the San Diego River on a gypsy moth control project. “I was up to my waist in the swamps ail day. I never worked so hard in my life, and it hasn’t stopped since.” You can see the conflict on his face. Part of him says only a fool would work that hard, and another part says he is proud that he hasn’t quit.
“One of the things that keeps me going here is the people,” he says, nodding toward his fellow workers. “They got a good attitude. They’re friendly. In jail you only get to know maybe a couple people because they don’t know if you’re a snitch, if you’ll steal from them, or what. Here, I get to know each one like a friend.”
Half of those who graduate from the academy quit before they complete the full year they all sign on for. Art isn’t saying he will last a year — maybe for fear he will disappoint himself. “I’m just taking it one day at a time. Sometimes the routine here reminds me too much of jail. You get up, go to breakfast, go to work, go to dinner, take a shower, and go to bed. They don’t give you much free time. At night the center really reminds me of the county camps. It’s out in the country, nothing around, real dark at night. I'm from the city. I like to go out at night and walk around the block, see what’s happening. You go for a walk at the center, and it takes you to a gopher hole, or maybe two rabbits mating. That’s maybe the most exciting thing you’ll see.” But at least he has lots of time to think. “One of the things I’ve thought about . . . I don’t really think I’m a thief. I think what happened is. I’d get a few beers under my gullet and somebody would say, ‘Hey, let’s go do this.’ ” And he shrugs, thinking back on the stupidity of it.
“I guess I could work on a treetrimming crew when I get out, something like that. I don’t think they teach you a job skill here. You’re just cutting brush, running a chain saw, working in the mud. I think what they do teach you is how to work. They get it into your head that you got to get up and go to work every day. See, I’m a naturally lazy man....”
Corpsmembers who have made the rounds to some of the other twenty-six centers the CCC operates around the state call the Escondido center the Holiday Hotel. Its half-mile driveway leads up to 440 acres of oak-covered hillside overlooking the small farms and horse ranches just north of the Escondido city limits, and in this setting it seems more like a sprawling country estate than the county work camp it once was. It has a quiet, lofty feeling about it. The buildings are old and plain and mostly rundown, but they are spread out over the grounds in a way that allows privacy, and even seclusion. There are office buildings, classrooms, a tennis court, a swimming pool, a dining hall, a garden, and an animal pen with a pair of fat hogs. There are only about fifty corpsmembers staying at the center now, but it can accommodate more, and will, as the CCC’s FDR center in San Diego is phased out in the next few months.
For a while, no new corpsmembers were being assigned to the Escondido center because of the CCC’s uncertainty about keeping the facility. They lease it from the county (for $50,000 a year, plus $50,000 for county maintenance, and a $25,000 insurance policy), and the probation department wanted it back again when the current lease expires in June of this year. Many Escondido residents opposed that idea, preferring to have the CCC for neighbors. “The county probation people thought they could come in here and do what they wanted before anybody knew what was going on.”
One neighbor said. “They were very pushy about it.” The CCC welcomed the residents’ support with some surprise — in other places around the state, local residents have been wary of the CCC’s reputation for hiring hardcore unemployed youths, and have resisted the corps’ plans for locating a center in their neighborhoods. The issue in Escondido was settled recently when the county agreed to extend the CCC’s lease, and the neighbors, relieved that they would be keeping the center, held a party celebrating their victory.
About 5:30 every afternoon the crews come straggling in from their day's work. They roll out of the vans and drag themselves off to the dining hall. Dirty, slump-shouldered, and smelling vaguely of sweat, cigarettes, and gasoline, they’re an awkward bunch. Two German shepherds, Primo and Chico, the center’s unofficial mascots, run out to welcome everybody home by jumping up and licking their faces. A black fellow takes a pencil from his pocket and pretends to play it like a flute as the group marches along. A young woman stamps her lug-soled boots and shouts, “Rock and roll!” A gloomy-looking fellow seeking escape turns up the volume on his Walkman, while a friend nudges him from behind and comments to no one in particular, “Lost in the Sony.”
For many of the corpsmembers, who range in age from eighteen to twenty-three, this is their first experience away from home, and they are obviously trying out all the things they promised themselves they would try as soon as they got the chance. One kid, to everyone else’s disgust, has given up baths. A young female testing her new-found sexuality has taken to wearing her pants a few sizes too small and to leaving the top two buttons of her work shirt unfastened. Nearly every one of the males has started a beard — or has at least given up shaving. Vegetarian diets are said to be popular in the corps, and one member reportedly survives on peanut butter, while another will eat nothing but chocolate.
Some people seem to slide through those years as if they were always adults just waiting to come of age. For others, it’s a series of experiments, errors, and catastrophes. Paul “Shorty” Standard's last few years have been like that. Not so long ago he was just another Marine with a jarhead haircut, cruising the streets of Oceanside in a beat-up hot rod with Confederate flag decals in the windows, looking for the California he had seen in the TV ads back home in Texas. How he went from the U.S. Marine Corps to the California Conservation Corps is a story he likes to tell, if you can get him to slow down long enough to tell it.
Shorty and his crew are busy building an amphitheater at the aloe garden in the San Diego Wild Animal Park, and it’s his job to feed the cement mixer with hundred-pound sacks of concrete, which he has to carry uphill from the truck. It’s a task he seems to enjoy, but when break time rolls around, he spits out his mouthful of chew, replaces it with a fresh pinch, and sits down in the sunshine to talk. “I was what they call a demolition expert,’’ he says in his fast Texas clip. “My official title was ‘Combat Engineer,’ which means it was my job to blow things up, and I guess I could blow up about anything they wanjed me to.”
He says he is five feet six inches tall and weighs 150 pounds, but he’s padding that some. His nickname describes his stature, and like countless other kids who grew up with that tag, he’s a scrapper. “My daddy was the meanest son of a bitch I ever saw. He was a truck driver and an alcoholic, and he could drink a pint of white lightning, walk into a Texas bar, fight two 300-pound men, and walk away with nothing but scratches. I guess I learned how to fight from him, and as far as I can recollect I’ve never walked away from a scrap yet.” Shorty says his mother enjoyed a good tangle, too. “I guess she beat me up every single day I lived at home.” With his background, becoming a combat engineer seemed like a natural occupation, and as soon as he was old enough he joined the Marines, a decision which brought on one last battle with his mother. “She never did approve of me going to California,” he sighs.
For a long time Shorty says he enjoyed his new career. Compared to where he'd come from, the U.S. Marines looked like a whole litter of runts. He spent his after-hours in the Long Branch Saloon in Oceanside, a place just enough like Texas to keep him from getting homesick. “I was the most popular guy in that place,” he brags. Following in his father’s footsteps, he made bar fights his favorite sport. “They’d never seen somebody my size who could fight guys over six feet tall, and win.” California was all right.
Then, one weekend almost two years ago. Shorty was riding his girlfriend’s horse, off base, near Fallbrook. He had grown up around horses, and had promised to help train this one. As he was trying to coax the animal across the highway, they were hit by a '67 Mustang. The collision totaled the car, killed the horse, and put Shorty in the hospital with a crushed skull. Doctors repaired his head with a metal plate, but he says he was dazed for months, tortured by headaches, and didn’t see how he would be able to complete his hitch in the Marines. He told them he wanted out.
“They said I was fit for duty,” he recalls bitterly. “They said the Marine Corps owned me, and that I was never getting out. I got kind of tired of hearing that, so I proved to them I wasn’t fit for duty by punching out nearly everyone I saw, including several officers, and even one or two colonels. ” After a year and a half of this, the Marine Corps surrendered and Shorty got his discharge — which he says was honorable, but barely.
Without a job, and no income other than the sixty-two-dollar disability check from the Marines, Shorty didn’t know what he would do. He wanted to stay in California, but, he says, “They don’t hire a lot of combat engineers here outside of the Marine Corps,” and the only other thing he knew was the ranch work he’d grown up doing. Making some fast decisions, he married his girlfriend, set her up in an apartment in Vista, put his name on the waiting list for the CCC, and went back to Texas, where he quickly got a job branding cattle and chucking hay for $275 per month. He had managed to save $1200 when his wife called from California to say the CCC had a job for him.
Shorty has a reputation in the CCC for being a bit of a fanatic when it comes to work. On a recent treeclearing project in which his crew cut down eighty-six trees, limbed them, bucked them, and ran them through a chipper. Shorty did thirty of them himself, using only a hand saw while the others used chain saws. He says stacking sandbags on a flood for twelve hours was a lot of fun, but his idea of a really good time is cutting brush on a fire line for thirty or forty hours straight. He grins just thinking about it. “You can work by yourself, everybody leaves you alone, and you have a chance to show what you-can do.”
Like the other corpsmembers. Shorty earns the minimum wage, which comes to about $580 a month, minus $150 for room and board. He is required to live on the center, but he visits his wife on the weekends. In the future, the CCC plans to allow some of its members like Shorty to live away from the center, which would make it possible for them to hire more people.
Shorty admits to having had some trouble with other corpsmembers, but he says he never fights on the center. “If you fight on center you get fired. I’ve take a few guys to the bottom of the hill, though — off center — and you can fight all you want to out there.” His disagreements have to do with their use of drugs, he says. “There’s a lot more freedom here than in the Marines, and for some people that means drugs. But they better hope I never see them. I hate people who use drugs.”
He has six months left in the CCC and he’s thinking about what he’ll do when he gets out. “I used to be a pretty good bull rider, and I’ve thought about rodeoing. But I don’t think my wife would want me doing that.” He’d like to get a job as a maintenance worker for one of the state parks. His qualifications are the skills he has learned in the CCC, which he lists as “work hard, do your job the first time, and don’t give anybody trouble.”
He uses his finger to clean the chew from his lower lip, puts on his hard hat, and heads back to work. “All I know for sure,” he says, calling over the whine of the cement mixer, “is that I won’t be going back to Texas. I’ll never go back to Texas.”
Since George Deukmejian has been Governor of California, the CCC has found itself in a better situation than it had expected. The corps had been started by Governor Brown, and had been one of his pet projects. That alone, staff members feared, was enough to bring them under close scrutiny by the new governor. The impression the CCC wanted to give to the new administration was that they were here to supply the state with the low-skilled labor needed to do work which had to be done with or without them. To their surprise, Deukmejian agreed with them; and now, for the first time in the short history of the California Conservation Corps, the state legislature has removed the “sunset legislation” that required the CCC to present a report justifying their existence to the lawmaking body every year.
When Brown was governor, he eliminated Reagan’s Ecology Corps, which had been an alternative service for conscientious objectors during the Vietnam War. (For many of them, it was either that or prison.) In 1976 the CCC was funded for a five-year trial period, with a first-year budget of only five million dollars. Far from being an immediate success, it was plagued by a style of management that could be called visionary but not very practical. Youth programs in general had not done very well — the public often saw them as leaf-raking projects — and by 1979 the legislature was so disgusted with the program that it was ready to close it down two years ahead of its designated term. At the time, stories were widely circulated charging the CCC with severe mismanagement, of showing favoritism in its hiring, and of widespread drug use among recruits. In an effort to save the struggling corps. Brown appointed B.T. Collins, a disabled veteran, as its director.
Collins, who later became Brown’s campaign manager and then the governor’s chief of staff, is credited with much of the CCC’s current success, as well as much of its original style, and the mention of his name at the Escondido center brings smiles to the staff’s faces. Without him there probably wouldn’t be a CCC. He coined the CCC motto, “Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions,” and had it painted in huge letters outside their office building in Sacramento. That promise of abuse has become a recruiting attraction for the CCC in the same way that Marines are lured into service by the tough image of the leathernecks. In 1979 he delivered a speech to a group of new recruits at the training academy; it later became known as the “Hitler Speech. ” “I do not care about you. I am not concerned with your happiness. I am concerned with the expenditure of taxpayers’ dollars. I know I am going to work you to death. And I know you're going to work hard or I’ll fire you.” Collins also laid down the five basic rules of the corps: “No booze. No dope. No violence. No destruction of state property. No refusal to work.” Only one corpsmem-ber in four completes a full year in the corps, and this attrition rate is said to be due largely to the enforcement of these rules. This image of no-nonsense discipline has made the CCC popular with the public, but the staff says it is also a benefit to the corpsmembers.
“They expect the discipline,” says Enos Flores, the center director at Escondido. “They’re trying to make the transition from school to work. They want a goal. They want consistency.”
Like other members of the staff at Escondido, Flores sometimes seems as if he is trying to keep his enthusiasm for the corps a secret. Many of the staff have worked for other institutions before coming to the CCC — the California Youth Authority and the Corrections Department, for example — and they will tell you they believe in the CCC as an alternative to all that; yet too much enthusiasm seems to embarrass them, as if it’s old-fashioned, like something out of the Sixties. “We are not idealists,” Flores insists. “We don’t say to the corpsmembers, ‘Come on, you can do it.’ We say, ‘You will do it, or you won’t have a job.’ ”
Flores doesn’t even like to talk about the intangible benefits of the corps to the corpsmembers. He prefers to talk about the benefits to the taxpayers, and gives examples of the projects they have completed in San Diego County, which include planting 16,000 seedlings on Mt. Laguna, laying sandbags in Jacumba during last winter’s heavy rains, constructing campsites at Cuyamaca State Park, removing storm-damaged trees in several parks, building trails and fire lines in Cleveland National Forest, building bathroom ramps for the handicapped at local state parks, and installing irrigation systems at the San Diego Zoo. He produces a chart that shows, in an intricate ballet of numbers, how the CCC is cost-effective to the taxpayer. You can’t blame him. It’s only political shrewdness not to talk of intangibles during a time when social services are not particularly popular. “We aren’t a social service,” he says, annoyed by the out-of-date terminology. “We aren’t even a jobs program. We’re a work program.” All over the state, administrators are taking down their Japanese haiku poetry calendars and replacing them with state-issued agenda calendars.
Yet if the CCC were just a work program, the bosses would get their eight hours a day out of the corps-members, then cut them loose to enjoy their leisure time however they wished, like the rest of the working class..But they don’t. Besides putting in their eight hours, the corpsmembers are expected to improve their educational level: those who read below a sixth grade level must improve that by two grades during the time they are in the corps; those who haven’t completed high school (fifty-five percent) must study for the GED; and the rest must either take courses at a local community college or help tutor the others. Everyone must write every day — in a journal, in letters home, or in the center’s monthly newspaper; they must register to vote; they give blood regularly; and they all do some kind of physical training before going to work. These are the intangibles Flores doesn’t care to talk about. “Why shouldn’t we expect more out of them than just an eight hour day?” he asks defensively.
Ty Morretti has a place on the La Jolla Indian Reservation where he goes when he wants to be alone and think. It’s on a hill, near the village water tank, overlooking the valley south of Palomar Mountain where he has lived all his life. “When I go there I think to myself how free it is,” he says, meaning ... his life? ... the reservation? ... the future? He dries his hands on his apron, and takes a break from his kitchen duties at the center’s dining hall. Over a cup of coffee, his dark intense eyes give the impression that he is at that place gazing out, not at the reservation, but at himself.
“There was a time in my life, not very long ago, when it seemed like everything was falling apart, and it started with the death of my father.” He talks quietly, slowly. “He was disabled; a rock fell on him and broke his back thirty years ago. My mother died when I was only four or five, so it was up to me and my sister to take care of him. We were pretty close. . . .” He pauses, wanting to say something that might explain his father, but looking down says only, “He knew about a lot of things.”
A shy, sometimes withdrawn person, Ty found school difficult and wanted to quit many times, but his father always encouraged him to stay. “Every night we would sit and talk. He would help me with my homework, with math and history. Science was his weakest subject, so I had to work extra hard on that. He used to say to me, ‘Reach out. Don’t be afraid. Just keep reaching out.’ But I always said, ‘If it wasn’t for you. Dad, I couldn’t reach too far.’ ”
When his father died of a heart attack, Ty quit going to school, even though he was in his senior year and would have been finished soon. He went to his bedroom, shut the door, and would come out only to eat or go to the bathroom. “I spent all my time in there thinking about him, about the things he used to say, and about the stories he used to tell. Without him I felt so ignorant. That whole joyful feeling in my life was gone. I didn’t think I could go on without him.”
He spent five months like that, unable to halt the sudden backward momentum his life had taken. “Christmas came. My sister had the table set just like it always was, with a place for him with his wine glass, just like he would be there. I took my usual place at the table, but she said, ‘No, you're going to sit in his place.’ ” A shock went through Ty as he realized what she was trying to say to him. He sat down in his father’s place, and was able to drink from the wine glass before he had to leave the table and go back to his room. “When my sister came to me all I could say to her was, i don’t want it to be like this.’ She said, ‘You're a man now’; but I didn’t feel any different. I didn't feel like a man.”
After that Ty tried working at a few jobs, but ended up quitting all of them after just a short while. “It seemed like such a hard way to live. It wasn’t the work — I'd done that before. I just felt like there was no point in it.”
It was his uncle who talked him into joining the CCC. “He would come over and sit with me and talk, the way my father used to.” His uncle had retired from the Army, and at first he tried to convince him that the Army would be the place for him. “I told him I wasn't ready to call anybody ‘Sir.’ So he said he'd heard a lot of good things about the CCC; he thought maybe that would be a better start for me.”
When he joined the CCC, Ty began to understand why so many people never left the reservation. For the first time in his life, he felt like a minority. “For me, the minorities had always been the others, the ones who came from outside the reservation.” It made him feel uncomfortable around the other corpsmembers, and he knew he seemed strange and unapproachable to them. Full of doubt about himself and his decision to join the corps, and still grieving over his father, it was difficult for him to concentrate on the work he was supposed to be doing.
“I just about blew it then,” he says. “I got drunk one night after work, and next morning when it was time to go I was in such bad shape I could barely tie my shoes. I made it to work that day, but only with the help of a couple buddies. My crew leader knew something was wrong. We were planting plantains along the freeway. You had to measure the hole to make sure it was big enough for the roots, otherwise it would just die. Then after you planted it you had to scoop out a half-berm on the downhill side to catch the water. It was harder than it sounds. When my crewleader came by, she looked at what I was doing and said, ‘I know you can do better than that.’ ”
At lunchtime Ty fell asleep and didn’t wake up for the rest of the afternoon, even though the others tried to get him to go back to work. His crew-leader told him that one of two things would happen to him: He could be suspended, or he could be fired.
Ty thought about all the wasted days sitting in his room staring at the ceiling, about all the dead-end jobs he had quit, and about all the people back on the reservation without jobs. “I really had to look at my situation then. I had a job. I got fed three times a day. If I left the CCC, what would happen to me?” No longer could he passively watch the events in his life, as though they were happening to somebody else. He decided he wanted to stay. He went to his crew leader and said, “I feel like a fool. I want to try again. Give me another chance. I’ll do it.”
She said she saw something in Ty — she didn’t know what. Her recommendation was that he be allowed to stay. “I'm lucky to be here,” he says now. “The whole experience has been good for me, not just the work, but things like writing in my journal. I write every day. I've learned that we might not be here tomorrow, so why not put some of those things we think about down on paper?”
The waiting list to get into the CCC has about 1500 names on it right now. The unemployment rate for people in that age group is about twice the state average, but the CCC really isn’t big enough to have much of an effect on it. The program only employs 1800 youths in the state now, with plans to increase that number to 3000 by 1985. Several states have started programs modeled after the CCC, just as it modeled itself after the federal Civilian Conservation Corps that put so many young men to work during the Depression. There is currently a bill before Congress to establish an American Conservation Corps, which would employ 100,000 youths.
Most corpsmembers signed up for the CCC at their local unemployment office, where there is always a poster tacked to the bulletin board advertising the corps. Ben Rodriquez, who works for the Employment Development Department in Escondido, says, “Sure, there’s a waiting list, but anybody who really wants to can get into the CCC. I can get ten or fifteen people to sign up, but when the time comes for them to go, they turn it down. So many young people here are from out-of-state and are just passing through. They're staying with friends or sleeping in their cars. What they really want is a place to stay, not a job. When the CCC tells them what they’ll be doing, that it’s hard work, and not just some Camp Ruckamuck, then they aren’t interested anymore.”
The CCC makes no special attempt to hire minorities or disadvantaged youths, though forty percent of the members are minorities. Officials say they would like to hire more women — females currently make up about thirty-five percent of the corps — and there is no waiting period for them to get in. The women are given quarters separate from the men, but other than that they are treated the same, and are expected to do the same work.
“We’re all animals on this job,” Stephanie Martin says with a laugh. “There isn’t a shovel made for a man and a shovel made for a woman. There’s just shovels.” She is a bright, enthusiastic woman who had completed two years of college in Louisiana when she decided she wanted to finish her studies in California, where she says the state universities have a better curriculum in physical education. Unable to afford the out-of-state tuition fees, she needed a job while she waited to become a California resident. She spends most of her time working with the weatherization crew installing insulation and caulking in the homes of low-income families. Working with a caulking gun is not what she has in mind for the rest of her life, but she says, “This is like school to me. Not one day goes by that I don't learn something new here.”
She thinks women join the CCC for different reasons than men’s. “Women aren’t as likely to come here with problems. They join up because they want to do something totally different. They want to get outdoors. They want to meet new people. They want a job that’s different from the one they’ve been doing.
“There’s a lot of men here on a macho thing, trying to prove how much they can do; but then there’s some women here on a macho thing, too, trying to prove they can keep up with the men. Overall, I think women are better at the tedious jobs where extra care and attention are needed. They do better at planting trees and landscaping. They have a better eye for detail.”
If Stephanie has a criticism of the CCC, it’s that it isn’t strict enough. “I know there are people here using drugs, and sometimes I never know what they’re going to do. Outside the CCC I can associate with whom I want, but here I don’t have any choice.” There has been a rash of stealing at the center — more than $500 has been taken from the rooms of four different people — and she thinks drugs might be behind it. “Three hundred and sixty dollars a month isn’t enough to be doing cocaine. They’re coming up with the bucks somewhere. They really make me mad. They’re giving the CCC a bad name, and there are so many good people out there trying to get into this program.”
At first it seems as though Stephanie doesn’t belong in the CCC. Yet her presence there is calculated. By not targeting the program for so-called “losers,” the corps avoids that label and expects to attract a certain number like her to give the program stability. They call it “each one teach one.”
“We’ve got people here who have been to college, and we’ve got people who haven’t been to second grade,” Stephanie says. “We all learn from each other. Maybe four out of ten here have reading and writing difficulties. Some are completely illiterate. I’ll give my time tutoring anybody who is willing to work.” In return, she says she learns from people with backgrounds different from her own. “It seems like people who can’t read or write don't waste their time worrying about whether or not they want to do a job. They do the best they can because they know they don't have any choice.
“The majority of people here have had problems at home, or a school. It’s a good place for them to come and learn about themselves. There’s not somebody bitching at them twenty-four hours a day, saying do this or do that. They learn how to be on their own. People who have been in trouble can make new friends here, and the work experience gives them the motivation to try something else. Every day on the job we come into contact with all different kinds of people, some of them well educated, and a lot of people here have never had that before.
“I’ve seen people here do things they never thought they could do. People twenty-three and learning how to read for the first time. People who couldn’t work and get along with somebody else. People who are withdrawn — after a few weeks here they are more open, and we can talk about their problems. We say, ‘Now we're going to find a way out of all that. Now we’ll find a way to make do.’ ”