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Another CCC : Alumni of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps plan a new monument, as lawmakers consider creating a new version.


"The Spirit of the CCC was last on public display in Somis, Calif., in 1937," Lloyd Mielke told me on the phone from Missouri. He's president of the veterans organization of the fabled Civilian Conservation Corps. And we were talking about a monument, now lost, dedicated to a program that created 1.5 million jobs in what we today call environment work.

Our state runs a modern version of the CCC, and there is a base in Camarillo. It was originally called the Ecology Corps under former Gov. Ronald Reagan, and was reorganized and renamed the California Conservation Corps by Gov. Jerry Brown. The White House and Congress have begun negotiations on a "CCC" for the whole country, which they plan to call National Service this time.

Mielke filled me in on the Depression-era CCC's history in Ventura County. That corps was a result of chronic double-digit unemployment.

In addition to the California corps, there are scores of state and local programs operating throughout the United States, mostly in urban areas--directed more toward youth at risk, many of whom might otherwise be on the path to jail. As in the original CCC, enrollees in the modern programs are expected to work all day and study in the evenings for high school and junior college credit.

The White House is studying our California corps and the others to see how they might fit into a national reincarnation of the original CCC.

Al Aramburu, the new head of the California Conservation Corps, told me: "I can job-train a young person for $15,000 a year. Folsom's (prison) version costs the taxpayers $75,000 a year."

The motto of the California program is: "Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions . . . and more!" Nevertheless, about 2,000 young men and women, mostly teen-agers, signed up this year. About 50,000 have already gone through the program.

What kind of "environmental" work do these young people do for the minimum wage ($4.25 an hour) they get paid? According to Ignacio (Nacho) Pina, leader of the Camarillo site, the CCC unit there has an oil-spill-fighting force of 100, which helped with the Avila Beach spill in September. They also fight fires, floods and Medfly invasions, and build and maintain hiking trails and other facilities all over Southern California. A pair of Russian exchange students who got involved with the program quit after a week because "the work was too hard," said Paul Magie, the conservation supervisor at the Camarillo site. No leaning on shovels is allowed.

Mielke, a veteran of the last generation's CCC, told me that the Depression-era camp in Somis was dedicated to soil conservation. It was there that Company 1917--made up of unemployed World War I veterans--built flood control facilities and bridges for several years in the 1930s. It was in Somis that a monumental statue commemorating all this character-building and nation-building was briefly on display and then disappeared.

John Palo Kangas, a Finnish-American with a sculpture studio in Ojai, had fashioned a version of "The Spirit of the CCC" on commission from the government.

Initially put on exhibit in Los Angeles' Griffith Park in 1935 with President Franklin D. Roosevelt officiating, it was subsequently moved to Somis before disappearing among a flurry of conflicting explanations. The statue, affectionately dubbed "Iron Mike," seemed "to get around," according to Mielke, Don Hobart and Bud and Marion Wilbur, all CCC history buffs.

Reportedly, the statue--or various cement and plaster versions of it--has been lost in floods, shown at world's fairs, unveiled by movie stars such as Bette Davis, and used for scrap during World War II. It seems that "Iron Mike" left a trail of sightings that rival Elvis'.

Kangas went on to create the Junipero Serra statue in front of Ventura's County Courthouse, the Viking at Santa Monica High School and, it is rumored, the devil trademark for Orange Julius, according to Kangas' daughter Shirley Weeks of Oxnard.

Somis was the last site where "Iron Mike" was photographed, if the CCC-published newspaper accounts are to be believed. Amazingly, Robert Pauley, the real-life Somis CCC camp enrollee whose face adorns the monument, is still alive. A veteran of WWI, in his 90s and in poor health, he was not available for comment.

The National Assn. of CCC Alumni and its local chapter have commissioned Jim Brothers, another California sculptor (Kangas died in the 1950s) to re-create in bronze the statue of "Iron Mike." A national fund-raising campaign is under way. When completed, the new version will be anchored in Griffith Park near the site of the statue's initial appearance.

A final note: The original CCC put its first enrollees to work on April 7, 1933. Congress had authorized the corps a week earlier, on March 31. Roosevelt had been sworn in only four weeks earlier.

Can our new folks in Washington match this speed?


"Spirit of the CCC" monument project, call Harvey Herrington at 646-8076. Camarillo Center--California Conservation Corps--enrollment information, call 484-4345.

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