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AROUND TOWN

Still the Best Years of Their Lives

July 15, 1996|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They didn't do much mingling, the old-timers and the young, which was a shame. They'd have found they had a lot in common.

Take Bud Wilbur, 77--he was the one in the rakish military campaign hat--and Jason Oster, 22.

In 1937 Wilbur, a poor kid from upstate New York, joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era New Deal program, to "make a place at the table for someone else" at home. The agency promised him $30 a month, $25 of it to go directly to his parents and six siblings.

Oster, a high school dropout from Long Beach, joined the California Conservation Corps, modeled on the old CCC, six weeks ago because, job-wise, he was at a dead end, having been a roofer, a grocery store worker, but "nothing that really led anywhere."

Wilbur, of San Diego, one of several dozen invited guests from the earlier CCC era, and Oster were among those celebrating the California corps' 20th anniversary at a barbecue last week in Griffith Park, which in the '30s was the site of two Civilian Conservation Corps camps.

Almost 60 years have passed since Bud Wilbur and "about 220 tough kids out of Hell's Kitchen" were sent to Hawthorne, Nev., to build sheep dips and cattle guards. And it's been more than 50 years since their corps was phased out.

Today, as decaying cities reflect societal problems, the California corps has expanded the mission from protection of natural resources to urban projects such as graffiti removal. As director Al Aramburu puts it, "We used to exclusively hug trees. Now we hug people too."

In 1976, Aramburu says, the program attracted "the greens," the ecology-minded kids to whom former Gov. Jerry Brown, who launched the program, was a guru. Today's corps of 18- to 23-year-olds still fights forest fires, restores fish habitats and helps out in time of quake, flood and other crises.

But, Aramburu says, "We've seen it shift to kids who were homeless, from dysfunctional families. . . . They just want to get a job." There are 1,700 corps members--80% of them male--and a waiting list of those eager to do backbreaking work for minimum wage, about $740 a month minus room and board.

With a budget of $61 million--half from the state's general fund, half from fees-for-services from various agencies--the corps operates 16 residential facilities statewide and 32 nonresidential urban programs, making it possible for women with children to live at home and join.

Someday, like the CCC men of pre-World War II, those in today's CCC may look back on these as among the best days of their lives. There's always a good turnout of the older men at state corps events, where they enjoy reminiscing much like war veterans who did battle together. At the barbecue, the septuagenarians talked of times past, while the young spoke of the future, of their hopes that the California corps will really turn things around for them.

The dropout rate is high--about 50%. For some, Aramburu says, "The work's too hard." Others have discipline problems, including drugs. But 65,000 men and women have completed the program, which includes mandatory continuing education. Some are now in the military or the U.S. Forest Service or are firefighters.

About 3 million men--and one woman--served in the old CCC. Wilbur can tell you that her name is Mildred Blanche and that "She wouldn't take no for an answer." She now lives in Aurora, Colo.

Melvin Adams, 75, of Torrance, joined "the Cs," as the original group tends to call it, in 1938 in South Gate. Assigned to a camp in La Can~ada, he recalls fighting a fire in Griffith Park. The work was hard, he says, but "any teenager would think any work was hard."

Now retired, he's a regular at local meetings of the Spirit of the CCC group, where the men "get together and go over old times."

Earle Stanwood of Orange County joined in 1938, at 18. "The adults were going in the WPA. It seemed like a real good deal." He laughs. "They told me I was going to Wyoming, but I ended up 100 miles from home" in Massachusetts doing gypsy moth eradication and building roads. Then, "Good old Uncle Sam put a blue uniform and a white hat on me" and it was off to the South Pacific.

The corps, he says, "taught me to do as I was told . . . and the food was terrific." Back home, with six kids to feed, meals had to stretch. Times were so tough then, Stanwood and the others agree, that it was probably only the CCC that stood between them and petty crime.

Some of today's corps members, with neither high school diplomas nor jobs, had already had scrapes with the law. For Oster, it was "stupid things, but it was leading to more serious things."

Again and again, young recruits tell the CCC staff, "If I hadn't joined the corps, I'd be dead by now."

*

Cedric Johnson, 20, of L.A., one of the new CCC generation, is a very focused young man. Since he was 15 he's wanted to be a policeman, but reality has been working in a mill and in a cabinet shop. He hopes his corps training will be a first step toward the police academy.

"Most of the guys are, like, off the streets," he says. To Johnson, the CCC is about teaching "decency, honesty and pride, giving us hope, showing us what's out there."

Jean Sims, 23, of Hawthorne, and Nakia Ferguson, 20, of L.A., take recycling messages to schools. Both single mothers of preschoolers, they're typical of those in the urban programs. Ferguson dreams of being a nurse or a teacher. For Sims, who'd been doing clerical work, "This is a beginning, this is a start."

Oster is one of 90 members who'll learn energy technology at a new CCC center in Norwalk. At the same time, he'll be working for his high school diploma. Who knows? he asks. Maybe someday he'll work for Southern California Edison, which is providing his training.

Whatever, he says, "I had to get something better going with my life."

* This weekly column chronicles the people and small moments that define life in Southern California. Reader suggestions are welcome.

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