Memories of my father and the Civilian Conservation Corps

My father’s CCC records came in the mail today. I didn’t learn too much but what I learned was interesting and it was interesting to see a facsimile of the originals that he held and signed.

He was seventeen years old when he went far away from home. He was 6′ tall and weighed only 145 lbs. The report says that he had dark brown hair and green eyes. There was a place for “nationality” and they did not mean citizenship. My grandparents were listed as Polish. Grandpa had a sixth grade education. Grandma was a scholar who had graduated the eight grade.
Young John Matel dropped out of HS in the tenth grade. CCC provided education to its young charges. I was surprised to find on my father’s report that he was not interested in education. Later in life he respected education and wanted it for us. I also learned that my father attended vocational school, studied shoe-making. I don’t recall him ever mentioning that. He didn’t keep up with it.

Like the other common laborers, my father received $30 a month, of which he had to, by regulation, send $22 back to his family. The CCC helped the young men by giving them work and discipline and helped the families back home with supplemental income that they earned. And the CCC boys did valuable conservation work, some of which we can still see in our parks. It was the most popular of the New Deal programs for a good reason.
The CCC was probably the best thing that happened to my father in his young life. I have the impression that joined the CCC semi-voluntarily after some undisclosed trouble with the law. As a city kid, this was my father’s first sustained contact with nature. He worked in Pattison State Park near Superior, Wisconsin.

He did only one stint with CCC, starting and ending as a common laborer, from January 14, 1939 until June 30, 1939, which means that in that part of Wisconsin he worked only during the winter. His record indicates that he has scarlet fever when he was 13 years old and a tonsillectomy in 1929, but was otherwise healthy. In service, he missed five days of work because of the flu and was AWOL for two days. What he did during that time was not specified and there was no follow up. When he mustered out, he owed the USG $1.50 for “clothes and equipment” but otherwise had not debts or demerits.

After the CCC, John got a job with Medusa Cement, where he stayed for the rest of his working life except during his service with the Army Air Corps from 1942-5.
I was surprised when I found that the old man served only six months in the CCC. It seems to have loomed bigger in his life than that short time would imply. He talked about it frequently and with some fondness. It changed his life and so made mine possible. Thanks CCC.

Other references –

October forest visit 2

A few more forest visit photos. My longleaf is first. Next is my now customary photo from exit 104. Last is the pump. I have become a little obsessive about filling up. I have to get to a significant historical date. This one is the Glorious Revolution that overthrew King James II.

October farms visit

Went down to the farms today and took a few photos, probably that last of this growing season. Alex came along. We spent a lot of time cutting vines.

My first photo shows a couple of my bigger longleaf pines. They were planted in 2012. I am 6’1”, so these look to be around 15 feet high. One reason why some people prefer lobolly to longleaf is that loblolly are more consistent. You can see in my next picture that longleaf is variable. Some are fifteen feet tall and others are still less than a foot tall. Most are around 6-9 feet high.

Photo #3 shows the loblolly planted in 1996. The little figure in the front is me, for comparison. Picture # 4 shows some of the vines, makes it look like a ghost forest. We have been cutting them. Most of the trees are not as affected as those in the photos. Those are 2003 loblolly. The last photo shows that fall in coming. This is from the Brodnax place, looking over the place that was clearcut last year. The little trees we planted this year are there, but they are hard to see.

My quarterly contribution to "Virginia Forests" magazine

My quarterly contribution to “Virginia Forests” magazine.
Forests are changing and so is who owns them
If it seems like forest land ownership is dominated by people at or near retirement, that is because it is. While most Virginia landowners are 45-65 years old and only about a third of are over sixty-five, the older group owns around half of all forest land. This creates anxiety. That is why you find articles related to estate and succession planning in this “Virginia Forests “magazine. I am not here to tell you that this is not important, because truly it is. We are planting for the next generation; we need to plan for them too.
The advancing age of so many forest owners, however, is not surprising. Some owners inherit land. Others buy it as a long-term investment and from passion for forestry. At what stage of life is this most likely? Forest owner are often older individuals the same way HS seniors are usually around eighteen-years-old.
Forest are always becoming. This is true of what is growing on the land and who owns it. It is not profound wisdom to say that the future will differ from the past and that it is hard to predict. We can, however, predict with confidence a big trend already in process. Forest ownership is becoming more fragmented, with more owners and smaller acreage.
Remember I said that the over sixty-five age group makes up a third of forest owners but owns half of the forest land? Newer owners own less acreage on average. Most (84%) have purchased their land, i.e. did not get it through inheritance or gift. They are the future. The smaller the parcel the less likely owners are able to practice forestry consistently. Less managements can be done on ten acres than 100, for example, and it is often hard even to find someone willing to harvest small tracts. Implications for forestry and forests are significant. Forest fragmentation continues. We need to develop strategies to address what we cannot avoid. Possible actions include things like encouraging groups of landowners to cooperate in forest management and making information more readily available to a mass-market of owners.
Tree Farm’s strength has been personal contact to understand landowner specific conditions and needs and provide customized advice. This worked for seventy-five years, but is not practical when the number of forest owners goes up as acreage goes down. Tree Farm protected water, soil and wildlife. More trees are growing in Virginia today. But we need to engage a wider range of people. We may lose the personal boots-on-the-ground truth, but smaller-acreage tree farmers can still be deeply engaged, maybe sharing knowledge laterally within the tree farm community. Many bought land because with passion for forests and desire to be part of sustainable forestry. We share aspirations. Together can achieve great things – IF we make and sustain community.
Sustainability does not mean unchanging. It is beneficial change that nourishes the health of the land and the biotic and human communities on it. Tree Farm has done a great job of helping sustain communities and can do it into the future.

Civil service

As a career FSO, I became “elite” when I passed the test. I came from a working-class background, but my career choice made me different. There is no way around this. In order to do my job well, I had to be different from most Americans. Different, not better.
I was acutely aware of this and addressed it. Like many of my colleagues, I spent lots of time traveling in the U.S., talking to people. I drove across the U.S. a total of five times, and that does not count the many smaller visits. I also own rural land and keep touch with my neighbors. They know things I want to know and I learn a lot from them.

Am I an average American? No. I am MORE connected with America than the average American. As a result of my effort, I have been around more of America than most people. I have great respect for my fellow citizens. I recall talking to ranchers in Texas who explained foreign trade to me much better than I could explain to them. (State Department send me there to explain. I was explained) I studied it; they lived it. I learned from truck drivers about our transport system and spoke with foresters fighting invasive species, a downside of globalization. This aspect rarely comes up in discussions of trade.
I love America. That is why I joined the Foreign Service. I wanted to help tell America’s story and be part of it. And I know that Americans are great from experience. Some government workers think others are morons. Most of us know better.

Dogs & men

For Mariza- they have a statue of Boomer at Vatican Museum. Who knew? The other picture is Apollo that was nearby. This is the most famous Apollo statue, thought to embody perfection. Looks okay.  

Coming home

Travel is great and so is coming home. The flight back was tight, with almost zero leg room. The flight over was much better. Bigger plane. The plus side of being stuck on a plane for a long time is that you get an enforced time to think and there was a lot to think about after seeing so many ancient, interesting and beautiful things.

My strategy for coping with the boredom of long flights is to assign myself some reading and studying. I then procrastinate. Time always goes seems to race along when you are putting off something you are supposed to do. I channel the immense power of procrastination.

Anyway, I thought I would dump the last of my pictures from the Italy trip.
The first picture is Mithra. Mithra was a god of Persian origin. The religion became very popular in the Roman Empire, especially among soldiers. For a while it was a competitor to Christianity, but it had largely gone out of business by the end of the 4th Century.

The next photo is a statue of Henryk Sienkiewicz author of the novel “Quo Vadis.” He sits in the Villa Borghese. The book concerns and the title comes from the meeting of St. Peter and Jesus. St. Peter was leaving Rome along the Appian Way to avoid the persecution of Nero. He ran into Jesus coming the other way. Peter asked Jesus, “Quo vadis,” Latin for where are you going? Jesus answers that he is on his way to Rome to be crucified again. This gives Peter the courage to go back to Rome to be with the persecuted Christians. I will let you recall or look up how the story ends. A few movies have been made base on the book, which won the 1905 Nobel Prize for literature. Sienkiewicz’s other great work is his world famous … in Poland trilogy about 17th Century Poland. I was surprised to find him in an Italian park, so I took a picture.

Third is a reproduction of an Etruscan temple it is at the Villa Guilia.

Next is part of a tapestry in the Vatican, followed by a skull mosaic form the Archeological Museum in Naples. It is an interesting picture. It is like one featured in the introduction of the HBO series “Rome.” Last is Dante and his “Divine Comedy.” Dante straddles the period between the Middles Ages and the Renaissance, leaning a little more into the Middle Ages. He was the first major author who wrote in Italian, instead of Latin, and so is considered the father of the Italian language.

Ostia Antica

Ostia used to be the port of Rome and it used to be at the mouth of the Tiber River. I say “used to be” because it is neither today. The Tiber River moved after a big flood and silting pushed the coastline about four miles from the city.

The city did not suffer an immediate catastrophe, like Pompeii. It reached a peak population of around 100,000 in the third century and then went into a long decline. It was finally abandoned in the 9th Century, after repeated sacking by Arab pirates. It became a kind of ghost town, gradually getting covered up with dirt and silt. In later centuries, local builders plundered it for art and building materials.

It is odd today to think such things possible, that whole formerly large cities could just be abandoned, but this was fairly common in pre-modern times. Even great cities like Rome, Constantinople and Athens at times had large areas were where shepherds grazed sheep. These places came back. Of course, many ancient cities are now gone. Great coastal cities like Mycenae are now landlocked and empty. Petra attracts tourist but nobody lives there except to service them.

In Ostia you can see the old Roman form. It is like Pompeii in the straight streets, remains of temples, forum and baths. Roman colonial cities were laid out in grid pattern, like Roman military camps, which many of them started life. You can see the pattern in my first two photos. The second one was the street of bars and brothels. As a port city, Ostia hosted lots of seamen.

Next you see me standing in the water, overlooking the city. I was looking for, but could not find, a very similar picture of me from 2002 when I visited Rome with Alex. I still have the same coat. The old joke is that it is a bit short, but it will be longer before I get a new one. I was once passing through customs in Germany. My passport picture didn’t look so much like me, since I had lost some hair and grown a beard. The customs official was skeptical, but then he looked up and laughed. “Face changed but same tie,” he said and he was right. When it is not necessary to change it is necessary not to change.

The penultimate picture shows the theater and last is the view from the gallery. It was not a pool in those days, at least not usually.

Ostia rain

We enjoyed wonderful weather for the whole trip, except for a little rain yesterday and a lot of rain today. We visited Ostia Antica today. It was worth the visit. The rain was not as pleasant, but it did thin the crowds.

We took the bus from our hotel and got off into that rain you see in the first photo. We retreated into a nearby restaurant and were glad of the slow service. It is hard to see in the third photo, but water actually flowed across the floor. We hunkered down until the rain slowed, but it didn’t stop, as you see in the second picture. Chrissy had an umbrella and I had my Goretex coat, so we could proceed. The rain finally got only sporadic and we still got to see old Ostia.

Italian food

We stayed at the Ostia Antica Park Hotel. It is about as near to Ostia Antica as you can get and it looks walkable on the map. It is walkable. You just cannot walk in safety or comfort, since you have to walk along a busy narrow road with no shoulder and no path. We took the bus.

The hotel is good an very inexpensive. The staff is extraordinarily friendly, all of them. It rare to find such enthusiasm. If they are not sincere, they are very adept at faking sincerity.
In the restaurant today, we had our last Italian pizza. Among the choices, the one I chose, was sausage & potatoes. I had never before seen potatoes on a pizza and thought they meant tomatoes, but they meant potatoes. It is an odd, but not a bad combination. You get starch and starch. The pizza was generally good, one of the best we had.

I have been a little disappointed with the food this time. Let me be clear, food in Italy is great. But I remember it being superbly great (if I can double up on superlatives.) Now it is just great. I think what happened since I was here in 2002 is that food generally available in America has improved, so relative positions changed and my expectations have risen. My taste in food has change too. I used to eat mostly pasta and pizza. Today I like fresh vegetables and salads more and they are now more easily available in the U.S. Or more to the point, I know where to get it in the U.S. now.

My first photo shows the sausage and potato pizza. It looks like pineapple, which some people erroneously think goes on pizza, but its not. The other photos are from the little village near Ostia Antica ruins, very charming.