Portrait of America: Survey Graphic in the ThirtiesHomeIntroductionEditor's NotesArticlesFurther Reading
Men off the Road

by Gertrude Springer

Photographs by Lewis Hine

September 1934

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I watched a gang disspiritedly hacking away at underbrush in a remote stretch of woods. "We're putting in our hours, lady, we're working for our keep," said one of them, grinning. Later on I watched another gang, after-hours by now, sweating under the loads of sand with which they were topping a wide rock-bordered path through the woods to a tiny lake. "Want to finish it before Sunday when a lot of folks go through here. Nobody could get to this lake before. Bet a lot of 'em never knew it was here."

Another argument for work projects which show fairly quick results is the effect on nearby communities which believe that the transients should work for their keep but under no circumstances at anything for which a local resident might be paid. By doing jobs which the community would never undertake but which it can see are useful and desirable, much local resistance is broken down and the men little by little find footholds in community life and lose some of their abnormal isolation.

All the men in camp have a small cash allowance, carefully underscored as relief and not as pay. This ranges from one to three dollars weekly according to the all-around usefulness of the man and his demonstrated capacity for responsibility. With this allowance he buys his cigarettes and postage stamps, gets a haircut from the man who has set himself up as camp barber, gets a shirt ironed, goes to the village movies and„yes, sometimes, human nature being what it is, gambles and drinks. And sometimes, too, he saves it rigorously for the "front" of a decent suit of clothes.

Many of the camp directors feel that the dollar a week allowance is the weak link in the whole chain of attempted rehabilitation. "How can you retrain men in work habits without the psychology of the pay envelope, without recognizing the principle of honest pay for honest work?"

The men themselves wonder why the CCC men and the "leaf-rakers" in the towns get a better break than they, who work the same hours and are doing, as they believe, more important work. They write letters such as this one which the director of Camp Roosevelt found under his door from a man who had worked up from pick and shovel to the responsible job of night-watchman, still at a dollar a week:

I wood like to no if you could get me $3 a week because I want to stay here till the plase clos up and I would haf something by then. I wood be please if I can get it. Off corse they wont be no hard feeling if you kant get for me. Not enny harm off asking. Hopeing to here from you. Excuase my writing.

It was possible to raise this man to $2.50 a week, but nine times out of ten the directors must explain as best they can the complications and restrictions that make one man's relief one thing and the next one's something else. The men, they say, are "unreasonably fair" about it.

"What do you do," I asked, "if the men refuse to work?"

"But they don't," was the answer. "They know what is expected of them and they accept the routine and go along with it. As long as we are fair they are fair. But you don't get anywhere trying to drive them; let them set their own pace and they produce results."

"But what of discipline? These men aren't Sunday-school boys."

"Anything but, and for that reason punitive and repressive measures are useless. They don't have to take it and they don't. But they have their own way of dealing with bad actors. If a man has dirty personal habits or is objectionable for more serious reasons you can trust his bunk-house mates to deal with him. A persistent course of snakes in the bed is, I am told, highly efficacious. Stealing is one offense for which we turn a man over to local authorities. For lesser offenses, such as drunkenness in camp, we have a regular hearing like a court-martial. Penalties range through demotion from responsible assignments, loss of privileges such as a trip to town on the truck, reduction of cash allowance, transfer to another camp and return to the city shelter. Never if we can help it do we throw a man out on the road without giving him some other choice.

"Why, at Camp Greenhaven they even offer him the chance of going to a jungle right on the camp property. They had there a great kicker whose last word in any discussion was, 'Hell, I'll go back to the jungle.' 'All right,' said the director one fine day, 'go ahead. There's a swell place for a jungle right down there by the tracks. Running water, shade and two freight trains a day. Go ahead.' And he did. Fixed it up, complete with tin cans and gunny sacks, in the best tradition of the road. Three or four of the men moved in with him while the rest hung around talking it over. Then came a cold heavy rain and the jungle boys came back to their clean dry beds. The jungle is still there and the men hang out in it as sort of a club-house. Some of them wash their clothes there. I'm told too that it has its uses for sobering up purposes."



Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003