off the Road
by Gertrude Springer
Photographs by Lewis Hine
"What about drunkenness? Do
you have much of it?"
"We-ell, not much exactly, but what can you
expect? Think of the way these men have lived. Liquor has been
their only escape and God knows they still have enough to escape
from. Of course your really seasoned drinker can't get drunk very
often on a dollar a week. though some of them seem particularly
talented. We can't be too hardboiled about it, but if a man must
get drunk he's got to keep out of camp until he sobers up. We
draw the line at the second offense. We lost a swell cook that
way not long agoused to be the chef in a Philadelphia country-clubbut
he would get drunk and raise merry Cain in camp, so he had to
go back to the shelter.
"See that curly headed fellow
over there playing checkers with the colored boy? Nice kid,
isn't he? Well, there's a problem child for you. An honor man
from a good western college, smartest man in camp and everybody
likes him. He's been at two other camps in this state and by
sheer ability and general usefulness won his way to responsibility.
As soon as he got to the top he got drunkand I don't mean
just plain drunk. They put him back on pick and shovel and again
he worked his way to the top, and to another bender. We have
him now and I can see what's coming. But he's too darned good
to throw awaywhy he isn't twenty-five yet. There ought
to be something we could do for him."
do you hold men in camp if they want to leave?"
don't. We haven't any way to do it if we wanted to, and anyway
that isn't the idea. The men come of their own volition and
they go the same way. After the quality of the food and the
nature of the work projects the holding power of the camp depends
largely on the personality of the director, on his complete
fairness, his resourcefulness in any situation and his ability
to make good with the men right on the ground. But given all
that, the itching foot still drives many a man on. Sometimes
they talk it over with us, say they have jobs promised, or are
going home or something. Usually they just go 'over the hill.'
suggestibility of all these men is high. They come to camp by
suggestion and they leave the same way. Someone has heard that
a mill is opening somewhere and three or four of them drift
off in the hope of a job. They hear that the camps in some other
state have better chow or a higher cash allowance, and away
they go. They know all about the intricacy of our settlement
laws and the difference between an interstate and an intrastate
transient, and the wise guys among them take advantage of it.
Our settlement laws are really an encouragement to transiency
and until they are amended or abolished our treatment of the
whole baffling problem must remain confused and more ineffective
than it needs to be."
Of course the camps have their
critics. Few quarrel with the common humanity of providing some
form of decent relief for these destitute citizens who have lost
their claim on any community, and few will deny that it is better
to have them doing useful work in camps than to have them roaming
the country begging, pilfering, becoming increasingly demoralized.
But, say the critics, many of these men are seasonal laborers
now unable, as in the past, to earn enough to carry them through
off-seasons. Why should the federal government subsidize seasonal
industry by caring for its unwanted manpower? To which the humanitarian
poses another question: "Well, what would you do with this man-power?
For four years we threw it on the dump and the result alarmed
us. Why not try something else? Keep that man-power, with its
present low liability of employment, off the present glutted labor
market. Keep it decent and productive in the camps. Revive the
habit of regular work and the incentive to orderly living, and
the seasonal industries will have to look elsewhere when they
want casual labor."
The camps, say the critics,
are incentives to youthful wanderlust, a succession of one-night
stands for boys who don't like it at home and want to see the
world. Well, hardly. It is not as easy as that to be admitted
to a camp. But suppose it were, what of it? Since boys always
have left home to seek adventure there seems point in the argument
that it is better for the camps to catch them than the jungles
of the chronic hoboes.