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Men off the Road

by Gertrude Springer

Photographs by Lewis Hine

September 1934

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"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 ago—used to be the chef in a Philadelphia country-club—but 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 drunk—and 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 away—why he isn't twenty-five yet. There ought to be something we could do for him."

"How do you hold men in camp if they want to leave?"

"We 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.'

THE 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.

Man in Camp Man in Camp

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.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003