Cord in the CCC
He walked from the house at seven a.m., having ignored his mother's request to move some sacks of millet before leaving. He had slept late, in fact. And after he rose, and dressed in his best overalls, flannel shirt, and shoes, he poured milk into a tin cup and flavored it with copious molasses. He stirred, drank, left the dirty cup on the kitchen table, and strode out the door.
Shep panted up to him for a smell of the fresh denim. Cord gave Shep a little pat on the head. "'Bye, Shep," he said, not breaking stride. "Hope she don't kill you."
His mother pushed open the door. "Where you think you're going?"
Cord could hear her trying to sound threatening, but he also knew -- it was in her voice -- that she was resigned to his leaving. He hadn't said anything, but there were plenty of clues in his behavior since yesterday when he'd made up his mind for sure. He kept walking, not even hurrying.
"You answer me, boy!"
He walked on. Shep stopped, sensing, Cord thought, that here the string snaps, the old bond breaks, the loose end gives itself over to the mercy of the air.
"I'll take a slat to your rear end," she yelled, her voice shaking now, fighting the weakness of surrender, but losing.
He stopped, turned around, said nothing, stared back at the meaty figure with its feet planted on the raw planks outside the back door, its face red, its mouth open just enough to suck in air and expel it toward him.
He walked three miles to Williamson's store, where he caught a ride with the first farmer stopping there who was continuing into Hardstock. That was Sam Chambers, who tried to engage Cord to load his truck with oats.
"Wouldn't take you but a hour."
"No. I got to move on."
"I bet you would if I'd pay ye."
"You going to pay me?"
"No. I'm giving ye this ride, though."
"Oh, hell. I guess I'll help you. Half an hour's all I got, though. I've got to get on in to San Angelo before dark." Sam was not interested in Cord's plans, but Cord continued. "Joining the CC's."
"Doin' what say?"
"Joining the CC's. Had it the hell with this god damn chicken shit farm life."
"Your brother went in, didn't he?"
"Yeah he did. Last summer." Cord watched the dirt travel by at all distances, the dirt beside the road blurring at speed, the dirt in the mid-distance racing by at a pace, and the dirt of the horizon traveling hardly at all, not fast enough for Cord. He hung his head to the side, leaned it against the cold window. "Guess I'll send part of my money home. They let you."
"That'd help your mama."
"Or I might keep it all. Haven't decided."
In Hardstock, Cord was pleased to find that the bus scheduled for quarter past noon would deliver him without charge to San Angelo if he was heading straight to the CCC to enlist. He had no money, no bus schedule, had hoped somehow to bargain his way onto a bus to San Angelo.
On the bus, Cord settled into a comfortable daydream. He knew that the CCC would feed, clothe, and work him hard. He would also be trained in a military fashion and would, therefore, be well fit for the army after his term of service. As for the military, he was not sure he was charmed by the idea of the snappy uniform, nor of the regimented life, nor even of the fancy weaponry he expected to learn to use and carry. All these notions were appealing, as was the possibility of travel to new places, even the distant notion of combat if the country went to war. But no single aspect held especial allure for him -- all his ideas of military life were vague and flitted through his mind. He had heard of the Army and the Marines but knew not what the difference might be. He did not want to be a sailor. He had never seen the ocean, did not know or trust it.
Cord felt that he was justified in abandoning his mother. She had always favored the older brother, and since summer when Alzon had left, she had treated Cord like an enemy, as though he were plotting to take some unknown advantage of her -- which he never had been. If he had sometimes put off doing his chores, it had been because he was more interested in carving something from wood with his knife, or digging an interesting tunnel in the sand bank down at the gully.
At the bus station in San Angelo, the driver stepped off first and, squinting in the setting sun, identified Cord to a man waiting at the curb. The free ride had been given. Cord felt he belonged now to the corps, and it made him happy. The man introduced himself. There were two papers to sign. The man looked Cord over right there on the street, pinched his stringy arm muscles, had him stand sideways, bend down, raise his arms up. Satisfied, he walked Cord a distance that seemed close to a mile, passing block after block of houses and wooden buildings, some of them stores open for business. Cord was fascinated with the new landscape, amazed at the brightness of the lights emanating from within some of the storefronts. He was also tired. He wished he had not helped Sam Chambers load his truck.
They arrived at a frame house, unpainted and rectangular and so new the siding planks were still yellow and smelling of sap. Inside the house, eleven men, most young like Cord, sat on cots or in chairs around a table. A few were talking to each other. One was supine on a cot, reading a magazine by the light of an electric lamp. The room was suffused with the odors of sawdust, coffee, cooking grease, and promise. Cord had to check himself for fear of smiling. He had signed the papers back at the bus station. He had passed. He was in.
Two days later the recruits had grown in number to sixteen. They walked in close rank back to the bus station midmorning and caught a bus to a training camp some miles out in the country. Cord heard someone describe the exact location, but he paid little attention.
He stood outside the bus in a ragged line of men tired from the long ride. Cord scanned the perfect lines of canvas tents, the low wooden buildings, everything connected by straight roads graded into the orange sandy flat dirt. At the same time, he tried to listen to the man telling them where to go and what to do, but his heart was with the perfect lines. When the other men turned and walked forward, Cord did what the man next to him was doing, and it was sufficient to get him where he was going.
Whoever the man in authority was -- and there were several at different times -- he would always tell the recruits not once, but several times, exactly where to go and what to do. Cord found himself well-suited to this routine. Given clear instructions and no requirement to remember them for long, he was good at following orders. He loved boot camp, as some of the men called it, more than any experience he had ever had.
Such perfection, such clarity did not last long. Fuzzy issues began to encroach on Cord's utopia. He saw that some of the recruits were finding a way to improve the quantity, and sometimes even the quality, of their meals. No matter how regimented the life, there could be no rules for such trivialities as who would get the corner piece of the cornbread and who would get the crustless, tender piece from the middle of the cut. How brimful the ladle of beans, and how much meat scooped off the bottom of the pot, and how close to the latrine your bunk as opposed to his bunk... Life was made up of trivialities, eating and defecating, sleeping and keeping clean and having clothes that fit. Because Cord saw many of the small inequities, and yet was unable and unwilling to engage in the man-game of securing a respectable place for himself in the pecking order, he suffered overdone crusty portions of pone, showers in water depleted of warmth, a mismatched pair of shoes, so forth. He was not ostracized nor picked on. His good country looks and laconic manner drew him some respect and simple disinterest. Within a week, he was brooding in much the same manner he'd used to back home.
Boot camp lasted only a few weeks, and when Cord shipped out on a cold January morning, overcast and threatening, he put it all behind him. Life was for going forth. All told, there was less chicken shit at boot camp than he had known previous to it, and he expected even less chicken shit in the field, wherever that might be. He rode in the back of a canvas covered truck, the army drab giving him a secret thrill. He was more accomplished now at stifling the smiles that sometimes threatened to blossom on his face. He was proud of this Army drab ability to frown.
Shoulder to shoulder down each side of the truck bed the young men bumped along, some of them talking, a few laughing now and then. There were twenty-six of them, all headed for a destination they understood to be a cave. Cord tried not to imagine what the work might be, what the so-called cave might turn out to be. He was afraid to let his imagination work on it.
After something over two hours, the bland terrain of the Texas west transformed. Cord had ended up near the back of the truck bed where road bumps were levered larger over the rear axle and the breeze from the open gate was cold, but this afforded a view. He appreciated both the view and the cold air because they helped him maintain equilibrium against motion sickness and claustrophobia, to which he was susceptible. As the road dropped into the Llano basin, the landscape of weedy packed alkali gave way to vistas of huge granite boulders, some smoothed and flattened by eons of erosion, but others jutting and angular, mountains silhouetting against the glaring winter sky. Cord raised his eyebrows, pulled back the blanket he'd been using to warm his head, allowed his amazement to drop his jaw, dry his breath, water his eyes. If San Angelo had been new to him, the Llano basin was another planet. Was he still in Texas? He was, and barely four hours out from San Angelo (one stop in Brady, a town of some size) when the truck arrived in the town of Llano.
"Fall out." Cord had to move fast to avoid the stampede to the tailgate. He stepped around toward the front of the truck, was hit with the clean greasy smell of the engine and the cracking sound of its cooling. The mid-afternoon air was still and felt warmer now. A short man appeared in front of him and flipped a pack of Camels in Cord's face, two fragrant sticks offering themselves from the pack's opening. Cord had never smoked, but this man, standing no more than five feet five if that, could not know that. Cord looked at his face, realized he'd been sitting across the truck bed from him the whole way -- another man relegated to the cold and bumpy. Without the presence of mind to say thanks, or no thanks, Cord took a cigarette. He put it between his lips, and there was a metallic click, a flash of chrome, and a pleasing warm glow and the smell of raw fuel. Awkward, he jutted his face forward and almost burned his eyebrows. The moment passed, the cigarette was lit. The short man lit one for himself, snapped the Zippo shut, turned away from the truck toward a grove of dormant oak trees standing across the road. "Wonder what the fuck we're in for," he said in a surprisingly deep voice eroded, no doubt, by years of smoking, though the man could not have been twenty.
"Some kind of cave," Cord offered, shrugging, trying not to smile, but failing. He felt he was taking to smoking as naturally as a soldier. Nothing to it. The short man sucked the juice from his cigarette in deep, hungry draws, held it in, let it out in great billows that hung around his head in the still air. He complained about the idea of going into a cave. Not going to get his ass down in some dark hole by god.
Cord, inspired, drew on his smoke and inhaled. The first lungful was not bad, but made his head swim a few seconds later. He followed with another deep pull. Inside of a minute, he was throwing up the sausage that had been his lunch in Brady. The short man did not stick around to help or to humiliate, but went to the other side of the truck, saw that the rest of the men had entered a barn-like building nearby, and he too went inside, leaving Cord to recover in his own time.
Longhorn Cavern was another hour away. The road to Burnet twisted over pink dirt sparkling with mica and feldspar and studded with mother stones of granite. Through the sphincter of drab canvas and the blur of jarring movement, Cord watched the cedars and the ubiquitous prickly pears flash into view, recede, darken on the close horizon. Twice he spotted white tailed deer. Each of the animals turned a suddenly uplifted, alert head toward the passing noise, returned to nibbling cedar berries, unperturbed.
Less than an hour down the clayish road the truck stopped. Burnet -- or what was supposed to be Burnet -- appeared to the men to be no more than a place on the road, undistinguished by any structures, let alone habitable buildings. The men piled out, stretching and squinting in the warm winter glare of the afternoon. They had stopped in a slight dip shaded by granite boulders the size of houses on one side, and on the other side a cedar grove obscuring the view down a gentle slope that Cord judged to bottom out at a creek. Stepping away from the truck, picking his way a little farther along the road, Cord noticed a rough passage veering off the road to the south. It rose sharply over loose stones and disappeared beyond a rise fifty yards away. Several other men came up behind him and commented on the road. "This is Burnet," one of them announced, and the others snickered.
The driver remained in the cab until he finished his smoke, letting the men stretch. When he did step down from the truck, he lumbered, stretching the knots out of his butt muscles, pulling twisted underclothing loose from pinched and irritated folds of skin. He found a knee-high boulder a few feet off the roadside and pissed a long, foamy stream onto it, then turned toward the men.
He tapped a Lucky out of the pack and lit it. "This is far as the truck goes. Right here y'all get your sacks." He took a drag on his cigarette. The men were still listening. "Well, go ahead and get 'em out of the truck."
Cord was too far back to grab his duffel bag before other men piled into the truck in twos and threes to retrieve theirs from under the benches. He waited his turn, saw that the short man had grabbed his belongings quickly so they wouldn't be trampled. When Cord did get to the truck, his duffel bag had some dusty footprints on it.
"Now this road," said the driver, stepping down toward the southward fork, "is rough but won't be no problem walking over it. You can't get lost."
A mumbling complaint passed through the men, and the driver said to the two or three men near him, "It's hilly, you got some steep hills, but it's more downhill than up." Then louder, to the group, he said "You likely to meet some men coming back this-away. Three-four of 'em coming to ride the truck back to Llano. They would of been here but we made pretty good time."
"You not coming?" somebody asked.
"No, y'all on your own into camp," he answered. Then, to the whole group, "Six miles."
A louder complaint issued. Cursing, moaning ensued. The driver nodded at an older man, a man in his thirties, with pale blue eyes sunken under a thin, high brow. "What's your name?"
"Castlecamps," the man answered, off guard.
"Duane Castlecamps," the man said.
"All right, then, you in charge of this detail. Y'all stay all together, you hear? No stragglers, and Castlecrump here's in charge and gonna report on you when you get there." The driver squinted into the white sky. "Y'all just about make it before dark. You got mountain lions out there won't be near as likely to bother you in daylight." Someone said something to him, and he laughed, spit, thumped his cigarette butt at the flat face of a prickly pear.
Cord stepped back away from the group, turned his face from them, pretending to need the prickly pears for his spit, but it was to hide his smile, his thrill of comradery. He was going to march into the wilderness with his fellows, following orders he understood.
There were already 155 men at the Longhorn Cavern site, and more arrived almost daily until there were over two hundred. Many of the men worked on the surface of the park, clearing brush, building pathways. Other teams were constructing a park headquarters, using the native stone as the main building material. One of the stone pathways wound through the landscape of boulders and scrub oaks to the cave entrance, where other teams labored concrete down into the world mouth. A vertical shaft was used for excavating tons of mud from deep in the cave. More mud was blasted away from the rock with high-pressure water hoses, the sludge running farther down the natural southward slope of the cavern until it disappeared into the aquifer.
Cord manned one of the hoses. He saw a passageway less than two feet in height clean out to over eight feet of headroom in a couple of days. He proceeded deeper with the hose, and while he washed away more mud and bat guano, others laid in concrete pavement through the chasm he had opened, so that when he walked back out of the cavern at the end of a day, it was often over flat, man-made surfaces.
Cord learned to smoke. He considered the ritual apt, considering he had gone down to the bottom of the cave where many of the men refused to go, and never once felt closed in. The work itself seemed plenty to deal with. Smoking also could be a handy aid in hiding the grins and smiles that sometimes swept across his countenance unwanted. Therefore he tried to have one lit any time he was in company.
There had been no six mile walk for Cord and the other men. The driver had stopped short of the encampment. It was a little joke, and something of a tradition. As soon as the men had walked a hundred yards or so, they came around a bend in the trail and found themselves at the back of a latrine area in clear sight of a dozen temporary buildings and an acre of tents.
It had been one of the few times Cord forced a smile onto his face, pretending to share in the other men's mirthful relief.
Bunks at the camp had mattresses of tick stuffed with a mixture of cotton, peanut hulls and poultry feathers. Cord found this comfortable, and he enjoyed stretching out on his bunk in the evening, his rough fingers locked behind his head, staring up at the rafters and the underside of the roofing slats, listening to the indistinguishable banter that often percolated from the card table at the far end of the room. Once in a while an ejaculated Oh shit and laughter might make its way to him, but the sounds were background to his thinking, the murmuring of a muddy brook through the gully after a rain, or the wistful clucking of the satiated chickens on a hot afternoon.