Many years ago I attended a gathering in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, along with several hundred young people between the ages of 18 and 23. The group was primarily male and included members of many ethnic groups. There were no gangs, no fights broke out and no one was fired upon.
Indeed, the crowd was respectful, quiet and well mannered. The young people were there to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the California Conservation Corps. Created in 1976, the CCC is the oldest and largest conservation corps program now in operation in the world. For the past 41 years, the CCC has provided employment and development to thousands of young Californians and enhancement and protection of the state’s natural resources.
Our son became a member of the California Conservation Corps in 1996, when he was 20-years-old. At that point in his life, my husband and I recognized talents in our son that we knew would not be nurtured at a community college or university. Not every round peg fits into the square hole called college.
Our round peg decided to join the corps after spending half a year working at a crummy job and the other half in technical school. He was the one who decided to join the CCC. After reading their literature, we thought it was worth a try.
We dropped him off at the bus station on a cold January morning at 6:00 am and watched him walk away in the cold half-light of day, feeling fear and hope in equal measure.
Six months later, on a warm summer afternoon, we were bursting with pride as we joined our son at the CCC’s twentieth anniversary celebration. We walked with him from booth to booth to learn more about the opportunities available through this worthwhile government program. For example, our son spent two months in Australia as part of an international exchange.
Because of the high standards the corps maintain, there is a fifty-percent dropout rate. Their five main rules are: no alcohol, no drugs, no violence, no refusal to work and no destruction of property. Corps members shape up or ship out. Those who make the cut learn quickly to listen to the boss, work hard and get the job done. Corps members who complete one year are eligible for scholarship money to continue their education.
Corps members receive minimum wage, less costs for room and meals. Our son was housed at Sequoia Station in Porterville. He shared a room with three other young men. Women are housed in separate quarters but do the same work as the men.
The CCC has 13 residential centers throughout California. Corps members work all over the state, from the back county wilderness to major metropolitan areas. The work includes: tree planting, stream clearance, trail construction, energy conservation and historic renovation projects.
Our son applied to become a part of a firefighting crew and received training before being dispatched to fight fires. His crew provided backup to US Forest Service firefighting teams. He was not required to take physical education beyond his sophomore year of high school but routinely ran two to three miles a day to keep in shape to remain on the fire crew.
The California Conservation Corps was founded in 1976, the year my son was born. It was modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930’s. When my son was small I often took him hiking in state parks and tried to instill in him a love and respect for nature. We enjoyed areas that were improved by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
We are proud of our son for entering the CCC, for sticking it out, and then earning a degree in English from the University of San Diego. He is now 41-years-old, married, and the father of two children. He is also a nursing student in an accelerated program at NYU.
He told me made the mid-career change because he wanted to have meaningful work. I think that his stint in the CCC, all those years ago, may have helped shape his need to contribute, not to just collect a paycheck.
My dad was not known for conversing with his children as we were growing up. I had my first real conversation with him, meaning he wasn’t yelling at me, when I was 17-years-old. We drove to Lake Erie for a day trip, about fifty miles from our home in Ohio. It was hot and humid and he complained to me that he was sweating. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
I had an arms-length relationship with my dad when I was young. It wasn’t until I got to middle age that I experienced a tender moment with my Dad that I will treasure forever.
I blessed my parents with two beautiful grandchildren. We visited often when the kids were small. After they were grown, they didn’t accompany us because of jobs, school and the path of their own adult lives. My parents, husband and I sat with one another, middle-aged and old-aged, lamenting the state of politics and society.
My parents moved from Ohio to Prescott, Arizona after they retired. My husband and I drove across the desert to visit them often. We enjoyed “happy hour” and then an elegant dinner at the charming old-west style Hassayampa Inn that was nestled in the town square.
One lovely summer evening, with a cool mountain breeze sifting through the dry Arizona air, my dad brought out a bottle of cognac that he got from his dad, more than fifty years earlier. We were relaxing after a wonderful dinner and the French brandy was a perfect end to the evening. Dad saved it for more than half a century, waiting for the right moment to share it.
I knew my dad had a very distant relationship with his own father. My parents packed up the kids and drove to Wisconsin to visit our grandparents about once a year. Grandpa was stern, almost menacing, with eyebrows that literally knit together in a frown. I knew, even as a child, that he struggled to be a patient grandpa to his son’s progeny.
Fifty years later, we sat in my parent’s spacious living room and watched the weathered mountains fade from azure blue to steel gray and then slowly blend with the star splashed western sky. The conversation was light; we were full of great food and wine, enjoying our leisure. When Dad brought out the cognac, he told us how old it was and that he had saved it for a special occasion.
The middle child of five, I suddenly became an honored guest. He carefully poured the cognac and graciously handed the glass to me. He was gentle, not menacing. His manner was genteel, not harsh.
We shared a father/daughter moment that I don’t think either of us expected to be so tender. I knew as I took the stemmed glass, delicately etched with long stemmed roses, that my dad expressed his feelings in the best way he knew how. It was good enough.
Dad has been gone for almost 17 years. I still miss buying the exact same polo shirt that I got for him every year. My gift was accompanied by a Father’s Day greeting card that was always humorous, never sentimental. The memory of the evening when he chose to share the cognac with me spoke to both of us in a nonverbal, but very powerful, way that I shall always cherish.
My piece appeared on June 4, 2017 in the Pasadena Star News and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.
Donnell Junior High School in Findlay, Ohio, was an old, musty building where I spent three years trying to stay awake and survive gym class. There was one class I liked — civics.
It appealed to my OCD tendencies, as the teacher had us make lists of the different parts of government. The three equal branches stuck with me: executive, legislative and judicial. I got the idea that knowing how the government worked was important.
Findlay was an all-American town: quiet, mostly white and middle class. Being raised by a Republican father and Democratic mother was about as controversial as it got. When I was 6, Mom’s brother, whom I called Jimmy Dear, came from Wisconsin to visit. Dad put a sign on our front door that proclaimed: “I like Ike.”
When Jimmy Dear arrived he fell back in mock horror and refused to enter our house. Jimmy Dear liked Democrat Adlai Stevenson. The standoff ended when Dad brought out a bottle of beer and Jimmy Dear decided to enter. I got the idea that political differences could be managed with humor and that people who disagreed could get along.
It was during my eighth-grade world history class on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, that a teacher came to the door of my classroom and said that President John F. Kennedy had been shot. Over that weekend, I saw the photograph of the swearing in of President Lyndon Johnson on the airplane with the widowed first lady by his side in her blood-spattered pink suit, and watched the subsequent funeral and burial of JFK. A presidential assassination is a deep national wound, but the Constitution provided a quick succession of power.
I started college at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, in the fall of 1969. On Dec. 1 of that year, the Selective Service announced the lottery numbers to determine who would be drafted and sent to the very unpopular Vietnam War. Most of the 500 girls living in the dorm were glued to their radios to hear what number their boyfriends would get. Mine got lucky 13.
On May 4, 1970, the war protests on the campus at OU were becoming violent, and the National Guard was called in. After Guardsmen at Kent State opened fire on students, killing four, the governor closed all college campuses in Ohio and I was given 24 hours to leave.
By then I knew that politics had a direct impact on my life. I gave birth to my daughter three years later while my husband was at Fork Polk, La., in basic training. President Richard Nixon’s so-called secret plan to end the war didn’t exist. I understood that the president could send my loved ones to war.
Then came the Watergate scandal in the summer of 1973. I watched the hearings on television, and then Nixon’s pitiful farewell speech at the White House. In spite of Nixon’s attempts to pervert it, the Constitution prevailed, but a cynicism took hold that never went away.
After college I moved to Southern California, and I have made my home here for 35 years. I love the small-town feel of Monrovia, as it is reminiscent of my childhood, but I enjoy the cultural diversity the greater metropolitan area has to offer. The political life here is on a much larger scale. I have always been pleased that our Golden State elected two dynamic female senators.
On the national level, things are not so good.
Last year, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to hold confirmation hearings to consider President Barack Obama’s pick to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court after the death of Antonin Scalia, our country fell down a rabbit hole. Democrats protested, but it didn’t resonate with the American people.
The Republican mantra was: Let the American people decide who the next Supreme Court justice should be. That is not what the Constitution says. It says that the president nominates a potential justice, the Senate holds hearings, and then it votes. McConnell knew that, but I’m afraid most Americans citizens didn’t.
Americans are woefully ignorant of the way our government is supposed to work. We see the man-on-the-street interviews in which people can’t name the three branches of government. They don’t know what country we fought against in the Revolutionary War or on what date the Declaration of Independence was signed. They can get hammered and eat too much at their barbeque on July 4, while remaining totally unaware of what that date means.
The presidential election of 2016 made Americans painfully aware of the circus our elections have become. One party put up 16 candidates who got picked off by a reality TV host. He lost the popular election by 3 million votes but managed to win the Electoral College.
It is painfully obvious that he can’t do the job. But that doesn’t matter to millions of my fellow countrymen, a group of rightfully angry and frustrated people, as long as he makes them feel better. The president is not our football coach — he leads our government’s executive branch.
Actor Richard Dreyfuss, founder of The Dreyfuss Initiative, is trying to address the lack of understanding of how our government and our democracy work. His organization is a national civics movement dedicated to reviving, elevating and enhancing civics education. The Dreyfuss Initiative gives me hope because it works through grassroots programs and curriculum enhancement.
I don’t think Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has given a moment’s thought to civics education for our youth. So it will have to come from the American people. The Dreyfuss Initative teaches students the structure of our government and helps them understand how important their participation is, starting with voting.
May Dreyfuss’s efforts succeed, for the sake of our nation. Its web address is thedreyfussinitiative.org.
Kathleen Vallee Stein