Longtime Dunbar mechanic, 88, recalls working with the CCC
Editor's Note: This is the third of four articles about the Civilian Conservation Corps and the impact it had on the region.
Carl Pope personally recalls the Civilian Conservation Corps because he worked for the federal program for six months. He also remembers the hard economic times of the Great Depression because he grew up during the 1930s when U.S. unemployment was 25 percent, and people were poor, poor, poor.
“My family was on relief because Dad was out of work,” recalled Pope, 88, reminiscing recently at his Dunbar home. “We were so poor that we used to cut up old tires and use the rubber for shoe soles.”
His father eventually found a job with the federal Works Progress Administration, one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal programs that put families back to work during the Depression. Eight million WPA employees constructed public buildings and parks and completed infrastructure across America, many of which stand strong 80 years later.
It was the same with the Civilian Conservation Corps. Between 1933 and 1942, the CCC employed 2.5 million teenage boys and young men to construct parks and public works and to reforest America in areas where loggers had over-harvested trees.
Building swallow falls
Pope is familiar with logging because of his CCC experience, during which he helped construct Swallow Falls Park near Deep Creek, Md. His service was near the end of the CCC program, which was phased out after the United States entered World War II.
When the Dunbar native heard about the CCC, he signed up for the program at a federal office along Gallatin Avenue in Uniontown. Sent to Swallow Falls, he lived in barracks along with his crew mates. “I worked in a sawmill that skinned the bark off the trunks of trees that were later turned into logs so that park buildings could be constructed,” Pope remembered. He said he was grateful for the $5 he received each month; another $25 a month was sent home to his grandmother to help feed and clothe the Pope family during the Depression.
Pope returned home most weekends, hitchhiking his way back to Pennsylvania. After six months with the CCC, the camp's officers informed the workers that the U.S. had initiated a military draft. “They said, ‘Anyone eligible for the draft, go home.' ”
Serving with Navy in the Pacific
He was drafted into the Army but volunteered for the Navy and was accepted. From 1943 until the war ended in 1945, he worked aboard the USS Hamul, a cargo ship that later served as a destroyer repair ship. He saw the devastation of South Pacific islands up close. While anchored in the harbor of Okinawa, Pope witnessed a Japanese suicide pilot aim for the Hamul, but the plane missed, crashing into the sea instead of the ship.
“(Enemy pilots) always aimed at the bridge (amidships) because they knew that's where the officers usually were,” he explained.
After the war, Pope returned to Dunbar and his wife, Lloma Catharine (Gangaware). The couple met when they were fourth-grade classmates at Dunbar Borough School.
“Her mom didn't like me. She said our marriage would never last. Well, I think it did,” joked Pope, pointing out that they were married for 67 years.
During his lifetime, the former CCC employee and Navy veteran worked many jobs, including doing farm work, mining coal and helping out at the Lazy Hour Ranch, which was located near Dunbar (the site of today's St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church).
True calling was cars
He found his true calling when he put his post-war GI Bill mechanic's training into practice. He was an auto mechanic for more than 40 years — 26 of those for Bell's Auto in Dunbar Township. He also operated his own mechanic shop. “Cars were my life, period,” Pope declared.
The proof is in his backyard. Inside a small garage, there is the gleaming sapphire blue-and-cream 1954 Hudson Jet that he drives to local car shows.
Plus, there are dozens of trophies and dash plaques that he's collected at those competitions.
Lloma passed away in 2011 after a lingering illness, and Pope misses her terribly. He takes comfort in the daughter they raised together, Carla Mazurik of Waynesburg, a retired employee of Central Greene School District. Carla checks on her father regularly. “She calls me every single day. I have a wonderful daughter, thank God,” Pope concluded. “I've been very lucky.”
Laura Szepesi is a freelance writer.