We Can Take It | By: Cynthia Rice | | Category: Short Story - History Bookmark and Share

We Can Take It


I’ll never forget my first days at Project F-388. They must have been the hardest and longest days I have ever had to encounter, but they were the best in my life. Perhaps I didn’t understand then, but I now know what it was truly like to make it through the thirties. Our story begins in San Francisco, California.

The twenties was a swell time. I was a journalist who, at the age of 20, knew many famous celebrities and was cursed with “stock fever”. My family became richer by the minute and we lived in a elegant home right by the bay. Living in the city was the good life, but our stocks suddenly plummeted pulling us down with it, and before long we were broke. In the first week of the Depression, the stock market lost 30 billion dollars causing thousands of families to become insolvent. Bankruptcy was filled with struggles and sacrifices. It still amazes me that my family was able to live like this for almost a year. We wouldn’t have lasted much longer. Being the only one able to support my parents, it was up to me to turn our luck around and that I was determined to do. . .

June, 1932


You have no idea how much those words thrilled me; one hundred fifty thousand jobs! The Lord had heard my prayers! This was my chance to save my family’s lives. In the torn and ruined clothes that I was reduced to wearing, I ran to the center of the city and immediately signed up. Days passed and I began to lose hope, but two weeks later, the letter arrived! My camp site was Project F-388 in Tuolumne, California. My parents and I were thrilled and so thankful for this second chance. In a few days, I would be leaving and on my way to a better future.

By dawn on the morning of our departure, the bus was full of young men ready and excited to set off for camp. Just as the bus was ready to leave, I boarded it. It was so packed I was lucky to even find a seat. The same thoughts flowed through my mind as I waited to leave, “Six months? How on earth will I survive? How will I build a home worthy of living in?”  These few thoughts were interrupted by the sudden movement of the bus. 

“Goodbye, William!” My mother called. I turned around to see my home recede from view and I waved to my family among the crowd of the other men’s families. My heart pounded in my chest, my hands moist from sweat, and terror built up inside of me. Never before had I been this frightened.

The road trip was long and brutal. The roads were uneven and curved up and over the mountains. Sick from the sudden stops and constant breaks in the road, I struggled to keep my breakfast down. The sequoias, tall enough to reach the heavens, seemed to look down upon us as we drove on through their lush paradise. There had been tons of wildlife that I had never seen before: columbine, bleeding heart, California fuschia, and common yarrow. All of these gorgeous flowers I saw on our drive through the forest. 

“I aint worried about a thing goin’ out in the woods like this. I grew up maintaining an orange farm so there aint nothin that’ll stop me,” a tall, thin boy announced. He was proud for a man who seemed not yet 18. 

All the men stared at the boy until I finally replied, “Now, this isn’t gonna be like your little orchard back home. This here’s gonna be hard work. You ever put out a forest fire? Or maybe built a home from scratch?” The boy fell silent. “No, I didn’t think so. Quit your bragging and get a hold on reality.” 

“What would you know?” Another man pitched in. “You in your fancy gidup and stuff. You look like you aint worked a day in your life!” Without a response I stood proud. 

The rest of the ride the boy and I rode in silence while the others talked about the only thing we all had in common; being poor. Stories were told about their lives which were much worse then mine. “Maybe I shouldn’t have signed up. I wonder who could have gone in my place. Probably someone who had a life I could never even imagine. My family wasn’t doing well but we were living. Some of these mens’ families weren’t. Who have I ruined?” I heard stories of children who had died, families who were living in sewers, and of siblings with fatal diseases. The guilt ate at me for the whole time I was at camp. The regret seemed to be the only thought in my head for the rest of the ride until we finally pulled into camp at sundown. 

That night we bathed, brushed our teeth, got vaccinated and received our new clothes which consisted of two work uniforms, two formal uniforms and a pair of Army boots. Then dinner was served which was the most I had eaten in a year.  All seemed well until the next morning. 

Before the sun had even risen from the East, the most unexpected and horrible event began my life at camp. There wasn’t nearly enough guards and officers to take the job so the other men and I were sent out to put out a forest fire. We had to get ready within a couple of minutes and we ate breakfast on the way. 

While we were riding to the site, a man known by the name of  Officer Chamberlain described what we were expected to do in case of anymore emergencies like these. “Now, because you city folk have no idea what to do, I’ll explain to you what will need to be done in order to get this fire out. The fire isn’t near a river or any other water source so you will have no water to use. In cases like these, we have shovels that you will use to spread dirt onto the flames. You must work quickly and diligently so it doesn’t spread. Be careful and avoid getting caught on fire by all costs. I will be helping as well, but I expect every single man to be working. Any questions?” The truck remained silent. “Very well,” he said looking around. “We are almost there. Get ready to move quickly.”

About a few hundred yards away, the fire roared and flourished engulfing the trees like a ravenous beast. Completely terrified, I grabbed a shovel that was handed to me and rolled up my sleeves. 

The truck stopped and all the men jumped out of the vehicle like water pouring over a waterfall.  We hustled over near the flames and the men began frantically throwing the dirt. They moved so quickly that the soil completely missed the fire. That was no way to put it out. Gathering some dirt in my shovel, I carefully, but quickly poured it over a small patch of flames and it worked! I continued this process until my muscles gave out in exhaustion. I then began clearing some land so the fire would not spread. 

After hours of continuous labor, the fire was completely gone! Officer Chamberlain came up behind me and put his hand on my shoulder. “Nice work, Goodwin.” Proud of our success, the man and I marched back to the truck. With all men accounted for we made our way back to camp where we were awarded with steak, salads and ice-cool water. Even with my arms throbbing in pain, I was happier than I had ever been in my life. “Maybe my life here won’t be so bad after all.”


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