A Sunday Afternoon: a reflection by Paul Klassen
A SUNDAY AFTERNOON
The year was 1943. It was a beautiful sunny day in the Appalachian mountains near the little town of Grottoes, Virginia. Although a beautiful day it was also a troubling time. World War II had been raging for several years. The United States was now at war with the Japanese in the Pacific and with Germany and Italy in Europe. I was eighteen years old. Like many young men at that time I had been drafted into the service of the country. But, unlike most, I had not entered the armed forces. My family and church background had led me in a different direction, and I was a conscientious objector to war, and therefore sent to perform my service in a camp near this small Virginia town.
The camp was a former facility of the Civilian Conservation Corps and consisted of a row of about four wooden barracks, a dining hall and kitchen, a shower room with a line of pit toilets, plus a few other buildings necessary for such an operation. There were a couple hundred men there, many from Virginia and Pennsylvania and some bordering states. The C.C.C. camp had been transformed into a C.P.S. camp, meaning Civilian Public Service, the program that had been created to accommodate this service. Grottoes was C.P.S. Camp No. 4. Our work was supposed to be “work of national importance” and here was classified as soil conservation work. In practical terms that translated into digging post-holes and constructing miles of fence in the rocky soil of the farms of this area, doing some of the farm harvest work such as threshing wheat, making hay, cutting fields of corn with a machete, making corn shocks and later shelling the corn and other work of that sort. Every day we would load up into the back of military type trucks to do this work. We never knew where we were going until we arrived at our work site. If it was to build fences we grabbed our spud bars, post-hole diggers and shovels, were given our assignments by the foreman and started digging. We became quite good at this, and a crew of a dozen or so stretched out across a field moved quite rapidly, digging holes, inserting posts, tamping them straight and tight, and then stretching the wire fence. We would stop at noon for a sack lunch packed by the camp cooks and then it was back to work for the rest of the afternoon. Many of us, seeking more meaningful work, applied for and were later assigned to work in the grossly undermanned mental hospitals of the country, but here it was just good hard labor.
The camp at Grottoes was about five miles or so from this little town, back some gravel roads through the woods, and nestled up against a small mountain. Looking out from there provided a nice view of a range of mountains bordering the Skyline Drive, a highway the C.C.C. boys had constructed during the Depression years.
But today was a Sunday – our day off. A beautiful day to rest up and relax, a day to write letters home, to engage in a softball game on our little ball field, or perhaps to take a hike into the mountains. No work today. In the morning there had been a church service in the dining area as always but the afternoon was completely unscheduled. It was now late August and the blue sky carried only a few puffy white clouds. A nice day indeed. A couple airplanes flew overhead – military planes from one of the many east coast bases, serving notice that all was not as peaceful as it appeared. They were out doing their practice maneuvers. We heard one plane’s engine blaring in what sounded like a dive-bomber practice, unusually loud it seemed, but then all returned to quiet again.
A couple hours later, however everything changed. We were told there was a fire somewhere back in the mountains and we were to report to our trucks for fire duty. We had previously received a brief instruction on fire fighting, mainly on how to form a line to create a fire break in the woods – each man taking a couple swipes with a shovel to clear the ground while constantly moving forward, leaving the last man in the line to do the final clearing. Now was going to be our time to put that instruction into practice. Then we learned the rest of the story. An Air-force plane had crashed in the forest causing this fire. Apparently the plane we had heard earlier in the afternoon diving toward the earth had not pulled out soon enough to avoid crashing into the ground. So we reported to our trucks and were quickly on our way.
Eventually we arrived at the remote crash site. We could see smoke rising and filtering through the trees in this rugged mountainous area. We quickly unloaded our tools from the truck and walked to the crash area. There were already other emergency vehicles there and also a group of military people. There wasn’t much left of the plane which apparently exploded into countless small pieces. There was no great inferno either, but there were areas where the forest ground cover was burning. We were organized into teams, and with our shovels we did create the fire-breaks that would hopefully keep the fire from spreading beyond the already impacted area. The weather was cooperative, this having been a calm day with virtually no wind, so that was fortunate. We worked hard for several hours and by evening we had accomplished what needed to be done.
At one point during this work, Joe, next to me in the fire line stopped abruptly to examine something he detected on the ground. Then he stooped to the ground to pick it up and said “Now what do I do?” In his hand he had a piece of a human scalp – some bloody skin and a lock of straight black hair. What should he do? He couldn’t just discard it and yet he didn’t know just what he should do with it. Then he decided to take it to one of the soldiers who was standing nearby, apparently on guard duty. Perhaps this was something the authorities would need for identification or some other purpose. He showed the soldier what he had discovered and asked if the soldier could take care of it or tell him what to do. The soldier just looked at Joe and gave no reply. Joe hesitated, then repeated his question, asking what he should do. Again the soldier was mute, saying nothing at all, and looked as though he had heard or seen nothing. Evidently he was as unprepared as Joe to know what to do, and quite unable to handle the situation. Finally Joe took the fragment of the lost airman and, inadequate as it was, said to the soldier: “Here, I’ll just hang it on the twig of this little tree. You’ll know where it is if anyone wants it”. And there it hung.
March 6, 2011