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Column

A check's nice, but not the best idea

By BARBARA L. FREDRICKSEN, Times Staff Writer
Published February 9, 2008


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I guess I am as excited as anyone about the checks most of us will get from the federal government in the next few months. I just hope mine arrives in time to pay the additional taxes I owe to the IRS because I didn't have enough withheld from my paycheck last year.

On second thought, I wish the feds wouldn't send me anything.

I wish that, instead, the government would establish something like the old Works Progress Administration or Civilian Conservation Corps that put more than 11-million people to work, brought the economy out of the Great Depression and made this country a far better one through their labors.

A modern CCC could repair our crumbling bridges and roads so I wouldn't have to squeeze my eyes shut and hold my breath every time I cross a river (only when someone else is driving; I stay wide-eyed when I'm at the wheel). They could plant another 5-billion trees for the U.S. Forest Service as they did between 1933 and 1939. Or maybe they could build more picnic shelters, bathhouses for swimmers and forest paths like the ones we all have enjoyed so much over the years.

My happiest childhood times were at Ratcliff Lake, a 45-acre lake about 30 miles from my home in Lufkin, Texas, that had been a log pond but was turned into a gorgeous recreation area in 1936 by the CCC.

There's a huge log house with dressing rooms and cold showers for swimmers, as well as hiking trails, picnic shelters, camp sites, restrooms with flush toilets (a real treat in the back woods) and fishing piers. The longest moments of my life were the 20 minutes my mother made me wait after our picnic lunches before she would allow me to go into the cold waters for a swim.

Nearly every national park I visit has a brass plaque somewhere commemorating the work by the young men of the CCC, whose paths and bridges are as sturdy today as they were when they were built.

A bonus was that these same young men were trained to work and follow orders - and give orders - when it came time for them to fight in World War II.

Even more exciting would be the prospect of once more having the WPA's Federal Theatre Project, Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project and Federal Writers' Project, especially since so many in the arts need work these days.

The theater wing helped such playwrights, actors and directors as Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman), Orson Welles (Citizen Kane), Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront), and John Houseman (The Paper Chase) survive those lean years.

The writers' project sustained the careers of Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston, John Steinbeck and Richard Wright, to name only a few.

Even today, hundred of post offices, county courthouses, libraries and the like still have the huge murals that Federal Art Project artists created during those hungry years. More than 200,000 separate works were created by an endless list of artists from 1935 to 1943, including Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.

The music project brought symphonies and music festivals to millions, helped establish community choruses and encouraged studies of out-of-the-mainstream music, from cowboys to Cajuns.

I read in My Favorite Newspaper that these federal checks are going to add $168-billion to the deficit over the next two years. And what will we get? For most people, more trinkets and tchotchkes, probably, as one politician said, made in China and paid for with money borrowed from China.

Think what that $168-billion could do for our infrastructure and our arts, while putting our own, homegrown people to work and keeping the fruits of their labors within our own borders.

[Last modified February 8, 2008, 20:51:43]


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