Ranger Trails: Littlejohn will never forget his start as cook for workers
His voice sounds like a Louisiana barbecue sauce tastes: sweet and tangy, but strong as a mule’s kick. The words come so fast, it’s hard to believe they describe memories that Mr. Littlejohn must reel in from 70-odd years ago.
It’s true. At 91, the Shreveport, La., retiree has instant recall of cooking for a couple hundred young men in a camp of military-style barracks at Colorado National Monument.
“Beans cooked for 24 hours,” he says. “I could break two eggs at one time, one in each hand.”
He was talking (by phone) about the Civilian Conservation Corps, where he established his first career. Way back then, he always was decked out in white — chef’s cap, jacket, trousers and apron — like every other cook in the camp’s mess hall.
Littlejohn, whose first name, Ottis, is pronounced just like it looks (AH-tiss), was only 18 at the time, fresh off the family farm in Texas. He was one of more than 3 million Americans who labored in the CCC for six months, sometimes a year or longer during the hard luck era of the Great Depression.
With jobs dried up like rain on cactus, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt invented the CCC to employ destitute men like Littlejohn and to bolster the nation’s faltering economy.
Armed with a high school diploma from Jefferson, Texas, Littlejohn enrolled in this new federal jobs program. He boarded a train with other young men to seek their fortune. It was January 1940. The Cs, as they were nicknamed, hadn’t been told where they were going or what work lay ahead — did not matter.
“I was full of adventure,” he says.
The Cs built dams, irrigation canals and fire lookouts. They planted forests one tree at a time, fashioned rock-walled buildings that remain in use today, and laid down 97,000 miles of roadway in parks from coast to coast. Twenty-three of those 97,000 road miles stretch from one end of the monument to the other. The train from Texas unloaded the Cs at Grand Junction. They trucked up four miles of gravel switchbacks and unpacked in the big camp by Saddlehorn Rock.
His first day on the job did not go well. He found himself chiseling sandstone boulders for park walls and buildings. Littlejohn sought less dusty labor and was posted to the camp infirmary, but caring for ill and injured workers soon led him to request another switch. He ended up at the mess hall.
There, he found his niche and quickly was promoted from dishwasher to cook to mess sergeant at the standard rate of $1 a day.
After 18 months at the monument, Littlejohn left the CCC and exchanged one white uniform for another. He enlisted in the Navy a month before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. At the war’s end, he married a nurse. They raised three children. He became a successful cabinetmaker.
Now a widower — his wife of 55 years died nine years ago — Littlejohn never forgot where he got his start. He remembers CCC life as occasionally dangerous — he dodged charging buffaloes in Monument canyon — and rarely boring. Feeding hundreds of men every day had its special moments.
“Nobody ever got sick,” he says, “far as I know.”