Rediscovering dad in his New Deal letters
The stack of vintage letters written by his father changed everything Anthony DiFranco of Northport thought he knew about the Depression-era world of his parents before they married.
The letters, composed in the mid-1930s when his dad was a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps, revealed a side of his father DiFranco had never known and launched what he calls "an expedition into the past."
The impetus for that journey began in 1996, when DiFranco -- a teacher, writer and filmmaker -- now 67, was visiting his mom, Josephine, in Coram. After a home-cooked meal of veal Parmigiana, one of her specialties, Josephine, who was in her 80s, said she had something to give him. She went to her bedroom closet and returned with about 60 letters, stacked and wrapped in a faded ribbon.
"They're from your father," his mother said. "You should read them." It had been 25 years since DiFranco's dad, Theodore -- known as Teddy -- had died at age 54. DiFranco, looked at the old letters encased in various-sized envelopes, with postmarks from Idaho and California. "I was a little uneasy," he admitted recently. "I wasn't sure if they were love letters."
His mother, who died in 2002, assured him there was nothing that would make him blush, and her directive was clear: Take them, read them. So he did, and what he read propelled him on a personal journey that, after 10 years, resulted in his production of a 31-minute documentary released last month that details a part of his father's life as a young man and a part of history.
The letters were written after 19-year-old Teddy DiFranco signed up for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservations Corps, a public work-relief program to help young, unemployed, unmarried men earn money during the Great Depression. It was one of many programs that were part of what became known as the New Deal, launched by FDR's administration.
DiFranco learned that his father had joined the CCC in 1936, three years after the program started. It would have been a logical step: Teddy and Josephine had just begun dating, but with no prospects of earning a living in New York, he signed up for what would turn out to be the great adventure of his life -- a sentiment shared by many of those who joined this successful program. In all, 3 million young men, ages 17-25, would join the CCC until its termination during World War II.
The recruits were all sent to newly constructed CCC camps across the country -- 200 in all -- including several on Long Island. "What they found in the CCC camps was a regimen that managed to combine aspects of a military operation with those of an urban construction gang, a YMCA summer camp . . . ," wrote historian T.H. Watkins, in "The Hungry Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression in America,"
Teddy DiFranco and his young colleagues slept in bunks, woke to the sound of "Reveille," ate in mess halls and did calisthenics. They worked from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the work was hard: planting trees, protecting forests against fire, preventing soil erosion.
In Suffolk, the CCC troops blazed fire roads and trails that today enable hikers to enjoy the Pine Barrens regions. According to huntingtonhistory.com, one camp was located on a horse farm by Old Walt Whitman Road in the Huntington area, where CCC workers concentrated their efforts on gypsy moth eradication. Camp Upton, the current site of Brookhaven National Laboratory, was a U.S. Army induction center during World War I and World War II. Between wars, it was used as a CCC camp. Among the work done by CCC workers there was the planting of trees on 1,276 acres and establishing 56 miles of fire breaks, according to the laboratory's website (bnl.gov).
In his father's letters, DiFranco found a man he did not recognize. "The father I knew was serious and stoical," said DiFranco, who grew up in Manhattan, before moving to Oyster Bay with his family at age 17. "He didn't have the sense of beauty, the sense of wonder that this 19-year-old [letter writer] had." The letters were 4 to 6 pages long, some typed, some handwritten. "The intelligence, sensitivity and awareness so far surpassed anything I could have written when I was 19," said DiFranco.
In 1936, his father wrote from Idaho: "This, for a change, is a warm, balmy night . . . What a slighting of God's gifts not to experience at least once the velvety softness of a summer's night softly caressing your body. I remember that first time -- stepping out into the star-drenched night, and being seduced by its loveliness -- so softly, so gently, and yet so overpoweringly that to resist was to deny the existence of beauty at all."
DiFranco had no idea about how the CCC had affected his father until he read the letters. They "gave me an understanding of my father and his temperament . . . why he was moody and sometimes seemed a little sad as an older man," he said.
The sadness, perhaps, was born of disappointment. His father had a burning desire to become a writer like his idol, Thomas Wolfe, whose personal, emotive style he emulated. But after marrying Josephine in 1942, supporting their family of three children became a priority. He worked a series of jobs and studied law at night to become an attorney at age 33. But working as a lawyer for the New York City Rent Commission was a far cry from the adventurous, passionate life envisioned by the 19-year-old CCC worker, when he was far from home in the mountains of California.
The letters added a new dimension to DiFranco's memory of his father. "All my life, I had only wanted to be a writer, and I had struggled and had success," he said. "Now, I understood that this connected me."
Unlike his father, DiFranco was able to follow his dream to write. In 1986, he won an O. Henry Award for his short story, "The Garden of Redemption." He has a PhD in English, teaches writing and literature at Suffolk Community College, has authored six novels and has directed three independent feature films.
The revelations in his father's letters moved DiFranco to write about the experience. That was how "The Dollar-A-Day Boys" documentary ($9.95 on DVD at pandmmedia.com) about his father, interwoven with an oral history of the CCC, came to be. It took almost a decade of part-time work to complete, with DiFranco attending reunions of CCC veterans around the United States in 2003-04, and visiting the areas where his father was stationed. He still has the Army-style cap that was part of his father's uniform.
A recent screening at the Huntington Library of the documentary marked the CCC's 80th anniversary and was greeted enthusiastically by audience members.
"I had never heard of the CCC," said Leslie Mitek of Huntington Station, who was one of about 30 people in the audience. "I found it very, very fascinating."
Jim Kelly, an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College, declared the film "excellent." He said, "I'm going to use it in my class."
DiFranco's daughter, Elizabeth DiFranco, 42, of Northport, watched the film from a back row in the library's auditorium. Her paternal grandfather died when she was young, but, thanks to the letters and her father's film, she now is better able to understand the drive that led her to write her first novel, "Horses Don't Lie," published in 2011.
But there is something about the tale told through these letters and in this film that also resonates with a larger audience. The story of Anthony DiFranco's father, whose subordination of personal ambitions to the demands of being a breadwinner in postwar America, could be the story of so many fathers.
"He sacrificed so that I could get the education he didn't have," DiFranco said. "Because of that, I was able to become what he couldn't."