By: Gary Gray
I read in the newspaper recently that the United States had finally rid itself of the outhouse. The story proclaimed that everybody in the country now has indoor plumbing. Nonsense.
When I was a boy, my grandparents lived on a small tobacco farm near the town of Nicholasville, Kentucky. I spent many of my summer days scampering around this farm.
Off the narrow, winding country road, at the end of a long gravel driveway, stood the main house, a large white countrified house which had been originally built as a one-room schoolhouse in the early 1900’s. Flanking the old house was a rustic wood plank barn, designed for the drying of tobacco. A small orchard sprinkled with apple, pear and peach trees straddled the far side of the barn. Behind the barn stood the most interesting and magnetic structure on farm-The Outhouse.
The farm had neither running water nor plumbing. An indoor bathroom was out of the question. Doing ones business required a saunter from the house down a path along the side of the barn to a multi-holed outhouse. Making things worse, at night one was required to carry a flashlight to find their way, unless of course ones nose was as finely tuned as a blood hound. Mine was not. I preferred the flashlight.
How anybody could think to build a multi-hole toilet was a mystery to me. I can only imagine Mom & Dad sitting happily together in cheerful conversation whilst the kids run in and out. For some reason, I never could imagine the group gatherings the structure was designed to accommodate. My mother explained the mystery though, as she too spent time in that home when she was a child. It was built to be a school. Famous Kentuckians attended that school. Behind the ages old torn wall paper were the names of many carved into the original planks the building was made with.
I say multi-holed, as there were five perfectly cut and aligned circular openings in the ‘sitting zone’. There were no special adornments such as toilet seats or fixtures. One had their choice of several possible locations for this matter. Toilet paper, in its wilted splendor, was simply kept sitting on a ledge on the opposite wall, within easy reach. The floor was covered with the cheapest possible linoleum and seemed to curl on every edge. Scuffs, gouges, and other unidentifiable matter of ancient origin peppered the floor. In the corner, there was always a half-used brown bag of lime with the telltale signs of white powder fingerprints on the folded opening.
It was simple and functional. It was a complete structure, enclosed on all sides, a nice door and sturdy roof. The whole structure was covered with tar and brown-sand laced shingles, the same type as used in virtually every other auxiliary structure on the farms in the region.
The outhouse served other purposes. It was a playground. Never mind the two ponds, the horses, and the abandoned cars. Forget about the two wells and rusty water pumps. Cows, chickens, and pigs were no match for the fun to be had near the multi-holed magnet. My sisters and I had more fun in the outhouse than any other place on the farm.
Grandma never seemed to mind. I cannot recall a single instance where she ever warned us of the evils of playing in the outhouse. She must have known we were down there. Surely, she did not believe that our sole purpose was to relieve ourselves from our gorging on the sour apples from the orchard. We had no clue that we could die of disease or possibly fall in and suffer profusely. The biggest danger I recall was the variety of insects, spiders and snakes that would make their home there. My only real fears were being bitten on the butt by some deadly spider or have a snake strike me from below. The presence of insects and other critters also had its benefits. They served as ammunition in my constant war with my sisters for control of the structure.
My sister did throw a kitten down the hole once. She was young, she did not know that the poor kitten would be scarred for life. She did have to give the poor creature a bath after my grandfather rescued it with a rope attached to the end of a tobacco stick.
For me, the outhouse was a fort from which I could launch a fusillade of apples and pears at my hapless sisters. It was a superb hiding place also. I could dodge the elders by holing up in the outhouse. I avoided many a chore by virtue of its location. I even went so far as to build a tree house in the walnut tree that draped the structure. From my walnut tree perch, I could guard the entrance with a diligence that would make the guards at Buckingham Palace proud. Of course, right of way was granted to the elder residents. In fact, I was best served to be totally stealthy in my perch, lest I be summoned for some arduous chore as a result of being observed.
All things must pass however. I recently visited the old farm. It has been 50 years since my days of playful delight at the multi-holed magnet. The old farm is still there. It looks much like it did when I was a child, if not perhaps a little smaller. The outhouse is gone. The marvels of modern science have allowed the current occupants of the place to enjoy the convenience of plumbing. Their children play happily in the yard and in the still standing orchard. I saw a horse behind the barn. There were chickens running in the yard as well. From what I observed, the ponds were still full of frogs and possibly tiny fish.
If those children only knew what fun they could really be having.