Back in the day, everybody owned an outhouse

By Michael Miller

Built onto the rear of my papaw’s auto-shop was the little two-room shack my mother, father and my brother and I called home. It wasn’t much by any standard, just a single bedroom shared by the four of us and an extremely primitive living area.

In the far corner of our living room sat a small table and a simple counter fashioned from an old piece of laminate, together these served as our so-called “kitchen.” Indoor plumbing was a dream yet to be realized, naturally this meant a great deal of time was spent carrying water up from papaw’s house.

We didn’t have a T.V., not even a radio. Even that was no deterrent come Saturday mornings,. That one special day of the week was sure to find us in papaw’s living-room, flat on our bellies, chins’ in our hands while we stared wide-eyed at the Saturday morning cartoons.

Living in a home free from the encumbrance of modern conveniences is a “joy” most young folks will regrettably never have the opportunity to experience. Such conditions made simple things such as taking a hot bath or relieving ones-self somewhat of a “big deal.” And as such, these ‘big deals” were accompanied by a great deal of pomp and circumstance.

Bathing for example was generally reserved for a Friday night and followed a very strict set of social protocols. Most important of which, and source constant aggravation on my behalf entitled the youngest to be first in the tub. This particular tradition was in my opinion, with-out doubt an early form of age discrimination.

I, being the older brother, as one might expect hated this rule. It usually meant I was forced to clean myself in a some-what slimy and always cold liquid that my mother loosely referred to as “water.” This so-called “water” came complete with all manner of flotsam and jetsam that may have been scrubbed from my little brother’s filthy body. Not to mention the public humiliation derived from being forced to bath in full public view smack dab in the center of the living room.

Of course, there was always the far less desirable option of walking down to papaw’s house and taking a shower deep in the bowels of his creepy basement. Which to this very day I swear was home to an entire community of various ghosts, goblins’, witches, and countless other dark and dangerous creatures of the night.

Anyone of the aforementioned creatures was forever on alert. Looking for that one careless child, only to grab said child and drag them kicking screaming and flailing to the furnace, then stuff the poor soul inside never to be seen again. All this suffering, just to make a boy’s dirty butt stop itching, and make us “in their opinion” more presentable to the general public. Highly overrated if you ask me.

In those days, a boy wasn’t worth his salt if he didn’t have some manner of earthly perfume following him about, and respect was earned by the number of black snakes (dirty rings around your neck) a body might accumulate in a short day’s time. At any rate, it was an absolute social injustice for a young boy to be forced to take a bath every blooming Friday.

To add insult to injury, no indoor plumbing meant no indoor toilet, that’s right none. That simple fact on it’s very own was enough to haunt the dreams of any “modern” kid. Not having an indoor toilet meant one thing and one thing only, we like most households back then relied on an old outhouse.

Now for the normal everyday run of the mill grownup this didn’t mean a whole heck of a lot, but for a kid, well, the old privy brought about a unique set of problems.

Most homes of the period placed a great deal of pride in their out-door toilets, most sported some manner of fancy cut out on the door, or maybe even some type of decorative landscaping around the perimeter. There were those who even went as far as to paint their little building to match the house, but we would never do that. I mean that would be kinda like putting on airs and everyone looked down on folk who tried that.

Our’s was pretty normal by the standards of the day. There was a half-moon cut into the door, and mother usually planted a few marigolds (left over from planting the garden) around the bottom, (they were used as natural insecticide by most folk). The wind and elements weathered the outside a warm natural grey. Sheets of rusted tin covered the roof and every year some species of small songbird would build its nest under the eave.

The most remarkable thing about our privy was the fact that it was a two-seater, (though I can’t imagine a person wanting company at such a private time). Otherwise the interior was pretty standard, containing the usual equipment, old newspapers, (for cleaning purposes) and the obligatory Sears and Roebuck catalog, (entertainment purposes) along with an old worn out fly swat.

It can be argued; an entire novel could be written based solely on countless childhood hopes and dreams brought about while perusing the wonder filled pages within that old catalog. It’s an absolute shame they are no longer printed.

However, any reasonably intelligent kid knows that amid all this tranquility a dark secret lies hidden deep within the outhouse. A secret known only to those less than thirteen years of age. You see, the various ghosts, demons, monsters, and other creatures that resided in papaw’s creepy basement had kinfolk.

Those kinfolk lived no where else but smack under the seat of that outhouse, that’s right, smack dab under the seat. We all knew that if we had to go number two after dark we put our very lives on the line.

Because resting just under that seat in the pitch black they waited, they waited for any unsuspecting kid to set his or her butt down. Then at that very moment they were known to grab you by the cheeks pulling you under into their world, no trace would be left, nothing. Nobody would ever know what happened to you, just, “poof”, gone forever.

To make matters worse; it was also a well-known and trusted fact, that the danger increased with the advancing hour of the night. This meant no reasonably intelligent kid would ever be caught dead out there at two or three in the morning. By this time we were certain that an absolute feeding frenzy was taking place deep under the outhouse.

What were we to do? Well, we did what any street-savvy, born an raised country kid would do, we formulated a plan. And a whopper at that.

This plan required a great deal of stealth and no small amount of courage.

The bed where my brother and I slept sat in the far-left corner of the bedroom, our parent’s bed sat in the far-right corner of the same room. The objective was the window on the right wall just a couple of feet from where my father lay sleeping.

At the very first bladder twinge the plan was immediately put into action. Planning was everything. What obstacles lay hidden that may hinder our approach? Where were the landmines of discarded shoes and dirty clothes located? What else lay on the floor, hidden in the dark just waiting to trip up some unfortunate soul? It could be anything, even a loose creaking floorboard.

Next were breathing patterns, a true veteran knew instinctively how to interpret breathing patterns of the grown-ups and the cadence of snores. Which ones meant deep sleep, and which ones meant danger. Eyesight was paramount as well; a kid had to have the eyes of an owl to notice subtle parental movements in the pitch black. All the while keeping a steady eye on the floor, scanning for obstacles.

It was a balancing act of course, and time was not on our side. Once the bladder started to fill, we were on an irreversible countdown. And the routine was always the same.

Quietly slip out of bed, silent footsteps on the bare wooden floor, watch for the work boots they can be deadly. Make certain to step over dad’s dirty work pants, all this while keeping an eagle eye on the sleeping parents. Carefully slip along dad’s side of the bed. Listen for the cadence, listen for the breathing patterns. Looking up for a split second I can see the window illuminated by the moonlight, I’m almost there.

Like a cat I slide along the wall until I reach the glass panes. Like a burglar I slowly slide the window up, old paint and dirt make it somewhat difficult. WAIT! dad begins to move, the cadence changes to a dangerous pattern, which can only mean light sleep.

Suddenly he rolls to his right side, I’m as still as death, the consequences of getting caught are too much to think about. After what seems like an eternity the cadence returns to a normal heavy sleep, snoring sets into a reassuring pattern, whew, that was close.

Finally move again, window is up and it’s time to empty bladder, the relief is almost beyond description, the feeling of accomplishment indescribable. As I stand there, I stare at the outhouse dimly back-lit by the hazy moonlight. With a smirk I say to myself, “not tonight monsters not tonight”, then turn and proudly make my way back to my bed.

There was always a mystery at our house, no matter how much the ol’ man mowed, no matter how much he fertilized or seeded, he simply could never get grass to grow beneath that bedroom window. My brother and I never told a soul till this very day, and as you can well see, the monsters never got us.

There are precious few outhouses now, and even fewer kids that know what one is, its time for that chapter to close I reckon. Time moves on and most things fade into the past, forgotten. The old shop is gone, as well as the two rooms we all called home. Even the bare spot under the window has been taken over by weeds. But I remember, and I hope my brother does as well.

Oh, but just one more note, I’m not really sure where the monsters live now a days. I’m sure they were forced to find employment elsewhere. Who knows, maybe even under our beds, waiting on an entirely new generation of kids. Well… at least that’s what I tell my kids anyway. When was the last time you looked under yours?

Published by The Tin Cup Clan

Mike had never considered himself an author until in his fifties an advanced cancer diagnosis for him to worry about the legacy he would leave for his children and grandchildren. Once the treatments began he needless to say, found himself with plenty of time to put pen to paper. The result was a culmination of stories soon to be named The Tin Cup Clan. A simpler time but not necessarily the greatest of times. The story of a group of young boys trying to survive the harsh reality of coal country, poverty, and just simply growing up. Along the way friendships are formed, old town mysteries are solved, and lessons are learned that will last a life time.

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