Wednesday, May 11, 2005

SEARCY ’46 – ’56 – Part 21

Chapter Sixteen

Tom Pry

Let Me Make You Privy To This

Sewerage. Offal. Toilets. Outhouses. Privys. This odiferous subject MUST, at some point, be addressed, if only for honesty and posterity.

Until the sixties or seventies, we didn’t know what in hell a septic tank was. “Indoor plumbing” was a house that was built over the well after it was dug, allowing you to pump water right at the sink.

In fact, for a moment, let’s take a side trip to the subject of water, drinking or otherwise.

Most well water in White County tastes like .. well .. crap, not to put too fine a point on it. It tastes like that even if you’ve put it through a salt filter. If you were, like my grandparents, lucky enough to have a natural spring in your backyard, no problem. For everyone else .. you either drank some really foul-tasting stuff .. OR you exercised some inventiveness (Dasani had not yet been invented: I mean, who in their right mind would spend the bigger part of a dollar for a bottle of .. uh .. water?).

I really don’t know what other people did, but our solution was to get a couple of five gallon milk cans and, once a week or so, go down to the ice plant that, at the time, was located on the south side of the downtown park, buy a block of ice, break it into pieces just small enough to fit in the rather large neck of the cans, then carry it home and do our drinking and cooking out of the melted ice. Water from the well was reserved for things we were NOT going to put into our mouth.

Simple problems: simple solutions.

But all that water has to, eventually, go somewhere and, out in the country, we used outhouses.

I used to describe our house as “5 rooms and a path.”

At the end of that path .. different constructions of the same thing. In its simplest form, a privy was a platform, to which was attached a framework, covered with vertical planks, a roof, and a door made the same way as the walls. Since they were always constructed of the cheapest green lumber money could buy, they quickly turned grey, warped, and let the wind blow through. Privacy? Forget it. Paint? That costs money. And it’s just a s***house, anyway.

Most were just built on a handy piece of ground, although the ritzier had a shallow hole dug under them, with a closed box/bench inside that was usually a two-holer and sometimes, in a really large family, a three or four-holer. If no hole, then the lower part of the back wall was open so that the overflow went THAT way and not up into the box.

In the summertime, in Arkansas, with that tin roof … had it been built in a prison, it would’ve been classed as “cruel and unusual punishment.” “Fragrant” does not even scratch the surface of the effect.

When my grandfather decided to go into the Grade A Dairy business, this necessitated a stricter set of construction standards. A hole in the ground was dug, then a concrete slab set over it (with a hole out of the middle, of course), THEN the standard construction. When the hole in the ground approached full, you could hook a tractor up to the slab and pull the whole damn thing to a fresh hole in the ground, and cover the old hole with lots and lots of dirt.

This was the environment into which my father moved.

While my father was brought up in a small town on the Ohio River, Mingo Junction, Ohio, at least had sewer service. From there, he’d moved to Chicago. So, except for briefly using my grandparent’s outhouse, this was a whole new family necessity with which to deal. He mulled this as our “new” house was leveled and re-painted.

Finally, in a moment of bucolic epiphany, he declared, “If we’ve GOT to have an outhouse, then by George, we’re going to have the Taj Mahal of crappers!” (Don’t faint, ladies: the guy who invented the commode was an Englishman named John Crapper, hence the name).

The end result was a wonder to behold. Inside, a bookshelf with a few paperbacks and magazines, plus a screw-on-the-wall ashtray. Outside .. a silver-painted roof surmounting a bright robins egg blue-painted structure.

It was, as such things go, absolutely beautiful. Worse/better, our house was right down in the bottom of the valley, and that edifice to elimination stood out like a sore thumb.

We were strangely proud of that damn thing … maybe because, within a month of its erection, every family in the valley had built a new, painted outhouse.

A strange form of keeping up with the Joneses, and a memory to be preserved.

(Series originally published late 2003/early 2004 on the old site).


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