The longest mile

I recently overheard a conversation where two weekend runners were trying to one-up each other concerning the number of 5K races they’d run. One guy finally said that he once ran a 10K and that settled the argument on who’d done the longest run. I didn’t want to butt in on their conversation but had both of these long-distance runners topped. I’d used an outhouse in the middle of the night at a Wisconsin lake known for its bears, raccoons, and skunks. Anyone who’s made one of these midnight trips can testify to that being the longest run known to mankind.

And those a bit older than me can attest that using an outdoor toilet located some distance from the main house in winter is even more of a daring trick. My grandpa said that the greatest crises in his life had nothing to do with the Great Depression or loss of loved ones, but rather the angst of high-tailing it to the outhouse in the dead of winter only to find the door frozen shut. He said that on many cold nights he’d be faced with a three-foot snowdrift crammed tight against the door.

In case you’re into the details of current outhouses, the highest outhouse in the continental United States was located atop Mt. Whitney at 14,494 feet. Yeah, it’s a climb, but what a view! Sadly that lofty structure was removed a few years ago and now campers are given Wagbags and instructed how to use them with the mantra, “You carry it in, you carry it out.” It gives whole new meaning to little Johnny’s “Gee, Dad! What did you bring me back from vacation?”

And despite the old joke, there really are two-story outhouses, including one built for a bi-level house in Cedar Lake, Michigan. I think this is where we got the term “trickle down theory.” The old Boston Exchange Coffee House was equipped with a four-story outdoor privy with windows on each floor. Thomas Jefferson designed twin eight-sided brick outhouses at his vacation home. Tom was a bit of a show-off.

The little buildings are called by various names throughout the world. Our word “privy” is a variation of “private,” in England the outdoor john is often referred to as a “bog,” and in Australia they’re called “dunnies.” The Aussies have such cute names for things. The Welsh called them “the house of ease.” I think that pretty much sums up the whole experience.

Some cultural anthropologists claim that the sales of Sears and Roebuck and other mail order houses were enhanced by the fact that their catalogs made such good reading material in Midwestern outdoor toilets and of course they provided just what the user needed when the task was accomplished. I grew up hearing tales of corncobs, but I’ve never been able to get my mind around that one. In fact, I’d rather not try. My dad said it took three corncobs: first two red ones, then a while one to see if you needed another red one.

My Grandpa Bradbury ran a Wayne’s Feed Store in Perry and in the rear of the main room was a pot-bellied stove surrounded by old couches and chairs. This was the favored meeting place of the old boys and their stories and when I’d stop in for a Pepsi after school I’d often be treated so some of the biggest liars in Pike County. Floyd Hannant claimed that his uncle went out to visit the privy on a below-zero night and in the morning they heard him shouting, still in the outhouse. According to Floyd, his uncle had gotten himself frozen to the seat and they had to pour hot water on his nether regions to ‘un-thaw’ him and get him loose. Another old-timer around the stove told us that he was once using a two-holer when the fellow beside him accidentally dropped a nickel down the hole. The fellow stood up, opened his billfold and tossed a five-dollar bit into the pit. “I asked him why he’d do such a thing and the fella said, ‘You don’t think I’m going to climb down there for just a nickel, do you?’”

On the rare occasion when our family would be on vacation and faced with no facilities but an outhouse, my mother would often refuse to use it. She’d instead do a lot of driving into the nearest town. I think that I’ve inherited that particular prejudice, as well. There’s something about sitting bare-butt on a slab of wood that freezes my desire to go. My little brother, Keith, took it further. One July morning our family took off for a trip out west and Dad asked him if he needed to use the bathroom before we left. Keith said, “No, I’ll wait ‘til we get to California.”

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