Sunday, May 4, 2014

Ode to the Little Brown Shack out Back

by Stephen Lanc)

“I would sit me down to rest like a snowbird on his nest/And I’d read that Sears and Roebuck catalog.” – from “Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back,” by Bobby Bare

Plumbing-wise, I have straddled the threshold going out(door) or in(door).

I lived the first ten years of my life with an outhouse, or privy, as did most of my hometown’s residents. Before those EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) days, Erdahl, Minnesota, was, as my cousin Dennis noted on his first visit, “What a place to be on Halloween!”

And, according to Census Bureau statistics, a fair number of fellow Brewster County, Texas, residents still take trips to those shacks out back. The CB’s American Community Survey indicates that 3.337 percent of the county’s 4,106 occupied housing units – 137 total by my calculations – lack complete plumbing facilities.

These vital stats rank Brewster fifty-third among 3,143 counties. But these statistics – like outhouses themselves – may soon be subject to tipping. Republican lawmakers have assailed the Census Bureau for including survey questions that they (lawmakers) maintain constitute an invasion of privacy. The issue also prompted Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham to ask:

“Setting aside privacy issues for the moment, can such a question possibly have relevancy in the year 2014? Or to put it more bluntly: Who doesn’t have a flushing toilet? As it turns out, a lot of people. Around 1.6 million Americans lack full plumbing.”

Growing up in the 1950s, my home was one of about twenty-five percent in the country without indoor plumbing. I was too young to remember if the Census Bureau asked about our facilities, but I note that in Minnesota, this statistic definitely affected one’s view of what conditions defined winter weather and wind-chill factors.

As for invasion of privacy, one merely kicked the door shut, and whoever was outside got the message, at least until the EPA got involved. I remember one 1970s cartoonist depicting a clipboard-bearing bureaucrat staring up at legendary lumberjack Paul Bunyan, saying, “The EPA wants to know where you go to the bathroom.”

Good or bad, outhouses elicit plenty of memories. Years ago, when I presented my stepfather with a hand-crafted, miniature exploding outhouse for Christmas, the gift also sparked Mom’s reminiscences.

“Remember when Elsie (our longtime neighbor) and I were standing outside in that windstorm?” she asked. “We were discussing how strong the wind might get when it picked up our outhouse and lifted it straight in the air. We found the roof behind the town hall, but nothing larger than kindling anywhere else.”

Losing an outhouse to the elements of nature was not the disaster to be equated with a terrorist bombing of the indoor facilities nor even the woes of dealing with a Barbie doll or some other toy lodged in the sewer line. Until new facilities were erected, one discreetly borrowed the neighbor’s under the BYOC (Bring Your Own Catalogue) policy.

Having lived the first decade of my life without indoor plumbing, I still marveled at the versatility of sewer systems as a junior high student. In the boys’ locker room at my high school, I saw more than one sprained ankle plunged into a throne as an assistant coach or manager repeatedly flushed cold water to stop the swelling.

I credit fear of psychological repercussions as the major reason that I completed my high school athletic career without a similar injury. By the time I started college, ice packs gained widespread use. By the time I left, the EPA, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, OSHA and countless other acronyms of aggravation invaded the landscape, their regulations crowding outhouses out.

When necessity moved indoors, libraries, conference centers and meditation chambers were eliminated. About the same time outhouses disappeared, yoga, transcendental meditation and other forms of extreme spiritual concentration arrived on the rural Minnesota scene, usually in community education classes.

Walking to the outhouse barefoot and in darkness offered various wildlife encounters. One relative recalled a childhood journey where a snake crawled across her foot halfway to the destination, making the rest of the trip unnecessary.

For centuries, outhouses were fashioned for function, and many now merely function as fashion, including photo ops for calendars. Some years ago, at a family reunion, my cousin Joe gave guided tours of his insulated, heated and wired creation. In retrospect, the engineering of his new, deluxe outhouse exceeded that of the many-times-larger pole barn which we christened that Labor Day weekend.

I sat inside reverently, even had my photo taken, curling my toes in the soft carpet while reclining in splinterless splendor.

“Did you build this for show or go?” I asked Joe.

“Both,” he said. “It’s really pleasant when we come up here snowmobiling.”

So many odes have been penned and songs sung to outhouses that skyscrapers sway in envy. None are intended for today’s impersonal, unoriginal hard-plastic or tinny-metal convenience stops, however.

For this crass modernization, I blame the absence of literature, and can think of no better way to put those voluminous EPA regulations, legislative bulletins and even surveys to effective use.

Steve Lang enjoys nostalgia, but in this case, favors progress.

*Blogger's note: A - I had to, B - I hope you enjoyed the humor in this as much as I did