Is an Outhouse Just an Outhouse?
By Randy Randall

I don’t know…call me nuts I guess, but when I think about camp and deer hunting and places I’ve been, I begin to think about outhouses. You know; what we in Maine call a backhouse or a privy or, if you’re a boy scout, the biffy. Doesn’t matter what you call it. We all know what it is, and I’ve known some good ones. Like that time 50 years ago when we were hiking into Four Ponds. I was maybe 10 or 11 and Dad’s friend Harry had a Ruger Blackhawk revolver in a holster. The men all swung their pack baskets onto their backs and picked up their fly rods and headed up the trail. Harry held the pistol out to me. “I got no place to put this. Can you carry it?“ Just then you could have seen a scrawny boy in rubber boots grow about 2 feet. Of course I could carry that hog leg of a gun and I strapped it onto my belt. For the first mile or so things were fine until the weight of the gun began to drag my pants down. That’s also when I was caught short and had to tell my Dad. “I gotta go. Bad.” Dad called a halt to our march and looked at me and said, “Well, be like a bear. No poop on the trail” I knew that meant I was to step off into the brush and do my business. I pushed through the raspberry bushes and alders and began searching for a comfy spot when I spotted an old dilapidated privy. There back in the woods just out of sight was a 40-year-old outhouse! Somewhat tilted and the door hanging loose on the hinges but a genuine privy none the less. I couldn’t believe it. It only took me a few stomps to test the floorboards and rejuvenate that forlorn outhouse. As I sat there I held the heavy revolver in my lap. When I was done I struggled to my feet and began to hitch up my pants. That’s when the Ruger slid off my belt and fell down the hole! It happened so fast I was taken totally by surprise. Harry had entrusted me with his prize revolver and I’d managed to drop it into an outhouse. My eyes swelled up and I began to cry. I was 10. Dad heard me and came on the run. “You OK?” he yelled. All I could do was cry and point into the hole. By then the rest of the crowd had showed up. Dad knelt down behind the rickety old outhouse and retrieved the gun. Everyone was laughing and shaking their heads as I was drying my tears. Harry took the gun from me. “No harm done,” he said. “I think I can carry it the rest of the way,” Dad said the privy was probably left from the old logging days when they toted pulpwood over the trail.

There was another privy at Grandfather’s house. I remember it well. Grandfather lived in an old Maine farmhouse with an “ell” and a shed. You could walk from the kitchen out into the “ell” and then into the woodshed and from there into the barn. The barn had been for horses and if you walked back to the stalls and turned by the sawdust bin you found a bench seat and a privy. Many years ago my father had installed a modern bathroom for Gram and Gramps, but Gramp still used this old privy. The seat was worn smooth I suppose from many hours of quite contemplation. I used it too and found it was kind of pleasant to sit there hidden away in the far corner of the barn. There was a window up high that was nearly opaque from 100 years of accumulated dust and grime on the glass. Now that I look back over the years I’m amazed at that privy’s longevity. You’d think it would have fallen into disuse years ago, but it was well built and nicely situated. Only when I was years older and rummaging around inside the sawdust bin for a shovel did I stumble on some ragged copies of Playboy buried beneath the sawdust.

Later in my life I discovered the outhouses in Vietnam. All along the canals and creeks that flowed into the Mekong River, isolated outhouses perched precariously on posts hung out over a ditch. I never determined if each home had an outhouse, or if just one served a neighborhood, but we saw them everywhere especially when we were on patrol easing our boats through the labyrinth of canals. I recall the women in their conical hats squatting beside the water and washing clothes with an outhouse just a few feet away or just downstream a young mother bathing her infant in the foul water. Some of those outhouses were walled with corrugated roofing or some kind of thatch. The walkways leading out to the privy were precarious as well; usually pieces of bamboo laid across the gap to make a bridge. We GI’s thought we could improve sanitation near the Mekong so we built a bathroom. The building was made from cement blocks. There were toilet stalls and showers and washtubs where the women could launder clothes or bath their children. We waited months for the porcelain toilets to arrive from the states, and when they finally showed up we had them all installed, plumbed up and working within a day. The next morning we went to check on our work and were dumbfounded to discover all the toilets missing. Sometime during the night they had all been stolen. Every one.

Our own outhouse at camp is a perfect example of the edict that “form follows function”. There’s nothing extraneous or superfluous about it. It’s there for one purpose and that purpose only. We don’t store rakes or shovels or canoe paddles in the privy. This one is just about right. Ben built it out of pressure treated lumber so it would last. The bench is perhaps a little high but you get used to it. The window faces west so you don’t get good reading light until noon or a little later. He put in a large pipe to vent the odors up above the roof. Very civilized. When he built it, Ben also thought of his brother and sealed every crack, crevice, and joint so as to keep out the dreaded spiders. No sir. No spiders were going to find their way inside this privy - and no bears either. Bears could be a bigger problem than spiders and we told Jeremy that. Don’t worry about the spiders we said, but watch out for the bears. To this date no bears have molested anyone traversing the no-man’s-land between the back door of the cabin and the privy. But the spiders, now they’re a different matter. We learned that one night at deer camp when Jeremy took his flashlight and slipped out the back door. He wasn’t gone long. In fact it only took a minute for him come charging back into the cabin, sputtering and fuming and waiving his flashlight and cussing out his brother. “I thought you said no spiders could get inside that backhouse?” he yelled. “Well what the hell is this?” Jeremy turned to show us the back of his hat and clinging to the brim was the biggest old black spider we’d ever seen. “Get him off!” Jeremy hollered. His brother jumped to his feet and batted the spider down to the floor. Jeremy swung around and landed a roundhouse punch right on his brother’s shoulder. The rest of us leapt up from the table and separated the two young guys. Jeremy shook his fist and glared at his brother and said, “I - hate - spiders!”

They don’t bother me – much, and as I said the privy is pretty nice, if you like that sort of thing. I’ve known and used many in my time, but these I’ve told you about, are a few that stand out in my memory.

Randy Randall lives in Saco but does not have an outhouse.

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