Little House in the Big Woods

Here’s a little slice of my childhood. It was originally published in the Winter 2008 edition of No Touching, the creative nonfiction journal (currently on an extended hiatus) that I co-founded with the splendid Molly Each.

To answer your first question, the smell really isn’t that bad. Or maybe you just get used to it. I guess I really couldn’t tell you, since I never knew anything different. To tell the truth, the spiders concerned me a hell of a lot more than the smell, but then I’ve never dealt well with arachnids. Otherwise, the only major obstacles were distance, temperature and poor upkeep. Except for those elements, growing up with an outhouse was no big deal.

A lot of people hear the word “outhouse” and immediately assume “hillbilly.” One childhood classmate even asked me in all seriousness if I was Amish. I pointed out my Hawaiian shirt and Velcro shoes – I was one of the cool kids, obviously – and asked if they looked Amish to him. The fact was, my parents were neither rednecks nor religious rebels; they were just a couple of hippies with a dream of solitude.

Actually, my mother would bristle to hear herself described as a hippie. In her book, hippies were pretentious and lazy. She and my dad were just a couple of counterculturalists who’d had enough of the hustle and bustle of Minneapolis and wanted to stake a claim of their own. Around the time they became aware of my impending arrival, they started hunting around the upper Midwestfor a plot of land that was large, cheap and rural. They found it in the two-hundred acres outside of Sparta, Wisconsinowned by Elwood and Evelyn Kast (Elwood and Evelyn, now they were hillbillies, as evidenced by Elwood’s cause of death, namely being crushed under a tree chopped down by his brother Barney). My folks bought the land in early 1978 and moved on down in the summer of ’79, seven month-old me in tow.

It was gorgeous property – acres of former cropland gone to pasture, low canopies of birch and oak, crystal clear springs and creeks bubbling out of the ground, a high ridge overlooking the cornfields of Lyons Valley – all the accoutrements your discriminating hippie could ask for. The only problem was housing. Evelyn and Elwood had been living in an uninhabitable frame house for God knows how many years, and that was torn down before we moved in. The only other structures on the property were a crumbling horse barn, a tiny, defunct pump house/tool shed and a two-story grain barn. The latter being in the best condition, my dad and a rotating cast of relatives set to fixing it up into a habitable domain. In the intervening months we slept in a big blue tent in the pasture, curious dairy cows tottering around outside our lodging.

By the time of the first frost work was more or less completed on the main house, and the workers had sunk a well about a hundred feet down the hill and constructed a “bath house” (so dubbed before the term became synonymous with sexually transmitted disease) where we could draw drinking water and, wonder of wonders, take hot showers, doubtless a huge step up from bathing in the creek as was our previous tradition. Unfortunately, funds were running low at that point, and my dad’s chimney sweep’s salary couldn’t fund a septic system just yet. And so it was that we rolled into the 1980s defecating out of doors.

The outhouse was a simple enough structure, but the design was rather ingenious. A permanent outbuilding intended for everyday use has to be a little sturdier than those plastic port-a-johns you see at outdoor festivals and construction sites. To start with, our building straddled a very deep hole, since it couldn’t be pumped out once weekly like those mass-produced models. The walls and roof were made from two-by-fours nailed together to create a cozy little shack about eight by four by four, painted the same odd peach-tan as the bath house (it must have been the cheapest option at the hardware store). There was a hinged door complete with a latch for privacy (no traditional crescent moon cut-out in the door, as my dad felt that to be tacky and, in winter months, impractical). The floor and the base of the seat – the “throne” portion – were concrete poured from the leftovers from the house renovation. The seat itself was made from more slotted two-by-fours, with a strategically shaped hole cut out in the middle. There was a closable lid that stayed open most of the time, and at the back of the seat, a makeshift wooden “ventilation shaft” leading to the outdoors. Throw in several small screen windows, a ten-gallon bucket of crushed limestone for deodorizing and a few Sunday comic strips taped to the walls and brother, you’ve got yourself an outhouse.

I don’t know when exactly I became conscious that not having an indoor toilet was a bit of an oddity, but I do recall a rush of embarrassment when a friend told me, “I can always tell when you peed in our bathroom, ‘cause you never flush.” It had never occurred to me before, but I really didn’t know how to use a regular bathroom. Sure, I’d been using them all my life, at school, at church, at other people’s houses, but bathroom time is solitary time, so no one ever taught me the intricacies of flushing and washing and all of those processes normal people took for granted. I was utterly mortified by my friend’s accusation and thereafter took to flushing every time I entered a bathroom, whether I’d used it or not. (I feel I must mention here that I am now fully versed in the proper usage of indoor plumbing and I would ask that any of you who might by chance encounter me in a restroom not feel compelled to edge away from me. Unless I give you other reason to do so. Which I very well might.)

When the shoe was on the other foot, my playmates made no secret of their fascination with my unique bathroom lifestyle. Kids visiting the Brooker estate for the first time would usually ask excitedly to go see the outhouse within a few minutes of their arrival. I would dutifully lead them across the lawn and down the hill, about a hundred yards from the house, and invite them to try it out. Few were brave enough to actually take me up on the offer but they all peered inside, in awe of the primitive savagery I called home. And those were the farm kids, kids who were used to seeing nature in all its ugly glory. The rare visitor who lived in town, or worse yet, the big city, was generally rendered near catatonic.

There were always questions, of course, and I had my answers down pat. No, we didn’t have to go running down the hill every time we needed to pee. We usually just stepped outside for that, or, in the dead of winter, kept an empty ice cream bucket in the house for late night emergencies.

Yes, we still used the outhouse in the winter (did they think we just ceased bowel movements for four months?) and yes, it was very cold. Sometimes there’d be frost on the seat and you’d sort of have to lower yourself down slowly, letting the heat from your buttocks melt it away before you settled in. In the winter it was often advisable to hold it in until you went to school, church, Wal-Mart or some other heated environment.

Yes, the hole would eventually fill up, at which point my dad would dig another hole next to the outhouse and set to the unpleasant task of transferring the contents of the original hole into the new hole. I never actually witnessed this process – Dad did it while my brother and I were at school, as I can imagine it’s the type of thing you’d prefer to do alone – but I can testify from my days of lawn mowing that the grass forever after grew much faster over the site of the second hole than in the rest of the yard.

It’s tough to explain to someone who grew up toileted, but the outhouse was more than just a pit stop for a quick excretion. Its easily climbable walls doubled as a jungle gym for my little brother and me. Perched atop the tarpaper roof, we turned our humble biffy into the flight deck of the Millennium Falcon, or Lex Luthor’s secret lair. It was also a sort of fortress of solitude for a bookish kid like me. Oftentimes I’d hang around well after my business was done, finishing up a chapter in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader or polishing off the latest Jughead Jones Double Digest. That kind of seclusion became all the more precious when I hit my adolescent years. My dad had designed the renovated house as kind of an open living space, with no interior doors to denote individual rooms. This left very few options for a hormonally charged youth to “discover himself” in private. The outhouse, on the other hand, was physically removed from the house and even had a lockable door. The presence of an aging People magazine featuring a pictorial profile of Madonna was just an added bonus.

But time marches on, all things must pass and all that jazz. When I was a junior in high school, my parents finally decided to take the plunge and take out a home repair loan to thoroughly overhaul the house. For six months we moved into a crummy rental place in town while my dad and various work crews more or less started rebuilding the place from scratch. When we returned to the countryside, the grain shed had been replaced by a lovely, totally modern dwelling with all the comforts of the twenty-first century, including running water and a septic system. As of that day, the outhouse was obsolete.

It was probably just as well, as the old facilities had taken quite a beating over the years. It had been toppled in several windstorms, so the walls were far from plumb. The door had fallen off at some point and never replaced. Using it in the rain had become an exceedingly soggy process, and for the last few winters snow drifts had been finding their way through the door. It was a change, we all had to admit that, but there were few tears shed for the passing of the outhouse.

We never did tear it down, my folks preferring to keep it as a sort of reminder of their first sixteen hardscrabble years on the land. Occasionally on my visits home, I like to wander down the path and reflect awhile on a childhood that necessitated my leaving the house at least once every day. Moving on is for the best, I understand that, but it’s still a rather melancholy feeling to see that little piece of who I am fading into memory. I linger awhile before deciding to resist the urge to duck in and give it one last spin. The power of nostalgia only goes so far.

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