Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Malodorous Memory

Having grown up in Pendleton County, WV, in the 1980’s, I am perhaps among the last generation of Appalachians’ ever to remember the outhouse of yore in something other than a vision of times past. My family arrived on the mountain where I grew up in the early 1700’s and most of them are still there. In many ways, the world has passed us by several times over and in other ways we are very thankful that it has.
The Burns family outhouse, originally obtained from the old Hopewell School this outhouse served my family for many years until we got an indoor toilet. We then moved the outhouse to its current location at my great-grandmaw's house.

During a recent discussion with a group of Appalachian enthusiasts, nostalgia for the outhouse ran rampant. Speaking for hours on the noble privy and needed efforts to preserve the humble structure, it was obvious that most of these folks had never thought of the outhouse on any terms other than aesthetics. I felt otherwise. My family lacked running water until the spring of 1988, and I was perhaps the only person in this discussion who truly remembers the outhouse for its practical purpose. As such, I hold an entirely different perspective on the topic.

I vividly recall as a child answering the call of nature in the middle of many blistery nights and returning back indoors with both sets of my cheeks rosy red. I don’t ever remember anyone "relaxing" in the family privy during the winter months. There certainly wasn’t anyone who took time to read the local classified ads during his or her morning constitutional. I’m sure these wintry trips to the privy were the basis for the old adage “blue-ass cold”. The summer months were not much better due to the inevitable swarms of biting insects and flies that inhabited the privy. An occasional snake was not unusual. This was the everyday reality of life with a privy. I believe with every fiber of my being that this was the rule, not the exception.

I’ve been in outhouses of all sizes (one-holers, two-holers and even a three-holer at one point), and they were all pretty much the same regardless of the care given to them. Some were in worse condition than others to be sure, especially the ones that weren’t kept clean and the older ones that brought more fear than relief. My grandparents’ outhouse was so old that the floor gave under my weight when I was still quite young. It would have probably been safer for an adult to slip out into the nearby bushes. My parents outhouse was kept immaculately clean and hydrated lime was put in the hole on a weekly basis to keep down the stench and to prevent it from filling up. Even with the constant cleaning it was still far from pleasant by today’s standards.
The old grainhouse sits beside the current home of the family outhouse. You can kind of make out the outhouse in the middle right hand side of this photo.

This brings me to another recollection sure to spark the memories of anyone who has ever used an outhouse…splinters!! How many times have I imposed upon family members to pull a splinter out of my backside? I can just imagine today’s youth asking a loved one to do that.

Perhaps the one thing that I do miss is all the newspaper and magazine articles that lined the walls of the outhouse, some new and some that were beacons of times long past. It is remarkable the things I still retain today that I learned from reading the outhouse walls.

Lucky for me, by the time I was born my family had already discovered the miracle of toilet paper so I never had to deal with the uncomfortable cob or the obligatory Sears catalog. I guess I “missed out" on any memories dealing with that aspect, although I don’t believe such memories would be fond for anyone who honestly remembers them.
A photo of me, my brother and my Aunt Patsy, taken about 1979.
My wife is always telling people that I am the “oldest” young person that she knows, and my childhood in the 1980’s is more akin to her mother’s childhood from the 1940’s. She finds it odd that a person my age in this day and time can still remember when they first got electricity, a telephone, running water and an indoor toilet. While I miss many things about growing up on the mountain, such as the farm itself, the livestock and all the family close-by, I certainly don’t miss the old outhouse. It is but a dim, malodorous memory in the faded recesses of my mind.


Tipper said...

We had in door plumbing when I was growing up, but I do remember using several outhouses that folk still used. I was always scared and creeped out by the bugs and spiders. No I don't guess you miss the outhouse at all.

Have you ever heard the song "Don't let them tear my little brown building down?" It's about the county wanting to tear his outhouse down.

Matthew Burns said...

I believe you are referring to the "Ode to the little brown shack out back" written and performed by West Virginia's own, Billy Ed Wheeler.

Love that song!

Granny Sue said...

My sons had a similar upbringing but it was because we moved here from the DC 'burbs. They say they can keep up with any old-timer telling tales about the good ole days. As can you and Jason.