‘Hey there! How deep do i gotta dig these holes?’ I asked John.
‘ dig ‘em ‘till ya run outta shovel!’ John answered.
‘Well how come you got the short shovel .! ‘ ..? i replied.
‘That’s ‘ cause i’m on the bottom side of the bank and you’re on the top of the slope!.
Thus began our mutual construction adventure into the modern outhouse world.
John and i agreed to construct an ‘outhouse ‘for a close friend.. It was to be not merely an ‘outhouse’ but one with insulated walls, hardwood floors, wifi, dish tv and a fold down cot .. the outhouse, or ‘throne’ room as well called it, also included an antique port hole conveniently located such as to provoke contemplative thought when seated at the ‘throne’, which was a high tech marine style incinerating potty.
John and i were into the project as we had negotiated a superb deal. We offered to work half as fast for twice as much per hour as anybody else. In actual fact, high school kids made more per hour raking leaves than we did, but we had the freedom to use the prime cedar from L and S and also spend hours making mortise and tenon joints. ‘We used not one nail in the structure except for marine bronze ring shank nails used to install the special 12 inch tapered siding that Loren at L and S allowed us to hand select, and while Loren was initially skeptical.. the success was that the roof has held up for many years. We used nearly clear tapered siding cedar that we treated against moss and we then covered the peak of the roof with bent 14 gauge pure copper sheeting, with a ground rod. One can never be too careful about potential lightning strikes in an outhouse.’
Neither of us claimed any good sense in the fine art of actual carpenter work, both of us had a lot of boat and log cabin experience and liked the complex old ways of woodwork. We both had a certain reverence for wood.
However, we did not exactly have a reverence for ‘outhouses’ or ‘privies’ as both of us had early and not necessarily good experiences with the concept.
John said, ‘well at least we won’t have to move this one and dig a new hole’! I agreed while digging out the last hole for the forms to be set in. We did not look forward to the hand mixing of the bags of concrete we had to haul downhill.. And thus working together with the usual banter and sniveling about one thing or another we both recalled various early memories of our past.
John remembered that in the early days on the islands, most places had indoor plumbing, but were usually connected to primitive systems that failed due to high tides, high rainfall or just lack of maintenance and small diameter cast iron outfalls. Many systems were just buried old barrels that slowly rusted and leaked into the ground. It was always handy to have an outhouse in times of high demand since most houses had only one bathroom.
John recalls his grandfather’s outhouse as being well ventilated and well appointed with outhouse accessories. It was made of oiled cedar and had a wooden seat plus a small bench for literature to be displayed. Next to the seat was a bucket of ashes to help keep the outhouse “sweet.” In addition there was a kerosene lamp for reading, or useful for contemplating a stack of magazines. There were copies of ‘True’, which was full of manly adventure stories and the occasional pictures of alluring and scantily clothed women, painted by Vargas.
Hanging next to the seat were Montgomery Ward catalogues with various ripped out pages suspended by string in addition to a string of dried and rubbed corncobs. It was years later when John realized the purpose of the corncobs and said: “People must have been tough in those days.” Perhaps it was a coincidence but the outhouse was built next to an active bee hive. Later John came to realize that the location may have been designed by his grandfather to promote solitude and privacy, since the women rarely used it. Even though there was always a copy of Sunset magazine out there and another copy of ‘good housekeeping’…For “display“ purposes only, as they say. John once discovered a small jug of late harvest ‘apple’ jack on a high shelf that was probably used for medicinal purposes only. Maybe his Grandfather had anticipated the modern “man cave” well before the advent of 60 inch TV’s and televised football.
As John related this story, I remembered an unusual outhouse event.
It was cold that night when the pack string pulled into Hopkins Pass to make camp, that camp functioned at different levels if you know what I mean, now you take old Frank Martin who blew himself up while powder-monkeying, the construction of the North Cascades pass, but this was years before, in the summer of 1960 and I was 20 years old. Frank was pushing 60 in the 10 weeks I had to put up with his mouth. He made me so mad one day, I stepped outside the cook’s tent and they said later that I chopped a pile of stove wood, 5 feet high. Sunday was my only day off, building trail to the Canadian border, just five miles north of Hopkins Pass. We were surrounded by mountains in the Pasayten Wilderness Area and that day, I had picked Three Fools Peak and it is no lie that part of the climb to the mountain was called the “devil’s staircase.”
When I climbed Three Fools Peak and made it to the top, I pulled a cap and fuse out of my pocket and rammed it into a stick of dynamite, lit it, and threw it down the mountain. When they heard the noise in camp, they knew that I was on my way back and not to worry. Frank stopped me at the cook tent. “Where have you been,” He demanded. “Three Fools Peak,” I replied. “Impossible!” he said. “You didn’t have time to make it there and back.” Frank made me so damn mad!
We had a crew of ten of which I was the chief, when all I had to do was to make sure that the tread was 24 inches wide and that excluded the use of “duff” or dirt from the trail building effort, because if the trail was soft toward the outside edge of the tread, the forest service inspector would walk his horse near the edge, to see if the bank held or not.
I found a place for my tent, not too far from the little lake and in the meadow where we shot our camp meat, another one of my duties, I can’t remember if I was licensed or not, probably not. Frank asked me to build an outhouse, so I found two trees not too far apart and proceeded to dig a hole between them. For a seat, I lashed two pine poles between the trees and over the hole, just the right space apart. I could have rigged a tarp or manny with a diamond hitch, as it is called among the packers, my memories are fading and starting to lose that desire for perfection and attention to detail.
Frank was our powder monkey and we dug holes under the stumps for him to set his charges. We ran for cover when the first charge went off down the trail, throwing a big stump 75 feet in the air, as Frank leaned over to light another fuse, for now we could see him walking towards us as an apparition, as he came striding through the smoke and dirt billowing up behind him and that same ugly frown on his face as he stooped to light the next fuse.
Porcupines came into the camp at night to lick the salt off the poles where the guys, being guys, had missed their pissing aim in the dark and the constant nibbling of the porcupines had began to weaken the poles until one morning there was some awful screaming coming from the outhouse, where Frank had fallen through my porcupine chewed poles.
Working together, with 100 years of experience between us, we have found great satisfaction in the construction of conveniences without a flush.