Outhouse fire brings back memories of long ago

Mike Brown

Last week, a little before the sun came up one morning, the police scanner crackled into life.

Firefighters in a nearby town— not Rockdale—were being summoned to a “fire in the bathroom” of a house.

What followed was the usual emergency chatter with the dispatcher giving directions to the site and various firefighters reporting that they were responding.

Then the dispatcher came back. She gave the call numbers of one of the firemen and added a bit of new information.

“They want you to be aware that the bathroom is, ah, not connected to the house.”

Remainder of the call was pretty routine although it seemed like everyone was studiously avoiding use of the “O-word” in describing what was actually going on. That delicate balance was shattered when the volunteer firemen were on their way back to the station and one contacted the dispatcher to let her know their status.

“We’re through with the outhouse fire,” he said.

The preceding is not in any way intended to demean people who use outhouses.

Because I have, and it didn’t hurt me any.

When I was a little boy we used to go visit my uncle and aunt’s farm in northwestern Arkansas. (No, we didn’t have to dodge General Sherman’s troops. I’m old but not that old.) They still had one of those facilities. It was located out back. Way out back.

What they didn’t have was electricity. Drinking water came from a well and you had to lower the bucket down to the water level on a rope and pulley.

Except it wasn’t a bucket.

It was a long metal cylinder that had a trap door thing at one end attached to a wire that ran up to a ring device.

Dropping it into the wel l was easy. You’d hear the pulley unwind, then a “thunk-splash” as it hit the water level.

You’d let it sit until it filled up, then pulled on the rope and somehow the trap door closed and you had a cylinder full of water.

Then came the hard part. You had to haul that water-heavy cylinder out of the well. (I think we still called it a “bucket”.)

You’d pull and tug and had to be careful, because if you messed up and the rope slid through your hands the full cylinder went back down into the water.

Eventually you’d get it up, swing it over, point the bottom end into a real bucket then pull the ring and whoooosh, the water would come out.

I always thought it was fun. More fun than the outhouse, anyway.

That old farm also had a wood stove. No, not a decorative one mostly for looks that you’d have today, this was a heat-the-home and cook-the-food stove.

Outside were two of my favorite places.One was, of course, the barn. I liked that. It always smelled of hay. I guess there are generations of city kids who have never smelled hay. That’s sad.

But what I liked even more was Uncle Grover’s garage.

This was a little wooden building which always seemed to be in the process of falling down but never quite got there.

It contained a pickup I never saw running. In fact now that I think about it, I’m not sure it had all its wheels.

The garage’s walls were decorated with years and years of outdated Arkansas license plates, and a few Missouri ones. (It was close to the Missouri border).

Back then there were none of these little stickers which went on the corner of your front window. No, you got a real metal plate every year. We were told convicts made them in prison.

That, of course, made them more exotic.

I’d always try to locate the oldest one. I think there was one from 1915. To a kid that seemed like the one George Washington probably used when he cranked up his Chevy to drive out of Valley Forge.

There was a special place in the house, too. Now, this was an old two-story which had been the family place and my uncle, as the oldest son, got it when my grandparents died.

There was a staircase, covered about halfway up by a hanging blanket—as if that was going to stop any normally curious kid— which led to a big old attic.

It was alternately charming and scary. Contained stuff the family had never thrown away. Farm families saved most things.

I never did see everything in it. Probably afraid back in some nook would be a crazy cousin or two they’d never told me about.

But I remember a huge old side-earpiece, front-mouthpiece telephone just like you’d see in the old movies.

I remember one more thing. If you stayed up there for a whole afternoon, well, it was a long way to the outhouse.

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