By Patricia Buckner
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When I was young we would visit my grandparents during Christmas on their small farm in the mid west. They still used kerosene lamps for light and the only running water was a hand pump in the big country kitchen. There was an electric light but it was in the parlor and only used on special occasions.
The toilet was outside, away from the house, across the yard in a small drafty building that didn't have running water. I was very young and didn't like going there, especially in the dark of those cold winter nights. Inside that little building on one side was a bench with two holes. When you sat on one of those holes you had to be careful not to get splinters as it could be embarrassing to have someone get them out. The holes had covers that were kept on when not in use to keep the animals out or me from falling in.
As I traveled around the western states, experiencing other water closets without running water, I found them mostly smelly, they felt dirty and were always full of flies and spiders. Some commodes had lids, most were metal and all of the buildings they were in were more spacious than the one on my grandfather's farm.
In some areas, when it was cold, care was needed when you sat down so you didn't stick. If you did stick you would lose skin when you tried to stand up - a painful situation. Of course having someone to help you meant being embarrassed in a whole new way. Help meant an un-stuck body was needed to find a method of warming up the seat, while you were stuck to it, so you could get up without losing skin.
While traveling in the last untouched rain forest in the continental United States I came upon a different kind of stand alone bathroom without running water. The walls and ceiling were made with one by fours. There was no privacy in these bathrooms as there were 1 inch gaps between the boards. When you looked at them you could see right through to the other side. The seats were nice and they always seemed to be clean, perhaps that was from the constant rain that washed through them. They all had views, views of oceans – waves crashing onto the black sand of the beach, views of rivers – roaring down mountains so loud all sound was washed away, views of lakes – with fishermen sitting in boats staring back at you while they waited for the fish to bite.
There were advantages to seeing out, you could watch families of deer or herds of elk as they grazed close by. You could find protection against raiding raccoons or curious porcupines or, if a bear approached, there was plenty of time for your hair to turn white.
Recently, exploring possible places to live in the far north I came upon an apartment for rent. It was in an older building that had been converted. As I read the advertisement my sense of adventure was sparked by the addition of one short blurb. 'Detached bath.' My curious mind was then sparked to action by a comment from my wise mother. 'That wouldn't be good in winter.' Visions began fighting for attention as my mind explored scenarios of an 'outhouse' with water. Flashes of boots, mittens and heavy coats, blowing snow and icicles, trying to obtain the bliss of sleep again after being slapped awake by cold, frozen pipes in a blizzard and worst of all, baring my bottom to subzero temperatures.
Cities have portable waterless buildings containing benches with holes. They smell of harsh chemicals that burn your nose, mouth and eyes. They present the promise of civility and cleanliness teasing us into hope only to burst our fantasy and deliver disappointment.
Made of plastic and fiberglass and used at festivals and fairs, they have translucent ceilings to let in light during the day. At night, well, you have to guess. Most are made for short people, designed for inducing panic attacks and claustrophobia where none existed before. Tall people must leave their knees at the door.
Experiences with these bastions of elimination has been a topic of humorous discussion with family and friends. Memories are of powerful aromas ascending with furious abandon during the heat of a summer's day. Forcing potential occupants to swallow their previous meal a second time and achieving new world records for holding their breath. Having ardent debates over the door - to close or not to close that is the question - was the need for privacy greater or breathable air?
I find that new opportunities for exploring these questions and discovering new ones are presenting themselves frequently. Stories of moderately current uses for chamber pots stored under the bed. Discussions around the meaning of multiple holes and communal toilet use. (The most I've heard of so far is 6.)
Encounters with these small structures has added humor and interest to this life adventure.
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