My age and southern Appalachian heritage span the mid-20th Century to the present day. This enables me to reminisce about outhouses based on personal experience – if not fondness – and then compare the old method of hygiene and waste disposal with the New Millennium’s high-tech restrooms.
I was marveling about this just the other day while trapped in an ultra-modern toilet stall when the lights went out and a lock-down or sorts occurred.
It was a situation unfamiliar to the former user of his grandparents’ outdoor privy, a venerable one-hole structure with a wooden seat sanded smooth by generations of bottoms. It truly was a unisex facility before such classifications became politically correct.
A candle in a coffee can and box of matches provided the means to light the interior when the call of nature became too urgent after sundown. But I carried a flashlight because, no matter how much pressure had built on bladder or bowel, it was my choice not to share the outhouse environs with snakes and spiders.
The heavy metal flashlight was both a lantern and weapon. Many was the night I had to do mental battle with serpents in the shadows (that turned out to be vines or old garden hose sections in daylight) or aim the cone of battery-powered illumination at a wasp’s nest in the roof corner. I prayed the stinging insects would not wake up and find me perched on the bench, naked from the waist to knees and helpless.
There was no way to lock the plank door securely enough that on a windy night it wouldn’t shudder and shake. In fact, you could throw a full-grown raccoon through gaps in the door, my grandfather said, and “there won’t be nary fur on the floor.” This made winter nights very uncomfortable.
Woe unto an eight-year-old boy if he forgot to grab a page out of the old Sears and Roebuck Christmas catalog before treading down the “garden path,” as my grandmother described the overgrown trail to the outhouse. Once ensconced on the bench, there was no way anyone in the farmhouse could hear the plaintive cries of a foolish kid without toilet paper.
So I experienced déjà vu when the super-technology and energy efficiency features in our corporate bathroom crashed, with me locked in a toilet stall. Unable to open the door, I might have clambered over the wall if there had been light. That was another problem. It was pitch black. The motion sensors had shut down, too.
I wasn’t worried about snakes, spiders or stinging insets. Unlike those Appalachia outhouses of my boyhood days, modern office restrooms are free of bugs, reptiles and varmints. However, during lockdown a flea could not escape from the tile-and porcelain prison unless it was able to press Ctrl-Alt-Delete and reboot whatever computer runs environmental system programs.
What does a man do when he’s locked in a high-tech toilet stall with the lights off? Well, a redneck like me whips out his trusty iPhone and searches for something to download. There on iTunes, I found it, appropriately called “Flashlight.” The outhouse era met Steve Jobs, sans the Sears & Roebuck catalog, when I downloaded the application. I soon was generating illumination enough to see that it was possible for me to squeeze out from underneath the metal stall.
As I was fastening, zipping and buckling up in preparation for my grand exit, belly-crawling style, the light from my iPhone gradually dimmed and went out. Darkness fell like a curtain. My charge was gone. Trapped again, I decided to climb on the toilet seat and try to escape over the top of the wall.
At this point I discovered that, in the inky blackness, I was not alone. Someone in the next stall yelped, fired up his Flashlight app and blinded me with the full force of the beam in my face. I toppled off the wall back into my own bathroom prison, with one shoe, sock and leg soaked from landing squarely in the toilet.
This never happened to me 60 years ago, when I was much smaller and the outhouse’s primitive seat opening could have swallowed me whole. They say technology changes all things – and now I finally believe it.
■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.