Archive for December, 2016

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  • December 27th, 2016

PUPPY PICKIN’

By Joel M. Vance
If there is one irrefutable piece of dog advice I’ve given over more than 30 years of owning bird dogs, it is to pick your own puppy—don’t let someone else impose personal bias. Drive for days if you have to, but look those fuzzy little charmers in the eye and pick the one that seems right.
That said, I look back over those 30 plus years and realize that most of the time it was the puppy that chose me. They have a way…..
McGuffin was the Godfather of the clan and theoretically was not my pick. He came from a Boston litter, too far for me to travel. But he was out of a female originally owned by Dave Follansbee, the Godfather of the French Brittany in America and Dave vouched for the puppy. I heard shrill yips from the holding area of the freight terminal at St. Louis’s Lambert Field and shortly stuck a puppy carrier on the back seat for the drive home. The outraged furry mite squalled at such indignity and I relented and let him out. He crawled into my lap and instantly went to sleep, having made his choice of lifelong friend and we were just that for the next dozen years.
Andy Vance, my son and longtime hunting buddy, allegedly chose Pepper, Guff’s daughter and the eventual matriarch of all the Vance dogs who have followed. Here’s the way it actually happened: We drove to Iowa where a litter awaited his choice. Eight puppies lolloped around the back yard, falling over each other, sniffing flowers and tiring, one by one.
Andy debated (he was a thoughtful twelve years old). “How about that one?” I suggested, eager to get on the road home. Andy put that one down, picked up another squirming Brit. “Or that one.” He pondered. We sipped soft drinks and Andy finished his and rolled the empty can toward the center of the puppy scrum, like a faceoff in a hockey game.
All but one of the puppies ignored the can, save for one tiny black female. She worried the can until she got a grip on it, picked it up and brought it to Andy. “That’s the one,” Andy said, cuddling the bright-eyed puppy. It was the start of a 13-year love affair. “She liked me best,” Andy said in explaining his choice. No doubt about it though. She chose him.
Ultimately Pepper became mother of an eight-puppy litter and one by one the puppies went home with new owners. Andy kept a lusty male he named Dacques (Doc in the Americanized version—they were, after all, French Brittanies). I hadn’t planned to keep a puppy but one day I went to the kennel and there was only one little black and white pup left, a chunky guy who looked bewildered as if wondering what had happened to all his littermates. He looked so woebegone that I went in the house with him in my arms and told my wife, “There is no power on earth strong enough to separate me from this puppy.
That was Chubby who was the steadiest, most reliable and sweetest friend I’ve ever known. Once he lay beside me when I was miserably sick on a Minnesota grouse hunt, and when I woke the fever was gone and I felt fine. I called him my feel-good dog. He had healing powers.
He survived a broken leg and another time a foxtail awn went between his toes and worked its way up his leg until it required surgery. The only force that did separate us was death when he was a dozen years old and still game to go. I shot a woodcock over his point not long before his last illness and I think I knew then that it would be the last time we’d share a hunt together. Perhaps he did too since he always seemed to be so finely tuned to me. He made a perfect, rock-solid point and retrieved the dead bird to my hand. I can’t speak for him, but my eyes filled with tears.
Missy was the only puppy so far chosen right out of the womb. I midwifed her mommy all night as she delivered eight puppies at intervals widely spaced enough that I never got back to sleep between deliveries. I wanted a female and No. Five was a creamy honey brown and white color different from her littermates. She looked like a chewy caramel and she’s just was sweet as 0ne for nearly 14 years. I guess technically I chose her instead of the other way around, but if she hadn’t been that candy-sweet color she might have gone to delight someone else.
I have a vivid memory of Missy and her brother Scruffy on point in north Missouri, with a covey pinned between them, a textbook example of dog teamwork. Scruffy was the perfect instance of a puppy who made the choice for me by being unwanted by anyone else. His name says it all—he was an unkempt little pup who reminded me of Pigpen in the “Peanuts” comic strip. He was barely big enough to escape runthood, and looked as if he’d been soaked in a downpour and hadn’t quite dried out. I tried to give him to two friends, both of whom declined (possibly because Scruffy looked like a used car with broken springs, an engine that sounded as if it should be shelling corn and a salesman who says, “Trust me—this baby is a diamond in the rough.”)
Which he was. Early on he showed feistiness far beyond his size. Timid in puppy fights, he opted for retreat in lieu of combat. But he became a hunting machine so consumed by following his nose that he was once gone for three days. We’d given him up for lost until one night I heard a familiar and demanding bark at the door and there was Scruffy, contrite, weary, hungry and for the only time in his life, hunted out. He also became a handsome dog, an ugly duckling of dogs.
Molly picked me by virtue of being everything I look for in a puppy—inquisitive, lively, mischievous, reeking of intelligence (not to mention, later in life, of cow manure and decaying dead wildlife). You can bathe an errant dog, but you don’t wash away the good stuff. I drove 1400 miles round trip so Molly could pick me and she made it easy. She and her littermates rambled around the back yard of her owner but one by one they fell asleep. Except for the then-unnamed Molly who had too many places to go and things to see. One burly male kept annoying her, wanting to do Dog Wrestlemania, but Molly shrugged him off and ultimately wore the big bully out. She had places to go and things to do. “That’s her,” I said, just as Andy had said with Pepper years before..
Molly of all our dogs was entirely too smart for her own good. She learned quickly how to jump and flip the latch on the kennel so everyone could enjoy unsupervised recreation. A snap fastener curtailed her Great Escape so she redialed her insatiable curiosity. She was paired with an experienced setter on her first real hunt. I thought I’d winged a bird on a covey rise but we couldn’t find it. The setter hunted dead with less and less ardor until we finally gave it up and moved on. Some time later I realized that Molly wasn’t with us. The last thing anyone wants is a lost young dog, so I started back to where we’d last seen the pup.
Halfway there Molly appeared with my bird in her mouth, not chewed, not sloppy with saliva. She had not given up on the cripple even though we had and she never did. She was the best dead bird hunter we had in three decades. Retrieving was an obsession.
On the flip side, although she was extremely popular with the other dogs when she let them out to play without Daddy yelling but not with the young male with whom we hoped she would fall in lust. After she nearly bit off his nose for it being where she thought it didn’t belong, Andy and I forcibly restrained her while the intimidated male fumbled his way to a consummation devoutly not wished by Molly.
In due time she grudgingly delivered five puppies and weaned them as quickly as possible. She had more important business than mothering. The puppies slumbered in a warm pile and one night while he was watching Sports Center Andy said, “I need a puppy fix” and he went to the kennel in the night and grabbed the first one that came to him. The puppy nestled in his arms as if it belonged there and together they watched the latest baseball scores and thus Stewie picked a Vance.
His brother picked me. He chose me by becoming the Canine Christopher Columbus. He had the inquisitiveness of Charles Edison. Overlong ears, like a hound, and big bones and a horsey face, he was no bench show champ. His brothers were pinups for bitches by comparison. I had promised pick of the guy dogs to a young friend, but by pickin’ time, I had fallen in love with the gawky pup and had named him Captain Adventure for his incessant passion for exploration and a wonderful lust for life.
When Cap proudly retrieved a dried cowpie from a neighbor’s pasture as if it were a trophy rooster pheasant I began to pray that my friend would not pick him. Fortunately for all of us, he took Cap’s brother and now Cap brings me towels, shoes, the shop broom and once a pair of lost reading glasses, not to mention a quail or two.
And he hunts with such unbridled joy, bounding like an African springbok, that he’s just pure fun to be around. And he’s mine….or, come to think of it, I’m his.
-30-

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  • December 23rd, 2016

CAN’T YOU HEAR ME CALLING?

By Joel M. Vance

Ears, those funny looking things on either side of your head. Without them, an outdoor person is only half effective. Think of a hungry coyote listening for the faint rustle of a prairie mouse beneath 3 feet of snow. If it can’t hear that rustle, it goes hungry. Anymore, I would do well to hear the coyote howling directly in my ear.
Son Andy is my ears in the outdoors. He can hear the faint signal from a locator collar on a bird dog that has strayed too far for me to hear. Once when Scruffy went walkabout and was apparently headed for another continent Andy picked up the faint signal from his collar and ran him down ½ mile from where he started.
More than once his keen ears have saved us from a lost dog. This oral acuity is despite a lifetime of listening to rock and roll, including favorite bands such as Led Zepplin and Rush. On the other hand I couldn’t hear a turkey gobbler spit and drum unless it was standing on my foot. My ears have been assaulted by a lifetime of shooting shotguns without ear protection and spending far too much time battered by the less than gentle harmony of 105 MM howitzers. And I like to listen to Little Richard at maximum volume while Andy keeps Rush barely audible. He has protected his hearing while I’ve done everything possible to damage mine except driving 10 penny nails into my head.
Hearing damage is endemic to hunters who grew up before ear protection was commonsense. Today it should be mandatory to make ear protection instruction an integral part of gun safety courses. The kid who learns to protect his or her ears every time before he or she fires a gun is not likely to wind up with tinnitus or asking “say again?” every time anyone speaks.
Hunters should realize how vital hearing is to their success. Not just for locating the dog but in general. Big game hunters rely on the small sounds that large animals make moving through the woods stepping on leaves, breaking branches and the other telltale sounds that something is coming. Bird hunters gain a fraction of a second if they hear the minute sound of a grouse or quail flush. That tiny sound is enough to facilitate mounting the gun before you sight the bird Duck hunters relish the whisper of wings overhead in the darkness of predawn, the muted splash as they settle into the decoys.
Our daughter’s golden retriever apparently mistaking the smell, sight and ear wax taste of a hearing aid for a doggie treat gnawed my wfe’s $1,500 hearing aids to electronic rubble. You might want to think about that the next time your dog or cat wants to lick your ear, especially if you’re wearing hearing aids. Of course, if you spend a lifetime protecting your hearing with ear plugs while you’re shooting you won’t have to worry about doggy damage to valuable electronic aids.
Speaking of dogs, which I find it difficult to do without resorting to four letter words after the hearing aid incident, what about the effect of sound on the dog’s ears. Original beeper collars almost certainly contributed to hearing problems for dogs. The sound was loud enough to reach a hunter’s ears and was constant. How would you like a constant beeping in your ears hour after hour? Answer: you wouldn’t and chances are the dog didn’t either.
Modern collars can be set so they only sound off when the dog is on point or intermittently while the dog is moving. There are also doggy earplugs but I can’t imagine my dogs would tolerate plugs in their ears when I can’t even get them to wear boots in burr country. It would be like putting a saddle on a cat. There are of course dogs who can’t seem to hear any command that they don’t want to obey but can hear the scrape of a fork on a food dish a mile away.
Ear protection for the hunter is a mixed blessing. Ear plugs may protect from shotgun noise but also shortstop sound from the locator collar. Ear plugs on the dog may protect its ears but also keep it from hearing your shouted command of “leave that rabbit, squirrel, porcupine alone you (add your own expletives here)!”
An almost inevitable side effect of shooting without ear protection aside from total deafness is tinnitus. In my case it’s the sound of 1,000 hissing snakes. I don’t think about the constant sound and it doesn’t bother me unless of course I think about it and then it does bother me. Tinnitus is forever. It’s nerve damage to the auditory canal and it won’t go away. Some have described it as a buzzing sound and one said it sounded like metal parts grinding together, but most describe it as a high pitched hissing or ringing noise. About all you can do for tinnitus is wear ear protection to keep it from getting worse.
And tinnitus does get worse. The more you shoot without ear protection the worse your hearing gets. Some claim an improvement over time but chances are that it’s wishful thinking. Once the damage is done it’s done. What about the guy with in-ear hearing aids? How can he cope with ear plugs as well as the plugs of the hearing aids themselves?
Technology has overtaken the original locator collar and now you can locate your dog using GPS Technology with your cell phone. Those who are still stuck in the dark ages with the locator collars topped by a noisy beeper probably will continue to put up with dogs that can’t hear and hunters likewise until we save up enough money to catch up with electronic advances.
Back in the dark ages before electronics, hunters used bells to keep track of their bird dogs. A friend swore by a German silver bell that tinkled delightfully in the grouse woods but was so faint that it required the ears of a bat to hear it. I outfitted my dog with a copper calf bell that, while it was audible at distance, sounded as if I were in the middle of a cattle stampede.
Bells are fine to keep track of a moving dog but when they stop, theoretically it means the dog is on point. Then It becomes a game of hide and seek. You have to hope you have a rock solid dog who will point forever, at least until you find it, and before the birds flush wild or the trembling dog collapses.
The original locator collar invented by Dave Lunn, a bird hunting Minnesotan, was a giant leap forward in bird hunting, certainly over calf bells, even over tinkling bells that sounded like something from a Christmas Carol. Since that prototype which dangled beneath the dog’s throat transmitting an endless barrage of sound directly into the dog’s ears, others have devised improvements, trying to keep up with a baffling array of electronic wrinkles, such as cell phones that are as far as advanced over an old wall crank telephone as a Moon rocket is to the Wright Brothers first airplane.
Meanwhile, it’s helpful to have a son with fresh unsullied ears. Now, say that again. I didn’t quite hear you….
-30-

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  • December 15th, 2016

ME AND TRICKY DICK

I should update this blog given the results of the recent election, but I don’t think there are words vile enough to describe my feelings about the president elect. Somehow, the voters of this country have managed to elect a person who has the potential to destroy everything that the country has represented for more than 200 years, certainly the potential, considering his appointees to his cabinet, the potential for undoing all the good that has happened in my lifetime. I’m sure I will write about Trump in the future but right now I’m still totally unsettled by the election and discouraged with what has happened to the country I love.

By Joel M. Vance

I grew up in a Republican atmosphere where my father voted for hazy nonentities like Wendell Willkie and Harold Stassen. We’d had a president forever, Mr. Roosevelt, and when he died a little nonentity from Missouri took over.
Then he ran again in 1948 and my father was delighted to vote for Thomas Dewey and get rid of the embarrassing little man from his home state. Somehow Harry Truman won and I spent my high school years with friends who considered Truman a disgrace to the state. He was crude and ineffective and dumb.
Of course he was none of those things (well, crude maybe), but it took a half-century to figure that out.
Politics were well on the periphery of my life, superseded by girls and basketball. When Dwight Eisenhower ran for the first time I was a high school senior and was upset because we Robert Taft Republicans thought he was a pseudo-Republican, drafted because of his name, not because he was a hardcore party supporter.
But at the same time Sen. Joe McCarthy was giving right wing Republicans a bad name and I began, ever so subconsciously, to examine my Republican roots. It was clearly a case of “well, my daddy was a Republican.” But if Republicans were like Joe McCarthy I didn’t want to be one. My father never talked politics with me and I don’t think he was a McCarthy Republican. If anything he was for the best person, according to what he knew about them.
That was a time when “best person” meant something. The first time I voted for president, in 1956, Dwight Eisenhower was, for me, the best person for the job and I gladly voted for him.
After that it was pretty much a case of voting for the lesser of two evils. I voted for Richard Nixon three times, for which I probably earned a spot in Hell. But I also voted for Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama
I didn’t want to be a Democrat any of the three times I voted for the man increasingly known as Tricky Dick. What I really wanted was to be was free from knotty political considerations. No teachers instructed on current politics. We studied American History, but only to the point where it was history, not current events. No one told us at the time that Joe McCarthy was as antithetical to the democratic ideal as was Hitler. We had to stumble through those realizations (or not) by ourselves.
American History was sanitized so the founding fathers were saintly and revered. None of the shady deals, underhanded maneuvering and compromising of principles that tarnishes politics today—except, of course, those things have happened from the get-go. Politics by definition is the art of compromise and often that compromise involves concession of principles. It’s not hard to become a cynic if you’re paying attention.
“My country, right or wrong,” may be patriotic, but it goes against the very foundation of the nation, the right to speak out in opposition. If scruffy, hippie protesters hadn’t persisted in the 1970s we would have continued to muddle through the Viet Nam fiasco and the point, lost in the uproar, was not that these protestors were against the men who were fighting the war, but against the men who were shaping the war.
The United States was founded by those who spoke out in opposition to English rule. It was melded in an internal heated war of opposition, southern brother against northern brother.
It’s always easier to beat down the opposition rather than listening to it, especially if you have the superior force. No government will admit its policy is wrong, nor change it, not when there’s any chance of stifling opposition. It’s then that the right of free speech and of peaceful assembly is most critical and the one thing that separates us from dictatorship, even benevolent ones. Yet it always seems that the most patriotic, self-righteous Americans are the most critical of those who speak out in opposition or organize rallies to oppose government policy. They would, apparently, crush the foundation of the country to preserve it.
So I muddled into the 1960s, a child of the 50s, nominally a Republican…and then came Dallas, November, 1963. I didn’t vote for John Kennedy, but wasn’t really comfortable with Dick Nixon either. He flat looked shifty. His television debate with Kennedy, the first ever to be televised, showed him as a nervous, sweating and glowering man, while Kennedy (who had used makeup) was cool, calm and beamed confidence.
They say that those who heard the debate on radio gave the win to Nixon, but those who saw it on television clearly favored Kennedy.
Regardless of who had the best presence on television, we had a young and charismatic president. One who would appear solemn and strained two years later to spoil our dinner when he said the Soviets were siting missiles in Cuba, only a few miles south of Florida, and those missiles, presumably nuclear, were aimed at the United States.
It wasn’t until that moment that the perils of post World War Two society became starkly apparent. I was in uniform, getting ready to go to a National Guard drill; our three-year old daughter was playing with her food. Marty and I looked at each other in alarm, both realizing simultaneously that our fool’s paradise was just that.
We’d been in a Cold War for 15 years, had been told to dig fallout shelters, had learned to recognize the yellow-and-black radiation symbols, had seen Nikita Khrushchev pound his shoe on the table at the United Nations, had seen the Soviets take over Hungary and Czechoslovakia and turn East Germany into a Communist power, had survived the Berlin airlift and a dozen other mini-crises.
But until that evening television broadcast that we were looking down the Soviet gun barrel all that other stuff was abstract, like reading history. Now it was real and imminent and for all I knew I would not come home from my National Guard drill, but would be activated.It’s amazing how blissfully ignorant we were about world affairs that could have brought on the Apocalypse. Even when Winston Churchill made his 1946 Iron Curtain speech at Westminster College in Fulton, only a few miles from where we lived, it didn’t set off any alarms. Sure, the Russians were bad guys now (they’d been our allies a couple of years earlier) and Uncle Joe Stalin suddenly was a monster, every bit as ruthless and evil as Adolph Hitler.
It just takes time for that to sink in to the Midwestern mentality which is more concerned with crops and weather, local politics and the fortunes of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Perhaps it’s a byproduct of maturation, but I think it was more a byproduct of a world increasingly gone awry, with the tools of modern communication helping to focus our attention. We’d had presidents shot before, but not in my lifetime and certainly not on film. We had one previous president threatened with impeachment, but a hundred years ago. Now we had one surrounded by a cordon of glowering aides, most of whom wound up in jail or threatened with it. We had a vice-president who resigned after being convicted of income tax evasion.
Spiro Agnew was famous for his quote about the “nattering nabobs of negativity,” which did as much as anything to turn me off on his smug self-righteousness. He called those who opposed the Viet Nam War “an effete corps of impudent snobs,” and by then I was tending toward being one of them. I wasn’t effete, nor a snob, but I certainly was getting more and more impudent, the more my leaders acted out of self-interest, rather than in the interests of the country.
Tricky Dick Nixon was too busy shoveling evasions on top of a steadily-growing scandal to worry about his crooked vice-president. He had his own crimes to cover up…and it was all on television. There were Haldeman and Ehrlichman, two more odious storm troopers never disgraced the Oval Office. John Mitchell, from whom even the most naïve person alive would not buy a used car, was the nation’s top cop, the quintessential fox guarding the chickenhouse.
From June 17, 1972, when five punk crooks tried to bug Democratic Headquarters in Washington’s Watergate Hotel until Aug. 8, 1974, we saw it unfold on television. The Washington Post broke the story and set the inexorable process moving, but most of us never read the Post. We got our recycled news from the television networks who struggled to recycle Woodward and Bernstein
The rats started fleeing the sinking ship a few months later when Haldeman and Ehrlichman and assistant attorney general Richard Kleindienst quit, and White House counsel John Dean was fired after the burglars were convicted.
Dean would get his revenge on television when he told the Senate Watergate committee that he had discussed a coverup of the Watergate burglary with Nixon at least 35 times. Once would have been enough to drag Nixon right into the soup with the rest of the lowlifes.
It was one of the three times in my life when Congress was spotlighted. Twice it was negative, once positive. The first was during the Army/McCarthy hearings when the kindly Joseph Welch, attorney for the Army (which had been accused of harboring Communists) wearily destroyed the brutal Joe McCarthy by saying, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.”
And the third was when Congress impeached Bill Clinton for what, while it was a silly and stupid misstep, amounted to nothing more than soiling the already damaged office of the Presidency with an unrelenting prosecution of a trivial offense.
The second, however, was a different story. With genial, gruff, tough Sen. Sam Ervin presiding, the legislators carefully and thoroughly peeled away the layers of Nixon’s deception and we watched it all happen, day after day, on television.
The contrast between that ugly profanation of the Presidency and what Bill Clinton did is stark and I think more apparent to people who lived through both scandals. Nixon was a crook, despite his oft-imitated statement to the contrary, while Bill Clinton was guilty of bad judgment (along with every president) and of lying to cover up a silly affair, not exactly a matter of national security. If we indicted presidents on technical violations of the law, meaningless to the well-being of the country, we wouldn’t have any presidents.
A good many presidents, including Jefferson, possibly Lincoln, Roosevelt and Eisenhower have had affairs and probably lied about it (or would have if someone had been gauche enough to ask). Nixon, on the other hand, was a paragon of marital virtue…and a crook.
It was Dick Nixon who destroyed my faith in politics as the preservation of a vital America, but it also was his near-impeachment that restored my faith in the collective wisdom of the citizens to control runaway pols. He got caught with his hand in the cookie jar and it cost him the presidency.
As things stand now I doubt the ability of any person of integrity and courage to run the country. So many concessions happen just to get elected, so many rules get bent and broken, that by the time anyone ascends to national political life he or she has caved in so many times on ethical and moral issues that it’s a habit. The name of the game is re-election and the only way to get re-elected is with big money.
Big money does not come from the average citizen. It comes from moneyed special interests and they don’t give out of the goodness of their hearts. Maybe it always has been that way, but I’ve come to believe that Mr. Truman was a man beholden to few and who did what he thought was right. I also believe Dwight Eisenhower’s motives usually were high-purpose.
Maybe John Kennedy and F.D.R. were so rich they didn’t need to wheel and deal with the power brokers—but they also were of the power broker circle by birth. Lyndon Johnson comes off better in retrospect than he did when he was president. Apparently he really did agonize over the stupid war in Viet Nam and he was a champion of civil rights.
His private opinions, now coming to light, show him to be deeply troubled by the war and by civil rights, in all the right ways. The same is true of Harry Truman, widely despised in his time, but now revealed to be a painfully honest man dedicated to the common good.
Maybe Bill Clinton or the Bushes or Reagan will show admirable sides of themselves when historians peel away the bullshit long after the presidents are gone. Or maybe they’ll prove to be as venal as Dick Nixon and absorbed only with their place in history and how to get there, nevermind the country.
I won’t be around to see it.

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  • December 9th, 2016

The Little Shack Out Back

I may have posted this blog before, but it’s so much fun that I thought I would do it again. A Christmas present from times past. And if you think this is fun click on the books link and order some of my books. They’re really fun.
By Joel M. Vance

When I was a kid, our primitive toilet structure leaned tiredly into the slope uphill from the equally ramshackle building where we lived, insuring that runoff into our cistern was virulently alive with e.coli bacteria. Consequently my father had to get drinking and cooking water from other sources.
The outhouse—fabled in story and song and now forgotten in an age when primitive toilet facilities are largely confined to the memories of the geriatric set (assuming they haven’t died from some bacteria-borne disease) It’s a minor miracle that anyone from the era of the outhouse managed to survive to the Biblical three score and ten and beyond. Life in outhouse times was not easy. My mother’s brother lost a leg to amputation…on the kitchen table in their northwest Wisconsin home which had, yes, an outhouse out back. Another uncle died as a child from diphtheria, a disease long since relegated to history books.
In the late 1940s my parents moved from a middle-class existence in a comfortable Chicago apartment with indoor facilities to an abandoned old railroad hotel in a Missouri town of 250 people, none of whom had anything more modern than a septic tank. And few of them were that advanced.
We were stuck with an uphill outhouse because the hotel was right on the street at the bottom of the hill—no possibilities of installing one farther down the drainage. Consequently the five-gallon water can, filled with fresh, uncontaminated water from elsewhere, became a necessary part of our lives.
My father had been raised on a hard rock Missouri farm that never had a modern toilet. He knew every chink of the family outhouse, winter and summer, until after he was a high school graduate. He migrated to Chicago from an outhouse but quit the city to move back to Missouri…and back to an outhouse. He gave up a salesman’s job in the city to oversee a farming enterprise—but without a place to live except for the decrepit, abandoned hotel which had been bought by a capricious partner for reasons that escaped everyone but the partner and who continued to live in Chicago with modern facilities.
So the outhouse returned to my parents’ lives and came into mine. It was a grim necessity, winter and summer. Winters often were harsh, with much snow and bitter cold. A trip to the facility, even in the daytime, was a mean experience, leading to the kind of perseverance and pluck that inspired the heroes of Horatio Alger novels. Disproving the notion that pluck will out, none of us ever became millionaires, although we did graduate to indoor plumbing.
There are a number of names for the outhouse, especially “privy” which is a corruption of “private.” In medieval times, bug-ridden folks hung their clothing in the privy to discourage moths (amazingly that didn’t seem to discourage people from wearing the clothes). Other outhouse alternative names include biffy, john or Johnny and crapper (mis-named for Thomas Crapper who was an English sanitary engineer who did not invent the flush toilet, as commonly supposed, and who also did not invent, refine or otherwise contribute to the outhouse). Australians call the outhouse the “thunderbox” and in New Zealand they are “long drops.” There are a number of less euphemistic names for the outhouse, including one that has made its way into male chauvinistic praise for the female form: “She’s built like a brick…” well you fill in the rest.
Nomadic tribes quite obviously didn’t pause long enough to build sanitary facilities. They pretty much went wherever the urge struck them and when the smell became too bad they moved on, leaving the miracle of sun and weather to neutralize the offal truth.
Country singer Billy Ed Wheeler captured the essence (sorry about that) of the outhouse in his wonderful song “Ode to the Little Brown Shack” where he speaks of utility of the Sears & Roebuck catalogue and dreaming of building castles “to the yellowjacket’s drone.” Anyone who has visited one of these structures in the heat of summer knows about the drone of insect life. An entomologist’s catalogue of noxious insects inhabits the outhouse, from species that sting, like bees and yellowjackets, to spiders ranging from the innocuous to the venomous. Mostly it’s a live and let live situation, but the persistent threat of insectival attack is a powerful incentive to finish the business at hand (or whatever) and get out.
There also is the snake which for some reason known only to cold-blooded creatures, finds the outhouse a lovely reptilian mansion. I’ve never encountered a snake in an outhouse, but plenty of nervous visitors have and I always check the likely niches for a coiled black rat snake (acceptable if not welcome) or a copperhead (definitely unwelcome).
The military equivalent of the outhouse is the slit trench. Traditionally this was exactly what its name implies, a deep trench surrounded by a privacy screen, within which the soldier crouched dutifully. Once finished, the soldier was expected to use an entrenching tool to cover the evidence with dirt. I witnessed a trooper who had, at an inconvenient moment, stabbed the entrenching tool into a yellowjacket’s nest. He came howling from the enclosure with his fatigues around his ankles and a swarm of angry insects nipping at his heels and elsewhere.
The slit trench was a temporary facility; the outhouse was more or less permanent, depending on how deep the hole beneath it. Nature will neutralize and absorb human waste, given time and the miracle of aerobic action, but with enough usage and time, even the deepest pit fills and then the outhouse must be moved to a new location.
The French are credited with innovating the septic tank, today’s answer to the old outhouse. It’s a relatively modern invention, dating to the mid-1800s (to 1883 in the United States). Today most rural households dispose of waste via a septic system. Waste material goes into a compartmented tank where anaerobic bacterial action breaks it down into sludge which sinks to the bottom of the tank and can be pumped out periodically (every three years for the average tank) and effluent which flows into a drain field and is absorbed in the soil and becomes tomorrow’s broccoli.
Vaudeville comedian Chic Sale glamorized the outhouse, which most urbanites who had originated on farms were trying to forget. Sale’s stage persona was Lem Putt, a carpenter specializing in the construction of outhouses. Sale published a collection of his monologues about outhouse construction and the small book became a best-seller and made the outhouse so well-known that people began calling them “Chic Sales.” Apparently Sale, who also played Abraham Lincoln in a forgotten movie, wasn’t pleased by this widespread association with outhouses but he made a bunch of money from the million-plus sale of the book which no doubt tempered his distress.
My association with the outhouse was a culture shock a retro introduction into frontier life—sort of living history. Coupled with the necessity of bathing in a galvanized wash tub, life in the ramshackle hotel generated the kind of can-do attitude which created presidents like Ol’ Rough & Ready and Honest Abe. Other rugged rural types became notorious outlaws—think Frank and Jesse, the Youngers and Pretty Boy Floyd.
When I was 10 years old, I got a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun and spent the next few weeks shooting at cans, bottles, birds and other targets with no effect. But I did manage to pin my cousin inside the family outhouse. I put a couple of pellets through the half-moon cutout whereupon he began to shout epithets as the little copper balls ricocheted around him. His screams fetched his mother and she confiscated my weapon and administered punishment that left my back end feeling remarkably as if I’d been using corncobs, which in more Spartan households, took the place of toilet paper.
Among rural fun lovers, before the advent of shooting holes in roadside signs (or terrorizing outhouse inhabitants), tipping outhouses was a popular activity. The object was to catch someone inside and heave the structure forward, onto its door so the person inside couldn’t get out without help. Bucolic buffoons also allegedly were fond of “cow tipping”—catching a drowsing bovine and flopping it over on its side. But research indicates it’s almost impossible to tip a cow over if the cow resents being tipped (which most cows do).
You still can find outhouse structures in campgrounds. One regal edifice sat atop California’s Mt. Whitney until 2007, but now hikers are issued a portable Wagbag, a carry-in, carry-out “sanitation kit.” I used a recycled .50 caliber ammunition can (minus the bullets) on a raft trip in the Grand Canyon and a friend brought a Porta Potty on a canoe trip in Missouri.
The quintessential outhouse was a two holer, the size of a conventional closet. By tradition it had an opening above eye level, often a half-moon shape to let light in and odor out. Commercial toilet paper was a luxury virtually never used—the Sear and Roebuck catalog, with its flimsy paper, offered nearly a thousand pages of comfort. Some hardy souls used corn cobs, readily available after the harvest, but exceedingly uncomfortable to apply—sort of like scratching a mosquito bite with a wood rasp.
I’ve never quite understood the reason for more than one hole unless earlier generations believed in conjugal closeness in all things. And why a four-holer, which does exist? That seems to carry familial intimacy beyond the comfort zone.
Some designs incorporate a child-sized hole, which makes sense unless you’re willing to make the tots use the adult orifice and risk having to fish them out of an awful mess. I have a relative who dropped his cell phone down the hole, retrieved it and still uses it, albeit somewhat gingerly. Aside from the catalogue, some outhouses are equipped with a bag of lime which, sprinkled through the hole after use, will keep odor down.
In the time of castles it would not do for the knight of the castle to get caught outside with his armor down, so to speak, so the privy became an indoor outhouse if that isn’t contradictory. Waste usually flowed directly into the castle moat creating a very effective barrier against invaders, making the water hazard a sort of miasmic minefield.
Today the phrase “a man’s home is his castle” still obtains but fortunately for everyone the concept of the reeking moat has vanished. In remote coves of rural America, the primitive outhouse still thrives, but increasingly less-so with the advent of urban sprawl, zoning regulations and other intrusions into bucolic independence.
The 2000 Census reports that 0.6 U.S. households are without indoor plumbing—an estimated 671,000 households or 1.7 million people who still trudge glumly from back door to outhouse, in dead of night, pitiless glare of day, bitter cold or stifling heat to listen to the yellowjackets drone and dream of building castles…with or without a convenient moat.
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