“Ow! That wasn’t a beetle!”
“Is that your face or did your neck throw up?”
The boys were playing punch-buggy in the back seat and the punches were getting harder.
“Time for a break, boys. Daddy, these guys need to run around,” observed Shirley.
We were driving through the Badlands of Alberta. Our pre-teen boys were stir-crazy and needed to get out of the car. Again.
My needs were even more basic. I had eaten something that didn’t agree with me and the spasms in my gut told me I needed to stop even more than the boys did. We were passing through a genuine ghost town, with nothing in it but the grain elevator. We stopped in the field of a desolate and overgrown community park.
Spying a large wooden outhouse shouted, “First dibs on the outhouse!” and ran for it. At this point I didn’t care if it was clean, as long as it wasn’t locked.
The old plank door stood ajar. Inside were two sections. I jogged into the toilet part while unbelting my shorts. Relief flowed through me as the noise and olfactory offense of my emergency purge filled the little room. As the pressure dropped and my heartbeat returned to normal I began to look around me. My eyes adjusted to the modest illumination from a neat and square high window. I saw straight boards silvered with age, a perfect vertical from a level floor. Every plank had been cut square and every joint was a snug fit. The two-by-fours were rough finished and a full two inches by four inches in size and not planed smaller. The wood was rough and durable, like the country around here.
Finishing, I stood and belted up my shorts again. Beside the toilet section was a half-wall separating it from the washing area. A plain counter had an enamel basin set into it and a pitcher of water stood on the shelf with a neatly lettered label ‘ for hand-washing only’. Sure enough it contained some summer-heated warm water and I used this with a dried bar of soap to wash my hands.
Despite the reek of my recent void, I found myself going back to examine the wooden plank walls. I sought and found the logically distanced nails, pounded in perfectly. No smiles, no missed hits. By the age of the silvered wood and the type of nail heads it was clear this was all built years before nail guns become common. The nails had been hammered just into the wood with one of those last hits that expertly sinks a nail without touching the wood itself.
“Dad, I need to pee,” a voice called from outside. A small hand pushed on the door but the hook and eye latch remained properly fastened.
“Be out in a sec,” I replied.
Behind me, framed into the corner was a vent stack, formed of plain boards to carry away any smelly fumes from the shitter box below the building to the airy breezes outside.
Simple, effective and low-tech, this building may have been forty years old or eighty. I marveled at the handiwork of this craftsman, probably long dead. Did he or she ever wonder if someone would notice this perfection?
The art of this place came from long practice and fingers grown used to forming, measuring, and cutting with millimeter accuracy. People this able don’t consider their talent any more than they consider breathing.
But I admired the craftsman and remembered his work.
One year my friend Kevin called and asked if I would build an outhouse for his cottage on Rice Lake. The old biffy, many years old and rarely used, was no longer good for emergencies. Kevin knows I like to build things, but I was busy. Too busy.
Days went by and it nagged at me.
My work was frustrating and I wasn’t seeing results. A vision of that old outhouse in Alberta, with its weathered old boards and perfect joints kept coming back. Within a few weeks I had arranged for a quiet autumn weekend at Kevin’s cottage. Kevin is an excellent cook and knows how to take time to create a perfect burger. Likewise I felt inspired to take my time and do a proper job.
We built the outhouse. It is not as good as the one in Alberta, but most of the joints are close, the wood is cut square, and there is a window high up. You can sit there and look around and not see too many mistakes. And there is a vent stack, leading those awful smells outside.