All the hullabaloo about which bathrooms kids should use has me thinking about toilets in general and school bathrooms in particular—and the clever people who invented modern sanitation and who keep our systems working. At the risk of sounding ancient, let me introduce you to the toilets of my youth.
While I attended a one-room country school for only a week (another story for another day), I spent enough weeks at summer camp and Vacation Bible School to become well acquainted with the outhouse. Our church had an outhouse, tucked into the trees where the wood ticks, snakes, lions, tigers, and bears lived. One kid even saw monkeys in the trees one dark New Year’s Eve when forced to make the trek to the facility while the adults congregated for fellowship in the church basement.
For one thing, it took a lot of courage to traipse out to them after dark and remain long enough to take care of business. Hooting owls, snapping twigs, and the whir of bat wings can develop a child’s imagination like no brightly tiled room or disinfected porcelain bowl ever could.
For another thing, learning to tolerate the stench, heat, and flies in the summer gave you the fortitude to withstand freezing your bare bum off in winter. I’m convinced the Eaton’s catalog for toilet paper automatically turned us into stalwart pillars of the community, too.
The Chemical Toilet
When my family moved to town, our new house included—luxury of luxuries—an actual indoor bathroom with a sink and tub. Why the previous owners had not installed a flush toilet remains a mystery. What we did have was called a chemical toilet: essentially, a 5-gallon metal pail with a handy-dandy carrying handle which fit inside a larger metal can with a seat on top. At the back of this “can” was a hole, and from that hole emerged a pipe leading up through the ceiling for ventilation. Each day, one of my brothers carried the pail to the outhouse, dumped it, rinsed it, and poured in a little powerful-smelling chemical called Misto-Van which didn’t so much extinguish the natural toilet smell as overpower it, burning off your nose hairs as a bonus.
I recall the freezing January day when my brother, in his hurry to complete his chore and return to the warmth and The Flintstones in living black and white, slipped and fell—spilling the contents of the pail out onto the snow. How long it took him to shovel it up I’m not certain, but I’m pretty sure it never happened again. Somehow this chore was relegated to the boys and I was never so thankful to have been born a girl.
When I first started Grade One in Amaranth, Manitoba, the six-room school had indoor bathrooms but still no actual plumbing, which is pretty weird now that I think about it. The four or five individual stalls in the girls’ room each had a toilet with a long, long drop to where everything collected in what my six-year-old imagination could only conclude must be hell itself. While outhouses could simply be moved to a new hole and the old hole filled in, how the contents of this indoor marvel were extracted when filled to capacity never crossed my mind. I was just glad we didn’t need to go outdoors to use them.
Outside the stalls, a row of water basins sat for our washing convenience. At lunch time, the older girls helped us little girls pour fresh wash water and dump our used water. Still another character-building practise, I suppose.
At some point our school upgraded to flush toilets and my parents installed one at home, too. We’ve never looked back.
Like me, you probably take your toilet for granted most days. You might even resent the frequency with which you need to use it or clean it. But think of the alternative. Think of the good folks who work at our Water Pollution Control Facility (affectionately known as the poop plant) every day so you can keep flushing. Think of the plumbers we think are overpaid until we have to do what they do. Think of the janitors who keep our public washrooms fit for use, and the nurses who take care of those who cannot use a toilet on their own.
And be grateful.