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  • Privy Thoughts
  • Randal L. Hall (bio)

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"Intellectuals often idealize the pre-industrial past. I suspect, though, that they have never awoken regularly in an unplumbed house on cold winter mornings. Yet, I couldn't suppress a surge of admiration as I stood on the back porch and gazed across the fresh spring grass toward the squat little outhouse nestled at the edge of the meadow, behind the old chicken coop. You see, all outdoor toilets are not the same, and ours has some unusually fine qualities." All photographs courtesy of Randal L. Hall.

[End Page 111]

I flushed with excitement. After generations of anticipation, the house finally had a functioning toilet.

Naomi and I had worked toward this moment for six of our nine years of marriage—ever since my grandparents' old farmhouse in Carroll County, Virginia, came to us in 2000, shortly after my 93-year-old paternal grandfather died of lung cancer (following about eighty-six years of smoking). The house in Fancy Gap brought with it many blessings, including a deep well with minerally, cold water that blasted straight into the kitchen through a creaky faucet. That was it for the plumbing. Indoors, that is.

Even without a bathroom, the house had fulfilled its purpose since 1944, when the first room was built to protect my ailing great-grandfather against the cold Blue Ridge winters. He died in it the next year. After that, my grandfather, his sons, and a few neighbors and relatives cut oak lumber from the farm and added three more rooms, and the whole family moved out of a drafty two-story antebellum log cabin into the new farmhouse. It was a short journey: the cabin was (and is) situated only about fifteen feet farther down the gently sloping hillside.

That sort of rootedness—a practical willingness to dig where you stand—explains why it took Naomi and me some six years to get a bathroom installed. My ancestors had always hesitated to discard anything of conceivable future use, and for the final five years that my grandfather spent in medical facilities, the house had sat empty. The temptation was too great for the various family members who ended up storing even more things they couldn't bear to throw away.

We concocted a game plan. New windows, heavy metal paint on the rusting tin roof, and a few touchups here and there assured us that the structure would remain steady on its feet for another five decades. Then, for years, we spent weekends driving up into the mountains from our North Carolina suburb and carting away the bits and pieces stored in every nook, cranny, root cellar, outbuilding, porch, and room. Three generations of stuff takes time to sort out. Two engine blocks, three old refrigerators (long used to house nails and screws sorted into metal coffee cans), piles of carefully folded, used Christmas paper, a stack of paneling cast aside when my late uncle remodeled his place: the flow of riches seemed never ending.

There was cleaning to be done, quite a task in the wake of a lifelong smoker, and painting. Our progress slowed when, like millions before us, we migrated to Texas for better jobs. After that, our work on the house occurred in intense weeklong bursts, usually in the crisp fall and spring seasons so lacking on the Gulf Coast, and by the fall of 2005 Naomi and I had finally cleared, patched, and painted the house and the outbuildings. It was time for the last step. This one we reserved for the professionals, those sainted men with PVC pipes, copper tubing, T-joints, and other venerated relics. The plumbers invaded the crawl space and our checkbook; in the spring, the big moment arrived. [End Page 112]

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"As with everything on my grandfather's place in his later years, the toilet was in the careful custody of my dad. With me and my siblings as onlookers, the two of them moved the stout little building from its old pit to the new one when the cow died. The all-day project involved hoisting the...


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pp. 111-115
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