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Privy piety

By September 22, 2017 3 Comments

I worked there for only three summers. I’m sure there was summer help, like me, who worked there longer, so I probably can’t claim a place in the Guinness Book of Records. But given the number of pit toilets I’ve cleaned in a my life, I deserve a title. Whatever the number, let it be known that I scrubbed vastly more than my share, because about a dozen privies remained in faithful service at Terry Andrea State Park (WI), where I worked for three summers a thousand years ago.

All those privies had to be cleaned. Daily. Sometimes twice on heavy weekends. Everything too–especially what didn’t make the target. When it comes to privies, I hate to say it, but I know my way around. Still, familiarity breeds contempt; thus, I carry not a whiff of nostalgia.

It may well be that all that experience makes me especially hostile about those that need to be cleaned. Like Sunday, at Spirit Mound State Park (SD), where whoever had the job was clearly AWOL. But when there’s pits, you can’t be choosy. This was the only facility anywhere close, even though a forest of spindly sunflowers–see ’em?–offered passable cover in an otherwise treeless prairie.

No matter. The privy it was. When your years are three-score and ten, once necessity compels, choices diminish rapidly–you take what you get, or what you can get to. I went into that water-less water closet knowing it was what it was, but what’s a man to do? Or woman? Not having to sit was a blessing, but looking down into the abyss is no picnic either.

To say the least.

But, I’m a veteran, remember? “Many’s the time” and all of that. I’ve cleaned hundreds. Men’s and women’s scrubbed he them, so grit and bear it, I told myself. There was no turning back.

Now there’s a light switch in this one. Imagine that!–a light switch. Honestly, who really wants to see? If they’re going to modernize, why not dig in a septic tank, right? But there on the wall is a switch box with a heavy cord running up and out of the vent at the roof.

Behind that cord someone had stuck a gospel tract–“SOMEDAY YOU WILL STAND BEFORE GOD…” I am not making this up. There in this loathsome one-holer, someone planted a sermon in case you’re bored. Or else. . .well, I’d rather not consider the possibilities.

Sounds awful, I know, but I could not help thinking of my mother’s blessed piety. Years ago, she bought a bale of gospel tracts and had a wonderful plan for her family, each of whom by that time were out of the house, hither and yon. We could all take a pile along when we left and leave them here, there, and everywhere for people to pick up and read. I don’t know why, but she too believed in restrooms. She probably guessed that what goes in within those walls is mindless activity gospel tracts, like the backs of cereal boxes, quite nicely fill. People are looking for something to read. It’s as natural as, well, you know. My mom would have thought that tract right there in that pit toilet was especially sweet.

I don’t know what Freud would do with all of this–or me, I suppose; but I grabbed that privy tract and stuck it in my pocket. That’s is it right here.

The real blessing is that somewhere in Clay County, SD, a gentleman or a lady, my age, I’m sure, is thinking that you just never know what kind of eternal service can be rightly accomplished by a little old gospel tract. When he sees the one he left is gone, he’ll leave them in every last restroom he visits, a spiritual investment.

Mom would not have appreciated the privy. She’d probably used a score of them herself in her childhood years. But oh, how she would have loved that little tract stuck behind that electrical cord, a gospel tract proclaiming the imminent Judgment. Like Charles Spurgeon, she’d have loved the possibilities.

Let it be known, this poor creature left that smelly privy smiling.

Maybe I shouldn’t have taken it.

Tell you what–next trip, I’ll be sure it finds its way back.


James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Andrew Rienstra says:

    Just too much Jim! I couldn’t stop laughing. You definitely have a gift, and I think of how that must have been nurtured by your mother’s sincerely and energy for sharing the gospel in more than words. She impressed this young man, who along with others in that smal Wisconsin town, with their simple life of faith, challenged and nurtured my faith.

  • Jim says:

    Wonderful! I’m with you. Take them out of the privies, and everywhere else for that matter.

  • George Ertel says:

    A few years ago, one evening I was walking back from dinner on a downtown street in Fort Worth where I was consulting at the time. I approached a small group of men passing out tracts. One of them handed me one as he said — and I can still hear him — “How about some reading material.” I took his offering, knowing it would make him feel good. It never occurred to me to belittle the guy for trying to spread the gospel.

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