Excerpt from the memoir titled Nettles and Roses
Papa, with Charles’ help, dug a new hole for the outhouse when the contents of the previous hole had almost reached ground level. One day shortly before a new hole was dug, Ted and I found ourselves examining Mama’s new refillable ink pen. Ted was nine years old and I was seven. The year was 1953.
The pen fascinated us. When the tip was placed in an inkbottle, and a little lever on its side pulled up, ink was sucked into the body of the pen. Ted and I knew that we were not to fiddle with it for two reasons – we would likely spill the ink or manage to break the pen. But the thought of making squiggles on scraps of paper tempted us to quietly remove the pen from the top of the dresser where Mama kept it, tuck it and the inkbottle in pockets, and slip outside.
We filled the pen and took turns drawing and attempting to write elegantly on old envelopes and scraps of paper. Our artistic and literary endeavors ended when I had to pee. We walked to the outhouse, and I kept the door open, talking to Ted while relieving myself. After pulling up my panties and picking up the pen that I had placed next to the toilet hole, I was suddenly compelled to hold the pen over the hole. Ted watched mesmerized by the thought that I might drop it. I looked at him, looked at the pen, and for a reason that still eludes me, my fingers opened, and the pen dropped into the muck below. Ted and I looked at each other in disbelief. Then we both looked through the hole and could barely see the end of the pen.
“We’ve got to get it out,” I said quietly.
“You’ve got to get it out,” Ted replied.
I agreed that it was my responsibility, and I was small enough to fit through the opening. So, we devised a plan – boards for standing on would be dropped onto the muck and Ted would lower me down on a rope. After acting on our plan, I found myself standing on boards that were sinking slowly into foul smelling excrement. I pulled the pen from where it protruded, wiped it off with a page from the Sear Roebuck catalog that Ted dropped down to me, and stuck it in my pocket. Looking up, I could see Ted’s face staring through the toilet hole.
“Okay, pull me up,” I said.
I felt the rope tightening on my waist, but I remained standing on the boards.
“You’re too heavy,” Ted called. Then he added, “I’m going to tie the rope to the tractor.” Luckily it was parked nearby. “You’ll have to climb out on your own.”
And that’s what I did. Holding the rope tightly, I braced my back against the base of the toilet wall and climbed hand over hand until I could reach Ted’s outstretched arm. He then grabbed the collar of my dress and pulled me through the opening intended for expulsion rather than extraction.
We looked at each other, and he said, “You stink.”
Together we walked to the river and waded in fully dressed. I scrubbed my shoes, and Ted scrubbed the back of my dress. I carefully removed the pen from my pocket and rinsed it thoroughly. Afterward, we sat in the sun while our clothes dried. Mama waved to us from the garden, and we waved back as though nothing was amiss.
“I’ll put it back on the dresser. You wait here,” I whispered.
When I returned and sat down near Ted, he looked at me and asked, “Why did you drop the pen?”
I looked at him with bewildered eyes and shook my head. I didn’t have an answer. That evening, to silence my troubled conscience, I told Mama about the incident, and she asked the same question, “Why did you drop it?”
“I don’t know. I just couldn’t stop myself. I held my hand over the hole and opened my fingers.”
“Well, the next time you feel the urge to do something that you know is wrong or just plain stupid, remind yourself of the toilet hole,” Mama wisely advised. She knew that I felt sincerely remorseful.
When I think back on this experience, I still don’t know why I dropped the pen, but one thing is certain, if my childhood home had had the convenience of indoor plumbing, I wouldn’t have had the unusual experience of rappelling and spelunking in a well-used outhouse.