Three Holes Are Better Than Two or The Great Outhouse Caper

The Texas Story Project.

As with most families, the six Benning children, with the exception of first born Olis, gathered shortened versions of their Christian names: Katherine was also called Kate, Ruth Ruthie, William Bill, Robert Bob, and Wilhelmina Willy. Some attempted to call Olis Ollie, but only women could get away with it. Any boys or men making that mistake received a black eye or bloody nose compliments of Olis.

Life on the Benning farm in the nineteen twenties was all about work, sharing that work, respect for one another, and giving God his due on Sunday. Monday through Friday the men were up at four in the morning to start milking, collect eggs, and organize equipment for the day’s farm work. The women rose at four thirty to prepare breakfast and assign house duties like cleaning and washing. These responsibilities were collective efforts, structured and repetitive and crucial for successful existence. And rarely were these schedules altered, only illness or injury prompting revision in the daily routine.

Saturdays, however, were reserved for rest and relaxation: sleeping late, trips to town, maybe a movie, livestock shows, and county fairs. As the children matured, dating also came into play with a watchful eye from patriarch Joseph Benning, especially in regard to his three daughters.

Sunday was church day. And after church it was family lunch around a table of fried chicken or pot roast, home-made bread, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, or beets with a cobbler or fruit pie to top everything off. Sometimes relatives came by to share food and stay for an afternoon visit. At other times, the Bennings took on the role of visitor to kinfolk’s homes. Sunday evening it was back to church, a supper of leftovers afterward, and early to bed to rest up for another Monday.

In future years, the Benning boys would attend college for their chosen profession. Their sisters, on the other hand, would graduate High School, find jobs, marry and eventually have families of their own. These forgone conclusions, however, were subject to unforeseen circumstances: accidents, severe illness, dropping out of school, doing something unlady-like such as wanting to go to college instead of settling for a predetermined life of repetitive drudgery (Wilhelmina damn near got there too), and any other rebellious acts that attract adolescents and teenagers. But all and all and during that time period in rural America, the path of life was pretty much predetermined. Parents raised their sons for success and their daughters for marriage. And at least one child usually stayed to take over the farm when their mother and father hopped aboard the passenger train of old age.

As far as what was shared in the Benning household other than work—clothes handed down from one child to the next, beds, same gender full bathing (usually on Saturday with sponging during the week), and the outhouse. No privacy in the privie when you had six children and two adults.

Bath day for the Bennings improved when Joseph purchased a large iron tub. It was enormous and heavy with metal feet molded into eagle claws. Two could sit quite comfortably in that bathtub, and as only one tub of water was used for all, the last occupants inherited the sludge. Joseph would bathe with the odd-boy-out first followed by his wife Claire with the extra girl. As there were no favorites at bath time, the children rotated these positions of privilege each week. The pecking order of the paired bathers was rotated as well so they avoided constant repeats of that last, grungy placement.

But the outhouse was a different story, a two-hole, middle-class affair. In times of emergencies, it could be occupied by two males or females simultaneously. Not exactly the spot for cozy conversations but a good option, as far as a two-hole accessory was concerned. It had occurred to Olis, Bill, and Bob there might be a way to bring this state of affairs up to the standard of the new bathtub—mainly a three-holer (really uptown in the farming community). No farm nearby the Bennings possessed such a luxury. Three-holers were usually reserved for school yards or Rockefellers, not country folks. Olis and Bill recalled such a magnificent structure from their school days in Cottonwood, Texas before the Bennings relocated to Willowhill.

“The school’s gone under because Cottonwood is failing,” Bill said. “The place will be nothing more than a ghost town soon. Maybe we should see if that three-holer is still there and bring it home if it is.”

“I guess that would give us five holes,” Bob snickered. “Mom and Dad could have their own private privie.”

Olis laughed and agreed. But the boys knew better than to let their father in on the plan. Joseph Benning was honest to the core and would not dream of taking someone else’s property. So, the brothers waited for a moonless night, dressed in dark clothes lest some night denizen observe their activities, and headed down the road with their father’s flatbed wagon and mule in the hope they’d find the Grail of outhouses while the rest of the family slept.

The Benning boys were stair-stepped in age. Olis being the eldest and most laid back of the three was, naturally, the wagon driver and in charge of the caper. Bill was next in line and tended to be more analytical and level-headed than his two brothers. Bob, the youngest, was the more rambunctious and hot tempered of the Benning clan. Together the three made a solid team for such a mission.

It was almost midnight when the brothers headed out on a mid-October Friday night. The air was fall crisp, the night sky littered with stars and wisps of clouds that appeared like dark splotches without moonlight. Cottonwood was about fifteen miles down the road, so the brothers determined they could make it there and back well before sunrise. On their journey between the Benning farm and the deserted school at Cottonwood, the boys rode by fields plowed flat from harvesting. Teepees of wheat stood like night sentries as the wagon passed by.

“I remember how scared you’d get when we went out walking on nights like this when we were kids.” Bill said to Bob. “You thought those wheat stacks were following us.”

“I was just scared it might be Greta Reinhardt from the next farm over is all,” Bob said. “Lord that Greta was willing, but she had enough ugly on her to make a monkey blush.”

Olis chuckled and added, “That didn’t stop you from dipping your pole in her pond though, did it?”

“Well,” Bob said with a sigh. “Greta never complained much about that burlap bag I made her wear over her head.” He then added with full knowledge Bill was of the ‘keep it zipped until marriage’ society, “Didn’t yall’ do the same?”

“Oh, he-haw you,” Bill said. “My palm is more attractive than that she-devil.”

“And neighbor Reinhardt’s sheep are quite the lookers too,” Olis said with a “BaaaBob, oh, BaaaBob” tacked on for effect.

That got the three laughing and punching each other with good-natured jabs. They were huddled together in the wagon with the warmth of their young, work-hard bodies moving from one another in a unity that only family blood conveys.

“And you are not off the hook, Olis,” Bob said between spurts of laughter. “You better let us in on what Tracy Jezek and you were up to in the hayloft the other day. I hear them Czech gals can put some polka moves on you you won’t soon forget. Make you give up waltzing altogether.”

Olis’ side was hurting by now. “Just you watch it there. We were only fooling around a bit. Way too boring for your tastes.”

“Well, then Jak se Más to you, fella.” Bob said.

“And Dobře to you too,” Bill added.

After awhile, the barbs and laughter calmed, and, other than an occasional giggle, the brothers moved ahead with only the soft clomp of the mule’s hooves echoing in the night air.

It wasn’t long until a weathered sign post heralding Cottonwood, Texas Pop. 125 advised the boys their journey was over, the abandoned school the only building there except for a small mercantile at the center of the dying town. The wind picked up from the North and stirred the dirt road, but the boys could see well enough in the dusty gloom to make out the object of their quest. A monolith of upward mobility, the outhouse stood tall and silhouetted against dim starlight next to a hitching post where kids from nearby farms once tied their horses or mules for the duration of classes. Both objects simply ghosts themselves now that children used them no more.

“That is one beautiful sight,” Bob said with Olis and Bill grinning on each side of him.

The three exited the wagon. Olis dug around in the wagon’s bed until he came up with a kerosene lantern. “We better look inside before we do any lifting. No use in being surprised.”

Bob and Bill sized up the surrounding area and saw nothing around.

“This place is deserted for sure,” Bill said.

As Olis held the lantern’s door open, Bob pulled a match book from his shirt pocket, struck a match in his cupped hands, and lit the wick.

“Well, looky here,” Olis said, holding the lantern against the outhouse door. A carved half-moon grinned back at him. “It’s even decorated. Dad’s going to love that for sure.”

“If he lets us keep it. You know how he is,” Bill said.

“I think he’ll be okay with this,” Bob said. “He and Mom will be getting a private toilet because of it. Besides, the girls won’t necessarily have to wait for us to get through either.”

“Well let’s stop jawing and get to it. We’ll never know if Dad will let us keep it if we don’t get it home first,” Olis said, opening the outhouse’s door.

The structure’s rusted hinges creaked in protest at being disturbed. A shiver ran up Bob’s spine. “Damned eerie sound,” he said as Olis held the lantern inside.

His face oddly maniacal in the shadows thrown by the lantern, Olis turned and looked at his brothers. “Sure enough, just like we remembered. She’s a three-holer alright.” He then stuck his head further inside the privie. “Doesn’t smell like it’s been used in a long while. Still got a hint of fart ghosts though.”

Bob and Bill giggled and then nearly jumped out of their skins when a large object ran from the outhouse straight at them.

“Rat!” Olis screamed. “Goddamn giant rat!”

But it wasn’t a rat, it was a pissed off opossum hissing and showing its needle teeth to Bob and Bill, who took off running in opposite directions while the opossum sniffed the air a bit and then waddled off into the darkness between and away from the unwelcome, human intruders.

Olis leaned back against the outhouse, his heart thudding like a steam piston against his ribcage. “Come on back, boys,” he called after awhile. “I think that critter’s gone.” As Bob and Bill moved back in from the shadows, Olis took a closer look inside the outhouse.

“Well, I feel right foolish now,” Bill said.

“You sure nothing else is holed up in there?” Bob asked. “No ghoulies, ghosties or long-legged beasties? I’ve had enough excitement, thank you very much.”

“Nothing but a few spiders, and this,” Olis said and stuck out a hand holding a corncob.

Bob grinned. “Is it used?” he asked. “I might need it myself after that last incident.”

That got them to laughing again, and it wasn’t long until they had the trophy lifted into the wagon bed and were headed back down the road toward home.

As expected, the boys made it back before dawn, but their dad was already up and waiting for them. Sitting on the front porch swing, Joseph Benning sipped some coffee with his morning cigarette. The boys couldn’t see their father’s outline, only the movement of the cigarette’s fiery ember caught their eyes. There was a collective groan from the three as Olis halted the wagon.

“Guess he decided not to sleep late today,” Bob said.

Joseph stood up and walked nonchalantly toward the wagon. “Morning boys,” he said.

“Morning, Dad,” they answered.

“Up early I see.” Joseph studied the object in the wagon. “That the old Cottonwood School outhouse?”

“How’d you know that?” Bill asked.

Joseph took a drink of coffee and one last drag on his rolled Bugle Boy. He let the smoke curl slowly from his nostrils as he dropped the cigarette on the ground and crushed it in a back and forth motion with the heel of his shoe. “Hard to forget a three-holer like that one.”

Olis saw his dad’s displeasure and made an attempt to justify his and his brothers’ actions. “Don’t worry about helping us put it up. We’ll have it unloaded and ready to go before Mom and the girls have breakfast ready.”

“Oh, I think you boys will miss breakfast this morning,” Joseph said with a slight grin. “After you’ve watered and fed that mule before you make the trip back to Cottonwood and put that outhouse where it came from, you might make it back in time for lunch.”

“I told you so,” Bill said under his breath.

“But, Dad,” Bob protested. “We thought . . .”

“Spect you should get started,” Joseph said. “Don’t want to waste your one day off, do you?”

Before Bob could say anything else, Olis shushed him and said, “Yes sir, we’ll take care of it.”

“You boys be careful now,” Joseph said and then walked back toward the house as Olis steered the wagon in the direction of the barn to refresh the mule.

With the sun winking above the horizon, the brothers started down the road to Cottonwood again and Bob said, “If we’d made it back before he got up and the girls saw this beauty they’d have talked him into keeping it.”

“If ifs and buts were candy and nuts we’d all have a merry Christmas,” Bill added.

“And breakfast,” Olis said, his stomach grumbling.

After they reached Cottonwood and returned the outhouse to its station, Bob opened the privie’s door and went inside, saying as he did, “Hell, I’m gonna use this thing at least once.”

‘We’ll join you,” his brothers said.

And on that chilly morning, the Benning boys discovered that, if need be, one corn cob can go a long way.

Timothy C. Hobbs is a retired Medical Technologist living in Temple, Texas. The story of his three uncles' outhouse caper is one of many infamous, legendary family stories.

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