The Specialist

Recently, I had a guy ask me about a trenchless solution to his broken sewer line in at his family’s cabin in the Pennsylvania Appalachians. The drain line going from his septic tank to his drainage field was Orangeburg and had collapsed in a number of places. I told him that we couldn’t use pipe lining to fix it because the only thing pipe lining will do on a collapsed sewer line is make it smoother on the inside – but it will still be a collapsed drain line. I told him we would need to video his sewer pipe to confirm exactly how collapsed it was but that he did still have a trenchless or “no-dig” choice – pipe bursting or even horizontal directional drilling combined with pipe bursting. If a sewer line video inspection showed there was enough room in the collapsed sewer line for a 3/4” steel cable, we could pipe burst the old Orangeburg drain piping and he’d have a new HDPE sewer line installed which would last for a very long time (estimates range from 50 to 100+ years). If the Orangeburg sewer was totally collapsed, we could probably run a directional drill through it and then pull a cable back through the broken or collapsed pipe. Once the cable was through, our pipe bursting equipment would be strong enough to get through the old drain line.

Knowing there were indeed options to repair his broken sewer using trenchless or “no-dig” technologies was a relief to him. But he said he was still disappointed about his outhouse. “What outhouse?” I asked. He said when the other plumber found the broken sewer line and said he would have to dig it all up at a lot of money, he had an idea to build an outhouse like the old cabin had originally. He thought that would give his family and friends more of an old time feeling of getting away from it all. He said he made a nice one too, but people were reluctant to use it. Surprisingly, it wasn’t because it was so primitive that people didn’t like it. It was more about being so much on display when they went to use it they didn’t like. “Going to the outhouse became a spectator sport,” he said. I asked him how he decided where to put it. He said he put it where he thought it would look the nicest and was the most convenient – right across from the cabin door, just on the other side of the parking area, under a beautiful big old oak tree.

“I told him that he should have consulted “The Specialist” before he built. “Specialist?” he said. “There’s really an outhouse specialist?” “Not A specialist,” I explained, “but “THE Specialist.” “The Specialist” is a story published in 1929, which recounts conversations with an old carpenter who has specialized in building outhouses in the central Illinois countryside of Sangamon County. In the story the carpenter recounts going to meet a farmer to see about building him a new privy. The old carpenter tells it this way:

“Elmer comes out and we get to takin’ about a good location. He was all fer putting her right alongside a jagged path runnin’ by a big Northern Spy.” (That’s a type of apple tree – my note.)

“I wouldn’t do it, Elmer’” I sez; “and I’ll tell you why. In the first place, her bein’ near a tree is bad. There ain’t no sound in nature so disconcertin’ as the sound of apples droppin’ on th’ roof. Then another thing, there’s a crooked path runnin’ by that tree and the soil there ain’t adapted to absorbin’ moisture. Durin’ the rainy season she’s likely to be slippery. Take your grandpappy – goin’ out ther’ is about the ony’ recreation he gets. He’ll go out some rainy night with his nighties flappin’ around his legs, and like as not when you come out in the mornin’ you’ll find him prone in the mud, or maybe skidded off one of them curves and wound up in the corn crib. No, sir,” I sez, “put her in a straight line with the house and if it’s all the same to you have her go past the wood-pile. I’ll tell you why.

“Take a woman, for instance – out she goes. On the way back she’ll gather five sticks of wood, and the average woman will make four or five trips a day. There’s twenty sticks in the wood box without any trouble. On the other hand, take a timid woman, if she sees any men folks around, she’s too bashful to go direct out so she’ll go to the wood-pile , pick up the wood, go back to the house and watch her chance. The average timid woman – especially a new hired girl – I’ve knowed to make as many as ten trips to the wood-pile before she goes in, regardless. On a good day you’ll have your wood box filled by noon, and right there is a savin’ of time.” …

“Now,” I sez, how do you want that door to swing? Openin’ in or out” He sid he didn’t know. So I sez it should open in. This is the way it works out: Place yourself in there. The door openin’ in, say about forty-five degrees. This gives you air and lets the sun beat in. Now, if you hear anybody comin’, you can give it a quick shove with your foot and there you are. But if she swings out, where are you? You can’t get up off that seat, reach way around and grab ‘er without getting’ caught, now can you? He could see I was right.”

“So I build his door like all my doors, swingin’ in, and, of course, facing east, to get the full benefit of the th’ sun. And I tell you, gentlemen, there ain’t nothing more restful than to get out there in the mornin’, comfortably seated, with th’ door about three-fourths open. The old sun, beatin’ in on you, sort of relaxes a body – makes you feel m-i-g-h-t-y, m-i-g-h-t-y, r-e-s-t-f-u-l.” ….

Funny, of course, but also insightful into a world really not that long past. Also a reminder that there’s tricks to every trade, and experience does have value. As I used to be told as an apprentice, “Doing it right is faster than doing it twice.”