Growing up in the interior of Alaska in the 1980s, most people didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing. There were no phones or television and everyone knew everyone.
To cope with these conditions, people learned little tricks that helped them get by. Chop ice in a lake or stream to get water. Bath using towels. Use mirrors to amplify lantern light. And probably the most important skill, you learned to hover when using the outhouse. Whether it was summer and it stank or winter and it was frozen, you didn’t let your derriere go near the hole.
Down the road from us lived a young man named Fred. Fred was engaged to a woman that he had met when he went back home in the Lower 48. They carried on a long distance relationship and despite being a city girl, she was excited to join him in rural Alaska to begin their life together.
She flew to Fairbanks, which was the closest city to Central, where they got married and he put her up in an apartment while he finished upgrading his small cabin to give her some creature comforts. My dad spent many days down there helping him build and add on to his cabin.
They added a small claw footed bathtub on the far side of the wood stove so she would have a place to bath. They built a gravity water system so she could have “running” water. Counters and cabinets and curtains were all installed. The only thing he couldn’t do was indoor plumbing.
Across the little creek by his cabin stood a small outhouse. He had toyed with ideas of heating it with a small stove, but ruled out the efficiency of that since potty breaks could not always be scheduled.
He toyed with making a heated seat out of electric socks, but the D batteries were in the way and they ran out quickly. He even considered making a portable seat that could be kept warm in the cabin and carried with you, but that didn’t really work since it grew cold by the time you reached the outhouse and installed it so it didn’t slide around.
In the end, he decided to create a cushy seat with fabric that wouldn’t feel too cold and would warm up quickly when you sat on it. Of course, there were other issues, but he felt this was the best solution he had on hand. For really cold nights, he would use a honey bucket, but that was never a great option in such a small space.
After school, my brothers and I headed down to Fred’s place to help put the final touches on things since his bride was showing up that evening in a bush plane. It was mostly cleaning up the construction and securing the last few things.
Fred was so excited that he was barely any help at all. He was mostly putting up pictures and decorations to make the place look more homey.
The temperature had plummeted to about 20 degrees shortly after the sun had set and was now 15 below zero. Fred was worried the plane wouldn’t fly in this cold, but we prepared anyways.
I was sweeping the sawdust off the small porch and clearing the snow off the steps when Fred headed out to the outhouse with a hammer and a picture he decided needed to be hung in there.
Some time passed, maybe 15 minutes, when dad stuck his head out the door and asked if I’d seen Fred. I pointed in the direction of the outhouse and dad told me to go check on Fred.
I grabbed a lantern and headed down to the creek. It was only a few feet wide, but when the temperature drops suddenly, it can crack and cause overflow, so I proceeded carefully. As I got closer, I heard a banging coming from the outhouse and was relieved to think Fred was just having difficulties putting up his picture.
Only the banging continued and he yelled for help and I soon discovered he was having much different difficulties. I ran up to the outhouse and called for him. He stopped pounding, but wouldn’t open the locked door.
“Go get your dad,” he told me, “and tell him to bring hot water.”
I scurried back to the cabin and burst through the door, relaying the directions Fred had given me. Dad snatched the coffee pot off the stove and I led him back to the outhouse.
Fred had opened the door and was just sitting there. In my head, I had imagined he had fallen through the hole, though that didn’t explain the need for hot water.
“I’m stuck,” Fred exclaimed.
Dad offered to pull him up, but discovered that Fred was more frozen than stuck. When building the seat for the outhouse, he’d made sure to build extra supports and in doing so, had used some large headed 20 pennyweight nails. He had not installed the seat yet, so when he sat down, his warm, moist skin instantly froze to the nails that were exposed to air underneath. He’d hoped his body heat would free him, but it was too cold for that.
The hot water, which was quickly cooling, had done enough to free Fred and my dad and oldest brother helped him hobble back to cabin. They laid him over the end of the bed and inspected his injuries; 3 dark purple dots across both butt cheeks.
Then the plane buzzed us to let us know they had made it.
I drove my snow machine up to the airstrip and met the pilot with the young lady who was surprised that her husband hadn’t come to meet her. I helped the pilot prep his plane to be parked, then took the young lady home.
I helped carry her bags up the front steps and when we were both at the top, I opened the door so we could enter quickly. Every lantern was on high as we entered and the young lady broke out in a grin as she saw her husband who was trying to sit up on the bed.
My dad walked over and greeted her and handed her a small jar of ointment and congratulated her on her marriage. We left quickly and returned the next day to check up on them.
Fred was bound up for a couple of days. He could walk around stiffly, but couldn’t sit down. We had them over for dinner and he had to lay on the floor to eat.
They only lasted a couple of months that winter before Fred had to bring her back to civilization. It was too cold and rough, though I give her credit as she came out the next summer and tried another winter.
And she learned that even with a cozy seat, to hover when you use the outhouse.