The Backhouse and Other Summer Thoughts

Each year, when the summer months of June, July, and August roll around, I am reminded of the early summers of my life.  Until I was fifteen years of age, I spent all of my summers at my Uncle Tom’s camp in Wilmington.  Although the camp was located more than a mile from the cool, refreshing waters of Silver Lake, it was “the lake” to all of us who spent our summers there. 

Because those summers of my yesterdays hold so many happy memories for me, mention of the camp can be found in many things that I have written over the years.  In the June 27, 1985 issue of the Charlestown Patriot, I made one of those visits to the place that was so special to me.

I am older now.  I have been around long enough to have worn out a few pair of shoes and to have experienced some things that I now know will never become fashionable again.

Many of my encounters with a primitive style of living took place at my Uncle Tom’s camp in Wilmington.  Built in the 1920’s, the camp featured the latest in plumbing and running water of that day.  That, of course, being none at all!

By the time I began spending my summers at the camp during the 1940’s things now taken for granted were virtually non-existent.

Somehow I did not consider the outdoor well, or “the pump”, as we referred to it, as an inconvenience, but rather as a way of life in the country.  Trips to fetch water were regarded in much the same way.

Beside “the pump” that stood about three and a half feet above the ground atop a section of pipe, there was found a sluice which carried excess water away from the feet of the person doing the pumping.

Before the pump could begin to pull water, it would have to be primed.  This necessary feature of the hand operated pump required that a bottle of water be left nearby.  To forget to do so after each use of the pump resulted in a trip to a neighbor’s well for priming water.

The first person out of bed each morning was charged with the chore of bringing in water for coffee and for the breakfast dishes.  After realizing this as being the unwritten rule, I quickly learned to feign sleep until others had awakened.

Now, where there is no water, than can be no tub, no shower and, yes, no toilet.  For the kids daily swimming in Silver Lake provided  the cleanliness necessary for everyday living, but Sunday was another story entirely..  Sunday was the Lord’s Day, and heaven forbid you would wear a week-long coat of dirt, dust, or grime to Mass.  Thus, Saturday night baths became a tradition of sorts.  If the day happened to be warm, we would march to the lake with a bar of soap to prepare for our weekly attendance at Mass, and with a rich lather of suds added to the usual splashing, we came to enjoy the evening.  However, if the day was not conducive to bathing in the lake, the dreaded galvanized tub would be dragged from the garage and buckets full of ice cold water would be pumped from the well to fill its yawning mouth.

We, the kids, would line up for our baths, not a one volunteering to be first for this was the coldest cleansing of all.  With each succeeding bath, the water became cloudy with soap and dirt, but to the delight of those waiting, it became mysteriously warmer.  Only in the many years that followed did we discover the true answer to this earlier, inexplicable phenomenon.

Naturally, the younger children were forced to the front of the line, but each summer, as one grew older and taller, his or her place in the line moved closer , ever closer, to the rear where the warmer, albeit, dirtier water would be found.  If we only knew!

The biggest problem created by the absence of plumbing, however, was not found in the lack of bathing water, but rather in the lack of a toilet.  This was the biggest cause of concern.  To the kids, though, the lack of a toilet was merely accepted as part of summer living in the country.  I know now that this feeling did not hold true for the adults at the camp.

About thirty feet behind the camp, as the back yard reached a wooded area, stood the outhouse.  Perhaps in an effort to disguise the rather unattractive sound of “outhouse”, we always referred to our own outdoor facility as the “backhouse”.  Same thing, different name.

The “backhouse” was the most popular of unpopular visiting spots.  It was very difficult to build up any great love for the place, but it was virtually impossible to make it through the day without a visit or two.

Never to be confused with the local library, the “backhouse” was not a place where one would want to sit quietly and read.  Many factors, both internal and external, made a lengthy visit downright uncomfortable.  In addition, as many a four families might be visiting the camp at any given time, and on the weekends, when the men joined the group after a week of work in the city, it was not unusual to find upwards of twenty people sharing the camp.

By standards set by Hyatt, Holiday Inn, and Hampton Inn people, twenty is a small number, but a small, two bedroom camp with no running water or toilet facilities does not constitute the lap of luxury for that number.  Weekends had a way of creating long lines at the “backhouse”, and expedience in its use quickly became the unwritten rule of thumb for all concerned.  Weekends always enhanced the problems created by middle of the night visits to the “backhouse”.

At the camp it was always assumed, and quite erroneously I might add, that to be male was to be brave.  The women of the camp were firm believers in this theory, and it was not unusual for me, being the oldest of the male children, even at the tender age of ten or eleven, to be awakened in the middle of the night to escort one of the females through the darkness that separated the camp from the “backhouse”.  Apparently I was considered to be adequate protection against the monsters of the night that surely lurked within the surrounding woods.  Oh, I feigned courage, to be sure, but while the women escaped to the relative safety of the “backhouse”, I was left outside to do battle with those aforementioned monsters of the night.  As one whose blood curdles at the sound of a warm summer’s night breeze rustling gently through the trees, I hardly provided the protection they felt I offered.

Thinking back now, I made many solo, after dark flights to the “backhouse”, and I was never once attacked.  Oh what tricks the mind can play!

To the women, those solo efforts were the true mark of strength and courage.  What they never did notice was how quickly the great oak tree, located right next to the camp, had grown over my many summers there.  Today I cannot remember a single after dark trip to the “backhouse” that went beyond that tree.

There was an old Philco table top radio at the camp that brought the Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger, Dr. Christian, and Inner Sanctum to us for an evening of entertainment.  There was no heating system, only a trunk jammed full with heavy quilts which nicely protected us from the cool evenings of late summer.  And the porch, the children’s sleeping place, was protected from the rain, not by windows, but by rolls of gray canvas which were lowered to cover the screens.

There was an ice box, not a refrigerator, that kept things cold, but only so long as the ice compartment could keep the ice from melting.  A tray was placed on the floor below this compartment to catch the water that dripped from the melting ice.

During the week, while the men worked back in the city, there was no automobile and the closest store was more than a mile away.  There were bicycles in the garage, and each was equipped with a basket on the handle bar.  The basket was used to carry groceries from the distant store.

There was a rather ugly green bucket with a handle that was used to make ice cream, and freshly picked blueberries were often a part of the breakfast menu.

In early fall, when school and cooler temperatures summoned us back to the city, there remained one final chore.  The “backhouse”, a brown, shingled, wooden structure, sitting over a hole in the ground, had to be moved so that the hole could be filled.  Here was a job of necessity, but performed by the men with great reluctance.  It was a chore that signalled the last breath of summer.

Perhaps because of those early summer experiences, I now linger in the shower, marvel at electric refrigerators and delight in the sounds of a flushing toilet.

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