Oh Outhouses, Four-Holers, and Burning the Heads

One of the Twitter headlines for The Washington Post.com on 4/5/2011 was, “Is it impolite to bring reading material to a public restroom?” I chuckled when I read that and not because of the inanity of the query, but because of memories that hove into my mind’s view.

In early April, 1968, I had just escaped from the siege of Khe Sanh and was killing time in the 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment rear at Phu Bai south of the old Vietnamese imperial capital, Hue, waiting to go home. Luxurious being able to sleep in every morning on a cot, above ground, in a covered hooch, no mud, no incoming. Luxurious with hot showers, hot chow, movies, sodas, beer, no work parties. Luxurious, too—and this will sound basic, basic as hell—walking to the head with the latest edition of The Stars and Stripes military newspaper without doing the Khe Sanh Shuffle. Not worrying about being blown off the toilet seat while taking care of one of your most intimate acts.

The battalion head at Phu Bai was a four-holer housed inside a substantial building vis à vis the one-holers I was used to. I had some experience with heads…crappers. On several occasions, I had to burn the “shitters” as we called them in Vietnam. I had shitter-burning detail for a whole month in August-September 1967 on Hill 861. Alphabet (a Marine with a Polish last name too hard to say or spell), Spooner and I had given each other Mohawk haircuts, out of boredom, I suppose, and the Company Commander, after catching sight of one of us, ordered us to fix the damned things. So we did the only thing possible, we shaved our heads and of course, given military logic, that was worse than a Mohawk, so the three of us had to run all the way around the trenchline of Hill 861 as our fellow Marines pummeled and slapped and kicked us as we stumbled and huffed and puffed and elbowed each other to come in first which really was not part of the punishment, to come in first, but as you know, coming in first is important. As I hunched my shoulders and kept my face buried to avoid the hands and fists attacking me, I recollect I thought of Tyrone Power in The Black Rose when Orson Welles as the Mongol warrior Bayan forced Power’s character to run lengthwise on a log through a dangerous gamut of Mongol warriors slugging Power’s character with inflated pig bladders with the intent of knocking him off onto spearheads buried point-end-up on both sides of the log.

Our reward (Alphabet, Spooner and I), whether we finished the circuit of Hill 861 first or not, was burning the shitters and the trash dump. Which we did. Twice a day. Using gasoline, diesel, and wet matches. Ignominy was draped on our shoulders. We smelled like what we tried to burn. Everything was monsoon wet. We joked about it and laughed and exaggerated our every crapper-burning action, but no matter how hard we tried, we were shitbirds, as the term goes. Luckily for me, time and time-in-grade moved me past my shitbird moments, through the dank wet of monsoon floods, red mud, two trips out-of-country on R & R, and then as a grand finale, the siege.

Then on to Phu Bai, where the head in Phu Bai was not under constant attack, as had been the heads in Khe Sanh. Right now I can smile at the guttery notion of it all, running between incoming rockets, mortars and artillery to do your business, but men were killed and wounded while conducting their affairs in the head. So, being able to sit on the throne and read The Stars and Stripes without fear of flying shrapnel, even though there was little privacy between stalls, just a half wall, was still paradise. That’s one of the things you learn in war and privation, the elegance that can be had with the most basic of functions in the most basic of places.
In the head at Phu Bai, what was scratched on the walls was more interesting than reading in the paper about Lyndon Johnson deciding not to run for re-election, or who won NBA basketball games, or who got killed that week in-country. Some of the messages left dug into the unpainted walls were names, dates, home town, home states. One of the most interesting things I read:

We are the unwilling
Lead by the unqualified
To do the impossible
To help the ungrateful

I laughed when I read that little verse. It was cynical, yes, bitter, yes, but something about it drove home a little sharp stake near where I imagined my emotional heart, not necessarily the physical heart, lived. The unqualified out there tearing up a country, killing people, getting killed…and most of those we were trying to help, ungrateful. Not a comforting thought as you sat there, relaxing…not a comforting thing to think about. But like having to dodge shrapnel on the way to the crapper, not much about the Vietnam War was comforting.

To this day, while driving down country roads in Idaho, finding abandoned homesteads, often one can still find the outhouse. When I was a kid in Arizona, some of them were still functional. My grandfather had one on his old outfit. Tar paper, black widows, cold seat, hot seat, gossamer trailings into the dark corners. Flies. Seeing those old outhouses, with their doors flung open, hinges missing, throws memories at me, about incoming artillery rounds, my shitter-burning details, running the gamut, getting pummeled like Tyrone Power, and that message carved into the wall at Phu Bai.

I’ve never had an affinity for communal heads, and try to avoid them as much as possible. I’m not sure if that’s due to my bathroom days in a war zone, or the unwanted but often truthful messages carved into the paint on the walls. And whether someone carries Time or Good Housekeeping or Playboy into a stall is not my concern, nor is it my business.

One Reply to “Oh Outhouses, Four-Holers, and Burning the Heads”

  1. You know Ken, when we got to 881S in Oct that was the first thing I learned. Never P.O. anyone especially your squad leader. I NEVER did have to burn the shxttxrs. I guess it would be too hard to explain to your audience what it was like trying to take of business squatting over an ammo can 2″X12″ in the trench while you are getting hammered by Artillery. I guess they would have had to have been there with us huh?
    S/F

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