by: Mildred Swanson
The government started interfering with my life, back in the ’30s, and it hasn’t stopped since. That’s when they started building them government outdoor toilets with concrete floors and tin ventilation pipes sticking out the roofs like on the Toonerville Trolley.
The government built them all over the country, but it was in the small town of Clive, Iowa, where it affected me. Up until then, there wasn’t any class distinction anywhere in our small town. But when the government stepped in and began building them privies, we had what became known as “class wars” in my little town.
There was a Depression on at the time, but before them privies went up, everyone in Clive was weathering it together in real brotherhood fashion. The mothers of the poorer kids used to call them in about noontime. Then they’d tell them to go over and play with the doctor’s children, or over with the new neighborhoods kids so they could eat.
They would hike off and get there just about time they were setting the table and they always got an invite in to eat. It didn’t make no difference ‘cause they had more patches. There wasn’t a speck of class distinction in the whole town, and everybody helped another.
But then one day, the government came in and started making a secret survey. They had officials driving all over town taking pictures and filling out government plans, and we all sort of figured they was going to construct some big secret installation that would put Clive on the map and bring prosperity. Them government officials kept making that survey for several weeks; then one day they called a town meeting to be held in the school house, so we could find out about what the government was planning.
Well, the night of the meeting everyone in town showed up, including quite a few from Valley Junction (now West Des Moines) who were just dying to learn what was up in Clive, their rival town.
When the school house was filled, a government man got up and said that what they’d been doing was making a housing survey to see what people needed. He read from a bunch of government forms as how there was 221 house in Clive and 222 outhouses.
The extra outhouse was what made the survey take so long. They kept recounting and recounting but they always came up with one more privy than homes and he admitted the government might have made a mistake.
But our neighbor set them clear on that point, for he leaped up and yelled, “I got two outhouses in my backyard. One’s for them that came a callin.”
The government man wrote something down on the form and seemed relieved to be able to account for that extra privy.
And then he got ready to tell us what we was all waiting to find out, and everyone grew hushed, but he didn’t say much.
He said the government was going to give the people of Clive the opportunity of a lifetime. The government was going to build two-holers in Clive that everyone could be proud of and all you had to do to get the government construction in your back yard was pay for part of the costs. Well, it was right there when the poor folks got up and marched out, because it was plain nobody but them with the money was going to be able to afford a government back yard housing project.
That’s when the class war started.
When they’d built half a dozen of them, everybody got conscious that there was rich folks and poor folks in our town. Them that was rich had government waste disposal units and them that wasn’t had homemade outhouses that’s been there since the town was founded. But them old timers had made them good, ’cause they was still where we run to when tornadoes threatened.
Us poor kids was the ones that suffered from these government improvements. What happened was that some of us got inferior complexes we never did get over.
For when we went to visit kids whose parents had government toilets, they started looking down their noses at us. First thing they’d do was put on a tie and take us out to show us how fancy it was.
I remember the first one I seen. This doctor’s daughter opened the door to it with a flourish like she was presenting me to the King of England’s Castle. Then I started inside she blocked the door.
“Your shoes clean?”
I looked at ‘em and they had mud and she shook her head and pointed.
“Use the foot scraper, please.”
Well, I didn’t know what a foot scraper was and I started taking off my shoe to scrape my foot on it, thinking maybe it was to make it stop itching. But she showed me how it worked and then she stepped aside and I entered. I looked around and then I said, “Shucks, it doesn’t look nothing too special.” Then it caught my eye and I asked, “What’s that?”
“That is toilet paper. Government toilet owners use that instead of catalogues.”
Well, that didn’t impress me none. “What you read?” I asked. “Ain’t got no pictures or reading matter on it.”
The girl laughed haughtily. “How uncouth!”
And that’s when I flew out the door and lit out for home, for anything I couldn’t understand I was scared of, and I sure didn’t know what “uncouth” meant.
It wasn’t long there was so many of them government projects that it looked like they was going to be the downfall of the rich folks. There wasn’t no Jones family in town, but when it came to government privies, that’s what they was trying to keep up with. Them rich folks kept trying to out do each other, and before long, them toilets was bringing on all kinds misfortunes.
When one family learned his neighbors had a three holey, he had the government build him one with six! They had a little girl, and the first time she went out to it, when it was ready for occupancy, she saw all them holes and she just stood there. I tell you she had never seen anything like it, and she got all frustrated trying to decide which one to use.
They found her there late that afternoon standing and crying over and over, “Decisions, decisions, decisions.” And after that experience, she never was no good at making decisions and when she was grown she packed up and went to Washington where she works.
Them folks did everything to outdo each other. Some even had electric lights and stoves in them. Trying to keep ahead of his neighbors, a neighbor on the west side installed one of those fans that went on automatically when you opened the door. That didn’t last long. It was all right when you went in, ‘cause there was a sign warning you to duck, but when you got up, you forgot all about that overhead fan and that neighbor had it removed the second time he’d arose right up into it with his head.
Clive must have been some sort of pilot program for the government, ‘cause they had workers all over town putting them out buildings up. And when them that had ‘em started raising their noses when they met us that didn’t have ‘em, it made us poor folks unite.
It was in 1956 the town incorporated. A few years later the community organized and got an election called and voted bonds to build a water system. Come spring, there was a water tower erected on the west edge of the fast growing town. Now everyone had running water for the first time in Clive’s history.
But what was really good was that the whole town soon had indoor toilets and I tell you those folks with them government toilets just walked off and left them. I ain’t sure, but I think the reason they left ‘em standing was that the government made ‘em take out a 90 year lease on them.
But to hear them upper class folks tell it, they couldn’t afford to get them government outhouses torn down. They was going broke paying taxes to support the water system bonds. And us poor folks sure did laugh at ‘em, ‘cause we was so poor we didn’t have to pay no taxes.