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The Time My Uncle Fred Varnished the Outhouse

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The clerk in the paint department at Home Depot thought I was a little strange.  There I was, Saturday-morning-jeans-and-flannel-shirt

dressed, a shopping list in one hand and a cup of complimentary coffee in the other, standing in front of the paint display, laughing out

loud.  You see, they had polyurethane varnish on sale and that bought it all back in a rush, the memory of the time my Uncle Fred varnished

the outhouse.


Uncle Fred was a fool for things on sale.  If something was on sale he felt he ought to buy it...save some money...get a good deal...even

if it was something he had no idea of when or where or how he would use it.  Fred saved so much money buying stuff on sale he was usually

short a week before payday.  He was always surprising Aunt Birdie with what he'd bring home from a trip to town.  (Her name was really

Bertha, but that was shortened to "Bertie," of course, and most of us kids thought it was "Birdie" so that's what we all grew up calling

her.)  When Wal-Mart opened up a store in the town just up the road from Fred and Birdie's farm, he must have thought he'd died and gone to

heaven.  On one Saturday trip to town for a haircut and "just to pick up a couple of things at the Wal-Mart's to fix  the electric fence

the new calf knocked down," Fred saw a big display of generic disposable diapers, marked 50% off.  Now, Fred and Birdie hadn't had any

babies around the farm in 20 or 25 years, but these diapers were just too good a deal to pass up.  Fred bought 200.  The woman at the

checkout probably gave him the same kind of look the Home Depot paint consultant gave me -- a 68 year-old man buying a dozen ceramic

insulators, a pound-and-a-half of wood screws, and 200 disposable diapers does make the average clerk take notice, after all.  Well,

naturally when Fred got back home he had some explaining to do.  Birdie was a practical-minded woman, and being well past child-bearing age

and disposition, she simply could not imagine why 200 disposable diapers were a bargain at any price.  But if Birdie was practical she was

also still in love with Fred after their 49 years together, and had resigned herself to never fully understanding this man who had won her

heart.  Fred mumbled something about "insulation" and "chick brooder" and that was enough for Birdie.  The disposable diapers went into the

shed on the top shelf over the door -- until the following February.


That February was the coldest, windiest, meanest February anybody under the age of 85 could remember.  It was cold in the morning.  It

stayed cold all day.  It seemed even colder at night.  Fred and Birdie's house was modestly insulated, too modestly for that February.  

They had butane to cook and heat with, and usually the space heaters kept the house warm enough, but not that February.  You see, Fred was

a little short on cash until the end of the month, having saved too much money at Barney's Auction Barn again, and the little bit of butane

left in the tank had to be rationed.  They both wore long cotton underwear and two shirts and a jacket around the house during the daytime,

but at night, well, at night, it was just too cold to sleep.  That's when Fred remembered the disposable diapers.  If those diapers would

have insulated the chick brooder, why wouldn't they insulate anything?  Fred brought in the cartons, spread a few diapers on the kitchen

table (it was warm in the kitchen from Birdie's cooking) and sat down to think.  It's amazing how crisis can inspire genius, and that's

what Fred's idea was, just sheer genius.  It took him only an hour or so and a six cups of coffee, too.  That night Fred and Birdie

prepared for bed, but this time they were ready for anything a cold February night had in store.  They wore disposable diapers.  They wore

them around their legs, around their arms, around every bit of them they could cover with a diaper.  One diaper was just the right size to

wrap around an arm or a leg, and the diaper's own strip of sticky tape snugged it down so it didn't fall off.  Fred pieced several diapers

together with that tape, wrapped them around his chest, and pulled a tee shirt on over them.  Pajamas over that, and he was ready for bed.  

Birdie was a little trickier to fit, owing to a few now relatively minor anatomical differences, but soon she too was fully insulated

against the bitter February winter.  Of course, once insulated they had to move around the house carefully to avoid loosening the tape, but

all in all it was an outstanding feat.  They were already dressed for bed one night when I stopped by to see how they were doing, and I'll

confess I was impressed.  They did look a little odd, sort of like two deep-sea divers with their suits inflated and their steel helmets

off, walking stiff-legged around the house, but they were warm enough, and that's all that mattered.  The diaper insulation lasted only

about a week, then the sticky tape began to come lose during the night and the diapers began bunching up, but by then Fred's Social

Security check had come in the mail and he had enough money to call the butane truck out to fill up the tank again.  I don't know whatever

happened to the rest of those diapers.  I suppose they're still out in the shed, waiting for the chick brooder project.


But I digress.  I was telling you about varnishing the outhouse.


Uncle Fred’s favorite place for sniffing out bargains was Rudy’s Railroad Salvage.  Rudy’s was a large barn-like warehouse with splintery

wood floors, concrete block walls, a tin roof that had seen much better days at least a decade before, and military-surplus light fixtures

swinging from black and red wiring.  The warehouse held an astounding inventory:   garden rakes and folding chairs, wool socks by the gross

and roofing nails by the keg.  Somewhere among the remnants of lost and damaged freight shipments Fred discovered a stack of five-gallon

plastic buckets of polyurethane varnish for $25 each, no limit, cash-and-carry.  As he read the label on one bucket, Fred realized this

polyurethane varnish was almost miraculous.  It dried fast to a hard, water-resistant finish and bonded to any porous surface, guaranteed

not to peel or blister for at least five years if applied according to the instructions on the label.  Now Fred has been meaning to do

something about the worn floorboards and railings on the front porch.  Fact was, Birdie had been gently nagging him about it for the last

six or seven years.  And the porch swing, and the porch furniture, they could stand a fresh coat of varnish as well.  So Rudy loaded two

five-gallon buckets of varnish into Fred’s old pickup, and stuffed five $10 dollar bills into his own pocket.


Fred’s truck bounced over the cattle guard into the driveway and for once in her life Birdie was pleased as punch to see Fred come home

from Rudy’s.  She had groceries to buy and an appointment at the hairdresser’s for a permanent and needed the truck herself, and Fred had

finally bought something at Rudy’s that wouldn’t wind up gathering dust in the shed.  She beamed as she made Fred’s lunch, telling him how

happy she was that he was finally finding time to “take care of that little honey-do project and paint my porch, it’s such a pitiful

sight.”  She kissed him lovingly on the cheek then climbed into the pickup and headed to town while Fred dug an assortment of brushes and

pails out of the shed, preparing to varnish every unfinished stick of wood on the porch.  Which he did, and it was beautiful, too, drying

to a high-gloss finish so shiny it looked like ice.  The job went quickly, Fred being nothing if not a hard worker, and he was finished

with at least an hour to spare before Birdie returned from town.  Fred discovered he’d overestimated the amount of varnish he needed, and

still had quite a bit left in the second bucket.  Still in a varnishing mood, he looked around for anything else that needed a quick coat.  


After varnishing two trivets and an old ladder-back chair without a bottom, Fred’s eyes found the outhouse.  


I never really understood why Fred and Birdie didn't put indoor plumbing in their farmhouse, but evidently they were satisfied with the

two-holer that came with the place.  How it had withstood so many bitter winters and blazing summers was a testament to its builder’s

skills and the quality of the wood he used.  Fred commented on that fact more than once, always saying something like "they just don’t

build ‘em that way anymore," which was certainly true.  I didn’t know of anyone for miles around who had actually built any kind of

outhouse in the past fifteen years, much less one that would stand as a monument to home carpentry.


The outhouse had been painted long ago, so long ago that the color had been forgotten and now only naked wood faced the elements.  Fred

reasoned a couple of coats of varnish would not only make the old outhouse look better than new, but they would further extend the privy's

useful life for as long as he would have any interest in it.  The old pine boards were dry and drank up the varnish.  There was just a

little left in the bucket, and not wanting to waste any of his bargain, Fred finished his afternoon of varnishing frenzy by applying a

liberal coat to the seats.  There!  Wouldn't Birdie be pleased!


Fred cleaned his brushes with paint thinner, wrapped them carefully in old rags, and stored them in the shed.  Then he went to the back

porch, washed the varnish spatters off his hands and forearms, picked up the morning newspaper he hadn't finished at breakfast, and leaned

back in his living room recliner to catch up on current world events.  All that work had left him pleasantly weary, however, and inside of

ten minutes he was snoring peacefully, headlines across his stomach.  While he was asleep, Birdie came home.


Birdie came in the back door to the kitchen, but she'd already seen the front porch with its new coat of varnish.  That "polly-thing"

varnish made the wood look, well, so shiny, she sighed, but at least it was done and looked  much better than before.  She put away her

groceries, set her pocketbook on the shelf in the bedroom closet, checked her new permanent once more in the dresser mirror, then walked

out the back door to the outhouse.


Fred awoke from his well-earned nap and immediately noticed it was nearly sundown.  He stood up, turned on a light, and checked his pocket

watch.  Quarter of seven, Birdie should be home by now and supper should have been on the table a half-hour ago.  Fred shuffled into the

kitchen, looked around, and saw no sign of Birdie.  Beginning to feel slightly alarmed, he looked out the window and saw the pickup truck

parked exactly where it should be, under the carport, but still no Birdie.  He walked into their bedroom, looking for signs she'd come

home, but saw nothing.  Her pocketbook...where did she keep it?  The closet, that's right...top shelf...next to the old hatbox.  Yes, it

was there.  But, where was Birdie?  Fred was a man who counted on his woman's routine and predictable habits, and this was unsettling,

finding she had been there and now was no where to be found.  He returned to the kitchen, stepped out the back door, and into the yard,

just in case she was in the garden doing goodness knows what at this hour.  It was then that Fred heard the moans coming from the outhouse.


Fred hurried to the source of the cries, and putting his mouth  close to the door called, "Bertie?  Hon, is that you?"  Now I don't know

who else Fred would have expected to find in that outhouse, but I suppose the surprise of hearing that sad, mournful sound coming from its

interior would make anyone pause before jumping to a conclusion.  


"Oh, Fred!  Of course it's me!" Birdie cried out, "Fred!...ohhh, Fred, what have you done to me, Fred?"  It was Birdie's voice, all right,

no doubt about that.


"Bertie?  What's wrong?  Are you sick, baby?  Bertie, are you all right?"  Fred was now definitely alarmed.


"Ohhh....ohhh lordy, Fred!  Why'd you do this to me?"  Birdie was becoming distraught.


"Do?  Do what, Bertie?  Bertie...what's wrong?  Tell me, baby, what's wrong?"


"Oh, Fred...I can't get up!  I...I'm stuck, Fred!  I'm stuck to the seat and I can't get up!"


Fred's jaw dropped open with a look of utter shock on his face.  Couldn't get up?  Stuck to the seat?  Why, that was just plain imposs...  


Fred's thoughts froze.  The polyurethane varnish!  The miracle varnish that dried fast to a hard, water-resistant finish and bonded to any

porous surface!  Birdie had bonded herself to the outhouse seat!  "Bertie?  Hon, can you open the door?  Can you unlatch the door and open



"Oh, Fred, I can't move!  I tried to get up and nearly yanked my backside off!  Fred, I can't reach the latch!"  Birdie was starting to

cry, now.  Fred had heard her cry only a few times in their long life together, and every time it broke his heart.  Only this time it was

worse, because he'd caused it.  "Fred, lordy, please help me, Fred!"


"Baby, I'm gonna try and break down the door!" Fred shouted through the crack between the door and the outhouse wall.  "You stand back out

of the way!"


"Fred I can't move myself off this seat!  How am I gonna stand anywhere!"  Birdie hollered.  Fred could tell she was really peeved because

she never hollered unless her patience was just about gone.


Fred put his shoulder into the door, but the door barely moved.  He tried again, harder this time, and got only a rattle from the latch.  


"Fred, hurry!  Ohhh...Fred, I wanna get out of here!  Hurry, Fred, hurry!"  Birdie's cries gave him the extra adrenaline he needed, I

suppose, for the next time he hit the outhouse door as hard as he could and broke the latch.  The door swung open, and there was Birdie's

tear-streaked face looking up at him.


Now when Fred got to this part of the story, I admit I had to put my hand to my mouth to keep from smiling at the thought of Aunt Birdie

sitting there in the dark outhouse, varnished solidly to the seat, but when Fred looked down at the only woman he'd ever loved in his whole

life I know there was nothing but anguish on his face.


He grabbed her hand and forearm and said, "Baby, I'll get you up from there!" and at the same time, he lifted.

"OOOHHHHH!  Fred, don't!  You're pullin' the hide right offa me!" Birdie shrieked.  "I'm plumb stuck to this thing, can't you see that?  If

I could get loose I'd get up by myself!"


Fred tried a different approach.  "Bertie, baby, I'm gonna lift your leg up just a little, to see if we can..."  


He never got a chance to finish his sentence, for as soon as he touched her, Birdie wailed again, "Fred don't you move that leg!  I've been

stuck here so long both legs have gone to sleep and they're hurtin' me something awful!  Oh, Fred, lordy, Fred, do something but don't

touch my legs, Fred!"  Birdie had passed right by distraught and peeved and was now approaching panicky and downright mad.


Fred stood there for a moment, not really knowing what to do, just knowing full well what not to do.  But once again, crisis situations

bring out the fast thinker in even the slowest of minds, and if this wasn't a crisis situation then Fred had never in his life seen one.  

"Bertie, I'm gonna call the doctor!  He'll come right out and get you off of that thing!  I'm going inside to call and I'll be right back,

baby, you just sit there and I'll be right back!"  Where in the world Fred thought Birdie would go is a mystery to me, as it was to Birdie

herself.  The look she gave his fast-retreating figure would have killed any other man dead in his tracks, but Fred doubtless had built up

a resistance over the years and ran to the house unscathed.  He returned almost breathless after what must have been a five-minute eternity

for Birdie.  Then they waited, Birdie firmly seated and Fred gently holding and stroking her hand.  There wasn't much to talk about.


Doc Waller's old Chevy rattled over the cattle guard, down the drive, and into the back yard, its headlights aimed directly at the outhouse

and its two occupants.  He stepped out, his black bag in his right hand, and walked forward.  "Good evenin' Fred...Bertie.  I got here just

as soon as I could."  Doc Waller had dedicated his life to his patients in the little community and was on call at any hour.  I doubt he

ever finished a meal at one sitting.  "Bertie, Fred tells me you've got yourself into quite a fix, here.  What seems to be the problem?"  

The fact that Birdie was sitting in an outhouse with the door open and in the glare of automobile headlights was not lost on Doc Waller, he

just always liked for his patients to have the opportunity to describe their ailments, however obvious they might be to him.  He said it

helped them feel a bit more at ease in the examining room.  


By now Birdie was exhausted from her ordeal, and her voice was quiet.  "Oh, Doc, I'm stuck to the seat.  I can't get up and Lord knows how

I've tried but I nearly skinned myself doing it, and my legs have gone to sleep and, ooohhhh, I just want to get inside my own house and

lie down..."  Her voice started to trail off into a sob, bless her heart.  


Fred explained to Doc Waller how he thought this all came about, how he'd painted the porch and the swing and the outhouse and finally the

outhouse seats with polyurethane varnish he'd got dirt cheap at Rudy's Railroad Salvage, and how Birdie had come in from town and not

knowing any better, poor thing, she'd come out here and before she knew it, why, she was stuck tight as a tick to the fresh varnish.  Fred

stopped to catch his breath and the doc just rubbed his jaw with his fingers and nodded slowly, as if he already had a solution to the

problem.  "Fred, you have some turpentine?  And oil.  Any baby oil on the place?"


Fred thought a moment.  "Uh..yeah...turpentine, got plenty of turp in the shed, Doc.  But, no, no baby oil.  Why would we have baby oil?"  

That seemed a logical question to him, in spite of a sizable inventory of disposable diapers in the shed.  "I've got motor oil, and linseed

oil, and...in the kitchen we've got cooking oil.  Won't any of that do?"


The doc pulled off his hat and his coat, and began rolling up his shirtsleeves.  "Fred, bring me the turpentine, the cooking oil, and

plenty of cotton rags.  Let's get to work, here," Doc replied.


The work was tedious and slow.  Doc would pour a little turpentine onto a cloth and dab it on the area where Birdie's anatomy was varnished

to the seat.  Birdie would yell as the turpentine stung her abused skin, ashen-faced Fred would hold and pat her hand, saying, "There,

baby, it's comin' loose, everything's gonna be all right, hon," and Doc would swab Birdie and the seat with Wesson Oil to keep her from

sticking again to the still-tacky varnish.  It took two hours of dabbing, yelling, patting and swabbing, but at last, Birdie was free.  


Fred and Doc helped her to her feet, which prompted more crying as her legs started regaining their natural color and feeling, and helped

her waddle into the house.  Doc cleaned Birdie up with soap and water while Fred banged about in the kitchen making her some tea to calm

her nerves.  By 10:30 the ordeal was over.


Birdie slept on her stomach for the rest of the week.  Fred was contrite, waiting on her hand and foot, never really able to say out loud

how ashamed and sorry he was for what had happened, but by his actions Birdie knew.  Her backside healed quickly, thanks to the ointment

Doc Waller had the pharmacy send over, and soon Birdie was sleeping on her back once again.  The story remained untold among the three of

them for several years, but finally came out at a family gathering of some sort.  It became an instant classic, and had to be told every

Thanksgiving or Fourth of July when we'd all finished that particular holiday's feast, still sinfully full of Birdie's home cooking.  Even

after hearing it a dozen times it always made us kids laugh until we hurt.  Once Cousin Georgie laughed so hard the Dr. Pepper he was

drinking came out his nose.  Uncle Fred would tell the story, and Aunt Birdie would always blush and poke him in the ribs when he got to

the part about "her backside."  It seemed to sort of embarrass her for us kids to hear she had one.  As I grew older I laughed a little

less, I suppose, but inside...well, inside I felt prouder.  These two wonderful people, sharing a lifetime of hard work and memories,

sitting there telling us about it all, laughing at themselves, so much in love with each other.  It made me proud to belong to them.


And that's why I just had to laugh out loud in the paint department at Home Depot.



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