Tenakee Springs' lone outhouse sits out at the end of a dock. Once the town's fire hall is upgraded, the outhouse will likely disappear.
Tenakee Springs' fire hall has withstood the test of time - til now - and behind it sits the town's last public outhouse.
Story last updated at 9/26/2012 - 2:37 pm
This edition of My Corner of the Bush is preceded by a warning.
So far in these ramblings, we have dealt with topics where there is small chance that we will be taken too seriously; we've referred to the bathhouse as a Temple and we've wondered about the need for a "town fool." So long as we have kept to the "silly edge" of things, our gentle readers have not been asked to think too deeply or to dwell on matters of any grave consequence. It's been all fun and games. Well, this is it. Playtime is over, folks. The time has come to stand up like strong women and men and look "The Big Issue" right in the face. No more sliding around. It's time to get real.
Our town is facing a serious outbreak of progress and I, for one, am not sure that I like the look of it. Now, progress is good, right? Progress is something that we're all supposed to want, right? Well, could be I guess, but then when it actually arrives and you come face-to-face with the nitty-gritty details, the unintended consequences as they say, you suddenly find yourself wanting to take a step back and maybe re-think the whole thing.
The particular piece of progress barreling down on us at the moment is in the shape of a new fire hall. Lord knows we need one. Searching for a few words to sum up the old one, "small, dark and rotten" are the first ones that come to mind. Our fire hall has stood in steady, quiet service since 1977 when it was built to shelter the first real fire truck the town had ever owned. Plans were drawn up by Don McGee, a local character now long gone, and nearly every able-bodied person in town worked on the job one way or another. Most of the material was milled locally; some came from the teardown of an old dock in Juneau. They did a pretty good job, too. The tried and true "bush building code" yielded us a building that has doggedly resisted the ravages of casual maintenance and even withstood the big Thanksgiving Day storm of 1984 that took out quite a few cabins on both sides.
A few years ago the front wall got really bad and the present generation of builders and fixers repaired the drainage problem that had caused the trouble, replaced a big piece of the wall, and put on a proper roll-up door. It looks now as though it will be OK for several more years, but rot and gravity are still winning, as they always do in the end. The old-fashioned tin roof has deteriorated into a patchwork of rusty reds and oranges, all delicately accented by the different patching materials that have been put on over the years. When the light hits it just right the peeled-up places give the whole building a quaint sort of Chinese pagoda look.
While the building has been slowly going to pot, the fire department itself has been booming right along. Two years ago a firefighter from down in Washington State moved his family here, so for the first time ever we now have a real professional as fire chief. A small core of volunteers has been steadily hustling grants for better pumps and safety gear and we'll soon be applying for a big grant to put up a modern public safety building. Most of the dough for regular operations comes from small donations and t-shirt sales - and of course the big annual blowout benefit party, Fireman's Ball. The city helps some but with so few of us here and no tax base, grants from the Legislature or from private foundations are the only way we have of raising serious money for projects of any size. Our chances of getting this one look pretty good. All in all, it's a darn good fire department for a bunch of volunteers in the bush, and if we can get this next grant we'll be set up for another long time.
There's a hitch, though. See; it's about what's out in back of the fire hall. You know. Out there over the water at the end of the wobbly walkway with the plywood patches where boards have broken through. The most photographed place in town? It's our last remaining outhouse, a classic "single" with the traditional half-moon cutout in a door made of rough mismatched boards. It has provided giggling adolescent pranks to several generations of Tenakee kids and the very sight of it sets off nervous twitters from tourist ladies who immediately begin to hope to goodness they get back to their chartered cruise boat pretty soon.
Inside, the usual assortment of torn up magazines and newspapers lays off to the side but the regulars make their daily traipse out the narrow boardwalk with their own rolls of TP tucked under their arms. Just recently, Barbara went out there one morning only to find that the door had been fastened shut. Her cabin is one of the few that still doesn't have an inside loo and the one behind the firehouse is the only public one in town so we're talking serious - perhaps even critical - inconvenience here. Fortunately the bakery just up the street was open. Later in the day, serious inquiries revealed that the door had busted its latch in the previous blustery night and had been slamming back and forth in the wind. The racket had seriously aggravated Mark, who lives just next door, and he had finally grabbed his big screw gun and stomped out there in the dark and rain and by golly - fixed it!
Back to the new fire hall, though. Can you imagine a bunch of architects and engineers, with plans all spread out on a big conference table, discussing how to include an outhouse in the new public safety building for Tenakee? Neither can I. A new fire hall will mean the end of the outhouse. Future historians may well look back and declare it a critical turning point in the history of our town. What's at stake is a lot more than fuzzy sentimental attachment to a quaint tourist attraction - no matter that the outhouse postcards sell more than any of the others in the store. That demure little box-like object perched out there over the water at the end of the rickety walkway is one of our last genuine claims to living in the "real, out there, back-of-beyond," bush. As the modern stuff keeps coming, it's getting harder and harder to get much credit for roughing it out here.
Sit back quietly in the steam of the bathhouse while old guys re-tell stories about life here before electricity, before private telephones, before the ferry, and you get a sense of how very recently the conveniences of modern life have come to our town. We newcomers can only sit in respectful silence while they talk of times when home lighting was by kerosene lamps and the library was in the back corner of Snyder Mercantile. Who can claim bragging rights for roughing it when the store now carries fancy coffee, the library at the community center gets the New York Times, and the ferry comes, regular as clockwork, twice a week? Whining about un-reliable Internet gets a person nowhere in that conversation. No wonder the old timers grumble, "Bush? A lot you new guys know about it." Take away this town's last outhouse and we'll have one less argument - and maybe even less shy respect from the tourists.
I suppose we could do what they do in other places when the gritty downtown saloons are gone, the back-room floating cards games have all drifted off and the ladies do their laundry on efficiency cycle rather than gather at the town washtub. When all the honest institutions that make this place real: the perpetual pinochle game at Rosie's Blue Moon Café, the coffee table at the back in Snyder Mercantile and Tuesday night cross-generational volley ball in the school gym have all faded away, I guess we could do what they do in the "big world" Outside; we could fake it. Maybe we could run a cute little train with cars in the shape of fishing boats back and forth between the harbor and town or get ex-biker Bob to dress up like a logger and pose for pictures outside the store. Maybe...but it sure won't be me that suggests such things.
On sober second thought, I guess it won't be that bad when the next chunk of progress actually comes. The new fire hall will make us safer, and not that many people really use the outhouse anyway. It's called "change" and the deep thinkers tell us that it's the one sure sign of life. I sure do dread it, but one of these days some young kid may look over at a bunch of us rumbling into our beards as we cool off in the bathhouse dressing room and ask, "What's an outhouse, gramps?"