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Heard the one about the poo-poo palace?

"To take that stretch of history and tear it off the map…"

— Blue Water Line, as performed by the Brothers Four

So my question for the day is, Which is more disheartening: to learn that structures that were monumental icons to a portion of your career are being torn down?

Or to admit that they were toilets?

This comes on the heels of learning a few weeks ago that the rest areas on Interstate 75 between State Road 56 and State Road 54, both northbound and southbound, are being closed for "remodeling" which, in this case, means tearing them down and rebuilding them.

Back in the mid-1980s, when they were getting ready to build the rest areas, I noted that they were going to cost $3.5 million, which seemed to me like an awful lot of money for a couple of bathrooms. My house had two bathrooms and was valued back then at something like $55,000, and I opined in a column that the state could save a lot of money by giving me $3.4 million and using the other $100,000 to put up signs telling people how to find my house. The parking wouldn't have been as good, but the hand dryers wouldn't have worked any worse.

A little disclaimer here. Nobody is beating up on the Department of Transportation … at least I'm not. Gentlemen of a certain age appreciate the importance of rest stops, Flomax or no Flomax, and things like this are planned a long time in advance, but this remains what folks today like to call a "teachable moment."

There is an entity that the folks of a certain political persuasion refer to as "the gummint."

The gummint is bad. It consists of local, state and federal political subdivisions, all of whom are trying to destroy our way of life by levying taxes. Everybody agrees that taxes (and gummints) are bad up until their kid needs educational assistance, their street needs repaving, their heart starts beating strangely and they want to call the paramedics, or until their first Social Security check is due. At that point they tend to change the argument to things like the location of the president's birthplace, whether the nation's ills might really be the fault of people from other countries who come to take menial jobs and whether anyone is going to pry their guns out of their cold, dead fingers.

(By the way, I can't help but notice that, despite generations of ranting about "jack-booted thugs" coming to get their gun and an unprecedented near-panic buying of guns and ammo after the last presidential election because they were sure Barack Obama was coming for their guns, that all of my gun-loving friends still have their guns … and their warm, living fingers.)

I raise those issues because friends of mine keep asking me things like why the gummint is closing libraries and talking about getting rid of veterans' assistance programs, cutting back on education and not giving sheriffs the money they want … but can spend $25 million building bathrooms.

Yep, that's the price tag for the new rest areas, which are going to take nearly a year to build. $25 big ones.

Of course it is different governments. The rest areas were designed using federal funds and are being built with state funds, and it's too bad that we are just learning that all of our 401(k)s would be healthier if they had just invested in Bob's Barricades stock. That other stuff is, or may not be, paid for with county taxes.

Arguably the state may have better things to spend their money on, but you can only build so many $6 million private aircraft hangars at junior colleges, and, with the Republican party having maxed out a lot of credit cards, every penny counts.

But I raised the same question a couple of decades ago, especially when I saw that the bathrooms were going to have flagpoles, which cost thousands of dollars. Now, I am a veteran, served in Vietnam and the Dominican Republic, love my country and love to see Old Glory flapping in the breeze, but I don't know how badly we need flagpoles at bathrooms.

While writing about all that, I referred to the new (then) bathrooms as "Poo-Poo Palaces," and ran immediately athwart the sensitivities of an editor who said, 'You can't put "poo-poo" in the newspaper.' (This, of course, pre-dated the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky case, which forever changed the landscape of allowable biological references in newspapers.)

I probably should have tried to make a case for the appeal of alliteration, but instead asked him if he had seen the editorial page lately, which endeared me neither to him or the then-editor of editorials. He refused to move on the poo-poo issue and I, never one to have skewed priorities, vowed to get the words into print before I retired, died or got canned (no pun intended).

It was a protracted battle. I would write about Chinese restaurants and mention the pu-pu platter, and he or one of his minions would take it out. I would say some politician poo-pooed some political issue, and it would disappear.

One young editor became convinced I was going to do something like start every paragraph with one of the letters spelling the phrase, or get it in backwards or something like that, and spent so much extra time on my copy that he had trouble keeping up with his other work. I would assure him that I would never sink that low, and then just, well, smile at him occasionally from across the newsroom … until he quit.

Finally, five years later another editor was chastising me for my sentence length. (I do tend to run on, you may have noticed.) I bet her that I could write an entire column (I think it was around 780 words) in one sentence and that the sentence would be grammatically correct.

The wager was that she would publish the column if I accomplished that, that she would pay for lunch at Dade City's posh Lunch on Limoges and that I would get to say "poo-poo" in the column. It was shockingly easy to write and she kept her word. The column ran under the headline, "The Little Sentence That Could," and that would have been that, except that halfway through lunch she began to argue that I had improperly used a semicolon.

The argument went on for nearly half an hour, with us waving copies of the column and diagramming sentences (if you are under 40 ask your grandparents what that means) on the owners' fine linen tablecloths, and making calls to other editors and grammarians until she finally conceded and paid the tab.

The story made good telling and I must have told it in 200 speeches before a conservative women's church group complained that it (and I, for that matter) was gross and disgusting. I immediately told my boss that I had been telling the story for 10 years to all kinds of audiences and none had complained.

"I don't think it's that disgusting," he said, "but if you've been using the same material for 10 years, it may be time for some fresh stories."

I finally complied, but it was the end of the story to which I was most attached.

A couple of months after the restaurant argument I was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent surgery at Mease Hospital (Now Morton Plant Hospital) in Clearwater. Before I left, I begged the hospital to give me my pathology lab specimen (You, know, like they used to give kids their tonsils and old ladies their gallstones. Okay, ask your grandparents again).

The hospital folks gave me strange looks, but no specimen.

I was going to put it in a jar of formaldehyde and ship it to the editor with a note telling her it was one semi-colon I would never use again.

New rest areas? Twenty-five million dollars.

A good pun?

Priceless.

Heard the one about the poo-poo palace? 08/07/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 7, 2010 1:36pm]

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