The moon was full _ a mixed blessing _ the night we set out to knock over Gobbler Hollis' big old three-holer outhouse. It was Halloween night in the fall of '56, and mischief ran rampant among the teenaged boys of that otherwise quiet farming community in western Illinois.
The mother of all mischief in that pre-permissive/indoor plumbing age was tipping over outhouses on Halloween. They say the day has pagan origins, and I can't think of anything more pagan than upsetting thy neighbor's outhouse.
There were four of us: Stick, Face, Neg and me. Neg was short for negative, an allusion to his IQ. The other two nicknames were of prurient derivation and best left unexplained.
Gobbler farmed 240 acres 5 miles south of the village of Stronghurst, on a slight rise in the prairie that the community had christened Gobbler's Knob. The old wooden privy, the object of our felonious assault, stood shielded from view behind a somewhat larger coal shed located in the back yard. Both structures stood just beyond the garden and about 50 yards from the back door of the two-story, white clapboard farmhouse. Twenty feet beyond the outhouse was the barnyard fence, which surrounded the huge red gambrel-roofed barn and a dilapidated hen house.
The full harvest moon was critical to the success of the mission, given all the obstacles to see and avoid on the Hollis farm, but there was a downside that we had failed to contemplate. It was so bright that it kept Gobbler's macho attack rooster awake and crowing at the moon. The rooster, with his 100-hen harem, had the run of the barnyard.
Our initial strategy called for an approach to the outhouse from the barnyard side _ out of shotgun range _ but that cocky rooster considered any stranger inside the barnyard fence a major threat to his masculinity. He would not let us pass.
The rooster's presence forced us to retrace our semicircular route over a couple of barbed wire fences and across a pasture littered with random cow patties. Our only alternative was a far riskier frontal assault, which entailed walking down the road, diving into the weed-filled ditch every time a car came along, and sneaking through Gobbler's front and side yard.
It was Indian summer. The windows were open and we could hear Gobbler's deep, resonant snoring as we sneaked by the side of the house. Gobbler was not a little guy; he had height and awesome girth. If his shoelaces ever got tied, which was rarely, it was because his wife, Glennis, tied them. He bore an uncanny resemblance to his namesake, both in form and movement. It was his size and terrible temper that had kept his outhouse upright on Halloweens past.
The lawn was a junkyard of kids' toys and cannibalized machinery variously consumed by rust, all of which needed to be circumvented and remembered. Remembering was important. Unlike ingress, which was slow and stealthy, egress would most likely be at top speed and maximum panic.
We also had to cross the rhubarb patch, which was well above knee-high, and six rows of popcorn still standing right behind the rhubarb. Both should have been harvested by now, but Gobbler never got in a hurry about such things. Folks said that with 10 kids he must have had other priorities.
The clothesline, consisting of two strands of No. 9 wire, Adam's-apple high, stretched the width of the back yard. Its only break was midway, where the boardwalk led from the house to the privy.
We arrived safely at our target with nothing worse than cotton mouths and shaky breath. In the door of the hen house, not 10 feet beyond the barnyard fence, the rooster stood frozen, his head cocked, watching our every move.
Then we got another bad break. A cloud floated by and hid the moon. It got as dark as the inside of a cow. We felt our way around the outhouse; it was an eye-watering experience. For all the heavy traffic it had to handle, it was not a sturdy structure. Because it was so close to the coal shed, there was only one way we could tip it over _ backward. The door was in the middle front, facing the coal shed, and opened inward, leaving precious little solid wall for us to push against.
The trick was to slowly and carefully tilt the outhouse up past the point where it would fall backward on its own. Anyone who's done it, and there are probably darned few of us vets still around, knows that to reach that point, especially on those big multi-holers, you had to lean well out across that odoriferous abyss. It couldn't be a slam-bang kind of thing, or you might end up face-down at the bottom of the pit. And if you were really having a bad day, the unit would settle back down where it came from and there you were without a paddle.
Well, Neg was so scared he asked if it would be all right if he used the facility before we upset it. We said yes and waited in the dark. It was probably good that we couldn't see one another's faces or we might have lost our nerve during that intermission. The noise of Neg inside ripping pages out of the catalog sounded loud enough to wake the dead.
We went over our escape routes one last time. It would be four different directions. Twelve-gauge birdshot probably wouldn't kill anybody, but the pattern of one shell with split wads would be wide enough to put welts on the backsides of four boys running shoulder-to-shoulder.
It was somewhere after midnight _ zero hour. Four shoulders leaned against the outhouse wall. Slowly, amid grunts, heavy breathing and hearts pounding in the ears, the outhouse began to tilt until we got it up to the balance point. Stick, the shortest one of the bunch, was stretched out so far that his whole body was trembling, causing a sympathetic motion in the precariously balanced outhouse.
On a whispered count of three we gave it the last little tweak it needed to come under gravity's spell. At the same instant, the moon came out from behind the cloud and that macho rooster began to crow.
The rest is just a muddle of sounds and sights overlaid with heart-stopping fright. I remember the deafening sound of crashing lumber as the outhouse disintegrated on contact. There was the siren sound of Glennis' call to battle. Boy, did she have a set of lungs.
I vaguely recall a noise like a hog thrashing in a mud wallow. That would have been Stick, but at that point it was every man for himself. (We made him ride in the back of the pickup all the way back to town.)
I'll never forget hearing what sounded like the roar of a distraught bull, followed by someone going through a door without bothering to open it, followed by heavy artillery at close range. There were the sounds of kids crying and screaming, Glennis directing Gobbler's shotgun fire, chickens carrying on like there was a skunk in the hen house, and the yowl of a cat in pain. I decided later, judging from the scratches on my leg, that I must have stepped on the cat during my egress.
The only other sound was the dull thud of someone landing hard on the ground. It occurred to me, as I legged it through the night at Mach I, overdosed on adrenaline, that maybe Gobbler was firing deer slugs and somebody was dead, but we learned later that it was just Face trying to decapitate himself on the clothesline. Miraculously, we all escaped with only superficial battle damage.
Ultimate good did come from that proximate evil the devil made us do; Gobbler replaced his shattered wooden edifice with a brick structure that stands to this day.
The gulf coast of Florida is a "fer piece" from western Illinois, but just to be safe, all names, places and circumstances have been scrambled to protect the guilty. The statute of limitations has long since run out, but ol' Gobbler he don't pay no never mind to such formalities.
J.D. Wetterling is a freelance writer living in East Lake.