21. November 2005 · Comments Off on Myths, Rites and Legends #17: Unspeakable Latrines · Categories: General, General Nonsense, Memoir, Military

It is a truism that travel broadens the mind, and brings the adventurous traveler in contact with many, many things— some of them elevated and educational and some of them mundane – and one of the mundane adventures is the exposure to the many, many different ways that human waste can be disposed of, ranging from the elaborate to the unspeakable.

The United States being, as Europeans are so tiresomely fond of reminding us, a relatively new country, our indoor plumbing arrangements are fairly recent and relatively standardized; rare (at least on the West Coast, and outside the historical districts) it is to encounter the old-fashioned toilet with the water tank up near the ceiling and a chain-pull hanging down, which releases the water, sending it thundering down the pipe to flush the bowl in one mighty, gravity-fed blast. But this was quite the usual sort I encountered in Europe- amusing, noisy, but fairly familiar and most usually clean.

Such is not always the case, as travelers find to their dismay- and even military standards of maintenance and cleanliness are not quite up to the challenge of keeping plumbing in a temporary building gone twenty-years over the originally expected lifetime up to par. This is, of course, a roundabout way of leading into my highly personal account of the Top Three Most Disgusting Public Lavatories I have ever encountered. No doubt, others have encountered worse, and are welcome to comment with the gruesome particulars.

The Third Most Disgusting was a little shed, an outhouse at the edge of a field, beside the road between Towada City and Lake Towada. There was actually nothing inside the shed save a hole in the floor of it and a fetid stench rising from the hole and the unspeakable pit underneath, a stench of such solidity in the heat of summer that you could practically see it, like the little ripples in the air over a cartoon skunk. And that was it— no paper of any sort, no water, just the little shed beside the road. It was the only thing resembling a public lavatory for miles – unless of course, you counted the benjo ditches, but not many Americans had the insouciance to use the ditches, not in broad daylight and in the open, anyway.

I regret to say that the Second Most Disgusting was actually the latrine at EBS-Zaragoza, a little cubicle at the end of a thirty-year old Quonset hut that housed the radio and engineering sections, which cubicle actually boasted a small window. The window saved it by a short head (no pun intended) from being a contender for First, in that it fresh air could be induced to enter, and dilute the potent reek emanating from the urinal. No matter how the cleaning lady scoured it, and no matter how many gallons of bleach and other cleansing agents we poured down it, on hot summer days the odor of crusted urine imbedded in thirty-year old plumbing beat them back and emerged triumphant, wafting down the corridor as far as the passage to the automation room. I hung a neatly lettered sign on the door to the latrine during one particularly hot summer; Warning: You are Now Entering The Bog of Incredible Stench, and everyone laughed their ass off, except for MSgt. Ken, the Station manager, who made me take it down.

The Most Disgusting Public Latrine in the west of the world actually was also in Spain; a service station restroom on the outskirts of San Roque, close by Gibraltar. I had to stop and fill the VEV’s gas tank, and both Blondie (then about 11 years old) and I badly needed to use the facilities. It was immediately apparent, from the moment that I opened the door at the back of the service station building, that the staff of the service station did not include any of the female persuasion. Not only was the toilet and sink caked with a unique assortment of filth, but a cardboard carton which performed as a waste basket – since a lot of facilities in Europe are incapable of digesting toilet paper it was full to overflowing with what in the good old US of A is normally flushed down the toilet – was covered with a moving carpet of enormous insects. Some kind of mutant daddy-long-legs was moving and seething, all over the carton of waste, the floor, the filthy sink and the walls. It looked for all the world like that scene in the first Indiana Jones movie with the cave full of tarantulas. My daughter took one horrified look at it, and said,
“Mom, I don’t have to go that bad!”
Unfortunately, I did. The bushes out at the back of the service station were thin and insubstantial, and I practically levitated a good ten inches over the disgusting seat. I have mercifully blocked out the name of the gas company – otherwise I would have advised nuking it from orbit, as the only way to make sure of it being cleansed from this earth.

Blondie has since made a practice of checking out the women’s restroom of any restaurant before she consumes anything from their menu, on the theory that if they can’t keep the can clean, the Deity knoweth what standards prevail in the kitchen. Words to live by, people, words to live by.

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