As a little boy on a Tennessee farm, I dreamed of being a cowboy, not unlike millions of other little boys of my generation. This dream had been shaped in large part by watching “Westerns” on TV, either at the homes of relatives who got electricity before we did, or at our house soon after we got electricity.
These Westerns featured such towering figures as Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, Gene Autry, Tom Mix, and Lash LaRue, whose fame was distinguished by the skillful use of a bullwhip. (Zorro, also a bullwhip guy, came to TV a few years later.) On occasion I would get to see a Western movie at the Roxy Theater in Clarksville, about 12 miles from our farm, but not often.
Daddy would normally schedule our farm chores so that we could watch Westerns in the late afternoon. It was usually Daddy, my older brother Nolen Robert, and me who would watch the Westerns, while Mother finished her farm chores and began to prepare supper. (I now know this was unfair to her, but we thought nothing of it at the time.)
My dream of being a cowboy included a deep desire to have a full cowboy outfit that included the hat, shirt, Wrangler jeans, boots, and a pair of revolvers in leather holsters hanging from a wide, hand-tooled gun belt with a shiny, silver buckle. The dream also included having a paint pony with a leather-tooled saddle that matched my gun belt and holsters. Dreams have no limitations.
Cap pistols were toys that looked and sounded pretty real. Caps that I was familiar with came in two main types, both made of red paper layered over little mounds of gunpowder less than a quarter-inch wide. One type was disks about the diameter of a 25-cent coin with a circle of six explosive “caps” that would fit over the six-shooter chamber of a revolver. The other type was caps in a roll that fitted over a spindle inside the pistol and fed out the top of the pistol when fired.
I could buy these caps at Uncle W. G.’s grocery store or at a variety of places in Clarksville on our “trips to town.” Firing a cap pistol with the loud “Crack!” and a puff of smoke was an exciting moment, one that looked similar to those cowboys firing their pistols in the Westerns on TV.
Unbelievably, on Christmas Day of 1950, when I was in the first grade at Hackberry Elementary School, Santa gave me the exact set of two pistols in tooled leather holsters on a gun belt with a big, shiny silver buckle! This gift was exactly like what I had dreamed of so intently. WOW!!!
The closed Hackberry Elementary School,
Montgomery County,Tennessee, about 1987.
The outhouse was up a wooded hill to the left.
No other Christmas gift from my childhood was as special as this one in my memory. All day that Christmas Day, and for several days afterward during my first big school vacation, I must have driven Daddy, Mother, and Nolen Robert up the wall with my running through the house firing my pistols at imaginary bad guys, hiding behind furniture to avoid being shot, and jumping out to take a shot at the villains.
In an era when school violence of today’s news reports was unheard of, boys and maybe a girl or two would bring their toy pistols to school and use them at play during recess. This was just an accepted part of our culture at that time, with no questions asked by teachers or school administrators.
Hackberry Elementary School was out in the country, about halfway between our farm and Clarksville. It was a four-room school housing grades 1-8, with two grades per room. The school faced east along a gravel road that followed a creek on the opposite side of the road, at an intersecting gravel road that went west less than 20 feet from the south windows of the school. Behind the school was a very small playground (way too small and too steep for a baseball field) that led up a steep, wooded hill that curved around the school to the west and north.
The school lacked indoor toilets. The boys’ toilet was a two-seater outhouse that was about 200 feet up a path leading from the playground westward up the hill. The girls’ outhouse was quite a distance away, across the side of the hill directly north of the school. One outhouse was only visible to the other when the leaves were off the trees. So these were very private outhouses, except for the 2-seater feature that had no divider between the seats. Further, there were no male teachers in this school at the time, so men were almost never in the boys’ outhouse.
Moving the story along, one January day I had to do my business by sitting thoughtfully for a time in the outhouse. On this particular day, so soon after Christmas, I wore my prized set of two cap pistols in the fancy leather holsters on a wide gun belt with the shiny silver buckle. During this particular visit to the outhouse, I was the only boy there. As I was working to situate myself on the seat, trying to manage things while still wearing my guns, the gun in my right holster slipped out and fell about four feet down into the slushy pit. Oh, no!
I looked into the pit and my pistol had sunk out of sight. The situation being what is was, I sat there for a time, more thoughtful than usual. What was I going to do? How would I explain to my teacher, Miss Lorene Bumpus, and my classmates why I had gone to the outhouse with two pistols and returned with only one? My special Christmas present was far too valuable to even consider dumping the whole gun set into the toilet. It would be even harder to explain that. No way was that an option.
Tennessee winters in our neck of the woods can be very cold, especially in an airy outhouse with your pants down. My business and my thought process actually took a very short time. I had to face the music. When I walked into the classroom, someone said,
“Where’s your other pistol?”
While my face was burning with embarrassment, giving as few details as possible, I simply said that I had accidentally dropped it down the toilet. This struck everyone as very funny, and provided me an excellent early opportunity to practice laughing at my own mistakes. But, darn it!
This incident set off an unimaginable chain of events. News of my loss spread through all eight grades in almost no time. I became at once the object of some ridicule and pity, but most of all just good-natured laughter.
This was just the start of it. The boys wanted to know which pit I dropped my gun in, the one on the right or the one on the left, as you walk in. “The one on the left,” I replied. Within 24 hours, the boys’ two-seater outhouse began to undergo an evolutionary change.
It started the next day by someone cutting a small sapling that was about six feet long, with a fork cut at the tip by removing the branches. (Boys often carried pocket knives in those days as well, another accepted cultural thing.) The stick was then used to try to “hook” the pistol on that fork with the idea of fishing it out of the toilet.When the effort failed, the stick was just left sticking out of the toilet seat about two feet in the air.
I wondered what anyone would do with the pistol if the stick were to work in fishing out the gun. I did my best to keep this a short thought, and then thought about something else—anything else.
Over the coming days the number of saplings trimmed with forks of various shapes and sizes left sticking out of the pit grew from two, to four, and more. As far as I know no one ever removed a stick after trying unsuccessfully to fish out the pistol. As the story got older at school, the number of efforts, as measured by the number of forked sticks left protruding up through the toilet seat, slowed and came to an eventual halt. All together, I’d guess that 12-15 sticks angled in various directions from the pit up through the toilet seat, like a large-scale arrangement of dried reeds or twigs in a vase.
For most, if not all, of the remainder of that school year the boys’ two-seater outhouse effectively became a one-seater. Sometime afterwards the collection of sticks was removed, restoring the two-seater feature. I have no idea who did the good deed.
There were no reports of my pistol ever being recovered. I wonder if Roy Rogers ever lost a pistol in an outhouse.