Never Drop the Lid

“Had a fire in the bathroom last night. Lucky it didn’t spread to the house.” That red neck comedian joke minus the fire, describes our house for the first years of my growing up. But then we leaped into the twentieth century and got indoor plumbing.

World War II was a contributing factor. Because of the war the government built a new plant on the shores of Utah Lake. My father who was turned down by the draft for eyesight problems got a well paying job at Geneva Steel. This provided the money to build the new accommodation. On the other hand, the war effort rationed many things including toilet bowls. I’m still not sure how toilet bowls are used in a war. I’m not even sure I want to ask. We had a fair wait with uncertainty until we finally were able to purchase this home improvement. In addition to not being available at the whim of a shopping spree, the gleaming white porcelain bowl was not cheap in terms of our home improvement budget. Being porcelain it was also potentially breakable.

My mother gave us careful instruction, demonstration, and testing on how to open and close the lid without letting it fall possibly putting us out of the indoor bathroom business, and crippling the Allied war effort to some extent. My brother Gordon and I watched carefully, then successfully passed our skill test.

The great moment came. We experienced the first flush of success (sorry, couldn’t resist.) Life was better, especially in the winter.

Then one day we were at the city dump. My memory grows foggy at this point, but I assume we were there taking trash to the dump not from the dump. Things were tight financially, but not dumpster diving tight.

Gordon and I were off inspecting the interesting offerings cast from our little town. Mother called authoritatively, “Come here.” We came. She pointed at a ghastly scene, a white porcelain toilet with part of one side broken out. We stood solemn and stunned.

Secretly I hoped it was wounded in the war by a howitzer shell and not the result of some kid dropping the lid; a prodigal now stabbed with guilt every time a family member left the house in winter to visit the “facility” out back. Whatever the cause of the catastrophe, Mom reminded us again how important it was to set the lid down gently.

Though she rarely mentioned it, I’m sure I often fell short of Mom’s expectations. For example, at my request we got a correspondence course on playing the piano. It is moldering somewhere in its original mail wrappings I think.

“Move quickly,” she admonished me. My quick was her stopped.

“We’ve packed enough socks for you to wear a fresh pair every day. Then at the end of the week wash them all for the coming week.” Her parting words to Gordon and me as we left on our great summer adventure working in the Kaniksu forest in the Idaho panhandle. We meant well, but there were always so many things to do after work that were much more fun than washing socks. At the end of the summer, I suppose we hiked out of camp for the last time and left the socks lined up standing stiffly at attention in front of the tent.

But with a clear conscience on the day of judgment I will report that never, from the men’s room of the New York Waldorf Astoria Hotel, to a thousand truck stops as a traveling troubadour, to the latrine tent of a Boy Scout Jamboree, never did I on purpose drop a lid on a toilet bowl. And I am sure I never shall. The lesson is engraved on my DNA.

I think my mother would not be necessarily proud to hear this, more like puzzled. I’m sure she has forgotten the whole thing. As a parent I identify, although I don’t understand either. Why is it that we can drum great words of wisdom into our children, and the pearls will, in the words of my mother’s generation, “Go in one ear and out the other?” And yet they take some off handed comment or action we do and make it an article of faith. More sobering to me is, how healthy was the smorgasbord of words and actions that I presented to them to pick from. They have turned out to be pretty respectable citizens, so I hope that reflects our parenting.

And I’m glad I followed my mother’s counsel to be gentle with toilet lids. In part it has made me who I am. In the interest of full disclosure though, I must add, I worked summers during my college years in a service station. Once while cleaning the ladies rest room, the top of the water closet slipped out of my hand, fell and smashed a hole in the bottom of the unit on the back of the toilet. Water ran everywhere and we had to replace the fixture. The station manager was a good hearted guy who took my clumsiness in stride. But he did say, “You only have to shine up the outside of the water closet. Why did you take the lid off in the first place?”

I said, “Mom never mentioned that.”

He looked puzzled.