My earliest memories were of sitting for long periods, alone in the bathroom, with dozens of picture books, and my clothes scattered on the tile floor. My routine was always remarkably complex, and never took less than 30 minutes. As a kid I would disrobe completely, top to bottom, including socks and shoes, as if I were getting ready for a ritual bath. This lasted well into my teens, and I never once was able to have a movement at a public place. Not once.
So at 17 when I went off to basic training during the start of my plebe summer at West Point, I began an eight-year stretch of my life, first as a cadet and later as an officer in the Army, when my anal-retention issues would cause me constant problems. These are some snapshots taken from military latrines of my past. The memories and lexicon will be familiar to anyone who’s served.
Cadet Latrines: No Joy and No Doors
During Cadet Basic Training (Beast Barracks), I went the first five weeks without having to use the toilet. I’d lost 40 pounds and my body didn’t have anything to spare. When I finally got myself regular I discovered that the stalls in the latrine didn’t have any doors. We all knew that it was meant to deter us from masturbating. But it was terrifying to have to take a dump knowing a complete stranger might walk by at any moment.
Fort Knox Quonset Huts: Dancing Cheek to Cheek
Much worse were the World War II barracks we used for our summer training at Fort Knox the following year. Instead of stalls, the bathroom simply had four toilet seats mounted on a small L-shaped platform with a common water basin beneath. Everyone in the platoon was on the same schedule for food and sleep. So it only followed that we were marching in time together for our extrusions. There was no avoiding having three birds on the wire with you when you did your business. To make matters worse, the four seats were only inches apart. So you were literally touching the person to your right and left while you squeezed one out. For men who refuse to even make eye contact when they’re standing next to each other at a urinal, this took awkward to a new level. All we could do was laugh at ourselves.
Jungle School Panama: Perilous Balance
During three-day patrolling exercises in a triple-canopy jungle, we learned much about our bodies. Most of us were able to go 72 hours without having to do the deed. Besides, it’s well known that the rations we ate (MREs) brought on constipation. But one of my squadmates (and lifelong buddies), Charlie Pinigis, was rail-thin and had the metabolism of a bird. I’ll never forget seeing him wander off into the brush (walking 10 feet off the trail gave him plenty of privacy) and grabbing the closest stable greenery he could find to prop himself as he squatted with his pants at his ankles. With so much foliage at every level, one never could tell what was under foot. Snakes, spiders, and ants the size of your thumb were everywhere. At night he would ask one of us to shine a flashlight on the ground beneath his bare ass while he did his business.
Observation Post 13: The E-Tool
As a lieutenant one of my team sergeants taught me a trick I still use whenever I go camping. The army has a standard-issue shovel called an Entrenching Tool (E-Tool) designed for digging fighting positions. The E-Tool is highly versatile, with a steel spade, a sturdy D-handle, and a collapsible structure that allows it to be folded to into thirds and fit neatly into a carrying pouch. But when locked into an L-shape, it’s perfect for a field-expedient dump. A few chops at the ground create a narrow, eight-inch trench in the soil for making a deposit. The tool can then be inverted, and the D-handle planted in the ground next the newly formed trench. The curved back side of the spade, when locked at a 90-degree angle and parallel to the ground, acts as a seat, on which you can lean with one cheek and balance yourself just so. Doing this creates a nice separation for gravity to do its work without any fear of cross contamination. Afterward the E-tool makes an ideal rake, to cover the debris quickly with the loose soil. I never go into the woods without my E-Tool.
Airborne Operations at Fort Bragg: Jumpers in the Door
During airborne operations there is a lengthy and tiresome pre-amble to every jump that involves rehearsals of exiting the aircraft (from a mock airplane near the hangar), reciting the procedures for water landings and mid-air entanglements, and generally a steady build-up of anxiety about the many perils of what you’re about to do. This concludes with the donning of a parachute harness, with three-inch-wide straps that cradle the groin area and wrap around the waist. That’s followed by attaching some 80 pounds of equipment to the sides and front of the rig. And then paratroopers get inspected vigorously by Jumpmasters before waddling off to the hangar to wait to board the aircraft.
Once the gear is on, no matter how badly a person has to use the toilet, it’s out of the question. And there is typically still another three to four hours before the actual jump. So once paratroopers are finally in the aircraft, and the bay doors open above the drop-zone, they’ve been through a 12-hour sequence and they just can’t wait to get out of the plane. The descent from 800 feet above the ground is brief. And many soldiers have made it their first order of business upon landing to remove their harness, pull out their E-Tool, and proceed to allow their own little paratroopers to exit the aircraft. In the Airborne community, a well-used euphemism for an urgent movement is “Jumpers in the Door.”
Forward Operating Base Red Falcon: Big Daddy and the Camel Spiders
While in Saudi Arabia awaiting the ground war in 1990, our engineers built us six plywood enclosures, each with four cut-outs opening to removable burn-barrels below. With 800 men depending on so few toilets, I routinely waited until late at night to have solitude. One night our mess sergeant, Big Daddy Woodson, came stumbling into my latrine while I was in the midst of a contraction. This was a shock, because there were other open spots he could have had to himself. Big Daddy was six-foot-five and had a black belt in Karate, but had a high-pitched voice that contradicted his intimidating appearance. He quickly sat down right next to me while shining his flashlight in every direction, then asked me in his Tiny Tim voice, “Are there any spiders in here?”
See more: A Men’s Movement