From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

What I Learned at the Outhouse Races

My seventy-five-year-old father, Ed Kobbeman, is one of the all-time-great, get-it-done, do-it-now kind of guys. He built his own home in 1946, and it’s a veritable showplace of repair and improvement. He’s often out in the barn fixing things before they break, restoring antiques, building things from scratch or designing and creating amazing gadgets and gizmos.

It wasn’t too surprising, then, when Dad proudly showed me his latest creation . . . the outhouse he’d built from the rough wood ripped from an old wooden crate. The traditional sun and moon were cut out of the front door, and the sloped roof had shake shingles. Dad had fashioned a fancy seat inside, within arms reach, of course, of the supply of corncobs dangling on strings. The dual-purpose Sears Roebuck catalog hung from a hook on one of the inside walls. There was even an American flag waving off the back end. It was, indeed, a fine outhouse.

Why a man, who built an all-electric home in the 1940s with a beautiful modern bathroom, would build an outhouse in the 1990s was something of a puzzle to me at first, until Dad explained that he intended to enter his creation in the First Annual Rock Falls Days Outhouse Races.

To be in this grand event, one’s outhouse had to have wheels. These he found in his neat-as-a-pin storage area outside the barn, taken off some old contraption he’d worked on years before.

The day of the race, Dad’s nephews arrived to load up his pride and joy into their pick-up truck. The four made up the outhouse racing team, along with one great-niece weighing in at under a hundred pounds, chosen to ride on the seat inside, per race rules. They all wore red look-alike, tank-style, T-shirts, looking so spiffy they could have been vying for a medal at the outhouse event at the summer Olympics.

The contraption arrived safely in the heart of downtown Rock Falls, Illinois. In the blazing sun of that scorching June day, the five outhouse teams lined up. The four muscular nephews in charge of the Kobbeman outhouse grabbed the pole handles and rocked ole Bessy back and forth, chanting, “Feel da rhythm, hear da rhyme, come on team, it’s outhouse time!”

The starting shot rang out. The red-shirted Kobbeman clan, out in front by a foot, screeched around the markers thirty yards down the parking lot and turned 180 degrees to make their way back to the start/finish line.

Just then, disaster. The hard rubber on the wheels started peeling off. One at a time, hardened black tires split off the wheels as old rubber gave way to new asphalt. The nephews hung on for the last few yards, barely winning the first race by sheer strength of will and brute muscle power as they lifted that outhouse off the ground, niece and all, and drag-carried her across the finish line. But now there was no hope for the second heat.

I stood there, ready to cry. My father had put so much time and talent into making what was obviously the most superior outhouse in the race, and now it was all over. Without wheels, an outhouse cannot run.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dad walking like a mad man away from the race. I wondered if he, too, was as disgusted with those old tires as I. What a shame, I thought, to lose the contest because of some stupid old wheels. Considering the strength and enthusiasm of the red-chested manpower, it was a low blow, indeed.

Five minutes later I realized Dad hadn’t come back. Where is he? I wondered. Thinking he’d gone off to the restroom at the corner tap, I suddenly realized that if he didn’t get back soon he’d miss the rest of the races.

Minutes ticked by. By now my cousins were using the old standby, gray duct tape, to wrap the wheels in hopes that they could patch them together enough to at least try for the second race.

Five minutes later Dad was still nowhere to be seen. Doggone, him, I thought. Where could he be? Gone off, upset at himself for using old tires on a new outhouse? How could he just leave like that? This was my dad, the man who spent a great deal of my childhood teaching me to be a good sport, to enjoy life, but to always play the game fairly. And now, just because the wheels fell off his outhouse, he’s acting like a poor sport?

The announcer was on the microphone telling the participants to get their outhouses lined up. Just then Dad ran up to outhouse row clutching four brand new wheels. He tossed me a few tools.

“Here, hold these. Hand me those needle-nose pliers.”

Within seconds the nephews and Dad had that wooden, shake-shingled wonder on its back, ripping the duct tape off with the pliers, undoing rusty nuts and bolts, and attaching the brand new wheels. It was a scene straight out of a pit stop at the Indy 500. Fifty seconds flat and those new wheels were in place.

The Kobbeman clan won the next four races amid plenty of good-natured hooting and hollering from the folks on the sidelines. In the ceremony that followed, Dad, his nephews and his great-niece were presented with an outhouse trophy so spectacular it could only be given to the finest of privy makers. That shiny, blue-and-gold, two-foot-tall trophy even had a tiny little outhouse on top with the door wide open, as if to say, “Come on in, friend!”

After the presentation, photo session, lots of backslapping and congratulatory kudos from the townspeople, including the mayor, we headed home. In the car I asked my dad, “Where’d you go when you ran off like that? And where’d you get those new wheels?”

My father took a deep breath. “Well,” he said, starting slowly, then speeding up his words as he told the story. “I ran two-and-a-half blocks to the car. Unlocked it, drove home like a bat out of Bangkok, ran in the house, got the key to the barn, ran out there, unlocked the barn, pulled my new lawnmower out on the grass, grabbed some tools, pulled off the first two wheels and threw ’em in the car. Then I decided I could take the other two off downtown while the boys were puttin’ the first two on the outhouse. So I lifted that lawnmower into the back end of the station wagon. Then I decided that was dumb. I could take the wheels off there at home just as fast, so I lifted the lawnmower back out of the car and unbolted the second pair of wheels, threw ’em in the car, put the lawnmower back in the barn, locked the door, jumped in the car, drove back to town and just happened to find a parking place right in front of the start of the race. Must have been a guardian angel. Best luck I ever had findin’ a parking place.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “Dad, you did all that in the fifteen minutes you were gone, between the first and second races?”


I just shook my head. “Why? Why did you do all that in this heat? You had a heart attack ten years ago, remember? And how did you know you wouldn’t miss all the rest of the races when you took off for home like that?”

He smiled, “Well, I just couldn’t let the boys down. They worked so hard to win that first race, I just couldn’t let those old rotten wheels ruin their chances for the rest of the races. Besides, there was a problem, and it just needed to be fixed, that’s all.”

Well, one thing’s for sure. On that hot afternoon in June in the heart of middle America, my father gave a whole new meaning to the phrase, “Race to the outhouse.” He not only saved the day for his nephews and great-niece, he also taught me a valuable lesson: No matter how grave or impossible a situation seems, just bulldoze ahead. Don’t hesitate. Just fix it.

Follow this advise and, who knows? You just might end up with a two-foot-tall trophy with a shiny little outhouse on top with the door open, welcoming you inside.

Don’t you just love America?

Patricia Lorenz

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