Woody: Latrine duty 'outranks' journalism

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The other day I saw a survey that ranked news reporting No. 1 on a list of "worst jobs."

It considered such criteria as long, odd hours, low pay, and (I assume) having to mingle with politicians and other unsavory characters.

Back in the old days when I began writing for a major metropolitan newspaper, they could have included such health hazards as smoke-filled newsrooms and sharp spikes on which my rejected copy was impaled.

Still, I can assure you that those who whined about journalism being so hard never worked some of the jobs I've had over the years.

As a teenager growing up in the country, I hauled hay in the summers. Throwing 70-pound bales of prickly fescue onto a truck bed, then heaving them up into a steaming barn loft, is a tad harder than pecking keyboard keys in an air-conditioned newspaper office.

Just when I thought hauling hay was as hot and dirty as a job could be, a neighboring farmer hired me to catch chickens. He raised them by the thousands in giant houses.

We'd catch them at night when they were roosting and - theoretically - tranquil, and put them in wooden crates to be transported to that Big Colonel Sanders the Sky.

Problem was, when you snatched the first victim it would start flapping and squawking, and the other 10,000 chickens would go nuts. Suddenly the dark, suffocating chicken house was choked with dust, flying feathers and other stuff I'd rather not dwell on. That was over 40 years ago and I still haven't got it all out of my hair.

The next summer I got a job at a water heater plant, working in the sand-blast room. If Dante had devised another Circle of Hell, I'd have been in it. I had to wear a deep-sea-diving helmet with hoses that supplied air in order to breathe. At the end of a shift my arms would be raw from being sand-blasted and I'd have sand in places where you don't ordinarily find sand.

The next summer I got promoted to the factory's blast furnace. For 10 hours a day I lifted 50-pound water heaters off hooks as they exited the furnace. The water heaters glowed cherry-red. I wore an asbestos apron and shoulder-length asbestos gloves but I still have burn scars to attest that the protection didn't always work.

After graduating from college, the U.S. Army invited me to join up for a couple of years. Noticing that my personnel record showed that I had earned a degree in English Literature, the Army decided to make me a combat infantryman.

I spent a year stomping around in primitive areas woefully lacking in indoor plumbing. Whenever my rifle company got to come out of the jungle to dry off in base camp, we grunts would invariably draw "latrine duty." We called it putting a Private on the privy.

There's no delicate way to describe it: tub-like barrels were placed under the latrines to catch the waste, and when full, the barrels were removed.

But it gets worse. You didn't simply haul the nauseating, fly-buzzing barrels away; the contents had to be burned.

And worse yet: to enhance combustion, diesel fuel was added, and someone (me, usually) had to stand over each barrel and stir the burning, smoke-belching mess with a long pole to keep the process going.

After a few hours of latrine duty you were covered in black, greasy diesel soot, along with (like my chicken-catching days) other stuff you'd rather not think about.

After I made it home and took a shower, I returned to the newspaper job the draft had so rudely interrupted.

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Larry Woody
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