Down in the dumps

Three tales of the humble Portalet

Though they come in a variety of flavors, all Porta-Johns do about the same thing.

The safe management of human waste is a really big deal, particularly in a military environment. During the American Civil War, more lives were lost as the result of disease than enemy action. Much of this carnage could be attributed to suboptimal hygiene.

One of the biggest advances in the field of waste management is the humble Porta-John. These ubiquitous little portable outhouses come in both blue and desert tan. While hardly pleasant, they do a simply splendid job of managing mankind’s unmentionables, even in an austere environment. However, anywhere you have large numbers of young energetic males you have the potential for mischief.

Military service can be terribly untidy. Photo: U.S. Department of Defense

The Desert Deuce

We were flying into the National Training Center for a typical one-month rotation. The deployment had taken a couple of days and we were psyched for a solid four weeks of abject squalor. If misery were a mineral you mined out of the earth, Fort Irwin, Calif., would be where you would find it. As we called into the training area, one of my comrades felt the urge.

We wouldn’t have opportunity for a real shower for another month or so and proper porcelain was but a fond memory. As we swooped down to NOE (Nap of the Earth) altitudes making our way toward Bicycle Lake, we spotted a lone Porta-John out in the desert. My buddy couldn’t stand it any longer.

We swung the massive CH47D helicopter around and landed so my pal could deplane and take his dump. Even at flight idle, those two massive 4,500 shaft horsepower turbines burn a simply astronomical amount of fuel. He needed to take care of business too sweet.

In short order he clambered back into the cockpit and strapped himself in tight. As I lifted the aircraft off and swung it back toward Bike Lake I smelled something unpleasant. We suddenly realized that in his enthusiasm to shed his flight suit, my buddy had inadvertently dropped the top half across the seat and pooped in it. After having been strapped tightly into his seat the poor guy was, to put it mildly, in a bit of a state. He found he had few friends for the next couple of weeks until we all got nasty enough not to care. We also never let him live that down.

Waste management has been a ubiquitous human challenge ever since men
banded together to kill each other. The can-looking thing in this WWII-era
Wellington bomber is their aircraft toilet.

Gas Attack

Once in the maneuver box, we were attacked by the obligatory OPFOR (Opposing Force). They infiltrated our perimeter and deployed CS gas, a stand-in for the nastier nerve agent we expected the Bad Guys to use. We spent the next hour or so sweltering in the heat in our bulky suffocating MOPP gear (Military Oriented Protective Posture — a heavy chemical suit and gas mask). Once the all clear was declared, I couldn’t find Bob, one of my warrant officer pilots.

Just about the time I was getting worried, Bob wandered back to the tent looking sheepish. He had been in the Porta-John when the attack kicked off and just figured he would sit it out. An hour later he returned fresh and well-rested having spent the chemical attack reading a spy novel on the toilet.

These ubiquitous portable chemical toilets go a long way toward stemming
the spread of disease in austere environments. Photo: David Shankbone

Behold a tiny little glimpse into heaven. On maneuvers, it would be a month
before we would see another one of these. Photo: Sidekix Media

Speed Is Life

Field exercises in the arctic bring their own unique challenges. The Army naturally provides the expected Porta-Johns, but at 40 degrees below zero you really don’t want to linger out there. As a result, there’s a technique to it. You wait until there is no ambiguity regarding the need, scoot out and move with a purpose. Sometimes guys get in too big a hurry.

There was some poor unfortunate Alaskan whose job it was to pilot the poop-sucking truck around and empty these things out. He looked right out of central casting — a big hulking hairy man wearing worn Carhartt overalls repaired with duct tape. Apparently his contract demanded he remove the waste from the Porta-John, no matter where it might reside.

The early morning stillness was broken one fine day by some thunderous banging and a stream of unfiltered profanity the likes of which I have never experienced before or since. Curiosity got the better of me, so I donned my arctic gear and ventured outside to investigate. I was greeted by the enormous Alaskan pounding on something with a pair of 2×4 boards. He used one like a hammer and the other like a chisel.

Apparently some young stud had gotten in a bit of rush and dumped his load on the floor rather than in the hole. I struggle to visualize how that is even anatomically possible, but there you go. The enormous pile froze solid in short order, affixing itself leech-like to the floor of the john. The poor guy eventually broke it loose and moved on to his next rendezvous with destiny. Taken in context, my job no longer seemed so bad.

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