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Ed's Tohlet

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 It was a frosty October morning. A thin dusting of snow was on the ground as we drove up “Four-Mile Holler.” Along the way we saw rusted, bullet-ridden shells of old cars from the 20s, 30s, and 40s. Black coal smoke came from several of the old shacks on each side of the road. It almost appeared as if we were going back in time as we drove the winding road in this rural part of Kentucky. Some of the members of my group huddled further down in their warm coats as they imagined what life must be like for the people who lived in such rundown, rickety places. We were on our way to see Ed and to work on his house as part of our ongoing Appalachian Outreach project.

Ed lived at the very back of “Four-Mile Holler.” A “holler” in eastern Kentucky is a hollow between two mountains where the runoff water has carved a path on its way down to the valley. This one was named “Four-Mile Holler” because it was exactly four miles long. We were to later find out it was also known as a “shootin’ holler.” A “shootin’ holler” is a hollow in which a feud is still going on. This particular feud, I learned, had already lasted 126 years. Ed had seen many people die in the feud, but since he had remained neutral, he was rarely shot at, though his house did sustain some bullet wounds received while he was entertaining members of one family or the other.

As we pulled up in front of Ed’s place, we began to realize that this was not going to be an easy job. His “house,” to use the term loosely, sat back off the road at the confluence of two fairly large, rapidly moving streams, one of which we would have to cross on a log that had been cut in half and laid across the creek. This particular morning it was encrusted in a layer of ice that looked wickedly dangerous as it showed every twisted warp of the log perched about eight feet above the wildly rushing creek.

My group watched from the warmth of the van as I got a square-point shovel out of the trailer attached to the van and began to slowly chip away the ice and inch my way across the treacherously uneven surface of the log. A gust of wind almost sent me plunging into the icy stream, but I held onto my shovel and braced against it. Ten long minutes of chipping and slowly inching my way across finally yielded success as I stepped out onto the other side. I relaxed. Too soon.

A giant dog leapt out of the tall weeds near the log bridge and snapped. I screamed and leapt as the dog hit the end of the large logging chain restraining it. The group, watching from the warmth and safety of the van, screamed with me, but once they realized I was still alive, began to laugh at my plight. I couldn’t get back across the log bridge if I wanted, and they weren’t about to come to my aid.

Fortunately for me, Ed had heard my scream, and the door to the shanty jerked rapidly open. A rather large man, slightly hunched over an adjustable, dirty metal cane, he limped out onto the porch.

“Git ’own!” he screamed. The large dog slunk back into the weeds. I didn’t fully understand the language, but I was extremely glad the dog did. 

“Hi!” I tried to sound cheerful despite my shaking knees and racing heart, “I’m Pastor Don. Are you Ed?”

“Tha’s right” Ed replied. “Lemme git sum ashes to put on the log and tie back the dog. Make him safer.” He grabbed an old steel pail filled with coal ash and hobbled down to the creek bank where I still stood rooted to the ground.

“Take ’is here and shovel it out on the log,” he instructed, handing me the pail. He went and grabbed the beast and looped his chain over a large metal stake farther back from the bridge, effectively making the landing safe. I shoveled ash across the log, and one by one the members of the group began spilling out of the van and making their way across. 

“Can we pet your dog?” one of my students asked. I was incredulous after my near death experience.

“Well, I reckon ya can . . . jes’ don’t turn yur back on ’im,” Ed responded.

“What do you mean, Ed?” I asked.

Ed didn’t reply, but bent down and rolled up his right pant leg to reveal a nasty-looking six-inch scar on his calf.

“What happened?” we all asked, almost in unison.

“Well, one day, I’s down here afeedin’ ’im, and I turnt around to git some water, and the fool dog done grapped ahold a mah leg and wunt let go fur nothing! He was a-growlin’ and a-shakin’ his haid around, ’bout to rip mah leg plumb off. Well, I commenced to jerkin’ on his jaws, an’ a-beatin’ on his haid . . . but he won’t let me go.”

“How did you get him off?” I asked.

Ed looked up toward the side of his shack, which had many old-fashioned iron objects hanging on the outside wall, and said, “Ya see that big iron skillet a-hangin’ over there? Well, I unhooked his chain, and I went a-draggin’ ’im up there and got that ol’ skillet, and I beat him on the haid till he went plumb out! Then I jerked his jaws offa mah leg and dragged ’eem back down there and hooked ’eem up. And ya know, that dog ain’t been right ever since.”

“Don’t touch the dog, kids.” I said.

“Well, that’s mah liddle dog,” Ed responded. “Mah big ’un, I had to lock up afore yous got here. Had ’em both bred special. Part Doberman, part rottweiler, and part pit bull. Not many get past ’em on the bridge there. Kinda surprised you did.” He gave a look my way, and I felt a new ripple of respect among the students.

“So, Ed, what do you need us to do for you today?” I changed the topic while the respect was fresh.

“I need ya to put a new wall in mah kichun. It fell out onto mah porch about three year ago. C’mon on in . . . all uh yous.”

As we entered his house, the smell was almost an entity of its own. Getting past that, the next problem was finding a route through the junk. From the front door, a trail led between stacks of old junk radios, magazines, 8-track tape players, tapes, a car transmission, and other sundry items to the kitchen. Another trail led from the main trail over to a TV that played in two colors, red and offset green. Another trail went from the TV to the coal-burning stove over in the corner and then from the coal-burning stove back to the main trail.

In the kitchen, things weren’t much better. Actually, it got worse. I did a double take as I looked at the dishes in the sink. The top ones looked all right, but as I looked deeper, I saw black and grey mold growing out from between the dishes on the bottom two-thirds of the stack.

“Ed,” I asked, “how long have these dishes been in the sink?”

“Well, I warshed ’em all fur ’bout the first three years after muh wife lef’ me. Then figgerd . . . ain’t no one eatin’ off these but me—so I’ll jes’ warsh the ones I need when I need ’em.”

“And how long ago did your wife leave you, Ed?”

“Les’ see,” he scratched his head, “it’s been ’bout 15 years ago.”

What? So your saying these dishes have been in the sink for 12 years?” I asked incredulously.

“Dat ’ud be ’bout right,” he concluded proudly.

I asked him where they went when they were all clean. He pointed to a cabinet. I opened the cabinet to find a lot of rat and mouse droppings and an old Oatmeal box and a box of grits with long grey mold growing out of the side. As a matter of fact, mold abounded. I marveled. This would certainly be a place where penicillin could gain a foothold.

The back wall of the kitchen was completely gone, rotted away, with the remains lying on top of a broken-down porch floor. All that was left were the screened-in walls of the porch, inside of which Ed had stapled black plastic as a shield against the cold. The floor of the porch was rotted through, and to one side of the porch was another “bedroom.” Actually, it was more of a storage area for more junk, also with rotting floors. 

I marshaled the troops, about 15 high schoolers and a couple of adult sponsors, and prepared them for battle. We would clean the junk out of the living room, clean the kitchen, even wash dishes and clean out cupboards, and carry out all of the garbage. We would also build a new wall onto his kitchen. The porch and back half would have to wait for another day. Just that much would probably take us all day.

Once everyone was busy, Ed had one more request. “I’s wunderin’, preacher, couldja do somthin’ ’bout mah tohlet? It kindly peenches.” 

“Your what?”

“Mah tohlet. It kindly peenches.”

“I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying, Ed. Why don’t you show me,” I suggested.

He then led me around the corner to his bathroom. A whole new smell emerged. Old urine and waste smells lurched out and pierced my nose. He pointed to the toilet. A quick glance at the seat, and Ed’s problem was obvious. Apparently he had slipped and fallen, and the front half of the ring had broken away from the back half, and they were only joined now by pieces of Plexiglas and superglue on the underside. So every time Ed would sit, it would “kindly peench” him. 

Glancing around the rest of the bathroom revealed a nasty-looking sink as well as a tub and shower enclosure. The tub and side walls were a deep rust color that looked to be layers thick. The glass doors were also covered in whatever it was. It was apparent that we needed to do something about that as well. 

I had to ask. “Ed,” I ventured, “how long has it been since you cleaned your tub?”


“Mah wife warshed it real good jes’ before she left.”

“You’re telling me it’s been 15 years?” He nodded. 

One of the adults headed to town to find a toilet seat, while I went to the back of the trailer to find some long rubber gloves and strong cleaning supplies, a few brushes, some steel wool pads, and whatever else seemed potentially helpful for the task at hand, then headed back in, looking for a teenager to redirect. In the meantime, Ed said he was tired and shuffled off to the back of the house to lay down for a nap.

Spying a student not doing anything, I called for him to follow me. I led him into the bathroom and showed him the nasty shower and tub enclosure. He swallowed hard and started turning pale. Obviously fighting back waves of nausea, he began to try to speak. Nothing came out, so he motioned for me to follow him. He ran outside. I followed.

“Pastor Don,” he began, “if you want that shower cleaned”—long pause . . . careful thought . . . deep breath—“you’re going to have to do it yourself, ’cause I ain’t touchin’ that thing!” With that, he turned and ran back to the job he was supposed to be helping with before I had called him.

OK, I thought to myself, it’s up to you, big guy. You’ve got to buck up and show them a little servant-leadership.

I donned the heavy rubber gloves and picked up my cleaning supplies. This was do or die. Put up or shut up. I headed in, and the odor once again attacked my senses. Shut up was sounding like a better option all the time. I looked back and saw five teenage guys watching me wavering at the door. No backing down now, or I would never hear the end of it. I plunged in, determined to conquer or be conquered.

I slid open the shower door and peered in. It was worse than I had imagined. An encrusted brown goo hung on the sides of the shower. I aimed my spray bottle of strong chemicals in and began pumping furiously, thoroughly saturating the sides and bottom, and then quickly retreated to the fresh air outside. 

Back inside, I attacked with the scrub brush, and the goo started peeling off in layers. Layer after layer came off as the strong cleaning agents worked overtime. As each layer glopped to the bottom of the tub, I scooped it up and plopped it in a heavy-duty garbage bag. Then it was spray and repeat. The toxic combination of cleaning supplies and incumbent smells necessitated taking frequent breaks to gasp in some fresh air. 

Three hours and eight layers later, it was beginning to look better. My runaway student abruptly reappeared at the bathroom door.

“Umm . . .” he began. “I’ve been thinking about things, Pastor Don. And I’ve been feeling a little guilty for running off. So, if you really . . . (long pause) . . . um . . . want me to . . . (big swallow) . . . work on that shower . . . (extremely long pause while choosing his words carefully) . . . I guess I will . . . (adding rapidly) . . . so you can get started on that toilet.”

I had almost forgotten. He handed me a new toilet seat, and I relinquished the scrub brushes and chemicals. Still wearing my heavy gloves, I tried to lift the seat. It was stuck fast. There was a black-and-brown substance holding it tight. I went out to the trailer, procured a long screwdriver, a wrench, and a Makita cordless drill, and set out to find the screws that kept the lid attached. Using the long screwdriver, I pried the seat loose, and as it popped up, suddenly a whole new smell emerged. The kid and I both ran, gagging and retching, outdoors. It was then I spotted what was to be our new friend. On top of an army stretcher piled high with junk that some of the boys were carrying out to the barn, lay a rather large box fan.

“Wait!” I shouted, “Does that thing still work?”

“Dunno,” came the response. “Didn’t try it.”

My bathroom buddy and I were on it likes flies on stink. We hauled it to the nearest outlet and plugged it in. Miraculously the blades started spinning, and we felt like we had won a small victory.

We hauled it into the bathroom and put it in the already open window. We plugged it in, and immediately the stench eased. Just as quickly, however, the people hauling stuff past the window started yelling and gagging as the toxic air spewed forth. 

It was back to work. I chipped and scraped the offending substances into the toilet and flushed, repeating the process until I was down to the porcelain. A few cleaning chemicals and scrub brushes soon had it looking good. Now to the seat.

Scraping down, I located the screws and carved out a slot on top. Then, kneeling down, I realized that there was no dignified way to change a toilet seat. You simply cannot accomplish the task without hugging the bowl. Working furiously, again with “air breaks,” I worked on breaking the nuts loose. The first took about 45 minutes; the second about 25. (I learned some tricks on the first one that helped with the second.) Needless to say, it was one of the most nauseating, disgusting tasks I’ve ever undertaken.

As I knelt there hugging that bowl, suddenly the thought struck me: Is this what it means to be a servant of Jesus Christ? And as I reflected on the life of Jesus, coming from all of heaven’s glory and splendor down to the dump Satan has made of His creation—the toilet bowl of the universe, if you will—with the ugly mold and goo of sin growing from our hearts, I had to concede that I was probably closer to being a disciple, hugging Ed’s “tohlet,” than I had ever been. For we are never more like Jesus than when we serve.

Mark 10:42–45 says, “Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ ” (NIV).* 



* Scripture quotations marked NIV are from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Don Keele, Jr., is a pastor and the associate youth director for young adults for the Georgia-Cumberland Conference. He writes from Calhoun, Georgia.

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