The Specialist
by Charles (Chic) Sale (as told in 1929) (Used by permission from W. T. Shaw)
(Slightly altered from the original)
Note: At the bottom is an interesting take on this story as told by Vladimir Oravsky

  Mr. President and Gentlemen:
  You've heard a lot of pratin' and prattlin' about this bein' the age of specialization. I'm a carpenter by trade. At one time I could of built a house, barn, church, or chicken coop. But I seen the need of a specialist in my line, so I studied her. I got her, she'smine. Gentlemen, you are face to face with the champion privybuilder of Sangamon County.
  Luke Harkins was my first customer. He heerd about me specializin' and decided to take a chance. I built fer him the average eight family, three holer. With that job my reputation was made, and since then I have devoted all my time and thought to that special line. Of course, when business is slack, I do do a little paperhangin' on the side. But my heart is just in privy buildin'. And when I finish a job, I ain't through. I give all my customers six months' privy service free gratis. I explained thisto Luke, and one day he calls me us and sez: "Lem, I wish you'd come out here, I'm havin' privy trouble."
  So I gits in the car and drives out to Luke's place, and hid behind them Baldwins, where I could get a good view of the situation.
  It was right in the middle of hayin' time, and them hired hands was goin' in and stayin' anywheres from forty minutes to an hour. Think of that!
  I sez: "Luke, you sure have got privy trouble." So I takes out my kit of tools and goes in to examine the structure.
  First I looks at the catalogue hangin' there, thinkin' it might be that; but it wasn't even from a reckonized house. Then I looks at the seats proper, and I see what the trouble was. I had made them holes too durn comfortable. So I gets out a scroll saw and cuts 'em square with hard edges. Then I go back and takes up my position as before--me here, the Baldwins here, and the privy there. And I watched them hired hands goin' in and out for nearly two hours; and not one of them was stayin' more then four minutes.
  "Luke," I sez, "I've solved here." That's what comes of bein' a specialist.
  'Twarn't long after I built that twin job for the school house, then after that the biggest plant up to date--an eight holer. Elmer Ridgway was down and looked it over. And he came to me one day and sez: "Lem, I seen that eight hole job you done down there at the Corners, and it sure is a dandy; and figgerin' as how I'm goin' to build on the old Roberson property, I thought I'd ask you to kind of estimate on a job for me."
  You come to the right man, Elmer," I sez. "I'll be out as soon as I get the roof on the two-seater I'm puttin up for the Sheriff."
  Couple of days later I drives out to Elmer's place, getin' there about dinner time. I knocks a couple of times on the door and I see they got a lot of folks to dinner, so not wishin' to disturb 'em, I sneaks around to the side door and yells: "Hey, Elmer, here I am; where do you want that privy put?"
  Elmer comes out and we get to talkin' about a good location. He was all fer puttin' her right alongside a jagged path runnin' by a Northern Spy.
  "I wouldn't do it, Elmer," I sez; "and I'll tell you why. In the first place, her being' near a tree is bad. There ain't no sound in nature so disconcertin' as the sound of apples droppin' on th' roof. Then another thing, there's a crooked path runnin' by that tree and the soil there ain't adapted to absorbin' moisture. Durin' the rainy season she's likely to be slippery. Take you grandpappy--goin' out there is about the only recreation he gets. He'll go out some rainy night with his nighties flappin' around his legs, and like as not when you come out in the mornin' you'll find him prone in the mud or maybe skidded off one of them curves and wound up in the corn crib. No, sir, I sez, put her in a straight line with the house and, if it's all the same to you have her go past the woodpile. I'll tell you why.
  Take a woman, fer instance--out she goes. On the way she'll gather five sticks of wood, and the average woman will make four or five trips a day. There's twenty sticks in the wood box without any trouble. On the other hand, take a timid woman: if she sees any men folks around, she's too bashful to go direct out so she'll go to the woodpile, pick up the wood, go back to the house and watch her chance. The average timid woman--especially a new hired girl--I've knowed to make as many a ten trips to the woodpile before she goes in, regardless. On a good day you'll have the wood box filled by noon, and right there is a savin' of time.
  "Now, about the diggin' of her. You can't be too careful about that," I sez; "dig her deep and dig her wide. It's a mighty sight better to have a little privy over a big hole than a big privy over a little hole. Another thing; when you dig her deep you've got 'er dug; and you ain't got that disconcertin' thought stealin' over you that sooner or later you'll have to dig again.
  "And when it comes to construction," I sez, "I can give you joists or beams. Joists make a good job. Beams cost a bit more, but they're worth it. Beams, you might say, will last forever. 'Course I could give you joists, but take your Aunt Emmy: she ain't gettin' a mite lighter. Some day she might be out there when them joists give way and there she'd be -- catched. Another thing you've go to figger on, Elmer," I sez, "is that Odd Fellows picnic in the fall. Them boys is goin' to get in there in four and sixes, singin' and drinkin' and the like, and I want to tell you there's nothin' breaks up an Odd Fellows picnic quicker than a diggin' party. Beams, I say, every time, and rest secure.
  "And about her roof," I sez, "I can give you a lean-to type of a pitch roof. Pitch roofs cost a little more, but some of out best people has lean-tos. If it was fer myself, I'd have a lean-to and I'll tell you why.
  "A lean-to has two less corners fer the wasps to build their nests in; and on a hot August afternoon there ain't nothin' so disconcertin' as a lot of wasps buzzin' 'round while you're settin' doin' a little readin', figgerin', or thinkin'. Another thing," I sez, "a lean-to gives you a high door. Take that son of yours, shootin' up like a weed: don't any of him seem to be turnin' under. If he was tryin' to get under a pitch roof door he'd crack his head every time. Take a lean-to, Elmer; they ain't stylish, but they're practical.
  "Now, about her furnishin's. I can give you a nail or hook for the catalogue, and besides, a box for cobs. You take your pa for instance: he's of the old school and naturally he'd prefer the box; so put 'em both in, Elmer. Won't cost you a bit more for the box and keeps peace in the family. You can't teach an old dog new tricks," I sez.
  "And as long as we're on the furnishin's, I'll tell you about a technical point that was put to me the other day. The question was this: "What is the life, or how long will the average mail order catalogue last, in just the plain, ordinary eight family three holer?' It stumped me for a spell; but this bein' a reasonable question I checked up, and found that by placin' the catalogue in there, say in January--when you get your new one--you should be into the harness section by June; but, of course, that ain't through apple time, and not countin on too many city visitors, either.
  "An' another thing--they've been puttin' so many of those stiff colored sheets in the catalogue here lately that it makes it hard to figger. Somethin" really ought to be done about this, and I've thought about takin' it up with Mr. Sears Roebuck hisself.
  "As to the latch fer her, I can give you a spool and string, or a hook and eye. The cost of a spool and string is practically nothin' but they ain't positive in action. If somebody comes out and starts rattlin the door, either the spool or the string is apt to give way, and there you are.
  But, with a hook and eye she's yours, you might say, for the whole afternoon, if you're so minded. Put on the hook and eye of the best quality 'cause there ain't nothin' that'll rack a man's nerves more than to be sittin' there ponderin', without a good, strong, substantial latch on the door." And he agreed with me.
  "Now," I sez, "what about windows; some want 'em, some don't. They ain't so popular as they used to be. If it was me, Elmer, I'd say no windows, and I'll tell you why. Take, fer instance, somebody comin' out--maybe they're just in a hurry or maybe they waited too long. If the door don't open right away and you won't answer 'em, nine times out of ten they'll go 'round and 'round and look in the window, and you don't get the privacy you ought to.
  "Now, about ventilators, or the designs I cut in doors. I can give you stars, diamonds, or crescents --there ain't much choice--all give good service. A lot of people like stars, because they throw a ragged shadder. Others like crescents 'cause they're graceful and simple. Last year we was cuttin' a lot of stars; but this year people are kinda quietin' down and runnin' more to crescents. I do cut twinin' hearts now and then for young married couples, and bunches of grapes for the newly rich. These last two designs come under the head of novelties and I don't very often suggest 'em because it takes time and runs into money.
  "I wouldn't take any snap judgment on her ventilators, Elmer," I sez, "because they've got a lot to do with the beauty of the structure. And don't over-do it, like Doc Turner did. He wanted stars and crescents both, against my better judgement, and now he's sorry. But its too late; 'cause when I cut 'em, they're cut." And, gentlemen, you can get mighty tired, sittin day after day lookin' at a ventilator that ain't to you likin.
  "Now," I sez, "how do you want that door to swing? Openin' in or out?" He said he didn't know. So I sez it should open in. This is theway it works out: Place yourself in there. The door openin' in, say about forty-five degree. This gives you air and lets the sun beat in. Now, if you hear anybody comin', you can give it a quick shove with your foot and there you are. But if she swings out, where are you --can't run the risk of havin' her open for air or sun, because if anyone comes, you can't get up off that seat, reach way around and grab'er without gettin' caught, now can you. He could see I was right.
  So I built his door like all my doors, swingin' in, and, of course, facin' east to get the full benefit of th' sun. And I tell you gentlemen, there ain't nothin' more restful than to get out there in the mornin', comfortable seated, with th' door about three-fourths open. The old sun beatin' in of you, sort of relaxes a body--makes you feel m-i-g-h-t-y, m-i-g-h-t-y r-e-s-t-f-u-l.
  "Now," I sez, "about the paintin' of her. What color do you want 'er, Elmer?" He said red. "Elmer," I sez, "I can paint her red, and red makes a beautiful job; or I can paint her a bright green, or any one of a half dozen other colors, and they're all might pretty; but it ain't practical to use a single solid color, and I'll tell you why. She's too durn hard to see at night. You need contrast--just like they use on the railroad crossin' bars--so you can see 'em in the dark. If I was you, I'd paint her a bright red with white trimmin's--just like your barn. Then she'll match up nice in the daytime, and you can spot 'er easy at night, when you ain't got much time to go scoutin' around."
  "There's a lot of fine points to puttin' us a first-class privy that the average man don't think about. It's no job for an amachoor, take you my word on it. There's a whole lot more to it that you can see by just takin' a few squints at your nabor's. Why one of the worst tragedies around here in years was because old man Clark's boys thought the knowed somethin' about this kind of work and they didn't.
  "Old man Clark--If he's a day he's nighty-seven--lives over there across the holler with his boys. He asked me to come over and estimate on their job. My price was too high; so they decided to do it themselves. And that's where the trouble begun.
  "I was doin' a little paperhangin' at the time for that widder that lives down past the creamery. As I'd drive by I could see the boys a-workin'. Of course, I didn't want to butt in, so used to just hollar at 'em on the way by and say, naborly like: 'Hey, boys, see you're doin' a little buildin'.' You see, I didn't want to act like I was buttin' in on their work; but I knowed all the time they was goin' to have trouble with that privy. And they did. From all outside appearance it was a regulation job, but not being experienced along this line, they didn't anchor her.
  "You see, I put a four by four that runs from the top straight on down five foot into the ground. That's why you never see any of my jobs upset Hollowe'en night. They might pull 'em out, but they'll never upset 'em.
  "Here's what happened: They didn't anchor theirs, and they painted it solid red--two bad mistakes. Hallowe'en night come along, darker than pitch. Old man Clark was out in there. Some of them devilish nabor boys was out for no good, and they upset 'er with the old man in it.
  "Of course, the old man got to callin' and his boys heard the noise. One of 'em sez: 'What's the racket? Somebody must be at the chickens.' So they took the lantern, started out to the chicken shed. They didn't find anything wrong there, and they started back to the house. Then they heerd the dog bark, and one of his boys sez: 'Sounds like that barkin' is over towards the privy.' It bein' painted red, they couldn't see she was upset so they started over there.
  "In the meantime the old man had gotten so confused that he started to crawl out through the hole, yellin' for help all the time. The boys reckonized his voice and come runnin', but just as they got there he lost his holt and fell. After that they just called--didn't go near him. So you see what a tragedy that was; and they tell me he has been practically ostercized from society ever since."
  Well, time passed, and I finally got Elmer's job done; and gentlemen, everybody says that next to my eight holer, it's the finest piece of construction work in the county.
  Sometimes, when I get to feelin' blue and thinkin' I hitched my wagon to the wrong star, and maybe I should have took up chiropracty or vetenary, I just pack the little woman and the kids in the back of my car and start out, aimin' to fetch up at Elmer's place about dusk.
  When we gets to the top of the hill overlookin' his place, we stops. I slips the gear in mutual, and we just set there lookin' at the beautiful sight. There sits the privy on that knoll near the woodpile, painted red and white, mornin' glories growin' up over herand Mr. Sun bathin' her in a burst of yeller color as he drops back of them hills. You can hear the dog barkin' in the distance, bringin' the cows up fer milkin' and the slow squeak of Elmer's windmill pumpin' away day after day the same as me.
  As I look at the beautiful picture of my work, I'm proud. I heaves a sigh of satisfaction, my eyes fill up and I sez to myself: "Folks are right when they say that next to my eight holer that's the finest piece of construction work I ever done. I know I done right in specializin'; I'm sittin' on top of the world; and I hope that boy of mine who is growin' up like a weed keeps up the good work when I'mgone."
  With one last look as we pulls away, I slips my arm around the Missus and I sez, Nora, Elmer don't have to worry, he's a boy that's got hisself a privy, a m-i-g-h-t-y, m-i-g-h-t-y, p-r-e-t-t-y p-r-i-v-y."
  Thank you, gentlemen.

  Dateline November 3, 2000. This little tidbit corrects information in the paragraph below this one: "Hi, Great page! I'm one of Chic Sale's great grandsons, and I wanted to correct a minor error on the bottom of the specialist page. He was a burlesque actor and movie actor, not a "standup comic", and since he died in 1937, he didn't do anything in the 40's. Sounds like someone fed you some bad info.
  Since he died 28 years before I was born, I never met him. I do remember his wife, my Nana, Marie Sale. I last saw her in '83, soon before her death.
  It's great to see sites that mention my ancestor, but it's also kind of crappy (ha-ha)."

  From time to time I receive various Emails from people and this fellow, Jerry Sale, claims to be a distant relative of Chic Sale. Here is his story..."I am a distant relative of Chic Sale and I wanted to point out another book that he wrote concerning outhouses. It is titled "I'll Tell You Why". All I know about Chic was what I read on the web and what I have heard from older people who had heard of him. We was a standup comic during the 20's, 30's and 40's. The bits about outhouses were his most requested material and he put them in book form. I have a copy of "The Specialist" and knew of the other one but had never seen a copy prior to yesterday. He was also in 3 movies: 1923 - The New Schoolteacher in which he starred. 1934- Treasure Island in which he appeared. 1935- Rocky Mountain Mystery in which he starred with Randolph Scott. "
  Vladimir Oravsky rereads a comic classic.



Answer: It's witty, entertaining, thought-provoking and right up-to-date. Here's why.

Despite what it appears to be at first sight, Charles "Chic" Sale's The Specialist is just as deep as the latrines that the privy specialist Lem Putt builds, and just as nutrimental as the stinking matter they are filled with. The story was written in the USA in 1929 - 30, and is clearly marked by the spirit of the time.

The privy, that old man Clark and his sons are building without any previous experience, and its fate, is an allegorical paraphrase of the state of the USA at that time. The period of prosperity that promised a very bright future ended in the catastrophe that is generally known as the "stock-market crash". The henhouse that Lem Putt mentions at the beginning of his story and the car he travels in at the end are reminders of the false motto that the then president of the USA, Herbert Clark Hoover, used to deceive the voting masses of the day: "A car in every garage, and a chicken in every pot". And when at the end of his story Putt declares, "I know I done right in specializin'; I'm sittin' on top of the world; and I hope that boy of mine who is growin' up like a weed keeps up the good work when I'm gone", he does this against better judgement. For Chic Sale knew that the outdoor privy was about to be relegated to museums together with other objects outmoded by time. London-based clock-maker Alexander Cummings' flush toilet, patented in 1775, was now in the process of conquering the civilised world and its digestive waste. Today, however, even the water closet is no longer state-of-the-art; an earth closet from the region of Smaland - known for its spirit of go-ahead entrepreneurship - is now creating masses of jobs. And just as Sigmund Freud comments on human development in his dissertation from that time, Civilisation and its Discontents, so does Chic Sale with his work The Specialist.

But there is more, so much more than this in The Specialist.

Lem Putt is refreshingly ironic in his attitude to women, and Ibsen's play A Doll's House from 1879, which takes America by storm just at the end of the twenties, can be found in Chic Sale's story. Sale's doll's house, however, is an outhouse and Lem's woman, like Ibsen's main character, is called Nora. Sale renames the lawyer Helmer as the easily recognisable Elmer.

In order to extract all the meanings, references and allusions from Chic Sale's The Specialist one's gotta be a specialist oneself. Or is it the other way round? Is it just general knowledge that's needed? Mankind's auspicious future depends entirely on the support that specialists and ordinary people must give each other. I therefore dedicate these words to all politicians who can move without impediment from department to department.


Vladimir Oravsky rereads a comic classic.


I was a restless child. Constantly searching and investigating. I wanted to know and try out everything. I played hockey and competed at cycling and swimming. I read with equal ardour about dinosaurs and the deeds of Dracula. My friends on the block played hockey in the national junior team and won the 10,000 dollar question. Not me. I wasn't exceptionally good at anything; instead I knew a little about quite a lot. My father encouraged me to choose something I could penetrate more deeply and become a specialist in. He said he didn't care what it was, as long as I liked it. "Tie carpets," he told me. "Be the best plumber or be an expert on the sexual life of ants. Whatever, just make sure you're best at it."

I understood this because at the time we lived in the Czech Socialist Republic and all experts, whether they were excellent chefs, eminent gynaecologists, or national tennis players, could be sent abroad to represent socialism's immortal, unsurpassable ideology and could thereby remain in the west without risking their lives, which ordinary people were obliged to do when they decided to leave the country.

So I informed my father that I intended to stake everything on becoming an expert at building big, safe transatlantic liners, perhaps because I had been frightened by the unsinkable Titanic which disappeared so tragically into the depths of the ocean like something you irrevocably flush down the toilet. My father didn't take immediate objection to this; he merely asked me gently, "Where the hell can you find an ocean and a large shipyard in Czechoslovakia?"

Although my free choice proved to be somewhat limited, after a while nuclear power came out of the blue to my rescue. For one term I was able to exchange school-desk theory for work-place practice, when I was given job-experience at a nuclear power station. Everyone who worked there was a specialist or "a professional nerd" as my supervisor said.

Politically, he was somewhat unstable, and probably unfavourably disposed to all specialisation, both political and professional. So he allowed me to widen my horizons by letting me drive a truck. I was a bit nervous about this task, but my mentor told me any fool could handle it. As luck would have it, I drove the heavy truck into a row of toilet stalls in a hall and mowed them all down. My supervisor was hardly devastated by my unintentional sabotage. The following day he presented me with Chic Sale's short story The Specialist, which is about a man who is exceptionally knowledgeable about building outdoor privies. "There you are," he declared in his dedicatory speech. "If you're set on being a specialist like all these barmy partisans, so be it!"

A nuclear power station is probably very dependent on its toilets since, notwithstanding socialism's less than neck-breaking tempo, the conveniences were back in place just a fortnight later. At this juncture, this whole scarcely cautionary tale could have ended, but fate would have it otherwise. The power-station staff manager, a rule-bookish politruk, wanted an exhaustive report on how I succeeded in overturning not one, not two, but a whole row of socialist conveniences. In his eagerness to explain the situation my supervisor drove the truck once more straight into the newly rebuilt excremental monument with, for both him and the closets, a similarly devastating result.

Since then, no one can make me believe that working at a nuclear power station is completely without risk.

In 1968, when the Warsaw Pact's well-intentioned occupation of the ideologically sick Czechoslovakia gave me a much-needed opportunity to leave my homeland, I was an almost fully trained expert in nuclear power operation, but I opted out of that too, to let myself drift on the free seas of literature. My first book, which I wrote and published in Sweden, "I skuggornas hetta : tvärkulturella filmanalyser med amerikansk populärfilm från 70-talet i fokus" (In the heat of the shadows: cross-cultural film analyses focussing on American popular films from the 70ies) would appear to be the work of a specialist but is written under the immortal motto of my hero, the author and globetrotter Joseph Rudyard Kipling: "What does he know of England, who only England knows?"

So it is not altogether surprising that I like, and recommend reading, Chic Sale's short story The Specialist. Not even Chic's children and grandchildren would dare call Chic "a classic", but his best known work The Specialist deserves that honourable epithet.

© Vladimir Oravsky

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