He called it “poop.” He was a big, burly, bearded man in spattered coveralls working in a job few people would volunteer to do.

When meeting him, I forgot the lessons of my mother, who had always instructed me to do otherwise, and allowed his appearance to sway my first impressions. I wrongly expected less educated language from him.

Even though it was just two guys talking about his work, he didn’t use the more crass, risqué word for excrement that, in my world at least, isn’t uttered by gentlemen in the presence of polite company and generally won’t be printed in family newspapers.

He could have easily used vulgarity for what he did, but he was an intelligent, philosophical gentleman, even though he drove and operated what is delicately known as a “honey wagon.” While driving the truck might have been the most enjoyable part of his job, what comprised most of his daily work was the more vital, but less preferred, pumping of septic tanks.

There are other professional words for what he does, including pumping “septage” or more broadly “fecal sludge,” which is human excreta mixed with water. But as the phrase made popular in the 1960’s — printed on T-shirts and bumper stickers around America — observed, poop happens. At least, that’s the word he used for the waste he was pumping from our septic tank.

He was covered in it too, splashed as it was on his boots, coverall cuffs, and gloves, but he had an easy philosophical outlook that also accented his thinking and speaking.

Septic men are an interesting breed. Can we get to (pardon the pun) the bottom of the men behind this work? Does a boy grow up dreaming of driving a honey wagon?

I’ve never met a septic woman, by the way, given the better sense of smell females seem to possess; the heavy hoses and nozzles that must sometimes be dragged for long distances; and the concrete septic tank lids that are muscled out and back into place. And of course, there’s the general “icky-ness” of the work. “Sugar and spice and everything nice” and “fecal sludge”…well…I’m sorry if it’s a bit sexist, but they don’t mix. So, it’s pretty much men who do the murky, malodorous, mundane task of dealing with human waste.

Septic tank work is one of those jobs we know is necessary but prefer to not think too much about, nor do we want to get too close to those who do that work for us. It’s a job we know, inherently, somebody has to do. But we’re sure glad it’s not us.

As we peered down into my nearly empty septic tank being pumped, “Ricky” said that while the job was smelly and dirty, he didn’t mind it too much.

He knew the job was necessary, that someone had to do it.

And then he graciously said he was glad he could do it so others wouldn’t have to. “Still,” he said, “I never pictured myself doing this for a living when I was growing up. Who would?”

Ricky serves in a job that, in many respects, is invisible. The work is hidden behind what could be called a “veil of repulsiveness.” Even if we fleetingly think about their work — we rarely do and we like it that way — we may hurriedly appreciate their efforts but don’t want to get any closer to the men or to their work than our brief thoughts about them force us to.

Ricky said most customers never come out to say hello, avoiding eye contact and standing protected behind their doors, shielded from the images of his work and from his appearance and odor. His being seen but remaining mostly invisible to his customers was, he said, perhaps the hardest part of his job.

“We all go,” as the Charmin commercial tells us. But it isn’t toilet paper that makes the “‘go’ enjoyable” as the commercial says. It turns out that it’s really men like Ricky.

It was impossible to hide behind the veil of repulsiveness when we were all Ricky’s back in the day, when chamber pots, privies, necessaries or outhouses were where we did our business and when we were personally responsible for the ends before the era of public utilities and septic tanks. Modern conveniences allowed that veil to fall and for us to live with the misperception that our own poop is someone else’s responsibility.

So, in this season of thankfulness and gratitude, one of the many things I am remembering to be grateful for are modern conveniences. And also, for invisible men like Ricky who do the dirty jobs we know inherently are necessary and who are content to do them so we don’t have to do them ourselves.

Barry Fetzer is a retired U.S. Marine aviator who lives in Southern Pines. He has written columns previously for The Havelock News.

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