Offhand Shots: Code and Dorothy

Columnist Joe Arterburn recalls stories of his colorful neighbors from Nebraska

offhand shots
The musings and memories of our backpage columnistJoel Kimmel

When William Cody Loux was born in March of 1894, his namesake, William F. Cody, was squiring his popular traveling show, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, around the East Coast. ¶ I don’t know if Loux’s parents had any special connection to Buffalo Bill, or if they were simply caught up in the excitement of the day. Nor do I know how Loux—whom everyone called Code—and his wife, Dorothy, came to settle on a quarter section of farmland adjacent to our southwest Nebraska farm, where Code eked out a living raising wheat and hunting, fishing, and trapping along Frenchman Creek, which meandered through both our farms. They were there before I was born.

Code was always old, it seemed to me. I have a picture of him holding me, a content infant, on his denim-covered knee, his face shaded by a gray felt Stetson. We spent a lot of time at Code and Dorothy’s, my sister, two brothers, and me. They took care of us while Dad farmed and Mom, a registered nurse, worked the 3-to-11 shift in Imperial, an 18-mile drive away.

Code had guns and traps and fishing gear around, which he first showed us and later taught us how to use. He also taught us poker, using matchsticks for chips, which did not win Mom’s approval. He chewed leaf tobacco; again, Mom did not approve.

Dorothy, eight years younger than Code, wore glasses and dresses of a simple pattern. She was plump, I guess you’d say, if you were being honest about it. She had brushed-back hair and a grandmotherly disposition that did not get in the way if discipline was needed. If, for example, a crew-cut kid ignored her admonition to stop throwing exploding snap caps at her feet, she would resort to spanking to make her point, I can attest.

They had an old green pickup they’d take on infrequent 7-mile trips to Lamar for groceries or even more infrequent trips to Imperial. Dorothy sat beside Code on the bench seat for the drive.

They always seemed happy, content. Code died on his 75th birthday; Dorothy, 10 years later.

I wish I had been a bit older, old enough to understand what Code was teaching us about the outdoors. He told us hunting stories, how he lined up multiple ducks or geese to maximize his take per shot. He gave us furs he’d tanned , which we played with until they were filthy and then discarded.

He made me a coonskin cap—the real thing, with a dark-banded tail and the cut-out crown of one of his old Stetsons stitched into the top for comfort. Though competent in everything else, as I recall, Code wasn’t a hatmaker, I guess, because it fit awkwardly, perching on top of my head, so Dorothy tied it on with a length of cotton string for a photo. In the picture, I’m wearing my standard growing-up uniform of hand-me-down white T-shirt, jeans, and worn canvas shoes. Code and Dorothy’s dog, Toto, is tied to a brick behind me, his rope straining around my leg. I’m holding Code’s big single-barrel shotgun, squinting the wrong eye in a coached attempt to look like I’m aiming.

I think of Code and Dorothy now and then—often when I’m hunting or fishing in some far-flung location: while trailing blacktail deer in Alaska snow or hunting whitetails from a treestand in frigid Saskatchewan, on the porch overlooking an escarpment in South Africa, listening to the pitch and yowl of jackals out in the dark.

Code and Dorothy didn’t travel much from their quarter-section farm, certainly not for hunting and fishing. But I think they would be proud of me, the kid on Code’s knee, the kid in the coonskin cap. Maybe I learned something after all.