Offhand Shots: 202 Yards to Adventure

Joe reconstructs his childhood on the Nebraska prairie

illustration of offhand shots logo
Reliving childhood adventures.Outdoor Life

If you’d asked, I’d have said it was farther from the jumble of weathered gray boards to the silhouette of the winter-bare cottonwood growing in what had been our backyard.

Much farther.

The distance from the screened kitchen door of our two-story farmhouse to the cabin was the distance between farm kids and explorers, between chores and adventure, between yesterday and today. But my rangefinder reads 202 yards.

When I say cabin, I mean the one-room shanty. It was originally an add-on kitchen for a sod house at a nearby farm, which gives you an idea of how old it was. Mom acquired it from a neighboring farm and had Dad and our handyman move it to the bank of our 35-acre lake. It was sturdily built, with horizontal inch-thick planks nailed to two-by-four stud walls. They re-covered the exterior with barn-red gravel-­textured tar paper. With Mom’s help, we kids swept the wooden floor, dusted, cleaned, and hauled in second- and third-hand furnishings. There was no electrical wiring, no plumbing. A kerosene lamp and lanterns provided light.

It wasn’t big—maybe 12 by 20 feet—but it felt big to us kids. It was big enough for a wood-burning kitchen stove, an old kitchen table, chairs, and a couch. Somehow we fit, even with too many invited friends from school.

"I remember that cabin as an adult-free area where our imaginations ran unfettered."

I remember Mom and Dad came down once in a while to see what we were up to. But for the most part, I remember that cabin as an adult-free area where our imaginations ran unfettered.

We spent nights inside it, doors and windows open in hopes of cooling summer breezes. In winter, the stove roared, battling back the cold. One memorable night, a blizzard raged against its stubborn walls as we huddled under piles of blankets and quilts.

I suppose Mom and Dad figured we’d look after each other, and if anything happened, we would handle it or come running for help. I don’t recall any major mishaps: We swam without drowning, we fished without hooking ourselves or each other, and we rowed a sawed-off boat without capsizing—most days. One of our sports was to row out and tip the boat until water poured over the gunwale, then ride it down as it sank, the sealed nose compartment keeping it from going completely under. Then we’d tow it in by dog-paddling to shore, dump out the water, and take ’er out again.

Then one day our farmhouse was gone in an instant. A propane-leak explosion ripped through it one November morning. My sister Mary—home sick from school—and Mom were inside. Neither was injured, but our house was turned to rubble, just like that. We eventually moved to town, away from the lake and the cabin.

The lake slowly ebbed as the water table dropped, the bed now carpeted with cattle-grazed grass. The cabin is gone too, and so are we. Mom and Dad rest side by side in the family plot; we kids live separate lives around the homestead.

Once in a while, I pause, still-hunting for deer among dead and dying cottonwoods and the elms the grandpa I never knew planted way back when. I spy a pile of gray boards and lingering tar-paper scraps, almost hidden by tall prairie grass. You could walk by and never see it, never know.

I imagine the cabin, empty, weathered, weakened, and beginning to lean. Hollow windows have extinguished the stove’s warmth, hushed the excited late-night kid talk, and blown the laughter far away. With no one inside to steady it from the rage of another blizzard, the cabin slowly, finally slumped to the ground, succumbing to the pressing load of age and the years gone by.

But no prairie storm can erode the memories of that place, still treasured by the kids who grew up within its walls.