Buffalo Bill (and I) Are Vindicated

A FEW weeks ago, I was relishing the many news accounts of our moon landing of 20 years ago when an Associated Press story, far back in the paper, caught my eye. It seems that 72 years after the US Congress stripped Buffalo Bill Cody of his Medal of Honor, it has been restored. William F. Cody - Pony Express rider, Indian Scout, and buffalo hunter - was awarded the medal in 1872 for valor in leading a cavalry charge against a group of Sioux. Revocation had rested on Cody's being a civilian and therefore not qualified for the honor. Now that injustice has been corrected.

For me this was not only unexpected good news about one of my early heroes: It was also a personal vindication. My emotional tie to Buffalo Bill came out of living in Cody, Wyo. when I was small - but old enough to drink in the adulation expressed by the residents of that little community. Buffalo Bill had passed on in 1917. I had come to Cody - named after Bill - with my family in 1919.

Buffalo Bill had become famous through the dime novels by Ned Buntline. Bill Cody then starred in his own Wild West show. In 1883 he organized a traveling show that starred Annie Oakley and Chief Sitting Bull.

Later, with my family in the Midwest, I found my ``association'' with Buffalo Bill helped me be accepted by other youngsters. I told them about a playmate, who lived on a ranch next to ours, whose elderly grandfather used to regale us with wonderful stories about his days as an Indian scout with Cody. I also told them how almost every adult in that western town had something to relate about their beloved Bill Cody - always about some fabulous Buffalo Bill exploit.

But later the value of being ``someone-who-almost-knew-Buffalo Bill'' began to fade. The novels about him and his show-business role had turned Cody into a fictional figure. In college I found that he was regarded by historians as something of a fake. I ceased my boasting, but he remained my hero. I knew he would be vindicated - and, in a way, so would I.

The AP story also stirred memories of Cody - a beautiful, isolated community near the east entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

There was Mrs. Chamberlain and her Chamberlain Hotel. Another woman ran the drug store. Another, the bank. The small town's large number of leading women was natural in a state where women very early were working for their rights.

Sand storms blew up suddenly in Cody. Often our family walked to and from church - from our ranch outside town - with handkerchiefs wrapped around our faces. Once I lost my sisters at the crowded Cody ``movie house'' - little more than a wooden shack - and headed for home. Soon I was lost in a whirling sand storm. How welcome were the arms of my father when he found me halfway home. I can still hear his whoops of joy.

My dad had come West from Illinois after graduating from the state university there. As a trained engineer, he was much in demand: There were few around. He helped ``lay out'' the city of Boise, Idaho. He spent years in the mountains as a government surveyor. He did the original survey of the Idaho-Oregon state line. Much of the time he was making his way through territory unexplored by white men. He sent detailed descriptions back to Washington.

Back in the 1950s I revisited Shoshone Canyon which forms the spectacular Cody entrance into Yellowstone Park. It was late in the afternoon, and the sun had long since set in this deep gouge in the earth. Already the canyon's steep, bright-yellow walls were dimmed by the night that falls so quickly when the sun drops over the mountain line.

The story on Bill brought it all back. Now I can again say I ``almost'' knew Buffalo Bill.

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