An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Sixty-Five

an ostrich-plumed hat

Begin with Chapter One ~ Return to Chapter Sixty-Four

Andrew Stevens, July 1914

Whack! Andy slaps his notebook on Mr. K’s desk in a futile effort to smash the pesky mosquito that has been sampling blood from all of them.

The Colonel smirks at his miss. “Colonel Chapa thinks the hundred goldfish he donated for the concrete basin at San Pedro Springs will cure the mosquito problem. The goldfish will just wind up as appetizers for the alligator contributed by Henry Landa.”

“That poor specimen of a reptile has been rendered too helpless to snap them up in his jaws,” says Mr. K. “The cruel schoolboys torture the poor creature. Every time he surfaces to sun on the banks, they harass him with sticks and rocks. Poked one of his eyes out. No. The solution for the mosquito problem is bats. We need bats.”

Dr. Charles Campbell perched in the middle of San Antonio’s Municipal Bat Roost, George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

“That is true, sir.” Andy pipes in, full of enthusiasm. “Doctor Campbell claims one bat can consume more than 250 disease-bearing mosquitoes per night.”

“Are you sure, Andy,” teases the Colonel, “that bats are not merely larger vampires than the mosquitoes that drain us of our blood?”

“The doctor says the bat is one of man’s best friends. A bat can run down a mosquito like a bloodhound. And the more mosquitos he eats; the more people are spared from malaria.”

The Colonel briefly pinches his nose. “And the more mosquitoes he eats; the more awful smelling guano he produces.”

“The doctor has a solution for that, sir. He built a steeple-shaped bat roost at Mitchell’s Lake. A wagon can be driven under it to collect the droppings from a hopper, and the guano is spread on the fields of farmers nearby. Some say it is better for crops than cow manure.”

“Well there certainly is no shortage of mosquitoes or sewage around Mitchell’s Lake.” Mr. K mimics the Colonel’s nose pinch. “The wastes of the entire city flow into that 900-acre lake. Close to ten-million gallons every single day.”

“And the irrigation water drawn from that,” says the Colonel, “creates some of the richest fields in the county.”

Smack. Andy claps his hands together and then carefully wipes the success from his hands with his handkerchief.

“Bat-man!” exclaims the Colonel.

“Andy,” says Mr. K, “have a load of that bat manure delivered to my house for my roses. Emma might not approve, but she’s in Saint Louis at her sister’s house so will never know.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And, before I forget, Andy, establish a regular morning schedule for a stable boy to swing by and drop off some kind of hay, or whatever type of food is appropriate, for those starving beasts fenced in that park that should be named Waterworks. Emma made me promise to take care of that temporarily. The Scientific Society donated all those buffaloes, elk, deer, peacocks and turkeys to the city to establish a zoo, and now the city claims they have no money in the budget to feed them this year. You’d think the lordly George Brackenridge who succeeded in getting his name on the park would step up to contribute food for the fledgling zoo, but no. He’s too tightfisted for that.”

The Colonel makes a sour face. “I would prefer not to donate to his park, but wives’ wishes are best fulfilled if one wants a place to sleep. If we must, Andy, make sure someone at the newspaper knows the brewery has stepped forward to remedy the situation.”

“We are fortunate, Colonel, that our wives are not French. Shooting gentlemen appears the latest fashion for French ladies. Their evening bags hold both their compacts and revolvers.”

The Colonel nods. “I understand that as soon as someone is shot in Paris, the gendarmes utter ‘cherchez la femme.’”

“Colonel, did you see the newspaper report that Miss Elvira Davis took her life on the beach at Galveston? It speculated it was because of her worsening rheumatism, but I am of the opinion working as the private secretary of that morose George Brackenridge drove her to it.”

“Much like Tom Campbell’s former secretary,” adds the Colonel. “John Bowman made himself a carbolic acid cocktail this past week.”

“I trust, Andy,” says Mr. K, “that you’re more content with your role as secretary here than they were in theirs for the pair of prohibitionists.”

“I feel pleased and privileged to work here, sir. However, enduring years of persecution by my older brother, John, left me well-prepared for even the frontlines of a battlefield.”

“He does tend to tease you rather mercilessly,” agrees Mr. K.

“Otto,” says the Colonel, “you should’ve seen Albert Steves frantically paddling around the river bend yesterday. With his yachting cap jauntily perched on his head, you would’ve thought him competing in the America Cup.”

“He was racing?” asks Mr. K.

“Against Alderman Warren. It started as a joke. A silly dare, soon elevated to a challenge, to a duel. Hundreds of people leaned over the railings of the six bridges waiting for the race to pass. Albert seemed a no-show. The mayor was poised to declare him in default when a fleet of canoes filled with young men and women serving as his advance escort rounded the bend. Called themselves the King William Street Canoe Club. The showmanship did little to affect the outcome. Albert ran aground on some rocks at one point and then crashed bow-first into the seawall. He was so far behind, one bystander yelled ‘ship ahoy’ when he finally approached the finish line. The prize was an enormous beer stein. Empty though.”

“Andy,” says the Colonel, “send Alderman Warren a note of congratulations and tell him he is welcome to stop by the brewery for complimentary refills any time. But Colonel, what of the news from the Grand Opera House last night?”

“We paraded James Ferguson from Sunset Station to the Gunter Hotel first. Houston Street was lined with cheering crowds. When we made our way to the stage of the Grand, we found a throng waiting in the sweltering heat. Every seat from pit to roof was occupied. Mayor Brown changed our man’s nickname from Farmer Jim to Governor Jim.”

“More sophisticated for when our candidate is addressing a crowd in the middle of downtown San Antonio.”

“Although, Otto, I did spot a number of hickory shirts and suspenders sprinkled in amongst the coats and ties. And those men roared the loudest when Jim Ferguson brought up land reform. When someone asked where his money came from, he said he sold his spring wool clip a while back and would have a carload or two of fat hogs to ship to market in another two weeks. The farmers in the crowd jumped up on their seats to sound approval.”

“But did he appeal to the urban set?”

“They cheered for all his usual promises,” says the Colonel. “Free textbooks for all Texas schoolchildren. He said the time is ripe for the common people to rise up and smite from the face of the earth those would-be emperors like Thomas Ball. Claimed Tom Ball frequents his private Houston Club—where whisky is sold at fifteen cents a drink—every Sunday morning while good men and women are in church. Then Ball has the audacity to tell everyone else it’s wrong to sell liquor. The hypocrite doesn’t want to let the working man enjoy so much as a whiff.”

“The type of campaign message I love to hear, Colonel.”

“Of course, he did go on a while about big business institutions. Accused the opposition of using corporation hirelings to stoop to low, mean, despicable tricks, while the majority of the laboring men of Texas support him for governor. The issues of the state have united the masses against the classes. Against the corporations. Governor Jim, he proclaimed about himself, will bring equal rights for all and special privilege to none.”

“And that, Colonel, is the message he keeps delivering that makes me squirm uncomfortably. He knows wool comes from sheep, but does he understand there would be few working men in cities were they not provided jobs created by corporations such as ours?”

“I believe, Otto, that the candidate simply enjoys delivering a populist message to elicit loud cheers. Slogans to feed the restless hordes. When it comes down to actions once he is in office, I have no doubt he’ll remember how men like us greased the political wheels and rallied to support his run for office.”

“Well, I certainly hope so. Our hides are at stake in this election. The fierce dog we have unleashed on those prohibitionist Tomcats Campbell and Ball appears to have chased them from the doorway of the governor’s mansion in Austin back to lick their wounds in Palestine.”

“Sometimes I think that self-righteous Tom Campbell,” says the Colonel, “believes Jesus himself was born in Palestine, Texas, instead of Bethlehem.”

“Colonel, I wish those Tomcats wouldn’t stray from the manger. They keep popping up all over Texas.”

“After their defeat, we’ll get our attack dog to heel.”

“I fear he’ll bite the hand that feeds him. Sometimes Farmer Jim’s talk sounds as radical and crazy as that of the revolutionary leaders in Mexico.”

The Colonel gazes out the south window. “The entire Mexican cabinet of President Huerta has their bags packed. Senora Huerta is pleading with him to leave the country. The German cruiser Dresden is standing by to transport them to Jamaica, but he keeps dragging his feet, wanting to wait for his loyal friends.”

“Does he have any friends left? Loyalty is a nonexistent trait down there. The incoming Constitutionalists also will fail to resolve the differences among the ragtag renegade revolutionaries.”

“The national Constitutionalists under Carranza and General Villa’s Chihuahua state seem divorced in most manners,” says the Colonel. “Pancho Villa keeps printing more money with absolutely nothing to back it up, and the presumed-president-to-be Carranza keeps denying him delivery of ammunition. Even when their outposts are only twenty miles apart, none of their men dare cross the divide before them.”

“Of interest to us is whether Carranza as President has any intention of fulfilling his promise to reimburse foreigners for damages to their properties incurred during their civil war.”

“With what?” asks the Colonel. “There’s little currency in Mexico worth more than Confederate dollars. Who knows how long before it’s safe enough even to assess what kind of damage has been done to our rubber and mining interests?”

“With President Huerta fleeing, Carranza already is insisting our troops withdraw from Vera Cruz. Not sure I’m convinced, but President Wilson says the prospects for peace are encouraging.”

The Colonel squints. “Maybe the Zapatistas are beginning to fall in line with the Constitutionalists, but Pancho Villa?”

Archduke Franz Ferdinand (left) and his wife, Duchess of Honenberg (far right), George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

Mr. K throws up his hands. “And now Europe might be heading to the same chaotic state. Emperor Franz Josef appears almost at the gates of his tomb, but who will follow him? The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand throws the whole monarchy into confusion.”

“The danger of a morganatic marriage,” nods the Colonel. “The Archduke’s marriage with a woman of lower rank rendered his children ineligible for the throne. She was a mere lady-in-waiting in the royal household when she caught his eye.”

“So, Colonel, the Hapsburgs are now left with an unknown, Archduke Karl Franz Josef, as the heir-apparent as Austria is attacking Belgrade; Russian troops are mobilized; the French army is calling in its reserves; and the Kaiser remains holed up at Potsdam mulling over whether to plunge all of Europe into universal warfare.”

“And yet you and Emma are soon bound for Germany. Otto, The journey is unwise and unsafe.”

“We must go ensure our family members have the resources they need to endure any crisis. We’re not departing for several weeks. Perhaps things in Europe will have calmed by then.”

“Well, if not, the German-American Rough Riders of Victoria, Texas, are saddling up to come to your and Kaiser Wilhelm’s rescue. The volunteer company has pledged to lay down their lives and fortunes to support the fatherland.”

Mr. K guffaws. “Not all that reassuring. But where is anyone totally safe? Even boarding a train from Saint Louis to San Antonio can prove dangerous, and Saint Louis is where Emma is now. The engineer of the Katy Flyer found himself staring down the barrels of two revolvers only thirty-five miles out of Saint Louis.”

“A sack of silver weighing fifty pounds is what the gang stole. A clever ploy, Otto, the way they uncoupled the baggage car and had the engineer run it down the track. So successful was the complicated caper, one wonders if the Express Messenger inside was a partner in the plot. When the robbers threatened him from outside the baggage car, he caved in quickly and threw open the door.”

The Colonel reaches for one of the glasses of beer Andy has set before them. “Genesse das Leben ständig. Du bist länger tot als lebendig.”

Mr. K raises his glass and translates for Andy. “Constantly enjoy life. You are dead longer than alive.”

Footnotes

In April of 1914, Colonel Chapa donated goldfish to San Pedro Park, home to that tortured alligator. The San Antonio Express reported that Dr. Charles A.R. Campbell’s bat roost at Mitchell’s Lake was attracting international attention for its successful role in mosquito eradication.

After the city forced the closure of the zoo originally located in San Pedro Park, the Scientific Society contributed six buffaloes, twelve elk, twenty-eight deer, twenty-five peacocks, twenty white turkeys and one lonely African goose for the start of a new zoo in Brackenridge Park in April of 1914. By July 24, the animals were reported as starving in their pens. Upon learning that, the Author hated leaving them in that sad state so invented their rescue by the two Ottos. Surely, someone must have undertaken their care and feeding or the zoo would not be there today.

The strange trend in women’s liberation in France was covered in a full-page story on April 9, 1914: “Shooting Gentlemen Latest Fashion for French Ladies.” The body of George Brackenridge’s secretary, Elvira Davis, was reported found on the beach in Galveston on July 24. That of Governor Campbell’s former secretary, John R. Bowman, was found by his wife in Dallas a week earlier.

The canoe race in the San Antonio River was held in June. Today, there is still a loosely organized group calling itself the King William Yacht Club that stages a Fourth of July Regatta every year in the historic district south of downtown.

The Texas political news and language is drawn from newspapers throughout June and July, as are the international news stories that must have dominated the conversations of many. Overall, this chapter merits a positive high reading on the Truth-O-Meter.

Continue to Chapter Sixty-Six

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