Above, huge chunks of metal flew through the air and landed blocks away from the site of the locomotive explosion at the Southern Pacific Railyard. Photograph courtesy of Farrell Tucker of San Antonio Police Archive.
Hedda Burgemeister, August 1914
Hedda adds the fashion illustration she tore from the newspaper to the stack of library books on the dining room table.
Perhaps her mutton-sleeved blouses over plain skirts are too dowdy a look to attract Otto’s attention. After she returns the books, she will shop for a pattern for one of the bold new looks inspired by the Ballet Russe. A graceful high-waisted lampshade tunic over a draped skirt that narrows dramatically as it descends towards the ankles. One must have to take tiny steps to be able to move in that narrow a skirt, but the material saved there will make up for the splurge of extra yardage for the tunic.
Too late in the morning to hear the Fort Sam Houston cannon faintly in the distance, but the noise came from that direction.
She glances at the drawing once again. Pockets, though. Hedda must have pockets.
Emmy mailed her a newspaper column of Alice Duer Miller questioning why “we” oppose pockets for women. The author’s final satirical point was that pockets have been used by men for centuries to carry pipes, flasks and compromising letters. Women scarcely could be trusted to use them more wisely. Pockets in skirts have become a subtle statement showing support for the suffrage movement. All Hedda’s clothes must now have them.
As she rinses her coffee cup at the sink, she sees it. A huge black cloud ballooning up over the north side of downtown.
The brewery. It has exploded. Hedda stares in disbelief. Otto would be there at work at his desk. She panics.
No operator responds when she tries her telephone, so Hedda dashes across the street and bangs on Mrs. Campbell’s door.
“Please, please, Missus Campbell, telephone your husband and find out what has happened.”
“I’ve been trying, Hedda, but I can’t get through. The operator’s not picking up the line.”
“I have to find out.”
Hedda rushes back to the house for her purse and heads as fast as she can to Presa Street to catch a streetcar downtown. Not a one in sight.
Seeing her desperate face, a man with a load of melons stops and offers her a ride. She hops up to the wagon seat beside him without hesitation.
“My brother,” says the young man, “he works at the Roundhouse.” He snaps the reins to quicken the team’s pace toward downtown.
“Yes, ma’am, where they work on the locomotives.”
“Then it’s not City Brewery?”
“Where they make Pearl? No, I fear the smoke’s east of that.”
A sigh of relief escapes Hedda’s mouth before she realizes how insensitive it is. “Are you sure this is your brother’s shift?”
“Yes, ma’am. He works right there. Next to the boilermaker. Said he has too many mouths to feed to join the strike.”
She’s no longer as worried about Otto, as the intensifying smoke awakens her to the immensity of the disaster. “I’m a nurse. Can you get me as close as possible so I can help?”
“Sure will. I have to find out about my brother.”
Vehicles, motorized and horse-drawn, all trying to squeeze into downtown, surround them. The traffic ensnares them, slowing things to a stop. On the north side of Alamo Plaza, barricades have sprung up, turning away both the curious and the caring. Ambulances and anything with wheels head toward them, carting away the injured.
“Tell the policemen I’m a nurse, that you have to get me through.”
They are turned back though, like all the others.
“Please, then, take me to Santa Rosa Infirmary. They must be short-handed. No one can be prepared for such an emergency.”
“I might as well go there. That’s probably where Pavel is anyway. You’ll look for him and help him, yes? Pavel. Pavel Kocurek.”
Hedda disembarks two blocks from the emergency entrance because of the line of vehicles waiting to unload their human cargo.
She marches straight to the desk and tells the nun she is qualified and ready to assist in any way she can. The sister starts to dismiss her but changes her mind. “Go wash up. We need every hand the Lord sends us today.”
~ ~ ~
Hedda raises her hand to shield her eyes from the blinding morning light as she makes her way out of the hospital. People crowd around her, their faces tear-streaked. They beg for news of the missing, praying their loved ones are here at the hospital and not at the city morgue.
Exhausted, yet relieved. A policeman at the hospital last night assured her that no one from City Brewery was struck by debris.
Never had she encountered such horrific injuries, but she feels blessed to have been of assistance. She hopes the lives she helped spare include relatives of some of the frightened souls around her on the street.
How many will be directed to the morgue instead? And what became of poor Pavel Kocurek?
As noted following the prior chapter, the Author has no knowledge of Hedda’s or Otto Koehler’s whereabouts on the morning of the 1912 explosion (altered timeline for plot convenience). Both the tale of the hitchhiker and wagon driver are dreamed up, but the description of the scene on the streets and at Santa Rosa Hospital is based on newspaper accounts.
As for “Why We Oppose Pockets for Women,” it is one of a series of satirical columns written for the New York Tribune by Alice Duer Miller between February of 1914 and New York’s passage of the suffrage referendum in November of 1917.