An Ostrich-Plumed Hat: Chapter Sixty-Eight

Above, aftermath of the horrific explosion at the Southern Pacific Railyard. Photograph courtesy of Farrell Tucker, San Antonio Police History Archive.

an ostrich-plumed hat

Begin with Chapter One ~ Return to Chapter Sixty-Seven

Emma Bentzen Koehler, August 1914

A musical at the Casino Club with the Wahrmunds has been marked on their calendars for weeks, but Otto is devastated by the events of the day.

Emma cannot even remember the last time the two of them have eaten alone. The couple always has social engagements or is surrounded by members of their extended family, drawn into the couple’s unspoken conspiracy to avoid this very circumstance.

Otto wheels her out to the back veranda. Brilliant orange and rose streaks paint a gorgeous sunset on the west. But the sky in the east is shrouded by the thick, dark smoke continuing to billow over the spot where the roundhouse stood. Otto stands with his hand on her shoulder, staring at that cloud.

“Otto, I’m so sorry. I gave Frauke the evening off, and my nurse isn’t returning until late. Let me go see what I can find for us to eat.”

He turns her chair around and pushes her toward the kitchen. Surprisingly, he goes to the ice box, rummages a bit and turns around and smiles. “Sausages. We’re in luck.”

“There should be other remnants from Sunday’s dinner as well, if you’re not too bored with hardboiled eggs and tomato aspic?”

Otto’s smile grows broader. “Never do I tire of my favorite foods. I take more pleasure in the Sunday dinners you and Hettie make than in those served in the finest restaurants. I am unsure whether at heart I am a man of simple tastes or whether my enjoyment is being surrounded by our family, everyone chattering all at once. Sausage, hardboiled eggs and aspic sound perfect to me.”

Otto leaves the room as she starts to remove the cloths covering his pet foods, but he returns quickly with a drink in hand. Uncharacteristically, he begins to assist and seems to relish the distraction of bustling around the kitchen. He pauses. “We can’t eat in the kitchen when you’re so formally attired for an evening at the Casino Club.”

He sets the table and lights the candelabra in the formal dining room. He pushes her to her place and takes his customary seat, five chairs away at the far end of the table. Otto picks up his fork and leans to his right in order to see her.

“Today…,” he clears his throat. “Today….”

“You needn’t speak, Otto. Talking about it might prove almost as painful as reliving the experience. Some things are too appalling to repeat.”

“No. No, I want to talk about it. I have to talk about it. I realize it will not paint an appetizing picture for the dinner table, but it’s a burden I must share. Do you mind terribly?”

“Of course not.”

Frustrated by shifting from left to right to peer around the flickering candles, Otto picks up his plate and rises. He takes a seat to her right.

A seven-ton chunk of the locomotive’s engine casing landed blocks away from the Roundhouse. Image from San Antonio Police History Archive.

“I’d stepped outside to fetch my carriage for a meeting when Andy called me back to sign a letter. Not sixty seconds later, there was a thunderous boom followed by a ground-shaking thud right behind me.

“I thought it was ours, Emma. The sound was that loud. I thought our boilers had exploded. I turned, but all the buildings around me remained intact.

“A three-foot long, jagged black chunk of metal stood upright in the ground. Right there, in the short distance between the stable and me. If Andy had not summoned me at the exact moment he did, I would have been crushed by that metal and pinned to the ground.”

“Gott im Himmel, Otto! Thank goodness Andy called you back.”

“Along with all the workers who had rushed out into the yard, I looked to the east. Thick black smoke spewed into the air. That time of the morning, a full shift of employees would have been at the Roundhouse.

“I ran to get my carriage and told the men to hitch up the beer wagons, unsure whether they would be commandeered as ambulances or hearses. The disastrous scene was more nightmarish than I envisioned. I’ll spare you the grisly details.

“The young Doctor Herff arrived ahead of me and was trying, against all odds, to…. Well, putting Humpty Dumpty back together would be easier to accomplish than reassembling that man he found on the ground.

“I’ve only been able to think of two things all afternoon. Suppose they had been our boilers? Working around all that steam under pressure is much riskier than I would ever concede to the men we employ. And here I am, in the midst of labor negotiations, refusing to give them a raise that amounts to a paltry four cents an hour.

“The second thing? A headline in this morning’s newspaper. ‘Germans Planned to Pass through Little Belgium like a Cannon Ball and Arrive in the French Capital.’

“What I saw today is what war looks like. I’m frightened for our families in Germany, Emma. We must do something, anything, to see to their safety.”

~     ~    ~

Floorboards creak with each step he takes toward her door.

Emma knew he would come to her door tonight. Quiet and subdued. Perhaps as tender and gentle as the young man she married so long ago.

The horrors Otto witnessed today seem to have jolted him back to an earlier point in time. A time when she was his confidant. His friend. His lover. When they eagerly shared everything that had occurred during the hours they had been apart.

The creaking stops outside her door. She can hear his breathing as he pauses. Hesitates.

A timid tap at the door. He begins his request in hushed tones. “Emma…. Emma…. Emma?”

A part of her wants to admit him. Hold him. Comfort him. To turn back the clock. Five. Ten. Fifteen years or more.

“Emma?”

No. She remembers too vividly the times when he was not so meek and mild. The times when excessive drinking unleashed an ugly monster. The monster whose irrational behavior caused the painful accident.

He is not truly a changed man. If she weakens her resolve once it will soon be the same. Tomorrow or the next day or a week from now, he will slide back into that same behavior.

“I love you, Emma. We will go to Germany, yes? We’ll make sure everyone we love there’s safe.”

When was the last time that he told her he loved her? She cannot believe her own cold-heartedness. She should call out to him, throw back the covers and welcome him beside her. It has been so long.

Instead she answers softly, as though groggy with sleep, “We will go to Germany, dear. Good night, Otto.”

“Good night mein Liebchen.”

The creaking fades as he makes his way toward his room.

Fifteen minutes later, footsteps rouse her again.

Emma hears Otto go down the stairs and out the front door.

She weeps as she hears the carriage pull away.

Footnotes

The Koehlers. What was their marital relationship like? Otto Koehler’s arrangement with Hedda would seem a hard secret to keep from his wife. And, if she were indeed a strong-willed woman, would she tolerate it if she and he were close? And what were the extent of her injuries? Did they prevent conjugal relations?

Does anyone truly ever know what someone else’s marriage is like? Relationships are complicated. Theirs probably more so than most. Chapter Sixty-Eight represents the Author’s best guess.

Continue to Chapter Sixty-Nine

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