Life in these strange times: a story of another strange time

The process of cleaning and reorganizing continues. And I keep finding more and more treasures that were hidden among the old papers and other junk that seems to have mated and reproduced like mad tribbles from the original Star Trek series. One of the treasures that I found was a CD that held my entire set of photographs that I took during the 2008 Witness Against War walks. Another treasure was a short story that I wrote a few years ago. I’m not sure when I wrote it because there’s no date. The story is set in the Buffalo area in 1901, during and after the Pan-American Exposition. 

Here is the story, titled “Reflected Light (excerpts from the diary of Hilda Watt).”

August 30th
Today, Susan will finish hemming my new dress so we can have another fitting before we all get on the train to go to Buffalo for the Pan-American Exposition for a few days. I am so filled with joyful anticipation.

Everyone was talking about the Scinta band and how wonderful they were this summer. They all loved the mandolin playing. Dear, dear Susan is trying to play the mandolin to impress her beau, a Mr. Earnest Knight. She needs a lot more practice, however.

What a silly teenager my sister is.

September 3rd

Mom, Dad, Susan, and I arrived in downtown Buffalo late on Friday afternoon. We went straight to Aunt Stella and Uncle William’s home for one of Aunt Stella’s lovely dinner parties. Later, I slept fitfully, feeling so excited about going to the Pan American Exposition, truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

On Saturday, I finally met Susan’s beau, Earnest Knight. He’s a police detective! He told me that he and Susan met when Susan lived with Uncle William and Aunt Stella, when she went to finishing school, which she did not finish. Since leaving finishing school, she has sent him many letters, all dripping with enough perfume to make a skunk sneeze.

We met the detective at the machinery and transportation building. Soon, it grew dark, and the grand electrical tower glowed. Truly, we were all stunned into speechlessness by the beauty of it all. Little lights glittering under the stars, and so many of them! We could see the reflection of the electrical lights in the water I have never in my 22 years seen anything quite so beautiful. I could feel the tears forming in my eyes, and I know that I wasn’t the only one, from the sight of all of those handkerchiefs coming out of pockets.

Mr. Knight turned out to be a charming fellow. When he learned of my aspirations to be an opera singer, he insisted on calling me “Brunhilde.” He kissed my hand and, oh, the look on Susan’s face!

Her eyes smoldered with reflected incandescent light and jealousy.

On Saturday evening, we were all again stunned by the magnificence of the electrical lights.

Sunday was a pleasant day at the exposition. We heard music that sounded nothing like the church music that I’m used to or the operatic arias that Miss Edith gives me to sing. We heard music from China, Hawaii, and Mexico, played on exotic instruments. The artistic displays transported us to distant countries without the discomforts of traveling over oceans and land.

Dad bought me a stack of sheet music from the exposition. Mother wasn’t feeling well. We went home on Sunday afternoon. Dad talked about returning to Buffalo on Friday for a day trip to see the exhibits that we missed. How wonderful that would be! It will be even more wonderful to see Mr. Knight again. No. It wouldn’t. He is Susan’s beau.

September 7th
Last week, the world looked bright and beautiful with shiny electrical lights that were reflected in the grand canal. The beautiful music that came from all over the world was such a joy. We also enjoyed the sculptures and the graceful architecture and all of the beautiful artwork.

But now, the tears cannot stop flowing.

The day started out well. We caught an early train to Buffalo and then visited an exhibition that told the story of immigrants from Germany, Italy, Ireland, and Poland. We ate lunch at “Fair Japan.” We had to sit on cushions on the floor. My stiff corset and heavy skirts made this into a very uncomfortable event.

At lunch, Dad told us about the surprise that was waiting for us at the Temple of Music. We walked over there, and Mr. Knight ambled up to meet us. Once again, he kissed my hand and asked how Brunhilde was today. I stumbled over my words. Susan looked as if she would like to stick me with a hat pin. 

Father then said that the surprise was the invitation that he had obtained to a reception inside the Temple of Music, to meet President McKinley. I wondered if Mr. Knight had been invited to the reception, too. I hoped not. I had to stop pining over my sister’s beau.

The crowd was enormous. I could see very little but a sea of hats. I saw plain hats, hats with feathers, tall hats with feathers, black hats. We headed toward the Temple of Music.

A man brushed past us. He wore a big black mustache. He looked straight ahead, neither to the right nor the left. Mr. Knight and Susan did not seem to notice the man. They were busy laughing and chatting.

Then I heard a cheering noise, and up strode President McKinley. He stood very close to me. Dad was one of the first to shake the president’s hand. People pressed closer to shake the president’s hand.

I watched as the man with the bushy mustache shook the president’s hand. He didn’t seem to want to let go. Finally, he left. He was followed by a young man with a handkerchief covering his right hand. The president offered the man his left hand. The man pushed his right hand up to the president’s chest, and I could see something metallic gleaming from under the handkerchief. The man then shook the president’s hand and then dropped the piece of cloth that was covering his right hand. In that hand, he held a revolver. He lifted the gun and fired twice. I screamed. The president fell. People close to me were beating the man with their fists and they were kicking him. The man barely seemed to notice the pummeling.

Mr. Knight and a few uniformed police officers pushed the crowd away and pulled the man to his feet. Then they were gone.

Susan was angry. She said that Mr. Knight protected the man who shot the president. “That man does not deserve to live,” she said. She yelled, in front of the crowd, “Earnest is all yours! I’ll have nothing to do with him.” It was very embarrassing.

September 8th
Today at church, we prayed for the president’s recovery. I dropped the music during my solo. Last night, I had bad dreams about the shooting and hardly slept a wink.

September 13th

Earnest came to see Susan today. She would not talk to him, except to tell him to see me. Earnest has become a good friend and a confidant, and that bothers Susan. She says that I am in love with him. I told her that was not true.

Susan did not speak to me at all today. I did not want to ask her about my dress, which I need for my recital in just two weeks.

I did not practice at all today. No vocalizing. Nothing.

The newspaper account said it all. The president lies near death, with his devoted wife at his bedside. All hope has fled.

September 16th
Earnest came back to tell us that President McKinley passed away. He said that there would be a trial soon and that justice would be done. He said that he and the other detectives were looking for the man with the bushy mustache, as he was suspected of clearing a path to the president for the killer. Had we seen him? I said that the man vanished into the crowd. At that moment, all I could think about was the look in Leon Czoglosz’s eyes. I have never seen anything like it. Susan wanted the man hanged without having a trial.

My recital is coming up. It is so good for me to focus on music, instead of… 

September 28th

Earnest presented me with a bouquet of roses and a box of chocolates after the recital. The dress that Susan made for me was exquisite, but Susan refused to come. I told Susan that I did not plan to steal her beau. She was angry when she said that she didn’t want to do with Earnest. They fought all of the time, she said, but she was not throwing him over. I told her that Earnest and I are just friends. She tied my corset so tightly that I could barely breathe. It’s a miracle that I was able to sing.

Susan’s mandolin sits in a corner, forgotten and unplayed.

I still have nightmares about the shooting.

October 15th
It has been a long time since I wrote anything at all. Earnest kissed me last night. I did not resist. I can finally admit that I love him. 

Susan and I are friends again. She said that she is over him and has a new beau. Just like that. She has started playing the mandolin again. Her playing has not improved.

October 31st

Earnest told me that Leon Czolgosz was electrocuted two days ago and that the man with the bushy mustache was never found. I wondered why something as beautiful as electricity would be used for something as ugly as an execution, but I said nothing. Tonight, Earnest took me to the Halloween ball. He was Zorro, and I was a Spanish lady. Susan designed my costume. Yesterday, Earnest asked dad for my hand in marriage.

Susan said that she will sew my wedding gown for me.

I have a sister, two parents, and a fiance. I should be happy beyond measure.

When will my nightmares about that terrible day end?

4 thoughts on “Life in these strange times: a story of another strange time”

  1. My Grandmother attended the Pan American Exposition in 1901 at thage of 17. Your heroine could have been her. Well written historical fiction.

  2. Very nicely researched. I have never been to Buffalo. I know they have not preserved the site of the assassination but I understand where VP Teddy Roosevelt took the oath of office has been.

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