This week’s book excerpt comes from Flight of Dreams, a novel based on the 1937 disaster of the Hindenburg, the passenger zeppelin destroyed as it tried to land at its New Jersey destination. Ariel Lawhon’s novel, published late last month by Doubleday, follows the imagined intrigues and guilty secrets of the some of the 97 real people aboard that flight, 35 of whom lost their lives. Lawhon, also the author of The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, founded the online book club She Reads. Flight of Dreams can be purchased in local bookstores and here or here.
U.S. Commerce Department Board of Inquiry
Hindenburg Accident Hearings
May 10, 1937
Naval Air Station, Main Hangar, Lakehurst, New Jersey
Please inform the Zeppelin company in Frankfurt that they should open and search all mail before it is put on board prior to every flight of the Zeppelin Hindenburg. The Zeppelin is going to be destroyed by a time bomb during its flight to another country.
—Letter from Kathie Rusch of Milwaukee to the German embassy in Washington, D.C., dated April 8, 1937
“This was not the first bomb threat, correct?” The man in the black glasses lifts the letter and waves it before the crowd. “Did anyone bother to count?”
Max thinks the man’s last name is Schroeder, but he can’t remember, and in truth he doesn’t care. He’s a fool if he believes that crazy woman from Milwaukee and her letter. Not that anyone else in the room is concerned with Max’s quiet derision. People whisper and nod their heads like mindless puppets at the idea of sabotage. Search the mail, she said. There’s a bomb on board, she said. It’s a popular theory, especially now, with the wreckage still sprawled in the field outside. But no one cares about the truth. They prefer theatrics and conspiracy theories. And Schroeder is happy to provide them. He is ringmaster of this circus. He will make sure the mob is entertained.
Wilhelm Balla limps his way through the crowded hangar to stand next to Max. He escaped the crash with little more than a sprained ankle, but Max suspects he’s exaggerating even that. He leans a bit hard to the left with each step, showing off. Letting the world know he’s injured.
Balla searches Max’s face for clues to his emotional state. “Emilie?” he asks.
“What about her?”
“She’s prepared for the trip back to Germany?”
Max turns his attention to the spectacle at the front of the room. “I haven’t asked.”
“Let me know when she is. I’d like to say good-bye.” Balla clears his throat. “They have me booked on the Europa with Werner on the fifteenth. How is she going home?”
“On the Hamburg. With the others. It sails in three days.”
Wilhelm Balla is not a man who often displays emotion. It is up for debate whether he actually has a pulse. But this surprises him. “You aren’t traveling with her?”
Max leans his head against the window. The cool glass feels good against his throbbing temple. He hasn’t been able to shake this headache since the crash. No surprise, really, all things considered. “There are many things outside of my control, not the least of which is travel.” He taps the envelope in his pocket with the pad of one finger and then draws his hand away. “I don’t testify until the nineteenth. I’ll take the Bremen the following day.”
Balla gives him the long, appraising look that Max finds so aggravating. “How many times have you read Emilie’s letter?”
“Once was enough.” It’s a lie. But he has no interest in confiding in Balla. Not after the trouble he caused.
From his position beside the window, Max can see the airfield and the charred skeleton that lies crumpled beside the mooring mast. He closes his eyes and tries to push the sight away, but to no avail. The images are there—will be there, he is certain, for the rest of his life; a single tongue of blue flame licking the Hindenburg’s spine, a fluttering of silver skin followed by the shudder of metallic bone, a flash, barely visible to those on the ground below. Bedlam. He is certain that the passengers close enough to see the explosion never heard it. They were simply consumed as the backbone of the great floating beast snapped in half. Thirty-four seconds of catastrophic billowing flames, followed by total, profound destruction. In half a minute the airship went from flying luxury hotel to smoking rubble—a skeleton lying crumpled in this New Jersey field, blacked by smoke and flame. No, these are things he will never forget.
Already the hearings have begun. There will be testimony. Reporters and flashbulbs. A different sort of pandemonium and a desperate attempt to understand why. There will be political conflagration. Headlines screaming out their theories in bold print, punctuated for emphasis. Accident! Sabotage! Fingers pointing in all directions and, of course, the subtle, insinuating whispers. The quiet placing of blame. Max wonders if their names and faces will be forgotten when the headlines are replaced by some new tragedy. Will anyone remember the particulars of those who fell from the sky a few short days ago? The vaudeville acrobat. The cabin boy. The journalists. An American heiress. The German cotton broker and the Jewish food distributor. A young family of German expatriates living in Mexico City. Chefs and mechanics. Photographers and navigators. The commander and his crew. A small army of stewards and Emilie, the only stewardess. Old men and young boys. Women past their prime and a fourteen-year-old girl who loved her father above all else. Will anyone remember them?
Bureaucrats measure loss with dollar signs and damage control. Already they have begun. There is standing room only in this hangar. But Max knows that to him, the cost will always be measured by lives lost. He also knows that in nine days, when his time comes to sit in that chair and give testimony, he will not tell them the truth. Instead he will look over Schroeder’s shoulder at a point on the far wall and tell the lie he has already decided upon. It is the only way to protect Emilie. And the others. Max Zabel will swear before God and this committee that it was an uneventful flight.
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D A Y O N E
Monday, May 3, 1937—6:16 p.m., Central European Time
3 days, 6 hours, and 8 minutes until the explosion
Here is the goal of man’s dream for many, many generations. Not the airplane, not the hydroscope, man has dreamed of a huge graceful ship that lifted gently into the air and soared with ease. It is come, it is completely successful, it is breathtakingly beautiful.
—Akron Beacon Journal
“It’s a bad idea, don’t you think?” Emilie asks, as she stands inside the kitchen door, propping it open with her foot. “Striking a match in here? You could blow us all to oblivion.”
Xaver Maier is young for a head chef, only twenty-five, but he wears the pressed white uniform—a double-breasted jacket and checkered pants—with an air of authority. The starched apron is tied smartly at his waist, the toque fitted snuggly to his head. He gives her that careless, arrogant smirk that she has begrudgingly grown fond of and puts the cigarette to his lips. He inhales so deeply that she can see his chest expand, and then blows the smoke out the open galley window into the warm May evening. “Ventilation, love, it’s all about proper ventilation.”
The way he says the word, the way he holds his mouth, is clearly suggestive of other things, and she dismisses him with a laugh. Xaver Maier is much younger than Emilie and a great deal too impressed with himself. “At the moment, love, it’s about aspirin. I need two. And a glass of water if you can summon the effort.”
The kitchen is small but well ordered, and Xaver’s assistant chefs are busy chopping, boiling, and basting in preparation for dinner. He stands in the center of the melee like a colonel directing his troops, an eye on every small movement.
“Faking a headache?” he asks. “Poor Max. I thought you’d finally come around. We’ve been taking bets, you know.”
“Don’t,” she says, flinging a drawer open and shuffling through the contents. She has made it perfectly clear that all discussion of Max is off limits. She will make up her mind when she is good and ready. “I went to the dentist yesterday, and the left side of my jaw feels like it’s about to fall off.” She leaves the drawer open and moves on to another.
“Usually when a woman tells me her jaw is sore I apologize.”
Emilie opens a third drawer. Then a fourth. Slams it. “I had a tooth filled.” She’s impatient now. And irritated. “Aspirin? I know you keep it around here somewhere.”
He follows behind her, shoving the drawers shut. “Enough of that. You’re as bad as the verdammt Gestapo.”
“What?” She looks up.
Xaver reaches behind her head and lifts the door to a high, shallow cabinet attached to the ceiling. He pulls out a bottle of aspirin but doesn’t hand it over. “I’m glad to hear you don’t know everything that happens aboard this airship.” He taps the bottle against the heel of his hand, making the pills inside rattle around with sharp little pings. “There’s still the chance of keeping secrets.”
“You can’t keep secrets from me.” She holds out her hand, palm up. “Two aspirin and a glass of water. What Gestapo?”
Xaver counts them out as though he’s paying a debt. “They came because of the bomb threats. Fifteen of them in their verdammte gray uniforms.”
“When?” She takes a glass from the drying board above the sink and fills it with tepid water. Emilie swallows her pills in one wild gulp.
“Yesterday. They searched the entire ship. Took almost three hours. I had to take the security officers down the lower keel walkway to the storage areas. The bastards opened every tin of caviar, every wheel of aged Camembert, and don’t think they didn’t sample everything they could find. Looking for explosives, they said. I was out half the night trying to find replacements. And,” he pauses to take a long, calming drag on his cigarette, “you can be certain that frog-faced distributor in the Bockenheim district didn’t take kindly to being woken at midnight to fill an order for goose liver pâté.”
She has heard of the bomb threats, of course; they all have. Security measures have been tightened. Her bags were checked before she was allowed on the airfield that afternoon. But it seems so ridiculous, so impossible. Yet this is life in the new Germany, they say. A trigger-happy government. Suspicious of everyone, regardless of citizenship. No, not citizenship, she corrects herself, race.
Emilie looks out the galley windows at the empty tarmac. “Did you know they aren’t letting anyone come for the send-off? All the passengers are waiting at a hotel in the city to be shuttled over by bus. No fanfare this time.”
“Should be a fun flight.”
“That,” she says with a grin, “will have to wait until the return trip. We’re fully booked. All those royalty-smitten Americans traveling over for King George’s coronation.”
“I’d take a smitten American. Preferably one from California. Blondine.”
Emilie rolls her eyes as he whistles and forms an hourglass figure with his hands.
“Schwein,” she says, but she leans forward and gives him a kiss on the cheek anyway. “Thank you for the aspirin.”
The kitchen smells of yeast and garlic and the clean, tangy scent of fresh melons. Emilie is hungry, but it will be some time before she gets the chance to eat. She is lamenting her inadequate early lunch when a low, good-humored voice speaks from the doorway.
“So that’s all it takes to get a kiss from Fräulein Imhof?”
Emilie doesn’t have to turn around to identify the voice. She is embarrassed that he has found her like this, flirting—albeit innocently—with the ship’s resident lothario.
“I worked hard for that kiss. You should do so well,” Xaver defends himself.
“I should like the opportunity to try.”
The matter-of-fact way he says it unnerves her. Max looks dapper in his pressed navy-blue uniform. His hair is as dark and shiny as his shoes. The gray eyes do not look away. He waits patiently, as ever, for her to respond. How does he do that? she wonders. Max sees the bewilderment on her face, and a smile tugs at one corner of his mouth, hinting at a dimple, but he wrestles it into submission and turns to Xaver.
“Commander Pruss wants to know tonight’s dinner menu. He will be dining with several of the American passengers and hopes the food will provide sufficient distraction.”
Xaver bristles. “Commander Pruss will no longer notice his companions when my meal arrives. We will dine on poached salmon with a creamy spice sauce, château potatoes, green beans à la princesse, iced California melon, freshly baked French rolls, and a variety of cakes, all washed down with Turkish coffee and a sparkling 1928 Feist Brut.” He says this, chin lifted, the stiff notes of dignity in his voice, as though citing the provenance of a painting and then squints at Max. “Should I write that down? I don’t want him being told I’m cooking fish and vegetables for dinner.”
Max repeats the details verbatim, and Xaver gives a begrudging nod of approval.
“Now, out of my kitchen. Both of you. I have work to do. Dinner is at ten sharp.” He shuffles them into the keel corridor, then closes the door. Xaver might be an opportunist—he would gladly take a real kiss from Emilie if she were to offer one—but he knows of her budding affection, and he’s more than willing to make room for it to bloom further.
Max leans against the wall. His smile is tentative, testing. “Hello, Emilie. I’ve missed you.”
She’s certain the chef is on the other side listening. She can smell cigarette smoke drifting through the crack around the door. He would like nothing better than to dish out a portion of gossip with the evening meal. And Emilie would love to tell Max that she has missed him as well in the months since their last passenger flight. She would love to tell him that she has very much looked forward to today. But she doesn’t want to give Xaver the satisfaction. The moment passes into awkward silence.
“Listen . . .” Max reaches out his hand to brush one finger against her cheek when the air horn sounds with a thunderous bellow from the control car below them. The tension is broken and they shift away from each other. He shoves his hands in his pockets and stares at the ceiling. “That is such a hateful noise.”
Emilie tugs at the cuff of her blouse, pulling it over the base of her thumb. She doesn’t look at Max. “We’re about to start boarding passengers.”
“I really must see if they can do something about that. A whistle, maybe?”
“I should get out there and greet them.”
But she’s already backing away, coward that she is, on her way down the corridor to the gangway stairs.
From the book Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon. Copyright © 2016 by Ariel Lawhon. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.