What do you take?
This is a question Madeline Koehler, along with over three thousand other residents of Boulder County, had to ask herself this past Labor Day.
“We had three minutes,” Koehler said. “What do you take?”
When the Sheriff came to her door on Monday afternoon, Koehler decided to take a portrait of her mother as a young bride.
Koehler was born in Holland and grew up in the rubble of World War II bombings. She moved to the United States in 1957 and met her now-boyfriend, Frank McGuire, in the same year. They worked together for American Aviation Publications during the Cold War. McGuire worked in the White House as a Russian translator and often took Koehler with him on assignments.
“We had crazy adventures that year because he would invite me along,” Koehler remembered. “And then we went different ways.”
Madeline married Ruben Koehler, a physician-in-residency at John Hopkins Hospital, and took his last name, which she still uses. McGuire also married and had a child. They both moved around the U.S. and lost touch.
Koehler and her husband, a native of Israel, fell in love with Boulder during a visit to Estes Park. They bought a plot of land in Sunshine Canyon and hired a local contractor to build a very specific home. The Koehlers wanted their house catered to their many souvenirs from international travels, as well as their possessions from their homelands.
“We were very attached to all our old furniture because it seemed that every piece had a story to it,” Koehler said. “We met a local architect and we made a video of our favorite furniture pieces and sent it to him. The house was built for the furniture! It’s perfect.”
With a nook or cranny built specifically for each of their important items, the couple lived in their canyon home for several years before their divorce in 1987.
“When we divorced I told him, ‘Take whatever you want’,” Koehler said. “He said ‘No, I don’t want to ruin the house. It’s just perfect as it is’.”
Koehler was sitting in this very perfect home in 1993 watching television when her long lost friend Frank McGuire appeared on CBS television network.
“I was a talking head,” McGuire laughed.
Koehler called CBS and after much difficulty they agreed to give McGuire her phone number. Soon after, he retired and moved into an apartment in Erie, Colo.
“We were still just friendly, but it was obviously more than friendship,” Koehler said with a smile.
After two years in Erie, McGuire joined Koehler in her Sunshine Canyon home. The 77-year-old Koehler lights up when McGuire walks through the door of their temporary shelter in a friend’s home.
“There he is,” she sighed.
Koehler and McGuire have created a close community of friends in Sunshine Canyon. McGuire has been a volunteer firefighter all his life and made fast friends with the Sunshine County Fire Department, while Koehler joined a Bunko club with the women in her community.
“Everybody knows everybody,” Koehler said. “Very young women and very old women, like me. It’s a very close-knit group of people.”
On Labor Day morning, Koehler was the first of her community to smell the smoke.
“We had watched a very late movie; I think it was three o’clock when we went to bed,” Koehler said. “So we said, ‘Well, tomorrow we’ll sleep late. Don’t wake me up’, but I woke up because I smelled smoke.”
When Koehler discovered the fire was in Fourmile Canyon, she and her neighbors felt relief.
“The neighbors and I all said, ‘Nah, it’s not going to come here,’” Koehler recalled.
Several of the couple’s friends lost their homes, including three local firefighters. Almost all of their immediate neighbors homes were burned to the ground. Koehler’s son, an American diplomat in Sweden, had a satellite view of her home.
“He said, ‘Mom, it’s like God put a wet finger on a map and said, “Till here, till here, till here, and no further”,’” Koehler said, drawing a three-sided square in the air.
Koehler can’t yet say what she’s learned from the fire, as it is an ongoing experience, but she knows one thing for certain.
“A lot of people said to me, ‘Well, you guys are safe, and it’s just stuff. Don’t worry about stuff’. But it wasn’t just stuff. It’s more than that. It’s my whole life.”
Unpublished; written for Reporting 2 class.