Harry Ernst Bauer, “Kraut,” most people didn’t know his real they just knew him as Kraut.  That was his nickname, but I’ll get to that in a bit.  As near as I can recollect I have known Kraut for forty-four years.  He was my friend.  Seems this is the season of loss, when it comes to friends.  I understand we have no control over that or much of anything else really, that part is in God’s hands, for our part we have only to accept it and that’s often the most difficult.  We lost Harry on January 7th of this year, 2008, two months shy of his sixty-first birthday.

Harry moved to the small Midwestern farm town of Sandwich, Illinois in the early sixties, having chosen to quit school, live with his Grandmother Law and find work.  I was one of the first people he met.  Mrs. Law was my next door neighbor. We met a day or two after he arrived.

Our first meeting was simple. I saw him out in the driveway, went over and introduced myself and we became instant friends.  That’s the way it was with Kraut, you just liked him the minute you met him. 

Harry Bauer was born in southern Germany, in the town of Crailsheim, on March 10, 1947.  His mother and father divorced when he was young, I don’t remember how old he was at the time, we talked about it since my folks were divorced, I just don’t remember. A few years later his mother Maria met a G. I. by the name of Richard Law and they were married.  As it is with the Army they move around a bit, Germany, Ft. Benning, Georgia, back to Germany and eventually back to the States, assigned to Ft. Knox, Kentucky.  Harry was 16 then and decided moving to another school just wasn’t in the cards for him.

When I first met Harry I was taking German in high school.  German being his first language, he was very helpful.  Harry never had what you’d call a “German” accent.  The reason was he’d attended all those Army base schools for years with kids who were children of American G.I.’s.  He confided one day that he also watched a lot of old movies, Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Bogart and other American gangster films and he tried to speak English the way they did. 

Every Sunday afternoon back then, Harry would dress up and take a walk, occasionally he’d invite me to go along, but I had to dress up, no jeans, slacks shirt and a sport coat.  This was something he did every Sunday when he lived in Bavaria. “Everybody does it on Sunday in Germany, a lot of the time you get your girl and take a walk in the woods.  The woods are different there, very clean because people pick up the fallen limbs and sticks for firewood. The forests are very beautiful there,” he told me on one of our walks.  Bavaria is the physical opposite of the flat prairie town where we met.  He never said it, but I know he missed Germany, missed his home.

One Sunday on a walk he asked, “Does the wind always blow like this here?” “Yeah, pretty much,” I told him.  He said the wind didn’t blow all the time like that in Germany.  I think his biggest concern though, was that the wind messed up his Elvis pompadour. 

Harry was a huge Elvis fan, he truly loved Elvis. For his 60th birthday he fulfilled a longtime dream and drove down to Graceland with his daughters.  A couple days before the funeral Rhonda Beecher told me she thought it was no coincidence Harry left on the eve of Elvis’s Birthday; you see, he had a party to attend.  I remember one conversation in ‘64 talking about this new band called the Beatles. “They’re okay but there’s four of them singing, anybody can do that and make it sound good, but Elvis, Elvis is just one guy and he does it all by himself. And he can sing other stuff too, like ‘Peace in the Valley,’ nobody can sing like that.”  That’s sort of a metaphor for Kraut; a self sufficient guy, with a huge amount of common sense, a man with little formal education who could do just about anything he put his mind to. You have to admire that.

He was just Harry Bauer back in 1964; it was a few years later while working at Federal Huber, a foundry over in Plano, that he got the name “Kraut.”  Lee Beecher gave him the name.  Harry never found anything offensive about the name; in fact he was proud of it.  “I’m the Kraut, can’t be anything else but what I am,” he used to day.  I introduced Harry to Lee.  Those two were best friends for over forty years.  Lee stood by Kraut to the very end, that’s what true friendship is. It is appropriate that it was Lee who dubbed him “Kraut.” 

Kraut could bust chops with the best of ‘em.  Like Lee, if he didn’t bust your chops, he probably didn’t like you much. It was a sign of trust and admiration, of affection.  If you could laugh at yourself, you were okay.  Just before I delivered the eulogy at Harry’s funeral, Lee came up to me, “You alright, think you can do this?” “It’s gonna be a tough one,” I said.  “Course, if you break down and mess up real bad, you know I’ll never let ya forget it as long as you live,” Lee chuckled. I did too.  Most people liked Kraut because he was his own man, went his own way and, in that, he was real.  That was evidenced by the overflow crowd who packed the funeral home, to pay their last respects.

When it comes to German as a language, Kraut taught me all the important things they didn’t teach you in school, like the dirty words.  The first complete sentence I learned in German was, “Fraulein, kommen sie here mit der underhosen in der hand.”  Can’t believe I still remember that and can still spit it out as easily as when I sixteen.  Sometimes we’d be out somewhere and Kraut would just start speaking German and wouldn’t speak English until I figured out what he was saying and answered him.  Consequently by the time I graduated, although I was only an average student, I could speak the language fairly well, thanks to Kraut.

Me & Kraut - his 22nd birthdayOne weekend back then I remember I had a homework assignment to write a story in German for class on Monday.  I had no idea what I was going to write.  Saturday night came around and I hadn’t written anything.  I was driving then and after a date I nosed my ‘40 Ford into a parking space at Vivian’s on my way home. 

Now I have to stop here and paint a little picture of Vivian’s for you.  At the time there was one stop light in Sandwich. On the south side of Route 34 heading west from the light there was a gas station, then Vivian’s and then another gas station. Vivian’s, its real name was the Sandwich Grill, but nobody called it that, it was just Vivian’s.  It was a narrow place, two plate glass windows in the front and a door between them, and one window of equal size on each side. There was a counter, a juke box and eight or ten square wooden tables.  The tables were carved with initials; some so deep you could lose change in them.  They had been varnished so many times that in the summer when the humidity was high you had to be careful resting your forearm on the table because it would stick.

Vivian was the absent minded, white haired woman who ran the place.  She drove a faded blue 1946 Chevy sedan with a worn out snow tire on the right front.  Kraut and I used to joke that she went to stock car races on weekends and the snow tire improved her traction in the curves. At Vivian’s you never got all your food at once.  First you might get your eggs, the toast and bacon would arrive sometime later and usually not together.  Vivian’s was a greasy spoon, it was loaded with character and characters you couldn’t help but love.

When I walked in that night, Kraut was sitting at the counter so I sat down next to him, “Hey Kraut, how ya doin’?”  His eyelids were kinda droopy and he looked at me with this, ‘Who the hell are you?’ look and then glanced away.  I persisted, “Kraut, what’s going on?” He looked at me and leaned back, “Oh, hey Danny whaddaya doin’?” With that he fell off the stool.  I helped him up. “You been drinking a little tonight?”  “Just a little,” he said. 

We talked bit and I ordered a coffee and I heard a thud and looked and he had fallen off the stool again.  Again I helped him up.  “Kraut, they’re gonna throw ya outta here if ya keep falling off your stool.”  “Naw, that’s OK, I’m fine now.”  I drank my coffee, we chatted some more and a few minutes later I looked over and there he was down on the floor.  I got him back up on the stool and told him I was heading home and I offered to give him a ride. “Naw, I’m gonna stay a bit longer, have another cup of coffee, maybe. I’ll see ya tomorrow.”  “You sure?” “Yep, I’m fine now.”

I still have no idea how he got home, but he did.  The next morning I wrote a little story for my German class.  I called it, “Und er Dreimal Von Der Stuhl Gefallen,” which translates to, ‘And He Fell Off the Chair Three Times.’  I showed it to Kraut.  He liked it, laughed, thought it was pretty good and went about correcting my grammar and sentence structure. 

The teacher asked if I had help writing the story and I said, “No, why?” and he pointed out that we hadn’t had the word ‘dreimal’ yet.  I said, “Oh, well you see Mr. Coates, I looked it up in the dictionary.”  He asked if the story was fiction and I replied, “Oh yeah, it’s fiction.” I got an A, thanks to Kraut.
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