In August of 1968 I was getting married.  It was going to be a simple ceremony, in a judge’s office in Joliet late one Saturday morning.  I asked Kraut to be my best man.  At the time Kraut was working construction in Chicago.  The Friday morning before the wedding Kraut was at work and went on his break.  He wandered over to a coffee shop down the street from the site.  He liked one of the waitresses there.  While he was there chatting up the waitress, there was a serious accident at the construction site, a crane fell or something and one of the workers was killed.  It was pretty bad and was going to take dental records to identify the man.  One of Kraut’s coworkers stopped into the coffee shop, told him what happened and said that the site was shutting down for the day and everybody could go home.  They were supposed to call the boss that night and check to see if they were working Monday.  What he failed to tell Kraut was that he was supposed to check in at the site before he went home, instead Kraut just went home.  Actually I think he went off somewhere with the waitress, but I can’t remember for certain. 

That night when Kraut called his boss to check-in about whether they were working on Monday, there was a long pause on the other end of the line.  “Who is this?” the boss asked with a shaky voice. It seems the boss checked the roster and since Kraut hadn’t checked-in before going home, the boss figured it was Kraut who was the victim of the accident. So he had the coroner declare Kraut legally dead that afternoon.  The boss said he would call a judge, but it couldn’t be reversed until Monday.  The next day I got married and Kraut was my best man, even though at the time, he was legally dead.

I have always loved going back to Sandwich; it’s where I was born. My roots are there.  Family and friends there have always kept me grounded.  I have lived in the east for thirty years and I don’t like it much there really.  It’s very beautiful and the people are fine people, but there’s something missing; graciousness.  In the Midwest openness, simple honest common sense is not only the norm, it’s respected, and I love that.  There is also resilience, maybe it’s a result of the wind.  Every time I return it is with the joy of seeing family and old friends.  Kraut at Friend Oil Company

Every time I’ve been back during the past thirty years I saw Kraut.  Sometimes we’d sit on an old pickup’s tailgate on a gravel road, drink a beer, watch the corn and the night and talk.

Sometimes in winter we’d sit inside the Friend Oil Company gas station keeping warm, laughing, telling stories and catching up. Other times there were cookouts or dinners with his family.  I love his family, his kids.

At one of those dinners many years ago, over dessert, his daughter Sarah gave me the best acting lesson I ever had, just watching her eat ice cream. She was two then and the simple honest discovery in her eyes has remained with me since. Ours was the sort of friendship that picked up where it left off.  There is something truthful and honest about that sort of friendship.

Kraut’s sister Ramona told me at the funeral, “My older brother Harry has always been the stabilizing force in my life.”  When she said that I realized that was exactly what he had always been to me, to his daughters and to the hundreds of good friends that filled his life.

I did a television show back in the eighties, an episode of Kate & Allie that was to be a pilot for a new show. The night it aired I noticed a small change in the end of the show and knew they were going to do the show in L.A. instead of NY and that meant they would re-cast it. Now I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a sit-com anyway, but the money would have been good and I needed the money.  Even though I was conflicted about doing it, when the show went off the air it left me a bit down in the dumps. As soon as the show ended the phone started ringing, people calling from all over with well wishes and gushing and while they were all well meaning, I felt more down with every call. 

About an hour and a half later the phone rang again.  It was Kraut.  He said he’d been trying to get through for a long time and I told him about all the calls.  He said he wanted to call to tell me how great it was to have me come into his living room that night, “It was just like any time you come for a visit. It was great just like having you here.” The joy that was in his voice moved me.  It was the nicest complement I ever received, honesty from an old friend, and I‘ve never forgotten that.

Kraut never had much as far as monetary wealth goes, he was a working guy, never used a computer, didn’t care to, but he could build anything he put his mind to, whether he knew how to do it or not.  He’d just figure it out.  His last few years he lived in a modest trailer, it was a home for him and his daughters.  It was a home filled with love and to be honest, what more does anyone really need?  His friends were true and in that he was a very wealthy man.  I always admired his ability to find happiness wherever he was.  Happiness is not a station we arrive at, it is a way of traveling.  Kraut lived that.  

Lee Beecher, Kraut, Rick McInturf, Mike Guyer & me

Friendship is truly one of the most valuable things in life, it is a blessing.  The connection between two lives, two souls touching, is what life is. Everything else is just window dressing.  When Lee Beecher called and told me how ill Kraut was, I called.  “Hey amigo,” Kraut said,  “Looks like it’s finally the end this time.” I agreed and told him I’d be coming out to see him, to say goodbye.  I hung up and had to go out for a very long walk. 

There were storms passing over Illinois that Monday evening as my plane descended over Lake Michigan.  The city’s yellow sodium vapor lamps illuminated Chicago with a warm, golden glow that reflected out onto the lake.  Low clouds over the city encased the light and made what I saw out the window pure magic. Gazing out the window, a few minutes before seven, the sky suddenly lit up with six or eight vertical lightning strikes, and wild flashes of light above and around the plane, paused a moment and did it again. It was magnificent.  I thought about Kraut at that moment.

Later, Lee called and told me Kraut had gone. When he mentioned the time I realized it was at precisely that same moment as the lightning danced outside the plane. The next day at lunch Lee told me that Kraut’s daughters had the window open all Monday afternoon in his room so he could hear the thunder and the storms.  It was unseasonably warm and thunderstorms and tornados were rolling through the area all day. He told me Kraut loved thunder storms and would sit by the window for hours, often with Sarah and Nicki and watch them.  I never knew this.  It was then I realized that what I saw out the airplane window was Kraut waving goodbye.

I will miss Kraut.  He will live on in my heart and in the hearts of all those who he so generously touched for a long time to come.  Kraut you were a good man, there’s nothing better I can say about any man. 

It is said you can always count your true friends on one hand and not use all your fingers.  If you shook hands with me today you probably wouldn’t notice it, but today I have one finger less.

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