By Donald Hubbard
“Poys, take some more hot dogs,” hollered out Mr. Kleinschaefer, “You’ll be hungry on your camp-out, you can never have enough to eat!”
“Okay, Mr. K, give us a half-dozen more.”
“And sauerkraut, take a half pound of sauerkraut.”
“I don’t think so. There might be girls showing up at our camp-out, it might kind of cramp our style.”
Mr. Kleinschaefer winked and pulled back the tin of sauerkraut. “$5.89 poys, and have a good time.”
“We will Mr. K.” And we did, we drank beer all night. The girls showed up, and we ate all of the hot dogs up.
Kleinschaefer and his wife, Ute, ran the butcher shop in Hale, Connecticut, since just before Christmas in 1930. The Yankee and Polish farmers alike loved the guy; he slaughtered their animals and gave them a good price, better than anywhere else in Central Connecticut. Though some residual prejudice trailed him because of the two world wars, only drunk teens ever broke one of his windows or spray-painted graffiti on this store front. Lacking a town policeman, invariably a group of men formed after each such incident and located the perpetrators and beat the crap out of them.
McRestaurants sprouted up after the Second World War, but Kleinschaefers remained constant; the couple knew your grades in school and who you had just broken up with. They handed out free cookies to every toddler and as you got older, they taught you a few German swear words.
Undoubtedly, by now you have guessed that Mr. Kleinschaefer was in fact Judge Crater, who disappeared in 1930, a boulevardier last seen entering a taxi cab outside of Billy Haas’ Chophouse in Manhattan. Ute was the stage girl he ran off with, Sally Lou Ritzi.
But we suspected nothing. Why, after two world wars, would someone lie about being German?
Then in August 1975, Jimmy Hoffa disappeared, and newspapers and magazines compared his disappearance to that of Judge Crater, running pictures of a very distinguished barrister, who looked like a very young Kleinschaefer. Good-naturedly, his customers began to razz him, asking him if he was Judge Crater hiding out here in Hale.
One day he became undone, screaming out, “Ute, we are undone! Yes, I am Crater! Now please leave us alone!”
He needn’t have asked, for Hale in the 1970s felt besieged, from the North and the East by Middletown and the Mafia, from the west by Meriden and Latin biker gangs and from the south where the Black Panthers had driven up from New Haven to dump the body of one of their victims. Now we feared ancient New York thugs rolling into town in their Packards and shooting everything up with Tommy Guns.
The Kleinschaefers recognized the mistake of outing themselves, setting up a booth by the ball field to hand out free hot dogs and attempt to explain their situation. Apparently, Crater did not run from wise guys in New York; he simply wanted to abscond with his bimbo girlfriend and start a new life.
That did not work, so the Kleinschaefers met with our town selectmen, at the Olde Silas Deane Inne, to straighten matters out, restore the status quo ante. After dinner, everyone threw up then staggered to the bar area to conduct business.
The Hale Chamber of Commerce wanted the Craters out; maybe the concerns of Dutch Schultz or Jimmy Cagney shooting their way around town were overblown, most of these gangsters were dead or basking down in Florida after all. But the townspeople thrived on knowing their neighbors, maybe not always loving them or even liking them, but treating every person like a puzzle piece who had a place to fit in, without whom there was no whole.
The kindly German couple were phonies: a judge who bolted from his family and his job and never bothered to inform anyone about his existence, living with an out of shape dancing girl. For their meeting at the Silas Deane, the Craters lawyered up, yanking out a lease that for their store that had five more years left on its terms. They had broken no laws nor could the town pin any type of health code violation on the place.
Ute cried, “We just want things to go back to how they used to be.”
First Selectman Bella Doggsey started to cry, so Third Selectmen “Give em Hell Harry” Bent held her hand and took over.
“Mrs. Kleinschaefer, Ute…you and your husband gave me my first job, bagging groceries, and you still see me or someone else coming by from my family at least once a week. Remember those vigilante groups that broke laws and fought for you? I was part of some of them. My friends and I and a lot of grown men in town got it as good as we gave in fights to straighten out people who vandalized your store, thinking you were German or whatever reason they had. To think we fought and got all bloody just to protect a secret, that’s a bit tough for us to take. I don’t see how we can chase you out of town, but we have no police force, and the next time someone hits your store, no one is going to fight for you.”
The Three Selectmen got up and walked out, and no one from town ever saw Judge Crater or Ute again. An appraiser came by the store, then later an auctioneer to sell the stock, and the landlord rented out the joint to a sex shop. Almost everyone remarked how closely the proprietor of the sex shop resembled Jimmy Hoffa.