A Stranger, a Brother,A Hero Named Rudy
If I tell you we had a butler when I was growing up, does that make you think of Jeeves? Well, that would be a mistake. Rudolph was no closer to being Jeeves than I was to resembling Bertie Wooster. I was a 12-year-old minister's son living on West 81st Street in Manhattan; Rudolph was 21 and a refugee from Germany.
"He's a hero, m'boy," said Sarah O'Cain, our cook. "Paddled a canoe 'cross the English Channel running away from Hitler. You'll be minding your P's and Q's now, if you know what's good for you."
Father had offered Rudolph a position as "butler" in order to help him out. He would have the room next to mine. I'd had the whole fourth floor to myself, and I wasn't looking forward to having my territory invaded.
Rudolph was tall, thin, and blond. He spoke funny, the suit he wore was baggy, and his shoes were scuffed. "And this is Clinton," Father said. "I hope you two will become good friends."
A few days later, I was leaning against the banister, holding my breath to get rid of the hiccups, when Rudolph rushed out of his room straight at me, a maniacal look in his piercing, blue eyes. He lifted me up and was about to throw me over, I thought. Then suddenly he let me down, laughed, and said, "There. You see? No more hiccups." And he was right. They were gone.
"Susan's in love with him already," Sarah said. "That stupid girl." Susan was Sarah's 16-year-old niece, fresh from Ireland - dark-haired, moony, and easy to tease.
With his first money, Rudolph bought himself a secondhand record player - the windup kind - and one record: "Jeepers, Creepers," which he played over and over again. A week later, he took me to the movies. He loved everything American, he said - especially gangsters. "You and I," he said as we left the theater. "We ist Bruders, ja?" By the end of the third week, I was following him around like a puppy dog.
One evening, after Rudolph had been with us for almost two months, he asked Father's permission to stay out late. The next day was his day off, and he had a friend....
"Of course," Father said. "Delighted to hear you've met someone so quickly."
"Who is it?" I said. "One of those girls?"
"If I get lucky," Rudolph said and laughed.
"What does that mean?"
"Never mind," he said. "It doesn't concern little boys."
Then came Pearl Harbor, and we were in the war.
"I hope Rudolph doesn't get into trouble," Mother said to Father at breakfast one morning.
"People are going to think all sorts of things about Germans now," he said. "That's something Rudolph will have to deal with."
AND then one day Rudolph was gone. "What do you mean he is not coming back?" I said. Father was too furious to answer, and Mother walked out of the room. Finally, Sarah told me.
"It's a camp," she said. "Where they put refugees. A prison you might say. Ouch, the stupid war!"
"But he hasn't done anything wrong," I said. "Has he?"
"Don't be stupid, child." Sarah said, and she walked off and wouldn't speak about it again.
He'll escape, I thought. Of course he will. He'll come back here and laugh and tell us all about it.
The war went on, and on, and everyone was too busy with that to think about anything else. Susan left to work in a defense plant, and Sarah was in a bad mood all the time after that and would hardly talk to me.
I had the whole fourth floor to myself again, and I moved my electric trains back into Rudolph's room, but I hardly ever played with them. So I moved them out again. I didn't want Rudolph coming back to find that someone else was occupying his room. Sometimes I'd think I'd hear him; I'd wake in the middle of the night to strains of "Jeepers, Creepers." My heart would quicken, and I would be wildly excited for a minute. Then I would realize it was all in my mind, and I would roll over on my side and try to go to sleep again.
The next year I went away to school, and for a while I hated it. Too many rules. And the work was so hard. But then I made some friends and it wasn't so bad. Pretty soon, I didn't mind that I could go home only for Christmas and Easter and summer vacations. Rudolph's old room was a guest room now, and that's where my friends stayed when they came to visit.
Finally, the war was over, and Rudolph wrote that he was going to work in an automobile factory in Detroit. The camp had not been so bad. At least he'd escaped the war. He thanked Father for taking him in. "Tell Clinton," he added, "he can have my record player." I kept it for years, and every time I played "Jeepers, Creepers," I could hear Rudolph's clipped tenor singing along beside Louis Armstrong's gravely bass.