We all looked forward to our annual Thanksgiving celebration when we’d host a hoard of our German friends, who always seemed to look forward to it as well … and who wouldn’t?
A fully hosted bar would welcome them with a bottomless barrel of great German beer, an fully stocked cellar of the best German wines (Koblenz lies at the heart of Germany’s wine region), not to mention Champagne and a wide variety of Weinbrand, Schnaps, whiskeys, gins and vodkas!
The feast itself featured mouth-watering appetizers; plump turkeys stuffed with delectable dressings seasoned with sage and secret Hungarian spices; creamy mashed potatoes; golden brown gravy; and a sweet potato casserole topped with lightly carmelized mini-marshmellows that crunched and melted in your mouth. The fresh-out-of-the-oven pumpkin pies piled high with whipped cream looked like a stretch of the snowy Barvarian Alps!
The executive chef who orchestrated this remarkable production was none other than our inimitable Sergeant Kovacs, an impulsive fellow who in 1956 had joined fellow idealistic Hungarians in an ill-fated attempt to overthrow their Soviet overlords by force of arms.
It didn’t work. The Russian tanks overthrew them, and Kovacs had to get out of Hungary in a great big hurry … so he grabbed a sub-machine gun and like an Olympic high hurdles sprinter jumped the concertina wire at the border firing bullets in every direction.
Kovacs loved food, and food loved him. He had a way with it. His concoctions were legendary, and packed with so much great tasting cholesterol that you’d want to gobble a bubbling vat of it even if it did mean your personal expiration date would be bumped up by twenty years or more!
But then, Kovacs loved fat. He’d been weaned on it during World War II when he and his family ate lard to survive. In fact, one of the more disturbing sights in the kitchen was a Kovacs’ late night snack.
He’d spread a thick layer of pure lard on a slice of white bread and eat it, without spice or adulteration of any sort, as if it were candy! Granted, it was a little thing, and made me gag, literally! But it was kind of a snapshot too, that showed just one of war’s album of horrors.
I’d try to imagine what the world must have looked like to those kids caught in that universe of privation, fear and tragedy … when starvation and death were their playmates. The thought, provoked by that “snapshot” of Kovacs feasting on his pure lard sandwich, made me shiver with fright … and give eternal thanks for my California upbringing.
However, to be fair, I can’t remember ever eating anything that tasted better than chunks of bread dipped in Kovacs’ spiced-to-perfection turkey drippings … that is, hot, liquid fat!
Maybe there’s something to be said for lard after all?
In spite of all the fun and feasting, our Thanksgiving galas signaled the beginning of Rudy’s long, slow glide path into a profound holiday funk.
Rudy loved Christmas, so much so he celebrated two of them (due to his Orthodox faith) … but he hated being so far from home. You could see a change come over him at the Thanksgiving festivities. You could see a sadness in his eyes and in his posture. His enthusiasm dialed down from its normal high to a dismal low the closer we got to the twenty-fifth.
I did my very best to help him cope with it. I’d sing carols with him at the top of our lungs on our way home after a raucous night of drinking at The Black Bottom (I still feel for those unfortunate Germans in the path of our rude, audio extremes). I’d steal Christmas trees for our room (also on our way home from The Bottom), which he’d decorate with astonishing finesse and good taste.
I must admit it was always a little incongruous to see Rudy, a big, muscular steelworker wrapping gifts, stringing Christmas lights and the like throughout our room. But we all understood, and everybody loved the guy.
Still, Rudy’s holiday funk couldn’t be broken. For example, when he won the “fart fire” contest a few days before Christmas, on both style points and duration, his triumph proved almost meaningless to him! (The contest involved lying on your back, knees up around you ears and farting while holding a Zippo lighter a few inches away from your … well you get the picture, one that can be quite dangerous I’m told.)
There was no consoling Rudy during the week prior to Christmas Eve. The only companionable thing to do that we could think of was to help him drown his sorrows in booze … not that the copious quantities of liquor worked, but they did serve to temporarily distract him!
That’s when the cure, the inoculation for his blues, miraculously appeared! And from the unlikeliest of sources … The Black Bottom! Francine invited me, her official little brother, to share Christmas Eve with her, Dele, Danielle and the kids!
“Wow! Of course! What an honor! I’d love it! Can I bring Rudy?” I replied, both excited and inspired.
“Ja! Sure! Vy not?” she responded, after just the briefest of pauses, “that’d be great!”
Francine and Dele lived in a large apartment in a prosperous area of town. When Rudy and I arrived, we sat with Francine, Danielle and their kids in a large antechamber waiting for Dele to arrive from his TV show.
The room accommodated all of us comfortably, and featured a couple of ten foot high, beautifully carved pocket doors that opened into the parlor itself.
We drank Champagne while the kids played with the toys Father Christmas had brought them on December 6th, Saint Nicholas’ feast day when Weihnachtsmann comes bearing gifts.
I could see my pal Rudy start to perk-up a bit, but could also sense his disappointment in the scarcity of Christmas ornamentation in the room. Although a large swag hung surrounding the impressive pocket doors, not much else in the room signified Christmas.
When Dele finally arrived, the girls quickly disappeared while we visited, drank more Champagne, and watched the increasingly restless kids play. After a fair stretch of time, Francine and Danielle returned and Dele strapped on his guitar.
He started to sing O Tannenbaum in his sonorous baritone as the ladies bent to the task of sliding open the massive pocket doors, revealing one of the most stunning, spectacular, bewitching sights I’d ever beheld … a breathtaking, colossal, magnificent Christmas Tree ablaze with dozens and dozens of real candles that sparkled in the darkened room as if the entire Milky Way had somehow migrated there!
We processed into the room singing, although wobbled would more accurately described Rudy’s progress. His knees buckled at the sight of the glittering, perfectly pruned, twelve foot plus high masterwork of nature. He could barely walk!
I stood next to him in order to break his fall when his legs finally failed him, but somehow he managed to stay vertical.
Dele and the gang sang a couple of more carols (we tried our best to sing along, but ended up humming most of the time) and then he turned to me and Rudy saying, “Here’s a special song for our American friends” and broke into Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”
You couldn’t help but be touched. Dele played and sang beautifully. Tears streamed down my cheeks, and though I couldn’t stop them completely, I did my best to keep an eye on Rudy.
I’ve never seen anybody on stage or screen, in life or legend shed more tears than Rudy! I couldn’t believe such vast reservoirs could exist in anybody’s tear ducts, but they did, and he continued to produce a veritable deluge as he kept on crying and sobbing and gasping for air.
They were tears of purification really, for all of Rudy’s despondency, all of his melancholy drained with every tear he shed … and soon, voilà, the old Rudy emerged, filled with a joie de vivre that made him a so much fun and such a downright pleasure to be around!
It was spectacular! Never have I experienced such a surprising and gratifying Christmas Eve! Never have I seen such a magnificent Christmas tree! And rarely have I ever had a feast such as that which followed!
I was deeply touched, and will remember that night for as long as memory lasts.
And Rudy? Well, as he put it, it was simply the best Christmas Eve ever!
Coming next! How I Won The Cold War, Part 14 … THE DAY IT RAINED SHOVELS
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