Kurt, Four to Ten
Kurt Reinhart often heard people accuse his grandfather, Henry Reinhart, of murder. The first time he could remember hearing the accusation was the day he turned four, which was May 16, 1947.
Thirty-five years previously, on March 3, 1912, Henry’s half brother, Conrad Reinhart, had drowned in the flooding creek that ran through their farm in Kensington township in northern Illinois.
Although the Lafayette County state’s attorney, citing a lack of evidence, refused to prosecute twenty-three-year-old Henry, almost everybody who heard the story was certain he’d murdered his brother.
Henry couldn’t deny he’d had an opportunity to commit the crime. He and Conrad were the only persons present when the drowning occurred. Henry also had a motive. Conrad’s death gave Henry undisputed title to their deceased father’s farm.
The accuser at the supper table the evening Kurt’s family celebrated his fourth birthday was Henry’s son and Kurt’s father, Johnny Reinhart.
Johnny had married Kurt’s mother, Lorelei Juergen, soon after they both turned eighteen. They exchanged their vows before a justice of the peace in his home on Christmas Eve in 1942.
Kurt, born less than five months later, was the reason for what the neighbors and other people who knew them said was a shotgun wedding. But the marriage didn’t appear to concern Henry beyond the thirty minutes he’d spent the day before the wedding at his kitchen table with four other Reinharts and three Juergens.
The round oak table was as bare as the sky that cold afternoon. No glasses, cups or saucers—and certainly no ashtrays in Henry’s house—rested upon it. The only thing the eight persons seated around it could see between them was the grain of the wood.
Henry’s father, Otto Reinhart, had built the table himself, from a fallen tree.
Johnny and his mother, Bertha, were on one side of Henry. Johnny’s older brother, Arny, and his sister-in-law, Elaine, were on the other. Lorelei and her parents sat across from them.
Slender Johnny and stocky Arny, having inherited their light-brown hair and eyes from both their wiry father and plump mother, were John and Arnold on their birth certificates, but only their schoolteachers used those names.
As soon as the three blond and blue-eyed guests were settled in their chairs, Henry asked them to state their case as briefly and to the point as possible.
“I’ve got a lot more work to do,” he said, “before this day is over.”
“He knew we didn’t need any introductions,” Bertha later told Kurt. “They’d seen us around, and we’d seen them. They were too thin, I always thought, as if they didn’t have enough to eat.”
The complaining family, who lived on an eighty-acre hog farm they rented in a neighboring township, included Lorelei’s fifteen-year-old brother, another scrawny Juergen.
“I’m here to kill you, Johnny Reinhart!” he’d yelled, jumping out of his parents’ car as soon as it had stopped in the Reinharts’ driveway that afternoon.
Henry had stood at the back porch screen door and denied him entrance to the house.
Arny and Elaine quickly locked all the other doors.
From time to time nevertheless, the Reinharts and Juergens seated at the kitchen table could hear Lorelei’s brother outside the house.
“He knocked her up!” he yelled. “He fucked her!”
He even made an offer to settle the matter without further ado.
“Just give me the gun!” he screamed. “I’ll shoot the asshole!”
“My hunting rifle,” Lorelei’s father assured the Reinharts, “is locked in the trunk of our car. My son doesn’t have a key to it.”
The three Juergens permitted to enter the house made their argument, with more than one reminder that Johnny might have to answer to the authorities in Edinburgh, the Lafayette County seat, for what he’d done—if, of course, he refused to marry Lorelei.
After their marriage, Lorelei would live with the five Reinharts seated at the table. Lorelei’s parents said they had no room in their house for Johnny and a child, even if her brother could somehow be convinced not to make good on his threat to kill Johnny.
During the remainder of Lorelei’s pregnancy and thereafter, Johnny’s family would provide for her. In particular, they would pay for her and her baby’s medical expenses.
Their hosts heard them without making an interruption.
As soon as the Juergens finished their plea, Henry turned to Johnny and asked if he agreed to the terms their guests had laid down for him and his family.
Johnny snickered. He was neither the person with an unwanted child in her body nor the ones from whose bank account the checks would be drawn to pay for it.
He answered his father with a lustful glance at Lorelei and a quick nod of his head.
Henry turned to the Juergens. “Then that’s what we’ll do.”
He rose from his chair. As did the other Reinharts.
“You’ve gotten everything you came for,” Henry said, looking down on the Juergens. “I’m done with this matter.”
The Juergens remained in their chairs. Was the wrong Henry Reinhart’s son had inflicted upon their family not worthy of a heated confrontation?
“That means,” Henry prompted his visitors, “you can leave now.”
The Juergens left. The Reinharts followed them as far as the back porch to make certain Lorelei’s brother, he also blue-eyed and blond, went with them.
All the way to their car, though, the Juergens kept glancing back at the Reinharts.
“I was expecting any moment,” Bertha said to the others in her family shivering on their back porch as the Juergens drove off, “they’d turn to salt.”
Neither Henry nor Elaine attended Johnny and Lorelei’s wedding ceremony.
Only Bertha and Arny appeared for the groom, only Lorelei’s parents for the bride.
The wife of the justice of the peace made no attempt to conceal her amusement.
She even offered to accompany herself on her piano and sing “There Will Never Be Another You.” She had the sheet music and promised she wouldn’t miss a note.
“You’ll think,” she said, “it’s a Saturday night and you’re listening to Your Hit Parade on the radio.”
That was after none of the three Reinharts present had found it necessary to respond when she’d questioned why Henry and Elaine weren’t with them. Bertha, Arny and Johnny acted as if the absence of the father and sister-in-law of the groom was none of her business.
The justice of the peace quietly informed his wife he didn’t think her singing would be needed for this particular wedding.
Elaine later enjoyed telling Kurt that story.
Kurt liked hearing her tell it, too. He came to call it “the story of the song never sung.”
After Lorelei finished her supper the first day she lived with the Reinharts, which was also her wedding day, she pulled out a cigarette and prepared to light it.
Her father-in-law reached across the table, snatched the cigarette from her lips and crushed it in his hand. Henry then took her pack of Lucky Strikes from the table in front of her and said he’d be sure to burn them the next time he made a bonfire for the garbage.
“You won’t need to waste your money on these,” he told his son’s bride. “Not while you’re living in this house.”
Lorelei complied with Henry’s order and gave up smoking.
“She knew she had no choice,” Elaine told Kurt.
Having agreed to live with the Reinharts, Lorelei depended upon them for everything. If that meant she had to have sex with Johnny at least once every day, she’d do it. If it also meant she couldn’t smoke cigarettes, she’d give them up. It got her out of what she called the “hopeless poverty” she’d suffered in her parents’ house. Her brother would have to find his own way out.
When Kurt was born on May 16, 1943, his grandfather owned two houses. Henry had lived all of his fifty-five years in one or the other of them.
The house he’d been born in, the one up on the hill, was the house his father supposedly left him, along with his 120-acre farm, in the will Conrad contested in court up to the day he died. That house had been empty since the early 1920s.
The other house, the one down by the road, was the house Kurt’s grandmother, Bertha, had grown up in. It was the house the Reinharts were living in when Kurt was born.
Kurt could remember—as far back as he could remember anything, even before he was four years old—Elaine and Arny telling him what he most needed to know about his grandfather. The only thing in the world that mattered to Henry Reinhart was his farm.
In 1943, his farm was four times larger than the 120 acres he’d inherited from his father in 1911. Henry had accumulated 360 additional acres on the same section of land in Kensington township, its soil as black as coal to an exceptional depth.
But Henry believed his farm should be the whole 640-acre section. With public roads on all four of its mile-long sides, it would be his island. He’d never again have to share a fence with another human being.
The owners of the other two farms in the section, eighty acres each, were the only remaining obstacles to Henry’s reaching his goal. But they’d publicly sworn they’d lay down their lives before they’d let “that Cain” add their farms to his.