"The Bank Robbery, the Family Council, and How I Got to College"


The radio blared the news right away: a daring daylight robbery at the Farm and Ranch Federal, one of two banks in our little town. I was nominally an eye-witness, except that I, six-months old, was asleep in my baby buggy during the exciting event. My Dad had tired of grocery shopping with my Mom and wheeled me down to the Glue Park, close enough so that he could hear two shots fired. These were from Sam Wheeler, the bank guard…dear old Sam. Folks were surprised that his revolver was loaded, that it actually worked, and that he was strong enough to lift it over his head to shoot into the air. The robber was a young man with a silly stocking over his head; he jumped into a black Packard pulled up right in front of the bank. The driver was a young blonde woman who looked a somewhat like a rabbit. The two taken together could be considered a poor-man’s version of Bonnie and Clyde. The Packard, people said, was a very bad choice for a get-away car because it was so easily identified. Tires squealing, it lurched down one block of Main Street, hit two pickups and Mrs. Lonergan’s Ford, jumped the curb and crashed into Kay’s Café, shattering the front window. The usual crew gathered for morning coffee ran out and caught the dazed woman as she thought about fleeing. Harvey Shindledecker came out of the farm supply store and heard people yelling, “Stop thief!” They pointed to a young man dashing away. Harvey, a three-sport letterman at our high school not long ago, was a little heavy but still athletic: the robber was doomed, although the chase stretched over some four blocks, an alley and, finally our little city park, a square that had been reclaimed from a glue factory that went belly up in the Depression. Back on Main Street every one was shouting, screaming, etc.—or so I’ve been told in the ensuing years because, as I said, I slept through it all, even Harvey’s spectacular shoe-string tackle of the robber in the park about six feet from my baby buggy.

I was also present at the family council three days later and even at the resolution of the entire affair at the conference room of Farm and Ranch Federal, but I rely entirely on the accounts of others. “It was like this, Florrie,” they’d begin, using my nickname, because Florabel, a name Mom found in some book, was much too formal. Mom told me, “You were just six months old but precocious in your own way, I mean, already involved in the only bank robbery in our little town for at least a decade.” Her own name, Myrna, which I much admired, came from the Hollywood movie star.

Our local newspaper THE TORNADO TIMES appeared twice a week, carrying mostly ads and fluff stories. My Dad made the front page from time to time, because THE TORNADO was a booster for all local businesses. Dad sold insurance, did a little real estate, and now and then muttered that his ship would surely come in. He was a regular for coffee at Kay’s, except on the day in question when Mom tried, fruitlessly, to get him to buy groceries with her. Another time he made the front page because his driver’s license was expired. Mr. and Mrs. Woodley wrote and produced the paper. They knew everyone and everyone knew them. No one, however, knew that weekend what happened to the hold-up money, a mystery reported in a lengthy sidebar to the main story of the robbery when the paper came out on Tuesday with enormous headlines.

The bank immediately announced an award of $10,000 for information about where the stolen money actually was. Everyone speculated where it might be and that the amount must surely be more than the reward offered. Henrietta Tarkington was the cashier who took money from all three tills while the robber waved a pistol around and yelled at her. Poor Henrietta. When people asked her how much money she gave the man, she’d say, “As much as I could grab in just a few seconds with a gun waving in my face; just you try that some time!”

The robbery was on Friday, often a good day for bank robberies because of payday, although this concept may have been beyond the ken of the robbers, who were just farm kids attempting to elope but realizing that they had no actual cash.

That evening Dad called his brother Mort for a family council on Saturday, but Mort said he had a conflict and couldn’t come then. At church on Sunday his wife Ernestine mentioned the actual reason, that he was giving his dog Ralph, an obese Irish Setter, a bath for mange and fleas with a soap that made Mort smell for a day or two. That’s why he did it on Saturday morning so that he’d be OK for work on Monday and also it gave him a good excuse to skip church. Mort kept a large garden each year. He was what you’d call a master gardener nowadays and made fun of the advice on the local radio; for example, he’d crow, “They say it’s time for your gambling row of peas, and I’ve got ‘em up four inches!” From time to time he’d comment on the weather and seasons—such as “Fiddleheads is up,” meaning that some ferns along his garage were emerging as spring wore on—because he felt that the temperate months were the only ones worth having. Once in a while he mentioned moving South, but nothing ever came of it.

Now the family council idea had come from Grampa, the Dad of my Dad, long departed but still influential. The assembled family discussed important matters before a decision was made, like buying a house, setting a wedding date, putting up a barn, a change of jobs—that sort of thing. Mom wanted her baby, namely me, to go to college because she never had the chance, but Dad, who went for only one year, felt it would be too large an expense. Mom probably felt that this topic couldn’t be the reason for the special called meeting since Dad would surely not have changed his mind. Actually she couldn’t think of any reason whatsoever and pestered him all weekend without learning anything.

Monday evening we all gathered, Mom, Dad, Mort and his wife Ernestine and me, still six-months old, plus the three elapsed days. Ernestine was a straight-shooter. She worked part-time at the slaughterhouse, in the office mostly, but she was a tough cookie and I imagine she could hold her own anywhere else, including the killing floor.

“This had better be important,” Mort grumbled as we gathered around the kitchen table. “I gave up a poker game for this meeting.”

“That would be small stakes…peanuts…even chicken feed, compared to our slated topic,” Dad said.

“No kidding?” Mort said.

“Well, let’s get right to it,” said Ernestine, taking a seat.

I was nearby, in a bassinet.

My Mom didn’t say anything, but I know she was about to split her britches with curiosity.

“I’ll get the chief exhibit,” Dad said and left the room.

He returned with my baby buggy.