"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.
“You’re pregnant?” Ernestine asked Mom.
She patted her belly. “Not that I know of.”
Dad’s hands rustled in the buggy. His two hands were under my large blue blanket, blue because Dad was quite sure they’d have a boy even though Mom felt (she told me later) I would be a girl. “You have to pick your battles,” she said; “besides, it’s truly a very nice shade of blue, and I didn’t think you’d mind.”
Dad pulled out a crumpled paper bag. With a flourish he poured a green avalanche onto the table, bills of several denominations and some still neatly wrapped with a crisp band of paper. Some money tumbled off the edge of the table and onto the floor.
“Oh my God,” Mom said. She almost never swore.
“Let’s all go to Florida!” Mort exclaimed.
“Are you and that robber feller in some sort of cahoots?” Ernestine asked.
“No, we are not and were not. Never saw him before in my life. But let’s make some order of this chaos.”
“You mean count it?” Ernestine said.
“Well, among other things.”
So the four picked up the money off the floor, separated out the bundled bills and stacked the loose bills according to denomination. Mom got a piece of paper, and each person sorted, counted, and recounted before reporting an amount. She wrote down the four figures, added, and rechecked the total.
She announced, “That comes to $18,694.”
“Almost twice the reward offered,” observed Ernestine.
“Indeed,” said Dad.
“Well, let’s keep it right here,” said Mort. “To heck with the reward.”
“That’s not right,” said Mom. “I think…”
“By the way,” interrupted Ernestine, “just how did you come by this?”
“I didn’t come by this, to tell you the truth; it came by me,” Dad said. “Florrie and I were having a stroll in the park because grocery shopping gives me the vapors. So we went down Main and turned onto Hickory with Glue Park well in view. I felt better already just seeing the trees coming into leaf…you know that light green-and-yellow color? And then there are the other trees that start out a dark red.”
The other three adults nodded.
“So we were ambling around the park when a crazy man ran toward us with Harvey Shindledecker in hot pursuit. Florrie and I stopped to observe them although, in point of fact, Florrie was sound asleep. Anyway, I watched while Harold lunged for the man’s ankles, snaring the right—no, actually I think the left—foot and dragging him to the ground. Or maybe the right. It all happened so fast. A paper bag emerged at the previous speed of the man’s flight either from his hand or maybe his jacket—a tan garment loosely gathered around him, possibly purchased some time ago by the look of it from Sears or maybe perhaps J. C. Penney—the bag describing a slow arc through the air with, then, one, maybe two bounces and finishing right at my feet. I had not a single idea as to the contents, but suddenly the phrase, my ship would surely come in flashed through my mind and I grabbed the bag and shoved it under the blue blanket in the baby buggy—the blue blanket you can see right now—as quick as a wink, like the most normal thing in the world, like taking a breath—while Shindledecker and the young man, his face distorted by a woman’s stocking, thrashed on the ground like animals.”
“You mean you stole it,” said Ernestine.
“I don’t mean that at all, not in the very least. The bag clearly sought me out. It was fate.”
Uncle Mort laughed out loud.
“Arthur Willmers,” my Mom yelled at Dad, “you are not a thief or an abettor of thieves, nor do you consort or truck with them anywhere, not even in Glue Park on a Friday!”
My Dad lowered his eyes and said, “Myrna, you are, as usual, quite right.”
There was a pause while all endeavored to collect themselves.
“Well, hell's bells,” said Ernestine, “what do we do with the money?”
“There’s only one thing to do,” said Mom, “return it to the bank.”
“What about the reward?” asked Mort. “It’s not as much as this $18 thou right here on the table, but $10 thou is still a very decent amount.”
“Well,” Mom said, “You are right, definitely. That could be quite useful, so I think we should manage, that is, arrange to definitely make possible that we receive it.”
“That’s right, exactly,” Dad said.
Tuesday morning we all made it to Farm and Ranch Federal, in two cars, arriving at 10:15. It was always a hassle to get the baby buggy out of the trunk, get it unfolded, and put me in it. I don’t know where they got it, but it was dark blue and very large.
We were all glad for a sunny day with gentle breezes.
“Morning,” Uncle Mort said to us.
“Morning,” my parents said.
“First flock of robins at my place,” Mort said.
“Spring is on its way,” Mom said with a smile.
Ernestine chucked me under the chin.
“She was fussy earlier,” Mom admitted.
“They often are,” said Ernestine.
There were a few gawkers around the bank and some folks inside were talking to Sam about the robbery, his pistol, and his limp occasioned by attempting to run more than ten feet after the robber. Did any ask why he didn’t stop the robber in the first place?
“We’d like to see Sherman,” my Dad said to Mrs. Lewis, the secretary at the back of the bank.
“Well, Mr. Willmers,” she said, “so would just about everybody in town, given the events of last Friday. As you may imagine, he’s a very busy man at the moment, what with Federal Marshals, inspectors, and busybodies of every hue and stripe coming in for all sorts of reasons, some of them legitimate.” Later I admired this artful construction, possibly given several times before, that would allow the listener to place himself or herself somewhere on that spectrum.
My Dad drew himself up to his full height, which was actually about 5 feet and 7 inches and said, “It is my solid belief that Sherman would like to hear our very specific information regarding the location of the money in question.”
“Well now, that casts a different light,” she replied, “if indeed you do have such information.” She raised her eyebrows dangerously close to her hairline.
“Yes, in point of fact, I can sincerely state that both I and we do.” He gestured grandly to his entourage, including me.
“Very well,” said she. She buzzed an intercom, turned aside, and spoke surreptitiously into her phone, the free hand covering her mouth and the receiver.
She hung up and said, “You may go in, except that it’s not a very large office, so perhaps the baby—and that would oblige Myrna also—would do well to wait out here?” She gestured at my buggy and Mom.
“Nonsense,” Dad said, pushing the buggy right ahead to the door of the President’s office. A sign on the door read SHERMAN B. LUNDQUIST ** PRESIDENT. Perhaps Dad was thinking of using me as a battering ram.
Mrs. Lewis scrambled up from her desk and got to the door just ahead of Dad. She knocked then opened it.
“Come in!” we heard. Mr. Lundquist was standing up behind his desk. He was a heavy man in a gray suit with white hair and a big smile.
We trouped in and tried to arrange ourselves in the space. Four of us would have fit pretty well, but my monstrous baby buggy made it quite awkward.
“Good to see everyone this morning!” boomed Mr. Lundquist.
“We’re right glad to be here,” Mom said.
“Myrna,” he acknowledged.
“Very glad,” Ernestine said.
“Ernestine,” he nodded to her.
“Robins at my place,” said Uncle Mort.
“We have some news for you,” Dad burst out.
“So I hear,” said Mr. Lundquist, “but let’s go into the conference room where there’s a bit more room. I’ll have Mrs. Lewis pour us some coffee.”
I think Dad was about to refuse this, but Mom rushed right in with, “Oh, that’ll be lovely!” Mr. Lundquist picked up the phone and requested coffee.
We made our way out another door and into the conference room, which, in truth was not much bigger than his office, but it was better organized for folks to sit around a table and do business. Mr. Lundquist took the head of the table and my Dad took the other end. Mort and Ernestine were the far side, my Mom near the door. Dad pulled a chair away and put my buggy between him and Mom, as if I were a full participant in the meeting. If I had had the gift of speech at that moment, I would have mentioned that my diaper needed to be changed.
At that moment Mrs. Lewis opened the door, then backed up to pick up a tray, one foot stretched out to hold the door.
“Here, let me,” my Dad said, lunging up from his chair. He banged into my buggy so hard I started to cry.
“There, there,” Mom said, patting me.
I clammed up.
Mrs. Lewis served the coffee around. Mr. Lundquist drummed his fingers softly on the table. Were we wasting his time or was there actual news?
“Mrs. Lewis, this is excellent coffee,” said Mort, sniffing his cup.
“Thank you, but I’ll let you folks get down to business.”
“Well?” demanded Mr. Lundquist. “The cops searched the car, the streets, the alley, even the bank lobby—as if we stole from ourselves—and found nothing except that stupid pistol that was actually a plastic toy.”
“We know where the money is,” Dad said.
“And the exact amount,” said Ernestine.
“Really!” said Mr. Lundquist. “And just what might that number be?” He took a piece of paper from the inside pocket of his suit coat and stared at it.
“It’s $18,694,” said Mom.
Mr. Lundquist jumped in his chair. “Holy cow! You have the amount pretty much exactly spot on.”
“Yessir,” my Dad said.
“Where the hell is it?”
“In a very safe place…as good as a bank.”
“Ha ha ha,” managed Mr. Lundquist.
“Pines will be putting out pollen pretty soon,” offered Mort.
“And you’d like the reward, that is, if the bank gets the stolen money back?”
“As I recall the reward was for knowledge of exactly where the money was as opposed to the specific return of it,” Dad said archly.
“Arthur!” Mom warned.
“But let’s not quibble,” he continued. “We are prepared to give you both the knowledge and the actual cash if you are prepared to give us the reward.”
“Of course. Agreed,” said Mr. Lundquist. “And how should I make out the check?” He looked around the table.
“We don’t need none,” said Mort.
“We already talked about it.” Ernestine nodded and said, “I’ve agreed with Myrna.”
“What do you mean?” Dad said.
“Every bit should go to Florabel’s college fund, every dollar, every dime, every penny,” Ernestine said with conviction and slapped the table.
“Is that right?” Dad asked Myrna.
“It is wonderfully right, darling. We truly have enough money because you provide so very well and I manage quite well enough. Don’t you think so?”
“Well, actually, I must say that I do. The reward to Florrie sounds OK to me. And probably to Florrie herself.” He patted the edge of my buggy.
“Well, then it’s all settled,” said Mr. Lundquist. “We can even have a special account drawn up for little Florabel right here in our bank.”
“Sounds good,” Dad said.
“You know, folks,” Mr. Lundquist continued, “the accumulated interest over 18 years should be considerable.”
“Very good,” Mom said.
“There’s just one other thing,” said Ernestine.
“What’s that?” Several said. Everyone looked at her.
“What about those two poor kids? With all the money restored and no real harm done…shouldn’t there be some leniency to them?”
Mr. Lundquist let out a sigh. “They’re in the county jail. Their parents drove over as soon as they heard—all distraught, of course. I spoke with all of them. The kids are very, very sorry. Laurinda took over two pies on Sunday.”
“Pecan or pumpkin?” asked Ernestine. Mrs. Lundquist was famous for all of her pies, but summer fruits were not in yet.
“One of each,” said Mr. Lundquist, “and”….he paused….“it would be tremendous publicity for the bank if we drop charges and ask the regulators for the most leniency possible.”
“And you promise to do that if we give you the money?” Ernestine persisted.
“Cross my heart,” said Mr. Lundquist.
Mort said, “What about Mrs. Lonergan’s Ford? And the two pick-ups? And Kay’s window?”
“Can’t be sure, but I think I can pull enough strings to make that all work out for the best.”
“Suits me,” said Mort.
“Me too!” Dad jumped up from his chair, lifted me out of my buggy and set me on Mom’s lap, poopy diaper and all. With a flourish he waved the blue blanket high in the air before draping it on the back of his chair. He picked up the paper bag, placed it carefully on the table in front of him, then shot it down the table like a shuffleboard puck to the waiting hands of Mr. Lundquist.
An announcement soon explained that superb police work had found and restored all of the money, every single dollar.
The bank’s reputation flourished, and henceforth Mr. Lundquist provided Dad with various helpful business leads.
The true story of the money’s strange path, however, was not broadcast by the radio station, not printed in THE TORNADO TIMES, nor imagined by even the most speculative gossip on Main Street.
Albert Howard Carter, III, is adjunct professor, Social Medicine, School of Medicine, UNC-Chapel Hill. His latest book is Clowns and Jokers Can Heal Us: Comedy and Medicine. His prose and poems have appeared in New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, Hiram Review, Ars Medica, Blood and Thunder, The Thomas Wolfe Review, and elsewhere. His website is ahcarteriii.com.