The radio newscaster that morning claimed that an armed man had tried to rob the Farmer’s National Bank of Rockland. A pair of alert policeman had foiled the attempt and arrested the felon in the bank’s parking lot. That got my attention, as I had been raised on a dairy farm just two miles from Rockland, a little town tucked in the gentle folds of one of the narrow river valleys in western Wisconsin.
Nothing in the report sounded credible, so I called my brother, Bob, to find out what had happened. “Oh ya,” Bob said. “You want to know about the bank robbery? Well, it wasn’t.”
“You mean it didn’t happen?”
“No, I mean it wasn’t a robbery.”
“But the report said an armed man was arrested in the bank’s parking lot.”
“What parking lot? Those cheapskates never spent money on a parking lot.”
“I know, but what happened?”
“Oh, they took his gun away and hauled him off for observation.”
“Who? Who hauled who away and why?”
“Shouldn’t one of those whos be a whom?”
“No, I don’t think … oh hell. What happened at the bank?”
“I think it was one of your high school classmates.”
“Who was one of my classmates?”
“Ya only had 43 in your class. If you can’t remember’em, how do ya expect me to?”
“Bob, which of my classmates was at the bank yesterday?”
“Two or three of them, I suppose. Brenda was a classmate of yours, and she’s a teller. And then there’s Will. I think he’s a vice-president, but banks hand out titles instead of raises, so that doesn’t mean much. Or was Will in the class ahead of you?”
My parents had warned me about bad influences when I was a kid. I never believed them, but here I was, just talking about a robbery, and I was already contemplating homicide.
“Bob, what happened at the bank yesterday?”
“Well, nothing special happened. It was all a misunderstanding.”
Imagine that, I thought. A misunderstanding in Rockland – who would have believed it could happen? All I could do was prod Bob to continue.
“How so?” I asked.
“Remember your classmate Dink? I can’t remember his name, but everybody calls him Dink.”
“Ya, he was in my class. I lost track of him after graduation.”
“He got drafted, went to ‘Nam and kind’a fried his brains on drugs. Well, he showed up at the bank before opening time and started banging on the front door. They let customers in early if any show up at the bank, even if all they can do is give ‘em a cup of coffee. So, they let him in.
“Dink kept his stash of drugs in his safety deposit box, and he’d just made a big purchase, so he was in a hurry to get his drugs put away.“
“He kept his drugs in his safety deposit box?”
In Rockland, all of this made sense. Bob continued, “Once Dink was in the bank, he asked if he could get into his safety deposit box. That was embarrassing, ‘cause the vault’s time lock wasn’t working, and the staff couldn’t open the vault. They were calling an office in Iowa to get it fixed.”
“Sounds like Rockland.”
“Ya, well, they tried to put Dink off without telling him about the broken lock. They figured it would be all over town if they told him. Dink kept getting more upset and started to act like he was losing it. Alice, you remember her, don’t ya? Well, Alice finally admitted that the damned lock was broken and they couldn’t let him into his own safety deposit box.”
“Dink was getting paranoid by this time. He thought they were trying to help somebody steal his stash. He pulled a gun and demanded that they let him into his safety deposit box. And that’s when some damned fool hit the silent alarm.”
“But that’s what it’s there for, isn’t it?”
“Ya, maybe. But cripes, you’re not supposed to use it for attempted deposits, are ya?”
“So what happened?”
“The alarm went out, and Clarence, the constable got it first. Do you remember him? He had the old Nelson farm up in Burns coulee on county EE, just past the bridge you crashed into after the ball game.”
“No, I can’t place him – just go on with what happened.”
“Man, you really creamed Dad’s car, and damned near took out the bridge too. I remember Dad’s face when he saw the car. You’d told him you’d scratched the driver’s side door. Scratches hell, I …”
“Bob, we were talking about the bank.”
“Oh, ya. Clarence and his car were at the Ford garage at the end of Main Street, only a couple blocks from the bank. The car was up on the lift for an oil change. Clarence got all excited and asked ‘em to get the car down, but they weren’t done changing the oil, and they wouldn’t bring it down. They told him to wait, and reminded him he’d have to go get his gun first anyway.”
“He didn’t keep his gun in the car?”
“Oh, hell no. Not since the accident.”
“The alarm at the bank went off around midnight about three years ago. It was probably a heavy truck driving by or a cat or something. Old Dick, he’s still the bank president, went down to the bank with Clarence. They had to go through the bank and verify everything was OK. Clarence was nervous and had his gun out. They were coming up from the basement. You remember how steep the steps are in those old buildings, don’t’cha? Well, Old Dick was in the lead and a couple ‘a steps ahead of Clarence, when Clarence’s nerves got twitchy and he accidentally pulled the trigger. Scarred the bejesus out of Old Dick and blew the heel off his left shoe. After that, Clarence was only allowed to wear his gun for the Memorial Day parade, and he wasn’t allowed to put any bullets in it, ever: no bullets, no exceptions, not ever.”
“Boy, I’ll bet Dick’s wife had a fit.”
“Lucille? Mom said it was all she could talk about at bridge for about a year. Did ya know she died last year?”
“She did. I’ll be darned. I remember she was such a hypochondriac she nearly drove Doc Ike nuts every time the Reader’s Digest had something on health.”
“Ya, she went in with some of her usual complaints and died two weeks later. I always thought that was kind’a disrespectful of Doc for her to do that, like she was trying to prove she was sick.”
“Bob, could we get back to the bank?”
“But the way Lucille up an’ died, it was as though she was getting even with Doc.
“Bob, the bank?”
“Oh, ya. Clarence had to call his wife, Mildred, and have her bring his gun, belt, and bullets down to the Ford garage. She hunted around and dug the stuff out of a closet, got into the car and drove to the Ford garage. But to do that, she had to drive by the bank. They say she tried to scrunch down in the driver’s seat as she went by the bank, so the felons wouldn’t see her. She got so low she couldn’t see where she was goin’. She clipped two cars parked in front of the bank and veered into the oncoming traffic, or what would have been oncoming traffic if Rockland ever had any traffic. As it was, it was just a kid on a bike, and he got out’ta the way pretty fast. At any rate, she got the gun to Clarence, but they weren’t done changing the oil and they still wouldn’t bring his car down.
“Clarence was going nuts – he’s kind’a got a nervous disposition anyway. He tried to put on the gun belt, but he’d been eating pretty well since the last parade, and he couldn’t get it around his waist. He tried holding his breath and Mildred tried to help him cinch things in, but they couldn’t get it ‘round him. It bein’ kinda late to go on a diet, he finally just loaded the gun, shoved it under his belt, and ran up to the bank.”
“What was happening in the bank while all this was going on?”
“Well they say Old Dick was sitting in his office having coffee when he heard the commotion. Ya know, Doc made him stop smoking those cigars he loves, so now he just chews ‘em. He’s always got one in his mouth, but he says it just isn’t the same. Not being allowed to smoke ‘em has really got him in a bad mood for the last year. And since Lucille died he …”
“What did Old Dick do yesterday at the bank?”
“Oh, God. He really lit inta Dink. He chewed him out, up one side and down the other, and finally ended with, ‘My God, what would your mother say if she could see this.’ Dink knew that Old Dick had helped his mother out financially now and then after his dad died, and he really felt bad about pissing him off.
“They talked awhile and Dink agreed to put the gun away and come back later to make his deposit. He apologized for upsetting everybody and walked out the front door of the bank.”
“There were two state police squad cars just kitty-corner across the street from the bank at the old Big Mug Café. They’d stopped there for breakfast that morning, which has to make you question their sanity. You’d have to be nuts to eat at the Big Mug on an empty stomach. Connoisseurs of grease make pilgrimages to it. God, how I used to love it. Remember how we’d go for those French fries they served in a pool of oil?”
“Both of the Troopers were waiting for Dink as he came out of the bank – shotguns drawn, and probably the worst case of heart-burn either of’em ever had. They were pretty nervous, ‘cause they knew Dink and didn’t want to hurt him, but it’s in stupid situations like that that a guy like Dink ends up killing a cop.”
“So what happened?”
“Well, they told Dink to drop the gun and get his hands up. Dink was shocked. He tried to tell’em it was a misunderstanding and everything had been settled, but the officers wouldn’t listen to reason. They kept on demanding that he drop his gun and he kept on telling them he wouldn’t.”
“This stand-off was stupid even by Rockland standards, so one of the cops finally asked Dink why he wouldn’t drop his gun. He told’em he’d had to save up all year to buy the thing and he’d only had it for a week. If he dropped it on the concrete it would get all scratched up, maybe even dented. Dink didn’t get stuff first-hand much anymore, and the thought of his new gun getting dinged up was more’an he could take. The cops suggested he drop it into the bushes next to him, but Dink said he was afraid it could go off if it hit a couple branches just right.”
“That kind’a inspired Dink, ‘cause he was one of the only guys I’ve ever heard who enjoyed basic training. He’d really loved the firearms training, and apparently it stuck with him, ‘cause he launched into a lecture on firearm safety and why the cops should be more careful. “
“It was more than one of the cops could take, and he told his partner this was getting stupider by the minute. His partner objected to that.”
“He didn’t think it was stupid?”
“No. He didn’t think ‘stupider’ was a word. He argued that there’s dumb and dumber, but stupid was the maximum. You can’t get dumber than stupid, so he didn’t think ‘stupider’ could be a word. His partner just looked at him for a couple minutes, apparently trying to decide which of these imbeciles he should be covering with his shotgun. They probably would’a got into a three-way stand off if Dink hadn’t asked if he could step over to a grassy spot and drop his gun there.”
“They were just bundling Dink into the cruiser when Clarence came huffing and puffing up the street. He hadn’t run that far, hell, he hadn’t run anywhere for probably 20 years. He collapsed on the bank steps. The troopers were just happy he revived after a few minutes of heavy breathing and they didn’t have to give him mouth-to-mouth. Clarence’s got a chronic sinus condition and sometimes his breath could peel paint.”
“Say, that reminds me, you were going to refinish an old dresser weren’t you? How’s that going?”
“Oh, it’s done. What happened to Dink?
“They hauled him off for observation and haven’t decided what to charge him with. There’s been lot of talk in town about the whole affair and it just about caused a melt down in the local churches.”
“What? What in the name of heaven did this have to do with religion?”
“Nothing. It’s about people who’ve managed ta hold a grudge for 500 years. Don’t you remember what it’s like here? They’re still fighting the Reformation, and the Wisconsin and Missouri Synod Lutherans fight between themselves with such zeal that they sometimes won’t even let the Catholics in on it. You’ve never seen a sulk worse than a group of feisty Catholics who went to a school board meeting expecting to fight with the Lutherans over school bus routes, or something like that, and all they could do was watch the Lutherans fight each other. Almost put some of ‘em inta clinical depression. “
“Jeez. I’d forgotten about that.”
“The Presbyterians and Baptists are usually the referees and score keepers, depending on whose serving as ‘local news’ editor for the Rockland Herald, but they couldn’t help on this one.”
“Ya, you know – local news articles like ‘Hezechia Goodcookie entertained her sister-in-law, Thelma Broadbutt, for lunch on Friday. The extra-large portions were appreciated.’ Who gets mentioned and who gets ignored is how they keep score.”
“Oh, Lord. Is anybody sane in that town?”
“Anyhow, it started to look like it would take a month for people to figure out which side they should be on in the bank affair because nobody knew what denomination the cops were, and there’d been a mix of local Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, and Baptists in the bank. Somebody finally remembered that Old Dick was a Presbyterian. That settled it.”
“By what bizarre twist of logic would that settle anything?”
“Well, everybody agreed it must have been predestined, and that ended the matter, although both Catholics and Lutherans made it clear that this didn’t mean they were endorsing any such dogma. They just wanted to get back to their regular arguments. Some of the Baptists thought they still might be able to pin it on the school board’s decision to allow dancing after the Friday night basketball games, but none of ‘em really had their heart in it.”
The only other information I’ve been able to garner about this affair, now that it’s no longer a theological matter, is that there are two camps in Rockland; one wants to call it the ‘Attempted Armed Deposit’, while the other prefers the ‘Great Misunderstanding’. It wouldn’t be much of a squabble normally, but the town Chamber of Commerce wants to put a bronze plaque on the bank commemorating the incident because it’s the biggest thing to hit Rockland since the lumberyard burned in 1925.