Last night I had the opportunity to meet some of the other souls in the Twin Cities who had participated in National Novel Writing Month (www.nanowrimo.org), a party billed as “TGIO” — with “o” for “over.” The organizers encouraged us to bring an excerpt to read, and being a ham, I did so. This is it, from “The Important Things in Life”:
By Paula Moyer
Do not worry … for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say. – Luke 11-12 (NIV)
Oklahoma City, 1962
On that December morning, Jim had worked for exactly four years as a bank examiner for the FDIC. He and his wife Martha had created routine, ritual, that made light of the Monday morning departure to another small town in Oklahoma, a town whose only bank had a scheduled audit. The examining team guarded their schedule, though – surprise was essential for proper audits.
The Wednesday night phone call home was part of the ritual. After a day at the bank-of-the-week and a quick dinner out with the other two guys on the examining team, Jim went back to his hotel room, put his finger in the “zero” hole, designated “0” for “Operator.” The operator would then place that expensive long-distance call, and Martha would answer with a giggle. The celebration, also part of the routine, began the following Friday evening, when his car pulled into the driveway. Good to be home, he would whisper to himself every time, when he saw the faces of his three children, peering out through the window, waiting for him like he was their hero. Martha always had a meatloaf waiting in the oven, her special recipe, wrapped in bacon.
How he longed for his days on the road to end, and how marvelous it was, this week, to have on his calendar an Oklahoma City bank. “I don’t have to be on the road!” he crowed and hugged Martha and the kids. While driving to the May Avenue Bank that Wednesday morning, he thought about how uneventful the first two days of the audit had been. The rest would be a breeze. Then a passing thought flitted through his head. He was thinking of a different chapter of his life – the 1940s, when he was a liaison pilot just barely out of his teens, flying over German artillery and radioing back the location of the enemy. It had been nearly 20 years since his last flight, and he wasn’t sorry.
Shortly after the bank opened, Jim stood in a teller’s window. He was just about to ask the teller where the key was so that he could count the money in the register. Then he heard it – a man’s voice, probably a baritone, if he sang, but not a deep one. As a trombonist, Jim always noticed the range of people’s voices.
“Ladies, and gentlemen,” the slightly melodic voice called out. “Could I have your attention? This bank is being robbed.” The man held a gun in his right hand. The handles of a grocery sack were draped over his wrist. As he walked from one teller window to another, he used his left forearm to sweep each register’s cash into the sack, while his right hand kept the gun pointed at the teller. If it wasn’t so frightening, it would look like quite the juggling act.
Then the robber strode up to the window where Jim was standing. Jim stared at the gun barrel, and then at the man. The gunman’s eyes stared back, wild eyes of fear with wide rings of white showing around the pale blue irises, barely visible around the oversized pupils. Sweat dripped out in beads from under the guy’s baseball cap and hung on the wisps of hair peeking out. Jim stood with his hands raised, shoulder level. He gave the man a completely opaque face, as if he were bluffing at cards.
“This window is a loan window,” Jim then said, careful to have no emotion in his voice. “There’s no money at this register.” The round, dilated eyes took Jim in. Then the man nodded and continued on to the remaining windows. In a front page report later that afternoon, the Oklahoma City Times stated that children played undisturbed in the lobby while the robbery continued.
Once the robber had been to all the windows, he turned around and faced the bank lobby.
“Thank you,” he said clearly.
Then he left.
In the few minutes between the robber’s departure and the arrival of the FBI, Jim asked the teller to open the register. Oh, my. He whistled. Wall-to-wall money. Hundreds, fifties, twenties. Well over $2,000.
For days afterward, Martha and the kids bugged Jim about what he had said to the robber. “Why did you say that?” Martha was totally baffled. “It makes no sense. After all, isn’t robbery one of the incidents the FDIC insures against?” Jim just couldn’t put it into words. He knew he wasn’t being altruistic, but what, indeed, was he thinking?
Then it all came together. The next weekend at the family Christmas party, the robbery was all the talk, especially since it hit so close to home. After Jim had regaled his brothers and sisters-in-law with the story, he saw that his 11-year-old niece Vicki was listening. She had fixed her light green eyes on him, and a question filled her face.
“Uncle Jim, why did you say that?” she said quietly. Jim knew Vicki well. She was six months older than his own daughter Paula. Vicki’s face was a familiar one at their dinner table. The girls were like sisters. Now he took her words in – the same words his wife and kids had asked him, but with Vicki, the spirit under the question was different. He saw that her eyes were patient – and yet hungry for the truth.
Now the words came.
“Vicki, this is how it was,” Jim began in his story-telling voice. He scratched his head, a full head of black hair, and traced his thinking. “This was the first time I had been in the teller windows at that bank. I didn’t know where the key was to unlock the drawer.”
“What difference would that make?” the girl pressed on.
“I couldn’t afford to try to open it and fail,” Jim’s reasoning became clear as he continued. “If I fumbled, he might think I was triggering an alarm. At that point, my main goal was just to keep him from shooting me.” As he told Vicki the story, Jim now understood his reasoning, the strategy that seemed to unfold under his awareness.
The question, then, was not just why, but how. How, indeed, had he come up with all of that, in a matter of seconds? How did he notice the gunman’s fear, keep his own hidden, and put together a believable lie so quickly? Even though he had put the words together that formed an explanation, it was hard to comprehend, even to himself. It was as incomprehensible as the way, years before, his guts had rumbled when he was in his two-seater in the air. The rumbling told him, even before he looked down, that the enemy was nearby.