My Dynamite Uncle

The day my uncle robbed a bank.

My uncle shows up at our home in Miami after robbing a bank. My father and some of his family members and friends were known to always be in some kind of trouble, but this wasn’t their style. They were Italians and if crime was involved, they covered their tracks.

My mother’s family, on the other hand, came straight from the mining towns of West Virginia, places like Paw Paw and Boomer Holler. But even though these hillbillies may not have had the more cosmopolitan upbringing that my father’s family enjoyed, they always lived on the up and up, or as my father would say, “kept their noses clean.”

My mother, sister and I would make yearly visits to see my Southern granny, grandpa, and our grandmother’s sisters in West Virginia. We often felt like aliens in their simple neck of the woods.

My father had fond names like “Chisel Chin” and “Needle Nose” for Granny’s sisters. He often joked that he wanted to hang a picture of her sisters in the bathroom so it could help him move his bowels. He said looking at the photo would scare the shit out of him.

While visiting granny, I would go outside to play and come back a short time later with my hands and feet so black from what I assume to be coal dust. Even long Mr. Bubble baths wouldn’t remove the deep discoloration.

My mom never seemed like she belonged in this small town. She got up and out as soon as she could. Her brother also left the small town life, but for very different places. My mom followed her dream of dancing and singing in New York. Her brother joined the military.

Years would go by before both my mother and her brother would live in the same state again. This time it was sunny Florida. Mom’s brother joined her there in the mid 1940s, and by the 1960s, they all seemed to have settled down. My dad was working for celebrities in gorgeous hotels. My uncle was in charge of a very successful car dealership that afforded a pretty good life for himself and his family. They owned a beautiful home out toward the keys; a mid-century rambler with a big dock complete with gators that would saunter onto the long and wide grassy lawn.

We would visit them whenever mom could convince my dad to make the 45 minute drive. Back then it was a major day trip. Mom would pack sandwiches and the four of us would head out to the boonies to what seemed like worlds away from Miami Beach.

My uncle ran his house like he was still in the military. It terrified my sister and me. He sported a jarhead crew cut and everything ran in military time. His shirts were starched, his shoes were shined, and his posture was that of a perfect soldier. My tall, red-headed southern-belle aunt doted over this man and their children, caring for them with childish nicknames with which they are still referred to today.

No matter how hot our Florida Sundays at our relatives were, I would lay with my dolls on the icy-cold terrazzo floors and listen to my father tell the family his glamorous stories from the week. My aunt would cook a big southern meal and we’d all hang out until it was time to head back to the beach.

And then something changed. My uncle lost his job and the lifestyle he worked so hard to achieve was slipping away.

Desperate, my straight-laced uncle strapped dynamite to his body and, unmasked, walked into a bank threatening to blow himself up and everyone inside unless they gave him all the money in their drawers.

With bags of stolen money in his hands and un-detonated dynamite on his chest, the bank teller tripped the alarm. Panicked, he dropped the bags of cash and ran.

It was late at night and we were all at home. The television was running on a soft hum and my sister and I were in our pajamas. There was a knock at our door. My uncle stood there white as a ghost. I was quickly shushed out but my sister and I stayed behind a cracked door to listen.

We overheard my uncle confiding in my father. Mom, who saw us listening, sent us to our room. We have no idea what kind of advice was given. but after he left, my father had plenty to say to my mother.

“Oh, so it’s my family and friends who get in all the trouble, huh? Peg,” he said.

And then he began to laugh. My dad, as strong and powerful as he was, had the most contagious, high-pitched laugh. His laugh was like a wild hyena. And that night, he laughed uncontrollably.

Dad found such irony in the fact that his conservative, moral, uptight brother-in-law had robbed a bank, without a mask, and didn’t even get a dime.

As for my uncle, he spent many years in prison and was eventually released early for good behavior. He would later land a job, with the help of our mother, at a very prestigious organization in Los Angeles. When you come from our family, the past is easily erased by calling in a few favors.

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