(Illustration by Anthony…)
There's a story my father often told me. I imagine most boys hear stories from their fathers, but not this sort. It was about a bank heist in 1967, the burglary of half a million dollars in West Hollywood. He called it the Big Job, an elaborate crime he'd started plotting when he was first incarcerated. Prison, he liked to say, turned him into a professional. He went in a petty crook and left wanting to do the Big Job, not unlike the way I went to college to study writing and left dreaming of the great American novel.
Born in 1938, my French Canadian father quit school in the fifth grade, his teenage years a gantlet of hard labor: fishing for cod, planting and harvesting potatoes, logging on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, pouring concrete on hydroelectric dams farther north, or mining uranium. During a construction gig in Montreal, as he walked the beam of a skyscraper, he watched his best friend trip and dive to stone.
The next day he smashed his finger with a sledge to get off the job with compensation. He drank in bars, trying to pick a new future, and finally befriended a criminal. He learned safecracking, claimed he was good, that he got set up for being too ambitious, betrayed while emptying the safe in a sporting goods store. As if the next two years of prison weren't sufficient to complete a degree in crime, he added more, for armed robbery, in Calgary and then Montana, before he headed to L.A.
My father planned the Big Job for a night President Lyndon Johnson was in town, knowing the police would be busy. He rented an apartment overlooking the bank, parked a box truck in the alley next to it, and left it for a week, letting people get used to seeing it. Then my father's partner backed the truck up to the bank's barred bathroom window. Standing inside the box, my father cut the bars. Afteward, he went in, carrying a jackhammer.
His partner and his partner's girlfriend both had walkie-talkies. She followed my father inside while, from the apartment, his partner watched the street, warning her when cars passed so she could signal my father to stop blasting at the concrete vault. He opened a hole and slid himself in, then threw the money out and broke open the security deposit boxes. But when he tried to leave, he couldn't. The jackhammer had made a grain in the concrete that pointed inward, hooking on his clothes. He had to slide through naked, gouging his skin.
With his partner's girlfriend, he drove to Nevada. His partner stayed behind to make sure the surveillance apartment was clean. He used gasoline. When it hit the stove's pilot light, the place went up. His eyes were badly burned, and the police caught him, then my father a year later, when he beat up a pimp in a bar in Miami.
The first time my father told me the story I was 15. He was out of prison, back in Canada, buying illegal salmon from Native Americans and reselling them for big money. Five years earlier, my mother had run away, taking me with her, and I had just run back, fleeing my stepfather and convinced that having a bank robber for a father was like being sired by the gods.
But I was quickly disillusioned with his life. I wanted to be a writer, and he saw no point in this, or in school. He told me that if I wanted to finish 10th grade, I had to move out and get a job; so I did.
I made my own way to college; I stopped bragging about being the son of a bank robber and started envying those who'd gone to boarding and private schools, whose parents paid for their education.
And I wrote. When a Quebecois professor read one of my stories, he told me he resented my fictional depiction of the French Canadian father as a ruthless criminal. I didn't claim the truth as defense. And I didn't write about my father again, at least not directly, until after my first novel was published. Then, when I no longer needed to separate the writer from the son, I wrote a memoir. I didn't research his crimes; I just told the stories that shaped me.
Recently, a fact-checker sent me a Los Angeles Times article from 1967 about
my father's Big Job. (See the article at latimes.com/opinion.) It included a photograph: the bank manager peering through a jackhammered hole. But the vault that day held $70,000, not half a million dollars. And later reporting said two women as well as two men were arrested.
It doesn't all fit, but I don't particularly care. The Big Job was my favorite story, the gritty specifics a kind of proof of its truth, a lesson in storytelling.
My father died penniless, owing tens of thousands in back taxes. Friends have often jokingly asked if he stashed the money from the bank job and whether anything was left over for me. Now, 45 years after that crime, as I consider Father's Day, it seems that he did: not just a love for story and his stories themselves but the gift of a relentless will to find my way, to test boundaries and take risks, not in violence or crime but in books.