Daddy Was a Bank Robber

Author's note: My father, John Vogel, was a counterfeiter, bank robber, and arsonist. But aside from all that, he wasn't a bad man. He was a charmer, artistic in temperament and given to sentimentality. He favored underdogs, always passing his counterfeit bills at Wal-Mart for political reasons.

Growing up, I spent summers and birthdays with Dad and even lived with him a few times. We once traveled to Seattle together and moved into a town house on Lake Washington. Things were moving along splendidly until a cop called to tell me Dad had been arrested for robbing four banks. We remained close during his imprisonment. He'd phone me on Sundays to talk about the unbearable noise, his latest effort to quit smoking, and the wretched food. (Once, he told me, he heated an illicitly obtained BLT on top of the light bulb in his cell; it tasted flat, however, due to the absence of Miracle Whip).

When he was turned loose in 1991, I was apprehensive, but certain of my ability to help him build a rewarding new life. I'd just started writing for City Pages and was well on my way to becoming a legitimate citizen after a rather touch-and-go adolescence. The situation headed south in a hurry, as most situations involving my father tended to do. We got into a cruel screaming match in a car, and that was that. The next I heard of him, in 1995, he had been arrested again, this time for counterfeiting nearly $20 million in $100 bills. The papers said it was the fourth largest seizure in United States history. They also revealed that my father had been released on bond and had left town without a trace. Dad led federal marshals on a six-month chase before finally surfacing with a gun at a bank in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

In the end, my father wound up dead--just as he intended, I believe. The following is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir, Flim-Flam Man, in which I describe moving from horrible Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to my dad's town house in Minneapolis when I was 16.


My father was waiting at the bus terminal when I hopped down off the Greyhound from Cedar Rapids, black garbage bag in tow. Hed paid for the ticket, just as hed mailed me $100 every month since Id left Moms, keeping me in Marlboros and hot lunches. When I'd called to explain what had happened, he'd sounded genuinely pleased that I wanted to move to Minneapolis. I remember what he said: "Of course, honey. I've always wanted you to live with me. You know that."

Still, I was apprehensive. I'd spent summers and birthdays with Dad, but this was different. I was asking for stability, reliability, a warm bed, and unexpired cartons of milk. All these years, my father had avoided the pedestrian travails of parenthood--chicken pox and boils and heartbroken daughters who flee school lunchrooms in tears. He was unaccustomed to being inconvenienced. He'd never had to weigh permissible behavior, enforce rules, say "no, you can't."

I was relieved that he wanted me and I hoped the fact of me wouldn't change his mind. But then, so what if it did. I'd simply strike out on my own again. I could take care of myself.

Since leaving Mom's, my taste for independence had grown sharper. I'd spent the last two months bouncing from one friend's basement to the next, doing exactly as I pleased while still finishing tenth grade. Pitying parents shared their dinner tables. The most accommodating couple allowed me to stay for nearly three weeks in their daughter's bedroom. One morning before school, I convinced the daughter to get soused on lime vodka. With the door closed, we curled our hair and sang along with the radio, "We're gonna rock down to Electric Avenue, and then we'll take it higher!" We even packaged shots to go in tiny Tupperware containers. I handled the drunk pretty well, but she threw up on her desk in homeroom. When her parents said I was a bad influence and had to go, I didn't argue.

Dad swung his Cadillac into a parking spot near a large tan garage, part of the Westbrook town house complex.

"I've got everything set up. I moved into this place last month. You can have the whole basement to yourself. That way you'll have some privacy. A girl your age needs privacy."

"You didn't have to go to all that trouble."

"Nothing's too good for my number-one daughter." He threw the transmission into park and switched off the engine. "By the way, I've got a surprise for you."

Dad exited the car, long legs first, and lifted the garage door. Inside, like Cleopatra rolled in the rug, was a Fiat Spider convertible with the top down.

"It was orange when I bought it, but I had it painted red for you. Convertibles should be red, don't you think?" He was running his hand along the car's back end. "Why don't you hop in?"

I was stunned. I opened the door and slid onto the driver's seat. My eyes darted from the glossy wooden dash to a panel of elegant meters, then to the racing-style steering wheel emblazoned in the center with the Fiat emblem. I'd never been so near anything so fine. I said, "Wow." It wasn't a short, bursting wow, but a long, drawn-out one. A wow with steam coming off it.

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