Mar 23, 2022, 05:55AM

Uncle Hank Was a Bank Robber

Ramone grew up with an abusive alcoholic father who disappeared for weeks at a time.

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A few months into the pandemic, my barber Ramone called. His uncle died and he needed to drive to El Paso to organize his uncle’s possessions. He asked if I’d be willing to go with him. My wife gave me permission provided we wore masks. I wasn’t working due to Covid and this would give me a few days to escape the lockdown blues.

Ramone picked me up early on a Monday. It was a 12-hour drive from Los Angeles and he wanted to do it in one shot. He’d stopped at Whole Foods the night before and filled a cooler with cold cuts, fruit and aloe vera drinks. Highway 10 was nearly empty and he set the cruise control for 90 mph. He babbled as he drove, filling me in on his family history.

Ramone grew up with an abusive alcoholic father who disappeared for weeks at a time. During these absences, his father’s brother Henry took over paternal duties. He drove Ramone to school, took him to little league games and made sure Ramone and his two sisters did their schoolwork. Henry was an enigma. He lived alone in a trailer park, had no kids, no friends and no job to speak of. Somehow he always had money. When Ramone’s father lost his job, Henry covered the rent for several months. Family rumors abounded that Henry had a secret criminal life. He’d robbed liquor stores as a boy and stole car stereos during high school. Ramone overheard his father tell his mother that Henry once robbed a bank. This was never discussed openly among family.

“Uncle Hank always gave the best Christmas presents,” Ramone said. “He gave me my first skateboard, bought me a slot car set, taught me how to ride a bike. When my neighbor got a pet garter snake, Hank bought me a boa constrictor. He told me, ‘Your snake will eat his.’”

Ramone laughed.

“One time I called Uncle Hank dad. That was the only time he got mad at me. He slapped my face and said, ‘You have a father. Don’t ever forget that.’”

“Did you ever ask him how he made his money?”

“No way. I respected him too much. He was good to my family. I didn’t want to rock the boat.”

We stopped in Phoenix for gas. I bought wraparound sunglasses to combat the desert glare and then hit Starbucks for a triple espresso. Ramone opted for energy drinks. Back on the road, I rummaged through the glove compartment. I found a bottle of prescription pills and a foot-long machete knife. I removed the knife from its sheath and touched the sharp blade.

“What’s this for?”


“From what?”

“From the Covid zombies. They’re everywhere.”

I perused the pill bottle.

“What’s Zolpidem?”

“Ambien. For sleeping.”

“Does it work?”

Ramone told me a crazy story. A few months back, he received his bank statement. He noticed two $300 withdrawals on consecutive nights at one a.m. He called his bank to tell them his card was hacked. A few days later they asked him to drive to the local branch. They showed him video security footage. “I’m watching the tape and I see myself get out of my Cherokee in my pajama bottoms, no shoes, no shirt. I walk to the ATM, take out cash, get back in the car and drive away. I don’t remember any of it. So yeah, Ambien works. Too fucking good.”

We arrived in El Paso around seven p.m. We stopped for street tacos then followed GPS through town to a sprawling trailer park. A hand-scrawled sign outside the locked gate read, “Visiting Hours 9–5 Due to Covid.”

“Hell no,” Ramone said.

We waited until a car appeared and then followed discreetly before the gate closed. It took 15 minutes to find Henry’s address. It was a large pre-fabricated metal trailer with white porch steps and ivy growing up the side. I followed Ramone to the front door. As soon as he unlocked it, we were greeted by a horrible stench that smelled like dead dog.

“Holy crap,” Ramone said. He covered his face with his t-shirt. I began coughing.

“Did he die in there,” I asked.

“Like a week ago,” Ramone said. “I thought the smell would be gone by now.”

We slept in the Cherokee and dealt with the trailer in the morning. El Paso was chilly at night and Ramone’s car heater barely worked. He decided to brave the trailer for blankets. He grabbed a flashlight, took a deep breath and disappeared inside. I was reminded of the scene in Jaws when Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) dives into the ocean at night searching for the missing owner of a damaged fishing boat. Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) paces the police boat, worried for Hooper’s safety the same way I worried for Ramone in the trailer. He finally returned with two Indian blankets and a bottle of Chablis.

“It’s a nightmare in there,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll see.”

He uncorked the bottle, took a swig and handed it to me. I wiped the bottle mouth (Covid caution) and took a belt. Ramone pulled out his cell phone and showed me photos of himself with Uncle Hank. The earliest images featured Ramone as a young boy. I watched Ramone age through the photos, looking more like his uncle each year. The last image was snapped right outside the trailer. Ramone closed the phone and took another shot of wine. We tilted our seats back and covered ourselves with blankets.

The next morning we ate breakfast burritos off a taco truck abs then drove to the local Home Depot. Ramone spent several hundred dollars on cleaning supplies and floor fans. We stopped at a gas station for coffee and patchouli incense and returned to the trailer park. Ramone tried the outdoor hose. Thankfully water was flowing. We filled buckets with bleach and water, donned respirator masks and entered the trailer. It looked like the aftermath of a flood. Clothes were strewn everywhere, flies buzzed around the dish-filled kitchen sink and the walls were covered with mysterious stains. Ramone lit incense, plugged in the fans and opened windows and doors. The place soon smelled like a dead hippie’s house.

“You owe me 10 years of free haircuts for this,” I said.


“Where do we start?”

“The furniture goes outside for the junk removal guys. Everything else goes into garbage bags. All I want to keep are photos, jewelry and some clothes.”

“I’m not going near that kitchen,” I said.

“I’ll do the kitchen, you do the living room.”

I removed my ventilator and donned a surgical mask. I hauled the couch, coffee table and chairs outside. I tackled the bookcase. Uncle Henry was an avid reader. The shelves were filled with classic detective authors like Chandler, Hammett and Spillane. The top shelf was devoted to World War II books. I heard a loud slapping sound in the kitchen as Ramone swatted flies. I tossed the books into a garbage bag and opened the living room closet. The light bulb wasn’t working so I reached inside blindly and removed a stack of towels. I tossed them into a garbage bag. I threw away bed sheets, blankets, pillows and throw rugs. I put aside a fishing rod, tackle box and set of golf clubs. I felt around in the darkness and touched something soft and pliable. I pulled it into the light. It was a semi-inflated sex doll with a blonde wig.

“Check it out, Ramone.”

“I think we just met Uncle Hank’s wife,” Ramone said laughing.

I turned the doll on its side and some sort of liquid hit my hands. I screamed.

“It’s wet.”


“I got it on me.”

I reflexively reached for a bottle of bleach and poured it over my hand.

“Don’t do that, man. You’ll burn yourself.”

I immediately felt a tingling sensation. I ran outside and doused my skin with the garden hose. Ramone retrieved several bottles of Aloe drinks from the car and poured them into a bucket.

“Soak your hand in this.”

It took about 15 minutes for the sting to go away. I plotted ways to get back to Los Angeles. Greyhound and Amtrak were non-starters. There’s no way I was going to sit with strangers during Covid. Same with air travel. I briefly considered calling my wife to come get me but this was too much to ask.

A bearded, husky man appeared. “Everything okay. I heard a little girl scream.”

“We’re good, thanks.”

“What are you doing?”

“My friend’s uncle died. We’re cleaning up the place.”

Ramone appeared in the trailer doorway. “Can I help you,” he asked.

“Sorry about your uncle. I’m Ralph. I live next door. Anything I can do to help?”

“It’s all good,” Ramone said.

The man eyed the pile of furniture on the grass. “You throwing that stuff away.”

“Yeah. Take whatever you want.”

“Mind if I check inside?”

“Actually I do,” Ramone answered.

“Why is that?”

“My uncle and I were close. This whole thing is emotional for me.”

The man gave Ramone a suspicious stare. “I live over there if you need anything.” He pointed to a nearby trailer and walked away. Ramone turned to me. “Covid zombie, dude.”

By late-afternoon, we made it to the back bedroom. We tossed the dirty bedsheets, blankets and pillows and dragged the queen size mattress to the front yard. Returning to the bedroom, Ramone noticed a pull handle on the wooden floor beneath the bed area. He tugged on the handle and a door popped up revealing a secret compartment beneath the floor.

“Holy shit,” he said.

He reached inside and removed a small, steel safe. It was heavy. The safe door was secured shut and there was a numerical combination lock.

“Any ideas?”

“Why don’t you try his birth date,” I said.

“May 14th. He was in his 70s so he must have been born around 1950.”

Ramone dialed 5–14–50. No luck. He tried other birth year combinations. None worked.

“Did he have a favorite sports team,” I asked.

“He loved the Cowboys.”

“When did the Cowboys last win the Super Bowl?”

Ramone pulled out his phone and Googled “Cowboys Super Bowl.”

“January 28, 1996, Cowboys beat the Steelers.”

He dialed 1–28–96. No luck.

I continued throwing out ideas. “Your uncle has a bunch of books on World War II. Try December 7, 1941.”

Ramone tried the combo. Still nothing.

“Maybe we can drill it open,” I asked.

“With what?”

Ramone leaned against the wall and lit a cigarette. We sat in silence, figuring out possible combinations. A few minutes later, Ramone tried again. We heard a clicking noise and the door cracked open.

“Booyah,” he yelled.

“What’d you use?”

“My birthday.”

He smiled and reached into the safe. He removed a tan canvas bag with a drawstring. He untied the string and looked inside.

“No way,” he said, eyes widening. He opened the neck of the bag and poured stacks of bills onto the floor. Colored money bands held each stack together. We eyed 20s, 50s and 100s.

“Fucking Uncle Hank,” Ramone said.

“Is that bank robber money?”

“I don’t know.”

I reached for a stack of 20s. The top bill was stamped “Series 1981.” The next two bills read “Series 1983” & “Series 1982.”

“They’re all from the 80s.”

“My favorite decade,” Ramone said. He was beaming. He grabbed a stack of 50s. “These are from the 70s,” he said.

“That’s loot, man.”

“You don’t know that.”

“It’s probably from a robbery spree.”

“Old men keep money under their beds,” Ramone said. “Nothing strange about that.”

“In a canvas bag?”

“You gotta store it in something.”

“You need to call the police, Ramone.”

“No way.”

“Those bills could be marked.”

“What does a marked bill look like?”

“I don’t know. Something to do with serial numbers or hidden ink.”

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, never call the cops.”

“If you spend that money, you could go to jail.”

Ramone’s face sunk. “I fucking hate you, man.”

He dialed 911 and was connected to the local police station. He reported the discovery and was told someone would arrive within the hour. While we waited, he counted the money. It totaled more than $12,000. He flipped me the finger then counted it again. We heard a car drive through the gravel. There was a knock at the door and a voice called out, “El Paso Police.” Ramone invited the two officers inside. He explained everything, showing them the compartment in the floor and the bag of money. The officers spoke among themselves. They seemed to have no idea how to deal with the situation. They asked to see our identification. They took cell phone pics of our driver’s licenses and Ramone’s vehicle registration. They asked how long we’d be in town.

“We’re leaving tomorrow,” Ramone said.

“That might not be possible,” the taller officer replied.

That’s when I began to panic. Ramone shot me an angry look. I realized he was right. Never call the cops. We sat on the dirty couch outside while the police called headquarters. Ralph, the nosy guy from next door, reappeared. He addressed one of the officers.

“Are they robbing the place?”

“Sir, please stay back. Everything’s under control.”

“Fucking redneck,” Ramone whispered.

The officers summoned the trailer park supervisor who confirmed a man recently died in the trailer. Ramone showed his cell phone photos. The supervisor confirmed the photos were Uncle Hank. After a few hours, the officers clarified the situation. They’d seize the money as potential evidence toward open robbery cases. If after six months there was no match, Ramone could petition the court to return the money.

“That means I have to come back here and go to court,” Ramone asked.

“Or you can hire a lawyer,” the officer said.

“Are we free to go?”

“Come down to the station to sign papers and get a receipt for the evidence. Then you’re free to go.”

Ralph stood watch the entire time. Ramone glared at him. The officers left when the junk removal truck arrived. As they tossed furniture into the truck bed, Ramone spoke with the driver in Spanish.

“What’d you ask him,” I said.

“For a good Mexican restaurant. I need some margaritas.”

That night, we drove to a busy downtown Tex-Mex restaurant. The place was packed inside, no one wearing a mask. We ate outside, sharing chicken fajitas and a pitcher of margaritas. Ramone was still pissed at me for summoning the police. In his mind, the money belonged to his family, regardless of where it came from. The next morning we tossed trash bags into the park dumpster and drove to the police station. Ramone snagged the paperwork and soon we were back on the highway. We didn’t relax until we exited Texas into New Mexico. Ramone remained angry and froze me out, refusing to talk. He blared heavy metal music, something he knew I hated. We stopped for burgers in Tucson and drove through the desert. Only when we approached Joshua Tree, did he lighten up. He began laughing. It was a snicker at first morphing into a genuine laughing fit. He pulled the car over to catch his breath.

“What,” I asked.


“What did I do?”

“You had my dead uncle’s cum on your hand.”

“Glad I could be your entertainment.”

“Then you poured bleach on yourself.”

He laughed harder.

“You could have given yourself third-degree burns.”

Tears fell down his cheeks. Soon, I was laughing as well. The tension dissipated and the remainder of the drive was relaxed. Ramone dropped me off at home around nine p.m. We fist-bumped then I ran inside to hug my wife.

Ramone hired an attorney to reclaim the money from the El Paso Police. It took more than a year, but they ruled in his favor. This meant another drive to El Paso. He called and asked if I wanted to go with him. “Hell no,” I said. He laughed. I asked what he was going to do with the money.

“We’re getting Hank a kick ass headstone.”

“What’s it going to say?”

“I’m still working on it but this is what I have so far. ‘Here lies Uncle Hank. He loved to fish and rob a bank.’”

Ramone promised to text photos once the headstone was unveiled.


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