"Take a look at those clouds!" someone behind me said. I strained hard against my chains, leaning over a guy to see out the plane's window. A wild storm was building over Oklahoma City, our final destination. Lord, please just let this plane crash was my silent prayer. The storm seemed like an opportunity for an easy exit from life. I was through with it.
Growing up in Nebraska I had seen enough poached green clouds to know the most beautiful sky is the one about to kill you. As a kid I had often heard the town's tornado siren and scampered to the top of the roof to see for myself, watching horned monsters form in the clouds until Mom shouted me down. My brothers and sisters and I would huddle with her under the splintered stairway of our basement, safe in her embrace. My mother, I think, liked the drama of those moments. Over the years I'd given her plenty of that.
Under the stairs was probably the only time she felt in control of her three headstrong boys; my two sisters were well behaved. Dad's red rusted toolbox was down there. I saw it in my mind when I thought of that basement. On one of my bank jobs I had borrowed it just to drop it a few feet to the shiny floor tiles. The bang was loud enough to draw everyone's attention. That's how the first bank robbery began, a year and a half earlier — already a lifetime ago.
In the plane, downdrafts were rattling our chains and bucking us around like a two-dollar state fair ride. I was nervous enough just to be going where I was going — federal prison.
If Marty Barnhart still wanted to pray for me, this would have been a good time, I thought. Marty was the pastor of our church, and when my downward slide had first started, my parents had asked him to come visit me in county jail, where I was staying after buying beer for my barely under-age brother. Marty came because he had been asked to, but also — I could see it in his face — because he sensed I was on the brink of something a lot worse.
Marty held my hands through the bars and prayed for me. Little did he know I had already robbed one bank and would rob four more. I liked him, but I figured I was too far gone for his medicine.
My hometown of David City is an hour and a half due west of Omaha, or forty-five minutes northwest of Lincoln, the home of the Cornhuskers football team — football being the state's second religion. The land is mostly flat. Modest hills of corn, grass, and soybeans rise just enough to spoil your view of the Empire State Building and the Golden Gate Bridge. Those hills play havoc with the crop pivots, which are quarter-mile-long steel sprinklers that look like shiny backbones left over from some science fiction war. They come alive once or twice a week, spitting water and chemicals as they roll slowly in great circles. They save work, allowing sons and daughters who once toiled with irrigation pipes the time to get into trouble.
I certainly am not blaming the sprinklers for what my best friend, Tom, and I did.
For us, David City was about fifteen hundred miles from anywhere fast enough and slammed up enough to be worthwhile, meaning L.A. or New York. The very tranquility of the town irritated us. We felt landlocked and depressed. So we lived from weekend to weekend, party to party, inventing half-assed rowdiness after the football games and speeding off to drinking parties out under the stars with girls.
That would pass for happiness for a while. Tom and I were both sports stars in high school. I had worked for that brief stardom. Back before I was old enough to start driving, I would dribble a basketball with my weak hand all the way to school each day, and all the way home each evening. At home, I practiced endlessly under the old hoop in our drive- way, even when it was dark and so cold that the ball was hard as a rock and full of bounce. The purpose of life was tracked on scoreboards in those years.
I had always been determined to have an interesting life. Not a superstar life necessarily. But, you know, at least something — not the wasted life of a wage slave shoveling cow manure — my last real job before the banks.
Now I was on my way to spending a decade or more in federal prison, which wasn't exactly like heading off to summer camp. It would be heavy weather no matter how you looked at it. And if I didn't make it, well, I had always figured I would die young anyway.
The plane banked sharply and I saw the suburban fringe of Oklahoma City close below — clean little cars on clean little streets in shopping center parking lots, and the green and brown athletic fields of perfect high schools.
Regular life can seem small and too well ordered, but seeing it, I longed for all that suddenly, to be small and well ordered and free. All those people down there were doing whatever they wanted today — or at least choosing who would tell them what to do.
The airline flying us through this storm was JPATS. Trust me when I say you don't want frequent-flyer miles on this one. The initials stand for the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System. It is operated by the U.S. Marshal's Service and it moves a few hundred thousand federal prisoners around the country each year. Inmates call it Con Air. The planes are similar to commercial jets, though a bit worn inside from years of handcuffs, belly chains, ankle shackles, and sociopaths. The seat belt sign always stays on, though mine had a little broken blink to it. The bathrooms are for the marshals. The conversations with seatmates differ from other airlines — they're mostly about robberies, drug deals gone bad, snitches, and news about who is now in which prison.
Copyright 2012 by Shon Hopwood. From Law Man: My Story of Robbing Banks, Winning Supreme Court Cases, and Finding Redemption, published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.