By Gary Christenson
My friend Mabel looked up from her cash register in the liquor store as I handed her a bottle of Johnny Walker Black. She said, “Janet, I see you’re buying scotch for your father. You’re pale and look terrified. What’s wrong?”
I retrieved a credit card from my purse and told her, “I’m scared and worried. Dad asked me to visit today. He said he wanted to make a confession.”
I swiped my credit card. “He’s 92 and ready to die, and now he tells me he has something to confess. I’m scared he’ll admit to a secret life, unknown half-brothers or sisters, or worse. Mom told us long ago he was a wild-child in his youth. I’m fearful about what he’ll tell me.”
Mabel handed me the bottle of scotch in a paper bag along with my receipt. “He probably wants to say he loves you and he’s leaving you everything in his will.”
I smiled pretending agreement, but didn’t believe her. “I’m on my way to his house so I’ll find out soon.” My shoulders hurt from emotional tension as I walked to the car.
After knocking on his front door I waited. The familiar clunking sounds of a walker approached.
“Hello dad, I brought your favorite.”
“Janet, thanks for visiting. Come inside and sit. I’ll find glasses.”
Everything smelled stale or worse as I entered his home. Dad has little sense of smell and doesn’t care about clean clothes, fresh bedding or a sanitary kitchen. After wrinkling my nose I sat in an easy chair in the living room, unsealed the bottle of Johnnie Walker and placed it on the coffee table.
Dad pushed his walker into the kitchen, clinked glasses and shuffled back to the living room. The scotch would kill germs in the glasses that dad seldom washed.
He sat, and I poured. We like our scotch neat, and Johnny Walker Black is smooth and special. I savored the complex aged flavors. Dad’s sense of taste is almost as bad as his sense of smell, but he remembers good times with friends, family and Johnny Walker.
“Janet, you know I love you.” He waited a moment and said, “I have a confession, but first a surprise for you.”
He paused, and I worried. Please don’t tell me about cheating on mom or illegitimate siblings.
He pointed toward the backyard through the windows. “You see those two posts that support the patio roof? Look at those two corner fence posts. Run strings from the left corner to the right post and the same on the other side. The strings will cross at the spot where I buried the surprise. Get a shovel out of the garage and dig. I watered it yesterday, so the ground is soft.”
I sat with my mouth open. “You’re asking me to dig up something you buried in your back yard?”
He teased me. “Yup, unless you want the surprise to stay there forever.”
I walked into the garage feeling puzzled and found a shovel and string.
An hour later I had stretched strings, dug a foot deep hole and unearthed a sealed plastic tube about six inches in diameter and a foot long. I hosed the dirt off, brought it inside, and set it on the coffee table next to the bottle of scotch.
Dad smiled and said, “Now for my confession. Pour us more scotch and I’ll tell you a story.”
Dad took another large swallow and said. “Sixty years ago the Fort Knox Bullion Depository hired me as a guard. It was a dream job. They treated us well, paid good, and the employees felt valuable and important. Your mother and I married in sixty two and you arrived in sixty four. We were happy and blessed.”
He took another large sip. I waited, more upset with each passing minute.
“During the sixties Fort Knox shipped over ten thousand tons of gold to central banks around the world. Most people don’t remember, but gold backed every dollar in those days. Americans couldn’t own gold but the U.S. spent a ton of dollars in Europe and Asia. Those countries wanted gold bullion, not paper dollars.”
He sipped more scotch and leaned back in his chair while he reminisced.
“The other employees and I worried our jobs would disappear. At that rate they would empty Fort Knox in less than ten years. Then President Nixon made his famous speech, lied to everyone and stopped shipping gold from Fort Knox. We breathed a sigh of relief. Management claimed over four thousand five hundred tons of gold remained in the vaults.”
Dad sounded angry as he frowned at me and continued. “Later we became suspicious. Rumors circulated they shipped gold out at night during the seventies. Morale among the guards deteriorated, but we needed our jobs. The middle eighties came, and all hell broke loose.”
He poured scotch into his glass and added to mine. “During the eighties Brinks trucks picked up gold bars from the vaults. I helped load many of them. I remember seeing Army trucks, several eighteen wheelers and one black limousine drive away with bars. Other trucks would bring new bars into Fort Knox and we’d stack them inside the vaults. Management told us they shipped ninety percent coin-melt bars to the refineries and got ninety-nine and one-half percent bars back.”
Dad downed more scotch. He wrung his hands and fidgeted. “Morale was terrible and nobody trusted management, but most of us kept quiet. One hothead guard shot his mouth off about fake gold bars after work in a tavern. A week later both he and his wife died from food poisoning. Anyway, that’s what top management claimed.”
Dad looked sad as he added. “I worried about their two kids. Nobody mentioned fake gold bars in public again.” He sighed. “By that time I was close to retirement, and they promoted a friend and me as supervisors. Management issued us keys to the vaults. One day George and I went golfing and talked about work. Neither of us trusted the new bars were real.”
Dad looked me in the eye and said, “It sounds crazy, but George and I each smuggled one original bar out of Fort Knox. We had access and knew the systems. Morale sucked, management was lax, and they never counted or audited the gold.”
I looked at dad with my mouth hanging open and froze. He robbed Fort Knox, one of the most secure facilities in the world. Worse, he made me an accessory by confessing. I downed the rest of my scotch and poured another healthy slug into my glass while I bit the nails on my other hand. I imagined the FBI breaking down his door and carting us off to some dreadful federal prison.
“Dad, you’re scaring me. I’m hyperventilating.” I downed another shot of scotch and tried again. “This can’t be true. I don’t believe you could steal gold from Fort Knox. Tell me this is a sick joke.”
He smiled at me. “No joke! I took a four hundred ounce bar of gold. Frankly, nobody cared or checked, management only worried about their pensions, and the bankers and politicians had already stolen most of the gold. George and I grabbed one bar each before they took what little remained.”
With a shudder in my voice I said, “Now I’m terrified.”
Dad touched my hand. “Don’t be. Long ago I took the bar to a refinery. They melted it down, refined the gold, and recast untraceable ten ounce gold bars. I gave the refinery fifty ounces to ask no questions, and I used another five bars when your mother got sick. I have more.” He paused and looked straight at me. “That’s my surprise.”
His reassurance helped, but not much. I downed more scotch.
He told me, “Pry off the end of the tube. Inside is another waterproof container. Open it.” He sounded mysterious.
I took several minutes to open the tube and the container. “Holy crap! That’s a lot of gold.“
He said, “Happy next birthday.”
I counted thirty bars. “These are worth close to four hundred thousand dollars.” I froze again in shock.
Dad added in a soft voice. “Nobody knows. Take the bars home, hide them, and tell no one. Sell one at a time for cash.”
I gripped my scotch glass and could say nothing, but I smiled at my dad.
He added, “I left everything to you in my will, and didn’t mention the gold. Now run along home with your surprise. After reliving memories and drinking scotch, I need a nap.”