Atonement Has No Statue of Limitations
A partially true account of moral reckoning
Picture a scene of undergraduate merrymaking some three and a half decades ago on the campus of the University of San Francisco. This is the historic Jesuit school perched on a hill near Golden Gate Park. Late one night, a group of students laughed and caroused across the expanse of the manicured quad. Perhaps they had been at a party or were travelling between parties. They were feeling the sort of freedom that eighteen-year-olds in the friendly confines of private school can feel.
As they turned a corner they ran smack into the stoic figure of Father Junipero Serra, staring down at them from an upright and authoritative pose cast in concrete. His right arm was outstretched in a beneficent gesture. Serra, a Franciscan priest, was an agent of the Spanish Inquisition in the 1700s. He became famous for building a network of missions in current day Mexico and California. For this work, he was beatified by the Vatican in the late 1980s, right around the time this story takes place. Although some will point out less reverently that his mission amounted to forcing European religion onto what they regarded as new world savages.
But anyway, back to the undergrads. The contrast between their good times and this austere historical personage must have struck the kids as humorous, ironic, and absurd all at the same time. One young lady, overcome by inspiration, approached the statue holding a can of beer. She was certain, in a way that a good alcohol buzz makes one certain, that the outstretched hand of Father Serra needed to be holding a can of beer. Lest you judge from your secure moral position, you can’t honestly say in that same circumstance you wouldn’t have undertaken the same course of action.
She was certain, in a way that a good alcohol buzz makes one certain, that the outstretched hand of Father Serra needed to be holding a can of beer.
It is likely, given the obvious temptation, many an undergrad had previously attempted such a maneuver, perhaps causing some existing structural fatigue. As our heroine was hoisted up and attempted to place the beer, Father Serra’s thumb broke off! Gasps, howls, laughter? Who can know? Maybe they attempted a ham-handed repair? Maybe they immediately fled the scene of the crime? What is known is the young lady took the thumb with her. Her testimony indicates she kept the thumb in a drawer in her dorm room for some period of time before eventually getting rid of the evidence.
Fast forward out of the dark ages of the late 1980s, past grunge rock and boy bands, past Y2K and 9/11, past the birth of the internet and cell phones...all the way into the new millennium, the year of our lord 2015 AD. That young lady had become a corporate VP in the technology sector, married for a quarter century, and the mother of three. All of this evidence indicating her long ago transgression was merely a blip on an otherwise upstanding record of citizenship.
By this time, her oldest daughter was a high school senior, touring that same USF campus. During the tour, with husband in tow, they encountered that same statue. And to her surprise the woman noticed the thumb had not been replaced in all of those 30 years. A missing digit in the tradition of the Venus de Milo. Thinking it now safe, she confessed her crime to her family. There was great laughter. Her husband, yours truly, ever a subversive and mischievous sort, was amused to no end that the ‘responsible’ straight-arrow partner in their union carried this deep, dark secret.
Some years after that disclosure on the campus tour, I made a connection that can only be put into the category of “worlds colliding.” In my mind, this connection was inspired. In my wife’s mind, it was closer to stupid and juvinile. This wouldn’t be the first time she had made that sort of determination regarding my antics.
Here was the idea: Our family had become acquainted over the years with a certain art instructor at the local girls Catholic prep school that both of our daughters had attended. This fellow, we’ll call him The Professor, is a beloved teacher and a highly respected studio artist. Every summer he leads student groups on trips to Italy to study antiquities and classical culture. Some years back, he was awarded a prestigious and coveted public art commission. A legit dude. His artistic specialty? Sculpture and stone carving. OK, now do you see where this is heading?
The Professor has a, well, professorial look. He’s a bigger guy, a bit dishevelled, wears a button down oxford shirt, with a mop of graying curly hair and round specs. He’s got a warm, likeable manner. We are acquainted with him in two ways: through the school, and also via a bohemian circle of artists and midtown folks. This latter association suggested he might be game for my “non-traditional” project.
I appealed to his good graces, suggesting that we had to remedy this long standing infraction, reminding him that defiling a sacred religious relic is no laughing matter...going as far as to mention that my wife’s very salvation might be on the line.
As it happened, I randomly bumped into the Professor some time back on a Sunday morning. He and his wife were posted up at a cafe having a quiet coffee over the New York Times. I crashed in on them and launched into the whole thumb story, after which I propositioned him to assist with an “unofficial” repair effort. They seemed humored. I appealed to his good graces, suggesting that we had to remedy this long standing infraction, reminding him that defiling a sacred religious relic is no laughing matter...going as far as to mention that my wife’s very salvation might be on the line. Whether he was amused, entertained, totally bored or had pity on my hairbrained notion, he actually agreed to lend his talents to the cause.
I need to state for the record, my wife disavowed any involvement in this caper. She is wise that way.
After my pitch at the cafe, the Professor and I exchanged a series of emails over a few months. I acted as project manager, coordinating a co-conspirator on campus who sent over photos, video and measurements, per the Professor’s detailed instructions. The thumb on the other hand was a key template.
We discussed the difficulties of an In-field repair, as compared with the controlled studio environment. There were technical details: the materials, epoxy, and whether or not to use a dowel element. The professor nixed that due to the risk that drilling into the stub might further damage the statue. On the subject of color matching, he explained that a vintage patina could be achieved by applying various substances. He provided an interesting historical tidbit: Michelangelo and other sculptors of his era would undertake a similar patina creation (using yogurt among other things) to create fake antiquities that would fetch higher prices than their "new" works. In that respect not much has changed in 500 years.
There was the matter how to execute the repair. Under cover of night would be sketchy. We ended up opting for an “in plain sight” tactic where we would simulate a maintenance crew during the daytime. I thought this plan had a certain elegance to it.
When I visited the studio I was impressed that this digit had such a lifelike aspect, the nail and joint contours. He had taken to the cause with enthusiasm that nearly matched mine. Perhaps this scheme offered something his classes of partially engaged teens didn’t.
When the day of the job arrived, every zany caper movie I had ever watched merged in my consciousness. I figured we were somewhere between the elegance of Ocean's 11 and the jumpsuit-clad lovable losers in Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket (probably closer to the latter). Obviously, I had watched too many movies in my formative years. We loaded up our gear and made the two-hour drive to the City by the Bay.
We parked and hiked up to campus in bright orange safety vests, schlepping a folding ladder, cones and a large tool box. I kept telling myself it’s all about confidence. Walk tall! I flashed back to my friend Marty who had a comic bit about how carrying a clipboard while pointing confidently and issuing orders would allow one to instantly gain legitimacy in any situation. I had clipboard in hand.
We ringed a perimeter with cones and caution tape. The Professor climbed the ladder and started on the surgery. We were really fucking doing this! I looked busy and official in my wrap around shades, faking a walkie talkie conversation here and there, and periodically digging around in the toolbox. All seemed to be going well. He prepped the stub with a sander and did several dry fits, shaving and filing. Although it wasn’t a hot day, we were both sweating.
There was occasional interest from passersby, which I handled with the sort of disinterested brush off of a guy who’s on the clock. We were nearly done when a guy approached who looked like he was from campus facilities. He questioned us, perplexed that he hadn’t been informed of this work. Thinking fast, I said we were sent by the diocese, then piled onto the story, adding that this guy is a specialist all the way from Italy. I called up to him, “Massimo, say hello.” An agonizing moment passed. He turned in an annoyed way and rattled off a string of Italian phrases. He may have thrown in a hand gesture for good measure. There’s a fine line between convincing acting and total bullshit, but this bit of theatre seemed to pacify our interlocker, who mumbled something and was on his way.
There’s a fine line between convincing acting and total bullshit, but this bit of theatre seemed to pacify our interlocker, who mumbled something and was on his way.
I suspected he would follow up and that we might not have much time. Through my fake smile I pestered the Professor to hurry up—in that moment we seemed like B-movie caricatures. Just as he was descending the ladder, I saw down the long walkway an official group headed our way. We ripped the caution tape, the Professor stowed his tools in the case and folded the ladder. We run-walked the other direction and around the corner and into a full run, ditching the ladder and tool box behind some thick shrubs. We ducked into a class building and found the restroom, where we trashed our vests. An hour later we retrieved the ladder and tools and made our escape.
For weeks I kept waiting to get snared by security cameras and facial recognition software, haunted by visions of an interrogation. Again, too many dystopian movies. Despite my active imagination, a fleet of squad cars didn’t materialize in front of our home.
On a subsequent trip back to SF I did a swing through campus, confirming that Father Serra has never looked better, lording over the quad with his handsome prosthetic repair in place.
When I see the professor around town, we exchange conspiratorial smiles. My wife begrudgingly concedes the success of the operation...and I don’t miss a chance to remind her that by the good graces of my intervention, she’s now “off the hook.” And I continue to speculate as to whether my role in this project might count favorably when I finally reach Judgement Day.