April 1, 2013
I once stole a bible. It was wrong, I shouldn’t have done it, and part of me would like to forget that it ever happened. But this day, April Fools’ Day, seems as good a time as any to tell the story of my shameful deed.
The theft took place when I was a young participant at the Marlboro Music School many years ago. Due to a housing shortage that summer, I was asked to sleep in a Marlboro College building used primarily for classrooms during the school year. In wandering through the building after hours, I soon discovered the remnants of a library in one of the rooms. I say remnants because there were relatively few books on the library’s shelves, giving it the appearance of disuse or transition to a new location. A group of ten or twelve books scattered on one shelf caught my attention. They were all old bibles, many of which dated from the 19th century. Several had inscriptions such as: To my beloved sister Emily on the occasion of her 25th birthday, from Abigail Bingham, July 6, 1859. One in particular, bound with leather covers worn to a beautiful patina by years of use, struck my fancy. It had an especially touching dedication done with stylish penmanship. I loved everything about that old bible- its weight, feel, looks, and above all the sense of personal history as it was handed down from generation to generation over a hundred year period. If only the book could talk, I thought to myself. Holding the bible in my hands, I suddenly knew that I had to have it for my very own.
Was I too poor to buy my own bible? No. Was I particularly religious? No. And did I not realize that stealing the bible was a sin? Well, yes, sort of. But, you see, the bible was so wonderfully old, a genuine antique- a little piece of history, really- and besides, nobody seemed to care about any of those bibles strewn willy-nilly across the library shelf. The school wouldn’t even know that one was missing, I rationalized.
So I took the bible home with me and placed it in one of my bookshelves. Occasionally, I leafed through its pages admiringly and once or twice I looked up biblical passages that interested me, but soon I pretty much forgot about it. Years passed, even decades. Every now and then, I would spy the bible sandwiched curiously enough between Portnoy’s Complaint, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance- Christian, Jew, and Buddhist silently rubbing shoulders on the bookshelf. I’d shake my head and wonder what had gotten into me those many years ago. It was wrong to steal a book, but this wasn’t just any book. This was the Holy Bible for God’s sake. I’d feel bad for a moment, but only for a moment, and then I’d try to brush the unpleasant feeling away. Funny thing though. Each time I encountered the bible I felt increasingly guilty about my youthful indiscretion, no matter how many months or years elapsed in-between,
After an absence of over thirty years, I returned to the Marlboro Music School as a participant in the summer of 2005. A couple of weeks earlier, I happened to come across the bible in my bookcase once again. I eyed the book nervously thinking of my arrival at Marlboro, the scene of the crime, only days away. That night I had a strange dream:
I was on my way to Marlboro College with the stolen Bible. I carried it with me in an open shopping bag. En route, I came across a flea market and stopped at a stall that sold rare old books. When I put down the shopping bag, the saleswoman spied the bible inside and accused me of stealing it from her book collection. A heated exchange followed in which I declared my innocence to no avail. In order to resolve the situation quickly, I reluctantly made the lady an offer: “I say the book is mine, you say it’s yours,” I told her. “Tell me how much the bible is worth and I’ll pay you half its value so that I can continue on my trip.” She named a price, I paid her half, and then I headed toward Marlboro College once again, hoping to finally return the stolen Bible.
I awoke with the dream fresh in my mind. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what the dream was trying to tell me. Two weeks later, I traveled to Marlboro armed with music of Mozart, Schubert, a seldom-heard Piano Quintet by Erich Korngold, and a bible. One of the first people I ran into when I arrived was Miles Cohen, in charge of scheduling. Why not tell him the bible story and seek his advice, I thought. Miles was extremely sympathetic and even offered to put the bible in proper Marlboro College hands- an offer impossible to refuse. I left Miles with a lightened heart. After almost half a century, the bible was going to be returned to its rightful place.
I had a wonderful time at Marlboro that summer playing great music with great musicians. Not once did I think about the bible. And why should I have? I had repented for my sins by returning it. In my mind the theft was cancelled, the fires of eternal damnation avoided, and my conscience clear.
Shortly after Marlboro ended that August, I received a letter on Marlboro College stationery, something that had never happened before. I opened the envelope impatiently thinking it might be some kind of appeal for money. I began to read the letter while relaxing in my hammock on a hot end-of-summer day. The letter:
Office of the President
Marlboro, VT 05344
Dear Mr. Steinhardt,
It has come to my attention that an extremely rare and valuable 1846 edition of the Holy Bible, combined Testaments, has recently been “returned” to our Rice-Aron library here at Marlboro College. This volume, which had been a part of the Dorothy and Paul Olson Rare Book Collection, has been missing from this archive for some time. Ordinarily, we would let such an impropriety pass without further comment or action. This book, however, has been appraised on our Commercial Property policy- and denoted as a material loss- on our audited financial loss statements- in the amount of $17,800. It has a unique history, indeed.
This volume was originally provided to Marlboro College, first on loan and then as a gift, from the McCormick collection of the Baldwin Theological Seminary (which today is affiliated with the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa). This particular volume has been given to the Seminary at the turn of the 20th Century by the Thomason Family of Raleigh, North Carolina. Mrs. Emma Thomason was the granddaughter of Leonidas Polk. As you may know, Leonidas Polk was the Bishop of Louisiana in the 1840’s and a Lieutenant General for the Confederacy during the Civil War. We know from extensive and detailed Polk and Thomason family diaries, and from U.S. War Department records, that this particular bible was the personal property of General Polk, and that it was on his person when he was struck by artillery and killed in the Battle of Pine Mountain, Georgia in 1864 (the last appraisal of the volume, in fact, identified blood stains in the upper left corner of the back cover, the DNA from which matched that of Mrs. Thomason, and therefore widely assumed to be from General Polk).
In light of the above, it has been necessary for me to inform our Board Archives Committee of the “finding” of this rare and, to Civil War authorities, invaluable artifact. We appreciate and were quite relieved that there has apparently been no material damage to the volume since its “disappearance.” I would point out, however, that this has been not without hardship. We have had loan requests over the years from the National Civil War Museum, North Carolina Museum of History, Duke University, and Kennesaw (GA) National Battlefield Park and Mausoleum to display this volume at various exhibits. As I’m sure you can imagine, our embarrassment at having “lost” this volume was acute. While I do not anticipate any further action on this matter, I wish to remind you, and your colleagues at the music festival, that the Rice- Aron Library is not open during the summer, especially to those who have little regard for the nation’s proud military heritage.
Ellen McCulloch Lovell
As I read the letter, my pulse started to quicken, my jaw dropped slightly, and my hands became sweaty. “Rare book collection”, “$17,800 value”, “Civil War General”, “Killed in action with the bible”. The phrases swam menacingly before my eyes. Good grief. What had I gotten myself into? This wasn’t just any old garden-variety bible that I had stolen. It was one anointed by great American history. I read on, fingers trembling slightly. But then, a good halfway through the letter came words that began to trouble me in a different way. “Blood stains in the upper left corner of the back cover”? I didn’t remember that. “It’s DNA assumed to be from General Polk”? They couldn’t analyze DNA back then. Now wait just a minute. I sat bolt upright in the hammock with a new thought. Could this be a practical joke? I showed the letter to my wife, then my daughter, my son, and finally my son-in-law. Each had exactly the same reaction. The letter was convincing enough to absolutely be the real thing but something about it smelled funny.
The truth came out easily and quickly with one call to the Marlboro School. Miles Cohen had not given the bible to the Marlboro College library as he promised. With a prankster’s zeal, he had given it instead to Philip Maneval, the School’s manager. Philip, a gifted composer who also has a way with words, gleefully wrote the fictional letter, a work of genius in my estimation. Ellen Lovell, Marlboro College’s President, was happy to go along with the joke- good sport that she is- by signing the letter on College stationery.
I don’t steal things anymore- not even little bars of soap from hotel rooms. Too many bad things can come of it, such as letters in the mail that scare the dickens out of you. Today, April Fools’ Day, is an occasion for practical jokes, but they can happen at any time of the year. They can happen even as you lie unsuspecting in your hammock enjoying a hot end-of-summer day.
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