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Laying a piece of history to rest

When the present collides with the follies of youth, the ancient past can be haunting.

July 24, 2007|Jeffrey K. Wallace | Jeffrey K. Wallace is a teacher in Orange County.

The list of youthful indiscretions I planned to keep secret from my children stopped growing years ago, but with recent news reports about pilfered antiquities, big-name museums and possible prison terms, I realize there's a piece of my history I still need to deal with.

In the summer of 1973, I was an imprudent teenager (that's no secret) enduring a family holiday in the distant lands of ancient Who-Cares-Ville. One afternoon in Athens, during a forced tour of the Acropolis, I wandered off from the group. Tourists were allowed to walk around inside the Parthenon in those days, and after I had had my fill of rubble and panoramic photo ops, I kicked back for a moment's rest against one of the massive marble pillars.

I kicked back, heel first and much too casually, and an avalanche of marble shards crumbled down across my shoe. It was an accident, I swear -- and it probably scared me; I don't remember. What I do remember is placing a piece of one of the new-fallen rocks in my palm. Small as an olive, thin as a coin, older than Caesar it sparkled like a drachma-sized souvenir.

I stuffed it in my pocket. Kept it.

Kept it secret.

History, as it turns out, can be a serious pain in the baklava. The Greek and Italian governments are working to recoup all the pieces of their countries' history they can find -- friezes and statues and crowns and, I'm sure, little chunks in sticky-fingered tourists' bedroom drawers. (The Italians have given the J. Paul Getty Museum until the end of July to work out a deal to return more than 40 artifacts Italy considers looted items.) They're working the legal and diplomatic channels from London to Los Angeles and beyond -- not only to recover ill-gotten contraband but also to prosecute for their removal. And that's the problem.

I want to send my sliver back, but how in the name of Zeus can I? Visions of satellite trucks in my yard keep me up at night. I hear voices, echoes of TV anchors: "Local teacher revealed as a smuggler of antiquities! News at 11!"

I don't know any well-connected curators who could sneak this thing back in in a box of busts. What can I do? Yes, I could stick it in an envelope and mail it to Athens, but would you put your return address on such a mailing? I could try dropping it on the doorstep of the nearest Greek Embassy, along with a little anonymous note of explanation, but I get the feeling we're in an era in which dropping envelopes on embassy doorsteps and running away is frowned on. My friends have laughed at my worries. "It's a rock," they say. "Forget about it!"

Wish I could. It is just a rock, in many ways -- grayish, lumpy, like something that might get stuck in your sandal, or maybe it would if you could still walk freely around places like the Parthenon (but you can't because idiots like me spoiled it for everyone!).

When I first heard about the Greeks and Italians pursuing items in the Getty's collection, I went upstairs and fished this "souvenir" out of the little box I've kept it in for three decades -- from house to house, state to state, youth to midlife. I've got a 13-year-old of my own now -- the same age I was when I first visited Greece. I brought it downstairs and, after all these years, showed it to him. I told him when and where it came from. His reaction? "Geez, Dad," he said. "I can't believe you took that."

All those years of telling my children to "do the right thing," I realized, had sunk in. That's the good news.

"Are you like a criminal?" he asked. "What are you going to do with it?"

That was the bad news.

I told him the truth -- I didn't know. "But I'm going to do something."

And I am. After a great deal of deliberation, I've decided what that something is. In fact, I've just finished addressing the envelope, real name and address included -- to the Parthenon Lost & Found. This piece belongs in Greece, not in the sunny suburbs in a dresser drawer. Wish me luck. I'd much rather vacation in Athens than do time there.

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