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|May 9, 2003||
Vol. 1, No. 25
Seeing ghosts on Devil's Island
by Arthur Jones, NCR editor at large
We don't like to admit it, but we've all a soft spot for the successful thief.
I mean, those soldiers in Iraq who helped themselves to $12 million from a pile so huge no one would miss a mere twelve. Do we wince that they did it? Or that they were caught?
It's not that it was a victimless crime -- though in a way it was. And that spoils of war thing? There's a couple of SS daggers, some Gestapo belt-buckles and insignia, and bits of similar loot circulating around in cupboard recesses of my mother's ever-so extended family.
Three of my Welsh forebears, who sailed out of Tenby, were hung for "Piracy on the High Seas." Three of their brothers were hung for sheep-stealing.
When as a young lad I remarked to my paternal grandfather that it was good we were descended from the only law-abiding member of the family, he disagreed. He contended our descent was not from the lone just man in the clan, but from the only coward among the siblings.
When the Americans were in England in the 1940s staging for the D-Day invasion there was some mild looting of English treasures going on -- under the heading of horse-trading. Food and cigarettes and coffee pilfered from stores and the PX were traded for Georgian silver, easily shipped paintings and jewelry.
I personally knew a "Cold War" period American Air Force Judge Advocate, quite high-ranking, who "collected" antique pianos from all over Europe and shipped them back to the United States, carefully boxed by military personnel as "personal effects," on MATS planes returning Stateside empty.
The stories are endless.
Did I ever loot?
Just once. And it resulted in the only time I saw ghosts. (My mother's family -- Scots-Irish Catholics -- were obsessed with ghosts, little people, unearthly doings, myriad superstitions. And I'd very sensibly rejected it all.)
I was on Devil's Island. Actually I was on Isle St. Joseph, the main prison camp island off the coast of French Guiana. The penal colony had fallen into disrepair. I went to the chapel, built by the prisoners for the staff and the their families.
The communion rail had collapsed. I stuck my trousers into my socks and dropped one of the spindles from the communion rail down my pants leg as a "souvenir."
That night on the mainland, I went to bed, and briefly to sleep. But each time I began to doze off, I saw the same long line of prisoners, emaciated and dying, walking across the stage of my mind. In happened repeatedly and there was some message in there I wasn't grasping.
Finally, about 2 .a.m. I got up and walked to the water's edge with the communion rail spindle.
I pushed it out to sea, toward Devil's Island, and returned to bed. And went to sleep. Undisturbed.
I never looted again.
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