This unpublished piece recalls a true incident in 1976. Although the statute of limitations has long since run out, the author remains anonymous at his request.
After 20 years, I am ready to confess to a crime that, until this day, has remained unsolved. Surely as thefts go it wouldn't qualify as a felony. Yet the deed continues to haunt my soul.
It all began innocently enough during the summer of '76 when I accompanied a friend to the California State Fair administration building several days before the fair was scheduled to open. My red-bearded associate was seeking a permit authorizing him to hawk his wares--at the time, I believe he was selling turquoise Indian jewelry--at the fair's flea market.
Inside the building, I passed a large group of people waiting in line with my friend. Off to the side a display attracted my attention. It was a tribute to the country's bicentennial celebration. Mounted on a wooden slatted wall were the portraits of all 38 presidents up through Gerald Ford. The portraits were hand-painted in acrylic on the back sides of Chi-Net paper plates, then varnished with a smooth, protective surface. Bands of red, white blue framed the oval shaped edge.
The portraits were remarkably well crafted, at least according to my taste. As I reviewed the display, however, my interest took on a different disposition when my eyes settled on the portrait of Richard M. Nixon. The swaggering smile of our 37th president, who had resigned in shame two years earlier to avoid impeachment, incited a menacing feeling of revenge. Standing before these ceremonial presidential portraits, I experienced a strange desire for retribution--to serve this man with some form of punishment he had so neatly and cleanly avoided in his San Clemente retreat. So, while no one was looking, I took Nixon's portrait off the wall and discreetly slid it under my shirt.
As I calmly walked out the door I hardly knew what had compelled me to commit daylight thievery. I only knew I should immediately hide the object in my friend's car.
A few minutes later when he returned with his permit, I took him back inside, showing him the blank spot on the wall between Lyndon B. Johnson and Gerald Ford.
"Where's Nixon? You took f*^*^* Nixon?" he asked in disbelief. My friend, who was known among our peers for bending a few laws himself, was aghast. "That was a pretty stupid thing to do," he said as we walked back outside. "But I'm glad you did it. The guy (Nixon) doesn't deserve to be up there."
Back at my apartment I proudly displayed the paper plate portrait of Nixon on the entry wall. Friends naturally inquired about the curiosity, and I reveled in recalling the story.
Then one week after the fair had begun, the prank was disclosed. There in the Sacramento Bee was a photograph of the presidential gallery sans Nixon. The headline read, "Bring Back Richard Nixon!"
There it was!
The crowning touch to my achievement--Nixon had suffered a public humiliation at my hands. And I was properly satisfied.
A few nights later, for some unknown reason, I revealed the entire escapade to my older sister. I expected a feminine admonition from her, but instead, she related a coincidental story. The night before she had been at a party where the news photo and the missing portrait were discussed. Someone in the group said they personally knew the artist who was most distraught over the incident. "She just hopes the thief returns the plate in good condition. The collection isn't complete without it."
My sister finished her story and calmly asked that I please return the item. Convinced I must amend the misdeed, I promised to return the plate the next day.
That Sunday morning, as I walked into the Exposition lobby carrying the brown paper bag containing the decoupaged paper plate, my pulse raced more rapidly than the last time I had been there. The receptionist, a young black woman and the only person inside, was reading at her desk. I laid the bag down and said, "I have something that you've been looking for. But I can't stay for questions." As I walked out I heard her unfolding the crinkled bag. "Sir," she called. "Wait. Please, come back." But I couldn't.
A tremendous burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I had repaired the injury and in good conscience could look in the mirror again.
The following Friday evening I threw a party for some friends. Some, who had heard of the transgression, were dismayed to learn the object had been returned. The party lasted well past 2 a.m. and as the last person closed the door behind them, I began cleaning up. Holding a beer bottle in one hand and a filthy ashtray in the other, I'll never forget the urge to drop them both as I looked up and saw Nixon's face staring at me again from my entry wall. The portrait induced a Twilight Zone disorientation. "He was gone! I had returned him. But how did he get back here?" I wondered.
Then it occurred to me. Among my guests that night had been the red-headed merchant who had shared my passionate dislike for our former president. Although he disapproved of my methods, he apparently had believed in the cause more than I knew. Later, he confessed, saying: "Nixon belongs on your wall. Besides, he looks better there anyway." And stay there he has, for nearly two decades.
But now, five presidents later, I'm not so sure. In fact, I'm positive the only way to completely absolve myself of this is to offer it back to its original owner. Not the State Fair--but the tortured artist who wondered if she would ever again see her Chi-Net version of Richard Nixon. Please, for my sake, come and claim it.
All content © Rick Cabral
Originally published on
"Tales From the Lost Armada" Web Site