Closed for Repairs

Jack E.Boucher/Library of Congress

From 1984 through 1986 the Statue of Liberty was closed for repairs. One of the nation’s most iconic symbols of the American Spirit needed tending.

On the evening of July 4th, 1985, Jason and Brad huddled together in the bushes as they watched the dusk sky slowly fade. In the distance they could see shapes of security guards making rounds.

“When they supposed to start?” Jason whispered to Brad, keeping a close eye on the wandering silhouettes.

“I dunno. Nine? Nine-thirty?”

“What time is it now?”

“I don’t got a watch. They’ll start when it’s dark enough.” Brad, the brains of the operation, was usually torn with his feelings for Jason — part sincere friendship and part annoyance. But that sums up just about any best friend, he guessed.

A few more minutes passed. In the distance they heard a faint whistle and pop. The fireworks were beginning. Finally.

They glanced at each other, gathered their duffle bags, and crouched in a runner’s starting position. As the sky began to flicker and glow the guards congregated on the other side of the pedestal to watch the fireworks. Jason and Brad sprinted to a steel door they had found propped open earlier in the day. They slipped inside with surprising deftness for two gangly fifteen-year-olds from Westchester.

They ducked around inside the pedestal, careful not to trip over the construction scaffolding and tools strewn about. They had brought one flashlight (Jason forgot his). With no windows, the pedestal was pitch black inside. Brad clicked on his flashlight just long enough to mentally map the next sprint, then clicked it off again as they ran forward, Jason clutching his shirt at the small of his back. A few yards at a time they made it to the top floor of the pedestal.

Salvatore stood at the top of the pedestal, enamored with the fireworks he could see exploding in the air overhead. Every year he came to this same spot, not open to the public but he always found a way. And every year he would let the fireworks take him back through his life. The small village he remembered fondly as a young boy, the apple of his grandmother’s eye. The fighting during his country’s struggle for independence, and the heartbreak at that turmoil. The dreams of coming to America, the place where anything seemed possible. Arriving here and seeing Her. The Statue of Liberty, at long last.

The alternating colors of the fireworks flickered off his weathered face. No matter how many years he’d watched the 4th of July spectacle, he always got teary-eyed. He still pinched himself that his boyhood dream of coming to America and becoming a citizen had come true. The gratefulness he felt, the pride in his accomplishment — and the accomplishments of this country he loved — welled in his eyes and spilled down his cheeks. This pride was one of the driving forces that led him to seek out an opportunity to work at the Statue of Liberty. Some may view being a janitor as a thoroughly un-special, even lowly occupation. But for Sal, he considered it the chance to become a custodian — literally — of liberty, of hopes and dreams. He was very proud of himself, and of his life.

His reverie was interrupted by echoes of unauthorized footsteps scampering about, and the rattling of canvas bags and spray paint cans. In a flash, he turned and hurried silently inside to find Jason and Brad preparing to make their marks. Just as the blue paint from Jason’s can touched the stone, Sal ruptured the silence.

“Stop!” he bellowed.

Jason and Brad froze. Their hearts stopped and the chill of panic raced up their spines.

“Why would you do this?” Sal asked, incredulous at the sight of vandals, here inside his beloved Lady Liberty.

Jason and Brad frantically searched for a way out. Because of the scaffolding erected inside for the restoration, though, all but one way of egress was blocked. And now Sal occluded that last escape.

“Mind your business, old man,” Jason said in a shaky voice, belying the threat he was hoping to muster.

“Why would you do this? Here. Of all places, why would you defile this? What has this lady ever done to you?”

“Move out of our way…sir. We don’t want to hurt you.” It was Brad who spoke this time, with considerably more confidence than Jason, who was in real danger of flooding his shoes.

“You won’t hurt me. But you will give me an answer. Why here? Why her?” Sal persisted. His tone was more a plea than anything else.

Brad was thinking of what to say, but he honestly didn’t have an answer. This had just been an idea that two bored teenagers had concocted one afternoon in his parents’ basement. They didn’t have a meaning in mind.

“Answer me. You’ve gone through trouble to be here. You’ve brought supplies to defile this beautiful lady. You have a reason.”

As the reflected colors of the fireworks flashed, alternating Sal from silhouette to an oddly side-lit threat, Brad knew he’d have to come up with some sort of answer. “No reason. It’s just a building, a statue. We’re not hurting anybody.”

“No. You’re not hurting any body. You’re marring a spirit. An idea. And that is far more damaging.”

“It’s just a prank, man. Just for fun,” Jason said.

“It matters. You are placing a blemish at the core of this, the symbol of hopes and dreams, the cause of suffering and yearning, this anchor point of the very soul of a country you don’t yet appreciate. You would do less harm if you razed a city block.”

The fireworks finale crescendoed in bright chaos. Jason and Brad saw the look in Sal’s eyes, clear as day. Neither of them could explain why it registered so, but it did. They understood what Sal was saying on a level they couldn’t articulate. And as the final white explosions fired in the sky, Sal vanished, right before their very eyes, into thin air.

Not believing, but unable to deny what they had just seen, Jason and Brad grabbed up their duffel bags and ran away as fast as they could. They tripped over scaffolding and tools and debris. Brad lit his flashlight, knowing speed trumped stealth if they were to make a successful exit.

Had the lights been on inside the pedestal, they would have seen, hanging near a nondescript office door, the picture on the wall of workers inside the statue, ca. 1903. Slightly blurred on one side, but clearly visible, an old man with a weathered face leaned against his broom, pride discernible in his eyes.

Visitors to this day can still see this picture, as well as a faint dot of blue spray paint high up in the pedestal. If they know where to look, and what they’re looking for.

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