The Counterfeiter

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Louis Dega was a notorious counterfeiter.

His name might not ring a bell until you attach another name to it: “Papillon.”

That movie, released in 1973, tells a story of two French convicts who survived 13 years in the hostile environment of Devil’s Island, the infamous prison labor camp off the coast of French Guiana in South America. “Papillon” is based on the embellished memoirs of Henri Charriere, the film’s namesake character, played by Saline County, Mo., native Steve McQueen.

It might have been the movie’s second or third run when I finally bought a ticket and saw “Papillon” at a Columbia theater while I was serving time as a Mizzou J-School student. The story portrayed the yin-yang forces of endurance and escape, but I took away something else from the film — a subtle hint from one of the characters. While Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of Louis Dega didn’t dwell on his life as a counterfeiter, I walked out of the theater with a plan to try my hand at his craft.

I am a reformed counterfeiter. And now that the statute of limitations has passed, I can tell my story.

I did it only once. And it was relatively harmless, as far as fakes go. My forgery wasn’t money. And it doesn’t hang in anyone’s living room. I didn’t plagiarize a term paper or defraud an innocent victim.

Earlier in the day, before I saw “Papillon, I had learned about an upcoming concert at the Livestock Pavilion on the southeast edge of the University of Missouri campus. The Livestock Pavilion — now called Trowbridge Livestock Pavilion, named for a Mizzou agriculture department chair who reigned for 34 years — was a new building then and a theater in the round for bull-riding, horse shows, 4-H and FFA events … and concerts.

The scheduled performance would feature two hot Southern blues/rock bands: Elvin Bishop and Wet Willie. I was a rabid fan, so I knew I wasn’t going to miss that concert.

The Livestock Pavilion is not a big place, and its soft soil floor could probably cram in 1,000 fans, or maybe 1,500, spread out on blankets. But I wouldn’t be one of them.

The university had sponsored the concert. Promoters anticipated the show would attract more fans than the intimate Jesse Auditorium could hold, but less than the cold, impersonal monstrosity called the Hearnes Center. So they printed a limited number of tickets to fit the Livestock Pavilion.

They ran out of tickets before I could get my hands on one.

I would have paid a handsome ransom to a scalper for a ticket, but I had no money. So I took another tack. A classmate had shown me a ticket, so I knew what they looked like. The design was simple: no photograph, no fancy artwork. It was simple typesetting on plain yellow card stock.

In other words, even a novice could make a reasonable facsimile of this ticket. So I set to work.

My journalism professors had imbued me with a skill that most of today’s journalists no longer practice. Even during my time as a member of J-School’s Watergate class, the art of typesetting had evolved past this archaic method. In my grandfather’s era, old typesetters kept their letters and numbers and commas and periods in an organized drawer called the California job case. And every day in that bygone era, newspapers set their pages by hand. Every letter on every page. Tedious.

Maybe it was nostalgia that kept this old page setting form on the curriculum of my aging professors. Maybe it was to teach discipline. Or respect. But I suspect it was a cynical form of student abuse — a kind of hazing. Put another way, playing Scrabble is a hell of a lot easier.

As a J-School teaching assistant, I could access the California job case in off hours, and use a primitive printing press to run off my ticket. I chose the typeface, set the type, inked up the press and ran off exactly one copy of the forged ticket. After trimming the card stock and proofing the ticket, I carefully destroyed the evidence, placing the type characters back in the drawer. Perfection.

It’s one thing to forge a document, but to place the document into play is the other half of the crime and the hard part for a kid who grew up playing by the rules, mostly.

On the evening of the concert, I planned to go through the turnstiles at the peak crowd arrival time. Safety in numbers. Of course, if an observant ticket taker noticed the forgery, she might pull me out of line. I’d be handcuffed and whisked away to some dungeon operated by University Police. It would be a very public failure, humiliating. I’d be expelled from school, banished from a journalism career, maybe even serve prison time.

It was a stupid risk, taken by a young idiot who felt a thrill at getting away with it. The whole process became a minor replay of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, without the violence, and with only one benefit: I’d save the cost of the ticket.

When I arrived at the Livestock Pavilion, long lines had formed at the entrance. I joined the queue and did my best to remain calm. I clutched the ticket in my hand, aware that sweat was forming on my palms, and began to moisten the ticket. I shifted the ticket from one hand to the other, careful not to show its forged face. The line was moving faster toward the entrance.

“Here goes,” I muttered, and took a deep breath.

The ushers were on both sides of the entrance as I approached. They were regular students, most of them, earning a small sum for their time. But to me, on this evening, they were trolls at the gate. I could see the University Police officers stationed just inside the door, keeping a sharp eye out for what probably was their major concern: pot smokers. But on this evening, I thought they were suspicious of my dark motive.

Only a dozen people ahead of me now. I steeled my resolve and walked calmly toward the ticket takers. It was only as I could see the people directly in front of me that I realized the ushers weren’t even taking tickets. They waved me through without even looking at the ticket.

The concert was free.

Somewhere in my planning, my preparation and typesetting and clandestine forgery, I had overlooked that minor detail. And since the crowd was not expected to threaten the fire marshal’s occupancy limit, I guess the promoters had decided to open the event to all comers.

The concert was a blast. Best I remember, it was the birthday of Elvin Bishop’s lead singer Mickey Thomas (Starship), and the bands played all night. I clutched my ticket through the whole concert. As the crowd filtered out of the building, I debated whether to keep the ticket as a memento to my stupidity. Instead, I destroyed it.

I never counterfeited again.

This episode could be called a youthful indiscretion. I’ve tried to justify my actions by calling it a marketing experiment, but on some level I knew I had violated at least a couple of the seven deadly sins, and unless I got busy with some serious atonement, Dante’s Hell just might hold a special place for me.

I’m thankful I didn’t go to prison. And I have a hunch that most people have a similar story buried in their past, a story that prompts an act or two of atonement.

Somewhere, Louis Dega is shaking his head, and smiling like a Cheshire cat.

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