“We don’t give a damn how they do it in Minneapolis-St. Paul!”: The Right Reverend Nicolas Macciaborgia
The Right Reverend Nicolas Macciaborgia
The Right Reverend Nicholas Macciaborgia — “Mac” to his friends — was a pervert and a master at whipping the devil around the stump. But he wasn’t a deviate in the sense that he searched vacant alleys for little boys walking home from school alone or lusted after his neighbors’ daughters on deserted playgrounds. His was an artesian urge rising from the black hole that was his soul. His corruption was the bondage of minds, the shackling of the human spirit to his chariot. He was a man of God who would willingly have parted the Red Sea to allow his flock to escape from the grip of the pharaoh’s army only if it were to allow them to fall into his own clutches.
He had been sparked alive by the lightning of the Lord and received the call to the
Ministry in the most dramatic of circumstances. Shin-deep in North Korean freezing mud, he was found by the Red Chinese beneath the bodies of six NATO men and three of their number. This, however, spoke more to the corporal’s instinct to survive than any bravery on his part. After he had emptied his clip, firing indiscriminately into the chilling mist near the Yalu, he had slid to the bottom of his foxhole. When it became apparent that the Chinese were going to overrun his position, he dragged three bleeding Chinese bodies over his own and the six other dead Americans in the foxhole. It was an act of survival rather than one of intelligence and, when he was pulled out from beneath his shroud of the dead, the enemy gave him undue reverence for bravery. But in the end, in their eyes, he was just another America POW, a white man in a yellow man’s land.
When his eyes snapped open to the reality of prison camp mud huts and dysentery, he came to the stark realization that an American uniform was only as good as its weave of wool. Winter made all men equal: yellow and white, captain and private, prisoner and guard. He also learned that a prison was more than a barbed wire enclosure; it was an enclave exempt of humanity.
Here there was no god; only man and man as the beast he could be. There was no softness, only frozen mud. There was no sweet spring and gentle summer, only flies in clouds and mosquitoes in swarms. Life was food scraps and blankets, cigarette butts and boiled water. It was a hell unlike any biblical prophecy. There were no Christian soldiers here, only the ragtag remnants of a once-proud army festering in a living death.
Then the men began to devour each other. Worse, they began to devour themselves. The Chinese paid for the key to their psyche. Secrets of the soul went for a bowl of rice. It was a barter with the devil, in this case the Red Chinese. But for that bowl of rice, Americans chewed upon themselves taking small bites, a sliver of the truth here and a distortion of reality there. It was the price of survival, an inching away from the envelope of home and hearth and honor and deed. Then, as in the way of all things, when you cut a deal with the devil you necessarily remake yourself in his image.
At first there was no downside to this nefarious bargain. Informing on yourself was never so profitable — one lie for one bowl of rice. But lying is always harder than telling the truth. Lies have no anchors, no strings to reality. They move like beautiful kits in the azure sky, rising and flowing with the nature of the wind. But the winds are captive of the weather which, in turn, is capricious at best and just as every dog must have its day, so must every kite its tree. The Red Chinese listened to the kites and when the lies became snarled in the twisted limbs of logic, they pounced. Then the deal with the devil was for more than a bowl of rice; it was for a pound of soul.
Here it was that the corporal Macciaborgia found God. It wasn’t the Lord that he discovered. It was another deity, the god of survival, where rice meant more than rapture and soup more than scripture. Layer by layer he peeled himself raw until there nothing left inside but a black hole where his soul had once been. He told all, until there was nothing left to tell. Then he told on his bunk mate. Then, in turn, his hut mates. No one was above his contempt or below his stoop for the rice and cigarettes.
He was the true American for, in his mind, all men were created equally subject to the whims and wiles of his informing. He made no allowances for any man’s race, religion, or previous condition of servitude. He had no friends; he had no need of them. He was the piranha of the barbed wire world, lurking and striking at his own pleasure, devouring his fellow prisoners one mouthful at a time.
With the repatriation of all prisoners came the sad realization that there was to be no end to the bile of contempt his former fellow prisoners heaped into his record. There was a court-martial, but it was far from the definitive hearing that one would have normally expected. The Korean War was a festering wound on the psyche of the American nation and the faster it was put behind the headlines, the better the wounds of the nation would heal. Additionally, with the refusal of 2l Americans to be repatriated to NATO lines, there was the growing fear in the American public that the Red Chinese had somehow discovered a way to alter the basic instincts of the American fighting machine. Hundreds of red-blooded, corn-fed icons of high school and college football teams had collaborated with the enemy and Macciaborgia’s case, one among seven score, was mute proof that some psychological damage had been inflicted. Brainwashing, it was called, and the very word sent a chill up the collective spine of the Pentagon heavyweights.
The political realities of post Korean War America, combined with the fact that the corporal had found GOD in the all caps, led a Board of Inquiry to the obvious conclusion that the resolution to this problem should take the quickest and quietist route at their disposal. Looking for the most convenient carpet under which to sweep the case, a third-tier aide noted in passing to one of his superior’s superior that the corporal’s case was somewhat unusual inthat his four years with the military had actually run out while he was in the prison camp. Technically he had not been in the military when some of the dastardly deeds of misconduct of which he was accused had occurred. Further, since no one had an accurate log of time and events, there was no definitive way to ascertain if, indeed, any of the acts in question had been actually been committed while the corporal was under the UCMJ. Thus, it was decided, sub-rosa, that this technicality would provide the convenient, honorable exit for the Board of Inquiry and the corporal was given an honorable discharge — albeit 19 months late, the Board lamented — with full benefits and a stipend for his unfortunate tour of duty in the hands of the Red Chinese.
Fully aware that word of his transgression would cause difficulties in his hometown of Cleveland, the now-reverend felt the call of God drawing him toward the less-populated, less-civilized areas of the country. The Lord, it appeared, wished him to settle in the bustling frontier communities of the Territory of Alaska. Fortunately, and providentially, from both an ecclesiastic and fiscal point of view, the move proved to be quite fortuitous.
Because of the remoteness of the Territory of Alaska from the Lower 48, a sense of isolation affected many of those who came north. As a result, the turnover of ministers of the gospel was similar to that of newcomers. Most could not stand the winters, all seven months filled with deep snow and low temperatures and left as soon as Spring made travel safe and sane on the Alaska-Canada Highway. Macciaborgia arrived as one such man of God was leaving Anchorage, and, pulling the departing minister aside, acquired not only the keys to his church and its membership list but the rights to the departing man’s residence — complete with the furniture that was left. Two days later, he was preaching of the trials of tribulations of life. The fact that he had been a prisoner of war and suffered through two bone-chilling winters in a mud hut in Korea gave his flock confidence that he would be there longer than just through the next winter only.
There was another reason for Macciaborgia to rejoice. Just as he arrived to carry God’s word forward, the Territory of Alaska was entering a building boom. Anchorage, a community approaching 35,000 people, had been pinpointed by the United States Army as the ideal location for a Cold War forward base. This meant the expansion of the construction of the military base already in existence, the creation of six nuclear missile batteries, the installation of 24 NORAD (North American Air Defense) radar watch posts throughout the interior of Alaska, as well as half a dozen communication-boosting stations between the scattered NORAD sites. Construction workers were coming into the Anchorage area as fast as the planes could carry them and the Anchorage merchants, as the good businessmen they were, were leaching onto whatever faucet of dollars they could find.
Macciaborgia was fortunate inthat he discovered a tap that would never run dry. As the influx of dollars washed over the community like a tidal wave — and the rise in population led to a corresponding increase in church membership — his Third Christ’s Church of Anchorage grew in leaps, bounds and portfolio. A little less than six months after he had come to the Last Frontier, the Church was forced to move from the basement of a dry goods store to its own structure, albeit older but more durable. The minister also managed a bleed-off of the offerings. He moved from the rickety, log structure that had served as a guest room behind a teacher’s dormitory to more substantial digs or, as is said in Alaska: a full house with a solid concrete basement.
Within a year of the commencement of the building boom, the church moved again. So, did the now-Right Reverend; this time into his own home. Courtesy of a blossoming partnership with several builders who became members of the church, he was also able to soak up the leavings of the construction — at first just the tail ends and later the change orders, unintentional and otherwise.
It was in this year of plenty that the man of God realized another immutable rule of life. This law, like significant others, though simple in composition yet complex in implication, was that the key to worldly success was not just talent, hard work, creative genius or luck. It was also marketing. The root of marketing was people, warm bodies. This tidbit of celestial knowledge, which he applied to his own pecuniary activities, transformed his view of the congregation from one of lost lambs to that of sheep baa-baaing for a shearing.
The construction business in which he was a partner turned out to be another blessing in disguise. Since there was so much cash in the community — and the IRS so aggressive in its audits — there was a Force l0 stampede to find tax shelters for military construction boom dollars. Real estate was the natural outlet for this unexpected bounty and subdivisions sprang into existence as fast as construction loans cleared the bank.
Into this frenetic milieu, Macciaborgia was a godsend. Since most of his parishioners were blue collar workers, few of them had experience in the high finance of buying a home much less investing in a subdivision enterprise. To these nouveau riche, Alaska was God’s gift, a boom from which they could retire as rich as Croesus in their hometown. These hardhats and their family had come north for the money and they intended to save every dime they earned. Alaska, after all, was not where they were going to retire. It was the hellhole into which they had jumped so they could make the money to retire.
Alas, in every Garden of Eden there is temptation. In Alaska’s case, it was the limited partnership. As the scenario was proposed, it was a cannot-lose deal. Hardhat construction workers who had a high tax liability would invest in limited partnerships that would use their money to build houses, a tax deduction. As long as they owned the property, there was a depreciation deduction. When the units became filled, they paid for themselves. When sold, the investors would recoup their initial investment and profit from the increase in property value as well. Then revenue from the units would be used to finance the next round of new home construction, another tax deduction and the cycle would begin anew. It was idyllic. Ten thousand in seed money and wealth forever.
Macciaborgia had no difficulty leaching into this fiscal state of affairs. As soon as he understood how the partnership scheme worked, he enlisted the aid of three builders who were members of his congregation. Using their income base and the good name of the Third Christ’s Church of Anchorage, they secured a construction loan. By the end of the first season, the partnership had built three units of four apartments each which were immediately filled by members of the congregation.
Because of the housing shortage caused by the construction boom, rents were high. There were so high, in fact, that the corporation of four was able to recoup their initial cash investment before the ice on the Susitna River broke. The bank, pleased with the corporation’s record, extended them a line a credit for more construction dollars. The next summer, ‘the gang of four,’ as they began calling themselves, built six units of eight apartments apiece. These were filled with parishioners as well and the gang of four decided to go into warehouses and office buildings as well — to spread their success, so to speak.
Though his base salary had remained the same modest allowance he had received when he first came to Alaska, Macciaborgia’s lifestyle changed dramatically with his construction fortunes. He moved from the Salvation Army to Nordstrom’s for his suits. The church’s automobile was upgraded. No longer was it the rusting grey Buick with more than l20,000 miles on its odometer. Now it was a white, four-door sedan with 12 miles on its odometer — and power windows to boot.
But his was a house built of cards, in this case, credit cards. Oblivious to the economic pitfalls of the boom-to-bust roller coaster, the gang of four rode high. They rode with the boom never expecting the bust. The bust they experienced, however, came not from the immutable law of economic but from the inspection of the businessman’s merchant of woe. The IRS, rising like a troll from a bottomless well, made its first appearance when a partner of one of the gang of four made an unusual deposit to a bank account in the Cayman Islands. Though no one knew how the IRS became acquainted with this peccadillo, it did, and the government agency showed an inordinate amount of interest in this particular transaction. The agency’s interest in this particular partner became more acute in the subsequent months and that led the fiscal bloodhounds to begin examining tax records of all partners of all ventures and, thereafter, any partnerships in which they had a mutual link.
This led to complications. The gang of four came to the attention of the IRS because of its unusual character: it had a church as the general partner. Since the church did not pay taxes yet took in an income which, under normal circumstances would have been taxable, the agents of the IRS were intrigued. In fact, they were more than intrigued; they were intensely interested. They were so interested that they audited the corporate returns of all three of the secular partners. There was no precedent to intrude into the ecclesiastic side of the fiscal equation — even though many of the properties in question had been transferred thorough the church to Macciaborgia personally. Until he sold the property there was no money trail to follow.
In less than three weeks, the Gang of Four was no more. The three secular partners were facing stiff tax evasion fines with possible criminal neglect charges. Only Macciaborgia escaped the noose, sailing into the clear because his partnership portion was through a church. The sad saga ended, he lamented to his flock one Sunday, with the church buying out the three errant investors at ten cents on the dollar. Little though it was, Macciaborgia felt it was the least he could do. It was cash needed by the incarcerated three for their legal defense and a fiscally sound investment for the church.
At the same meeting he informed his flock that he was retiring, leaving Alaska because of the illness of his wife. She wanted to return to her roots in the Duluth area. So, reluctantly, he was selling his Alaskan properties. Was anyone interested in prime Alaskan real estate being sold by a man of God?
[This short story is from Steven Levi’s “We Don’t Give a Damn How They Do It in Minneapolis-St. Paul!” available on Kindle.]