All Americans

We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody.

R. Buckminister Fuler

Later that evening, after we had cooked dinner together and washed dishes and Hope was asleep, Cristi and I sat on our balcony and I told her about Danny. She laughed when I told her about the bricks, and she joked, “So is that your part in history? A war veteran who still shits bricks?”

We chuckled for a few wonderful moments, then I said her it could be a lead in to a bigger story about my grandfather and what it means to be an “All American,” and then she saw it.

Schizophrenia runs in my family, strongly and not at all subtly. Symptoms include seeing patterns in coincidences, and imagining government conspiracies and alien invasions and whacky communications through media. Cristi knows that I’m drawn to patterns and coincidences, and that Edward Partin had been dubbed an All American Hero in the media, despite his “domestic problems,” and that I coincidentally served in the 82nd Airborne, and that the AA on the 82nd Airborne’s shoulder patch stands for “All Americans.”

At the time they were formed during WWI, when America was still healing from the civil war, the 82nd Infantry was the first American military unit with representatives from each state. In other words, up until then, states fought states, and brother had fought brother who was in another state’s army; but when the 82nd was formed it truly represented each state for the first time, and it was deemed “The All American” unit.

In WWII, the 82nd Infantry became America’s first Airborne unit, the 82nd Airborne, and it kept the AA moniker. The 82nd is also called “America’s Guard of Honor,” and serves as the president’s quick reaction force. Each of nine battalions has approximately 900 paratroopers on call, and the first three respond within a few hours and can parachute anywhere within the world within 18 hours, armed with enough firepower to take over small countries, like Panama in 1989, the Dominican Republic in 1985, and Honduras in 1983. In WWII, the 82nd gained fame from parachuting into France and Germany and having young American men die fighting off German Panzer tanks. In 1990, the 82nd responded to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invading Kuwait for many reasons, and the infamous “Line in the Sand” was drawn by a handful of boys in the 82nd Airborne Division. Nine months later, they began coming home. A year later, another thing happened somewhere, and the cycle continues. For decades, I have pondered what it mean to be an All American. I still don’t know.

“Did you know that Leah was in ‘Everybody’s all American?” I asked. She hadn’t, and I simply made a sound that implied I was remembering Everybody’s All American, too. It was a somewhat popular film in 1985 and had been filmed in Baton Rouge, using our stadiums and getting the locals to dress up like the 1950’s. My grandfather had brought the movie industry to Baton Rouge, and the Teamsters had contracts to transport all equipment and house the actors in trailers, similar to how Jimmy Hoffa funded Hollywood films and ensured the national Teamsters were awarded contracts all over America. Our friend, Leah, had been in theater classes and embraced all the filming, and she’s often seen in the background of films in the 80’s, like Everybody’s All American. She was coming to visit soon, for Comic Con, and I’m sure we’d find the film online and stream until we caught a brief glimpse of her dressed in a 1950’s poodle dress.

“Ddi you know that the first Buckminister Fueller geodesic dome was built in the Baton Rouge airport?” I told Cristi, saying what had been on my mind since flying home from my mom’s funeral.

I twirled the beer in my glass and said, “It was used as a storage shed, but was missing when I flew home. It used to make me smile, because it was like one of Bucky’s Balls,” I made hand gestures as if holding very heavy Bucky Balls and emphasizing one of them, “and it was always sitting in plain view and storing a bunch of garden tools and hoes, and no one knew the story behind it.”

I made a gesture with my hands as if holding two heavy things, and grinned mischeviously and said, “And not enough people make jokes about Bucky Balls.”

A geodesic dome gains strength with size, and is an efficient ratio of inside volume to outside surface area, allowing more effective use of heating and cooling. In some science fiction, geodesic domes cover entire cities or planets in order for humans to exist as population increases and natural resources dwindle. More practically, geodesic domes have been be used by NASA for quick, temporary structures on Earth and in a few space missions; and, today, they’re a somewhat common design for stand-alone garden greenhouses that had to withstand heavy snow and wind loads and yet still be warm and cozy for a year-round garden. And, Bucky Balls, which still made the 14 year old boy in me chuckle, were now a common engineering tool, used like graphite to lubricate intricate and tiny machine parts like tiny little ball bearings made of 64 carbon atoms bound tightly together in a Bucky Ball. But, to me, Buckminister Fueller, sticks in my mind because he coined the concept of “Spaceship Earth,” saying that Earth is like a giant spaceship hurtling through space with an increasing population, limited natural resources, and subject to natural disasters. Recently, in one of the schools Hope was considering, they had begun using the Next Generation Science Standards, a project-based, multi-disciplinary, hands-on curriculum that added engineering as a core science and hoped to get every kid on earth exploring measurable phenomenon centered around three truths: population is increasing, resources are limited, and natural disasters and pandemics happen.

Of course, that would be funny when Covid hit Earth a few months later, and every state had different laws and responses farther and farther away from the concept of “All Americans,” much less All Humans on Spaceship Earth. We couldn’t even stand six feet away in a grocery line, much less envision collaborating to save eight billion people, half of whom were practically living in poverty already.

“And,” I continued. “Did you know that ‘avocado’ comes from an Aztec word for ‘testicles?'” I made the same gesture with my hands, holding one slightly lower this time, and said, “They grow in pairs and one hangs lower than the other. I was thinking we could go to the Fallbrook avocado festival this year and laugh about that tidbit.”

Cristi smiled and sort of snorted and sighed simultaneously, and yet she wouldn’t let my mind wander too much.

“What about Desert Storm,” she pressed. “And that thing the people at the VA have? Could you teach statistics through that?”

I sipped my beer and pondered that a while. It’s hard to change your way of thinking once you start down a path. And I couldn’t think of anything funny to say about war; I’m no Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller, or that guy who wrote Tropic Thunder, Four Leaf Tayback. I was just an physics professor, not a writer, and I was finding the process of writing to be more challenging than I had assumed. I was a teacher at heart, not a storyteller, and for some reason I was drawn to teaching math and science in any story I told.

I had taken a sabbatical and was drafting a book on how to retire early, but in a narrative memoir format that had conversations with my mom and her mom, Joyce Rothdram, my Granny. They had both been single parents who escaped harsh situations and raised a single child a as minimum wage office workers without even a high school diploma. But, unlike my mom, who splurged on a big home, Granny had chosen to live in the same house and drive the same car and splurge on Scotch and Kents and books. She kept a few investment books on her bookshelf and was a self-educated, she had diligently saved and invested. She died a few months after receiving her first Social Security Check and withdrawal from her IRA, and Wendy had inherited it and retired early and, like Granny, had passed away a few months after her first social security check and IRA withdrawal. But, my attempts at a narrative memoir had evolved into nothing more than a bunch dry and facts about IRA’s that were accurate then, but could change and therefore negate the entire point of the book I was calling, simply, “Joyce’s book on retirement”

I had told their stories, and recreated what we know now and put it into context for their situation, with the added hindsight of me having records of their investment choices from 60 years before, and then and being able to pull up the current stocks and graph decades of splits, mergers, and dividend payments. Granny had invested like Warren Buffet, and though she wasn’t as well known, her IRA earned 11.7% compounded annually, if you included dividends, and that was more than the top 5% of mutual funds and high-paid financial advisors.

I had created graphs of different scenarios with a few assumptions, hoping to show bigger picture patterns rather than focusing too much on a Roth vs Traditional IRA. And I was intentionally writing acerbicly, hoping people would see between the lines rather than offering my opinion; I had always been frustrated that with either a Roth or a traditional IRA a single mom doing odd jobs, like cleaning homes or delivering phone books or landscaping, could only contribute $5,000 per year to their own retirement, $5,500 if they were already over 50. I taught the math that proved that unless someone got very lucky and won the lottery or inherited money, a minimum wage singe mother would never be able to retire, even if they somehow put aside $5,000 per year. And, of course, social security had been in the news as a failing safety net that was not financially sustainable. I didn’t have a solution, but I wanted Hope to find layers in their stories, relating to my mom and Granny as young women, and recalling their choices in life and investing that would help her make wiser choices. I had wanted to leave something behind in case I wasn’t around to answer her questions when she discovered for herself how expensive life can be.

But I had nothing more to add than the few brief chapters I had written and already summarized on my blog. It wasn’t worth a book, I said. And it didn’t sound funny, Cristi agreed. We concluded the same thing about Desert Storm Syndrome. Besides, I had already said all that needed to be said about that, and the concept of randomized, double blinded clinical studies is more important than details about paired ANOVA or student’s t-tests, and p=0.05 means very little to most people. In the big picture, statistics are about seeing what your mind can’t imagine based solely on your personal experiences, beliefs, and biases.

“Mamma Jean tried writing us a long letter about how Big Daddy fooled her,” I began, surprised it had never come up in conversation before. “It was like a memoir, and she began it in 1996, the same year you met her. But, she put it down one day and didn’t finish it, because she was diagnosed with breast cancer and that dominated the final few years of her life.”

Cristi nodded and mentioned remembering that. I had left Louisiana in 1997 and had returned only a few times; until my mom died, I hadn’t thought about those times much in the thirty years since then. Perhaps meeting Danny had reminded me that it wouldn’t be long until I, too, was an old disabled man in a wheelchair and full of stories few people would understand.

I looked Cristi in the eye, and said I’d show her a copy of Mamma Jean’s letter later, and I summarized what it said, “It was written in her neat handwriting, and she addressed it, ‘To all my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren,'” I said. “Aunt Janice photocopied it and gave us all copies. In it, Mamma Jean wrote down every dollar they were making back in the 50’s, and how much rent cost. She was trying to explain how hard it was to raise five children after she fled Big Daddy in 1962, relating what she could earn to the price of rent and not even mentioning hospital bills and food and a car and trying to get five young kids to school. It was a good letter; she probably could have written a book about Hoffa and Kennedy and made millions at the time, like everyone else was back then. But she never did, and just before she began writing that letter I asked her why not, and she simply said that she had given her word not to, and that Bobby and Walter had kept their end of the bargain. She wouldn’t lie, but she wouldn’t offer information, either. But, as she got old and sick, she wanted to share with us what she knew, similar to how I would like to write a book for posterity’s sake. The difference is that she did it for her children, grandchildren, and so on; I’d like to share that knowledge for all children’s children. That’s what I felt Mamma Jean was missing: perspective. She loved her family and her church and her neighbors, yet she was still old school southern and I didn’t feel that she saw the suffering of people who didn’t look and sound like her. Unknowingly racist, because of biases so deep down they’re invisible to ourselves. She even felt Big Daddy’s raping a black girl was somehow less bad than a white girl, though she never used those words. I had just come back from another trip oversees, and had seen so many kids dying from bullets and mines made by white people that I was furious at her ignorance; and America’s, for that matter. Had she practiced what she preached to all of us, she would have tried to help that girl’s family, or any of the other single mothers that weren’t lucky enough to have Bobby Kennedy pay their way. That’s around the time I stopped calling my Partin family. But, her story is still useful, if you can separate the message from the messenger.”

Cristi swirled the ale in her tulip as I poured another Sculpin into my pint glass, and began daydreaming about brewing an IPA soon; it’s how I get my mind out of a rut of rumination about work I’d like to do.

I sipped my Sculpin then said, “Funny,” I said, “No one remembers how Carter allowed homebrewing to lead to all of this. Especially because he’s so Christian. What did he say? If you say you’re a Christian and you’re not helping the poor, you’re lying, and that’s a sin. Or something like that? He deregulated home brewing in 1979, but most people just remember the oil crisis and the hostages and the failed Delta Force rescue in 1980.” The West Coast Style IPA had been born in San Diego county, and our brewing industry was the third biggest contribution to our economy, after military defense companies, biotech companies, and the military. Brewing was linked to tourism, and technically tourism was third and encompassed our 78 miles of beaches, Seaworld, and Comic Con; but, when separated out, brewing was still third, and a small local brewery had just made national headlines for being sold for $1.1 Billion, more than most biotech companies. All of that from a simple deregulation in 1979. “And, he was the first president to see the 1979 Congressional JFK and Martin Luther King Assassination Reports; yet he didn’t release them to the public, and I’ve always wondered why not. Big Daddy and Hoffa were in the first pages.”

Not taking the bait, she said, “What about what Hope said today?”

She had asked about the Book of Joy. It had been forever! she had protested. She wanted to see my prototype. I had told her it wasn’t very funny, and she asked why. Your funny! she said. I replied that she was funny… looking! And I made a face and she laughed and asked me again to see the Book of Joy. She doesn’t forget, and seems to hear and repeat what I say.

I said it wasn’t what I wanted to write, that it had been a prototype – a first draft – and that I was trying to help all children’s children live a bit more joyfully.

She, in the infinite wisdom of a little girl, said, “Why don’t you say what you want to do, and then start from the beginning.”

Maybe she had a point. Hope usually helps keep me focused on what’s important. It’s a long story, but there are lots of opportunities to learn, and I liked the puns of our names.

I’d miss the Book of Joy, but I didn’t have much more to say about it, anyway. It was almost Mother’s Day, and I was reflecting on what I’d like to say about my mother and my mother’s mother, and perhaps Hope was right: just start from the beginning. I told Cristi I would do that after I stopped feeling so sad; it had only been five weeks since I returned from Wendy’s funeral, and I was still absorbing what it must have been like for her in 1972. I still can’t imagine. And, I was processing that Granny and Wendy’s IRA had passed to me, and that bitter sweet gift came with a hefty price.

All jokes aside, I simply wanted one more day with any one of my family. And, I was looking at Cristi and Hope, and wondering how my choices affected them, what my final words to them would be, even if I didn’t know they would be my last. I wondered what message I could give Hope that would last longer than I would; it was no laughing matter, no matter how hard I tried.

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