Baton Rouge, Spring of 1976

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Exodus 20:12

My first vivid memory is also one of my most flawed. It’s a Saturday morning in April of 1976, and I’m in my foster family’s rural and ramshackle two bedroom, one bath home off of the coincidently named Foster Road, near the intersection of Plank Road, two miles east of the Baton Rouge airport and a mile west of Glen Oaks High School.1 I wake up to the smell of PawPaw, and see his smiling face just above eye-level from my spot on the couch.

“Hey d’er, Lil’ Buddy,” he says. “’Bout time you woke up.”

He’s clean-shaven and smells like cigarettes, coffee, and Old Spice. His grey-speckled black hair is slicked back with oil from a jar in the bathroom that I can’t smell over his aftershave, and he’s wearing a clean but oil-stained long-sleeve collared grey work shirt and similar heavy-duty brown pants. It’s Saturday, so he’s wearing thick leather tree-climbing boots. I toss off my sheet and blanket, drop my feet onto the floor, and step into his hug. His clothes smell like MawMaw’s powdered laundry soap, the smell of a fresh new new day about to begin.

I scuttle to the bathroom. After I pee, I crawl onto the stool PawPaw put by the sink, wash my hands, and put on the clothes MawMaw had laid out the night before. I dart out and almost run into MawMaw. She’s in her clean but worn bath robe that many years before was probably bright white. It only smells like laundry soap once a week or so. She’s smiling broadly despite not having had her coffee yet, and she says, “Good morning, Hon!”

She pulls her elbows back and I sense tension building. I tuck my arms close to my chest and lower my chin and giggle. She squats down so far that her robe covers her fuzzy slippers. She’s almost eye to eye with me. Her eyebrows are narrowed with concentrated focus, and her hands are moving slowly towards me, as if she were trying to catch a crawfish in shallow water and didn’t want it to scoot away.

She says, “Gimme some shugga’!”

My arms coil more tightly, and a guffaw escapes my lips. She inches closer, slowly and smoothly, patiently getting within striking distance.

“Gimme some shugga’,” she says again, “Or I’m gonna take it!”

I try to stifle my giggles so I don’t wake the baby. MawMaw senses my momentary lapse, and shoots forward like a shugga’ sniper, fast and precise. I retreat into my shell like a turtle: head lowered, elbows clamped against my ribs, and fists protecting my face. Her hooks grasp my shoulders and I thrash like a bass, but there’s no escaping MawMaw’s shugga. She lands a few smooches on my cheeks and forehead, and I squeal in delight. She retreats and stands upright.

She puts a finger to her lips. “Shhhh,” she says softly. “Everyone is still asleep.”

I lower my guard and she swoops down for another round of shugga.’ She finishes and shushes me again. “Go help PawPaw make breakfast, Hon,” she says. She steps into the bathroom, and I wait for the door to shut before relaxing. You can never be too cautious around MawMaw.

I walk past the full-length hallway mirror, stroll into the kitchen, and climb onto the stool PawPaw put by the sink. He’s making a pot of coffee for everyone else.

I ask, “We gonna climb trees today, PawPaw?”

“No, Lil’ Buddy,” he says. “Wendy gonna pick you up today. You can help t’morrow.”

I must look disappointed, because he says, “But MawMaw’s outta milk and cookie dough, so we can walk to d’ store and get some.”

His accent isn’t Cajun. He’s from a remote shack in the pine forests surrounding Woodville, Mississippi, but he’s adopted that “Who d’at” accent of the New Orleans Saints, as in Who d’at talkin’ ’bout beatin’ d’em Saints!” His cadence is quick and the words sometimes seem mumbled, but he always says them with a smile. I smile back. I want to go to d’store, because on the way is the biggest, most stately live oak in all of Baton Rouge. I knew he’d find a way for me to climb trees with him, even if Wendy were picking me up. I tell him that I’d like that.

PawPaw makes a batch of instant pancakes with water and an egg, and plops a gollop of something television said you wouldn’t believe wasn’t butter atop each one while they’re hot. He smothers his with Aunt Jemima syrup. I mirror him with mine, and we eat facing the window above the sink. The kitchen table is behind us, between the counter and the refrigerator, but it’s cluttered with my Lone Ranger cowboy hat and wooden train set from Christmas, a scattering of PawPaw’s tools, and a couple of big packages of diapers with a picture of a smiling blonde baby that looks nothing like the shriveled black-haired raisin sleeping in my old room. We hadn’t eaten on the table since Craig and Linda moved back.

I peer through the kitchen window towards the back barn. It’s fuzzy, because the outside screen is draped with dusty spider webs packed with shriveled bugs and deflated spider egg sacks. Through the blurry webs, between the house and the pond, I see the tall rusty gate. It looks like a giant’s ladder, with round rusted metal bars and flakes of faded yellow paint. When I stand beside it, I look up and imagine Jack’s beanstalk reaching into the big blue sky, higher than planes fly. But the round bars are too big for my hands, and I keep slipping off. I shovel a bite of pancakes dripping syrup and melted goo in my mouth, and chew. I’m only partially listening to PawPaw talk about what a beautiful day it is. I’m daydreaming that I’m like Spiderman, able to climb anything.

Between the pond and the barn, I see piles of tree limbs by the pond that PawPaw had unloaded last Sunday, but his rusty pickup truck wasn’t there. I can’t recall which type of truck – I’ve never been good at identifying automobiles – but it was probably a late 60’s Ford F150. Most big trucks look the same to me: beds littered with rusty tools, a giant steering wheel, and a single bench seat so high up that even PawPaw has to climb into it. They all had the same thundering rumble you felt in your chest, thump-thump-thump, unlike a car’s weak put-put-put. PawPaw’s tuck had dents and dings and holes from rust, and the dark rust blends in with the bark of trees so perfectly that most people wouldn’t give it a second glance, which is why I look twice to make sure it’s not there. He used it on weekdays to go to his gig at Glen Oaks, where he was the custodian and groundskeeper. On weekdays, he left before I was awake and returned home smelling like cigarettes and a pungent odor like Pine Sol cleaning solution. I only sense laundry soap on weekends; it’s the smell of a new day about to begin, and the smell of a full day with PawPaw.

On Saturday mornings, PawPaw and I drove his truck to plantations around Baton Rouge and as far north as Saint Francsiville. PawPaw was the most respected tree surgeon in all of southern Louisiana, and spring was a busy time for us because bugs were just beginning to wake up after sleeping all winter, hungry for heartwood left exposed from the fall’s hurricanes. PawPaw would climb trim trees to trim broken branches with clean cuts, and to spread black goo on the bleeding limbs as generously as he poured syrup on pancakes. We’d fill the truck bed with downed branches and anything else the families needed hauling away. On Sundays, we burned the branches, sorted through the treasures, and sometimes brought the trash to a dump down Foster road. No one seemed to notice us: PawPaw’s truck was like Wonder Woman’s invisible jet, allowing us the freedom to explore southern Louisiana without anyone bothering us. We’d save trees from termites, bore weasels, and diseases that manifest in broken branches after hurricane season, but were easily saved with a gollop of black goo by those who knew the secret. In Saint Francisville, near the Fort Pickens battlefield with trees that still had musket balls embedded in them on opposing sides, I overheard people say that the trees we saved were planted by their families before the civil war. Of course those people loved their trees, and would only call the best tree surgeon to save them.

We’re finishing breakfast when MawMaw walks in looking like a different person. She’s wearing a flowery sundress, and her greying hair is stacked in an improbably tall beehive that probably took a full can or two of hairspray; even from across the kitchen, I can smell it over PawPaw’s aftershave. Her lips are bright red, and I know that when she gets closer I’ll smell the makeup counter at Dillards in Cortana Mall. She walks over and threatens to give me some more shugga, and I giggle and begin to coil up like a rattlesnake. But she gives PawPaw a single smack of shugga’ instead, and pours herself a cup of coffee. I slowly unwind, but remain on high alert; like I said, you can never be too cautious around MawMaw.

I hear Craig and Linda taking their turns in the bathroom. MawMaw tells me Wendy is coming, and to make sure I’m dressed and ready. With a self-assured tone, I tell her that I know Wendy’s coming, and that I’m already wearing my traveling clothes.

PawPaw tells MawMaw we’re walking to the store and will be back in a minute. She says she’ll clean up dishes, and gives him some shugga. He turns away and grabs a russet potato from a half-full bag on the washing machine, and we step through the carport door and weave around stacks of bright yellow phone books between MawMaw’s car and the house. PawPaw stops by the refrigerator-sized cricket cage and pulls out his Old Henry pocket knife, opens the long blade, and cuts the potato into a few chunks. He tosses them into the cage.

“Crickets need breakfast, too,” he says. He puts away the Old Henry and reaches his left hand down. I clasp it with my right hand. Together, we stroll up the gravel driveway to the blacktop, turn left, and walk through the overgrown grass and thistles along Foster Road.

PawPaw’s between me and the blacktop. Cars speed along the blacktop and aren’t used to people walking beside it, PawPaw had said, which is why I hold his hand when we walk to the store. Along the way, I wave my left hand across the tops of grasses that are almost as tall as I am, enjoying the tickle against my palm and watching the blades spring back up unharmed, as if we’re elves passing by without leaving a trace. We reach the tree on our side of the intersection with the Plank Road a traffic light. Cars are backed up, waiting to rush to the airport or I-110 onramp. I lurch forward and PawPaw lets my hand loose. I run towards the mighty tree.

Eighty-foot long branches draped in grey Spanish moss undulate from the trunk and sprawl in all directions. I reach for the swing and curve my fingers around the textured bark. It’s easier to grasp than the metal gate, but even though I heave and heave I can’t pull myself off the ground. PawPaw walks behind me. I feel his hands under my arms, and I gain the strength to pull myself up and into the cradle. I pause with a leg on either side, and then I’m looking up, trying to reach another branch. I can’t, but I can grasp a handful of Spanish moss instead. I pull it down and make myself look like an old man with a grey beard. PawPaw reaches up and grabs a handful for himself, and we stare at each other’s bearded faces and laugh like two old friends.

“Aw right, Lil’ Buddy,” he says. “We gotta go. Wendy gonna pick you up soon.”

He sets his moss on the branch and reaches up both hands for me. I keep my moss and swing my leg over and drop into his arms. I hit the ground, take his hand, and we walk to the traffic light and wait to cross. Outside the store’s glass door, I put my beard back on and check my reflection before PawPaw pulls the door open. The man working behind the counter flashes his big white teeth. He’s talking to PawPaw, but he looks down at me and says, “Hey d’er, Mr. Ed. Who y’ got with you today?”

I giggle and whip off my disguise and tell him it’s me. He’s surprised and tells me he didn’t recognize me. I put the beard back on, and he says I look just like an old tree elf. Of course I did! It was intentional, but he probably didn’t remember that even though I had told him before. We chat while PawPaw gets a tube of chocolate chip cookie dough, the one with a package showing Keebler elves baking cookies in a house that looked like a stately oak tree but with shorter branches. He also picks up a carton of Blue Bell milk and a six-pack of Miller Lite pony bottles. The man laughs at something PawPaw says, then reaches up and pulls down a pack of unfiltered Camels cigarettes. The man puts everything in a brown paper bag that makes crinkly noises when PawPaw holds it to his chest with one arm. We say goodbye and walk out.

I take PawPaw’s free hand and we cross the intersection. I stop at the tree and I place my beard on a branch I can reach, imagining it will grow more moss for next time. We walk home and I rattle on about how I can climb the tree all by myself now. He says of course I can, because I’m Jason Partin. He pronounces my name in his mumbled Mississippi accent, Par’un, almost like one syllable drawn out and allowed to linger a bit, and tells me I can do anything I want if I keep trying. I beam and skim my hand across the weeds and ponder what else I wanted to do now that I could do anything. I could probably climb that gate.

At home, we put away the groceries and PawPaw sits at the kitchen table. He puts a Camel in his mouth and pulls out his dented silver Zippo. Before he flicks it, he pauses with his head tilted down and his eyes up and focused on me. I see that his cigarette is backwards again, and I tell him the little camel is away from his lips and will burn up if he lights it. He chuckles and thanks me and flips the filterless cigarette around, and tells me how smart I am and how lucky he is to have me paying attention for him. He lights the proper end, takes a drag, and holds it in one hand while he pours another cup of coffee from the full pot MawMaw probably made while we were gone. I can hear her in the back, laughing with Craig and Linda.

I hear crunching in the gravel driveway just before the smoldering tip of PawPaw’s cigarette reaches the little printed camel. PawPaw puts it out and walks outside through the carport door, and I follow. The car that pulled up is a faded yellow Datsun hatchback with its put-put-put engine. I know it was a Datsun because that’s what PawPaw called it: not a car or the car, but the Datsun, probably to differentiate it from the other cars that were sitting behind the barn waiting to be brought back to life like the Datsun had. I rush towards it and hear crunching sounds every time one of my feet hits the gravel.

I reach the passenger side and Debbie squats down as best she can – she’s stout and moves slowly – and opens her arms and I fall into them and we give each other the biggest hug ever. Wendy comes around and squats down and waits for me with a longing look in her eyes. She effortlessly lowers down to my height. She’s a bit taller than Debbie, but fit and athletic. I leave her and rush to Wendy, and she smiles more like her usual smile, with old-lady crows feet crinkles around her hazel eyes. She opens her arms, and tells me she’s happy to see me. I step into her arms and hug her and I say I’m happy to see her, too.. They both smell like cigarettes and pot, though I’m not supposed to use that word.

PawPaw says they’s running late, so we should hurry. He begins unloading stacks of Yellow Pages from MawMaw’s car and loading them into the Datsun’s hatchback and back seat. Debbie, Wendy, and I help. Soon the Datsun is so full that it’s sitting low. Even Debbie’s passenger floorboard is filled. The only space left is for me is atop a few of the yellow books in the back passenger seat. Debbie and Wendy and PawPaw step back to inspect the work and smoke cigarettes and talk and laugh. When they’re done smoking, PawPaw boosts me up to sit atop the stack of Yellow Pages.

My feet rest on the books piled into the floorboard. I can see out the front window from my perch. To my right, I see Wendy and Debbie saying goodbye to PawPaw. They get in, and Wendy turns the key a couple of times until it shudders to a start. She puts it into first gear, lurches forward, and it stalls. They laugh, and Wendy says something about learning how to drive a stick. She restarts on the first try, and we lurch forward again. I hear the gravel shooting up as we accelerate and turns right onto the blacktop. We snap forwards as she shifts into second gear, then backwards as she accelerates. Soon, we’re in fifth and flying north on Foster Road.

The windows are cracked, and crisp April air circulating around us bringing in the smell of springtime flowers. Azaleas were in bloom, and their sweet scent permeated in and out of the car every time she passed a patch of pine trees with azaleas bushes bunched under them with red domes of flowers so prolific that they were visible from as far away as we could see, lighting our way like levee bonfires guide Papa Noel’s piro and his team of eight tiny alligators along the winding river road between Baton Rouge and New Orleans every Christmas. From my perch, I watch the red bushes zip past and feel every turn that Wendy takes as she speeds along the narrow rural road.

The route she always took from PawPaw’s passed a small public park, barely the size of the patch of grass in the front yard of a crowded neighborhood. It has creaking swings, a wobbly merry-go-round, and a couple of humongous concrete sewer tubes for crawling over and in and out. It’s near a 7/11, which is like a convenience store but without a tree to climb. We stop to get Slushies, and they get Coke again. I stick with cherry, because it’s the sweetest and because it turns my lips red, like azaleas and MawMaw’s lipstick. We park at the park and sit inside to slurp our favorite flavors.

Debbie and I swap a few sips from our cups, and Wendy turns on the radio. A song comes on, and they squeal. Cindi turns up the volume, and they begin singing along to Janis Joplin’s song about Baton Rouge. Wendy turns towards me with her crinkly smile, and they sing: “Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train… Feelin’ nearly faded as my jeans…” 2

I sing along a beat behind. By the time Janis is markin’ time, I stop trying. I let Wendy sing the words she knew so well; I’m just along for the ride. Debbie finishes rolling a dainty joint, runs her tongue along the flap, and drags her thumb along the seal. She puts away her little hand-sewn pot bag with all the blue and red hand-sewn flowers on it, cracks her window, and lights the joint with her Bic. She takes a drag and passes the smoldering joint to Wendy.

Magically, without exhaling, Debbie sings the part of Me and Bobby McGee about a dirty red bandana. Sometimes when I rode with her, Debbie wore a faded blue bandana around her neck like a cowboy, and sometimes she folded it into a triangle and wore it like a pirate’s hat atop her straight dark black hair. I never saw her blow her nose or wipe out sawdust with it, like PawPaw did with his white one. PawPaw told me that the Lone Ranger wore a white hanky so people knew he was clean, and to keep sun off his neck and soak up water from shallow springs for Silver. But Debbie and I always played in the shade and we never rode horses, and Louisiana has water overflowing from every river and drainage canal, so I think she just liked wearing a bandana that matched her little blue bag and reminded her of Janice.

Me and Bobby McGee finishes and Wendy turns off the radio. The joint wasn’t finished, and Debbie keeps me entertained while they smoke by teaching me a new magic trick. She used to pull my nose off and put it back on, but I eventually realized it was Debbie’s thumb, not my nose. She showed me how to make it look like I pulled off her nose, and I got so good at it that I could fool PawPaw and MawMaw every time, even when I did it three or four times in a row. But, on that Saturday, Debbie pulls of her thumb and I’m stumped. I giggle. She does it again. I giggle again, but I think I see how to do it and try. I fail – I keep my right thumb straight and beside my fist, and it looks nothing like holding my left thumb. She shows me how to tuck my thumb inside my fist and poke the tip between two fingers. I try again, and it looks better. But, I can’t nail it down quickly like the nose trick. I keep trying with Debbie’s oversight and occasional input between hits on the joint. Smoke hands in the air, and we keep practicing until the joint is a roach too small to smoke. They toss it out, and we finally go play on the merry-go-round. I’m feeling fine, so high I can touch planes flying in the sky.

They take turns spinning me around and around, faster and faster. I go higher and higher with each turn, because the wobbling makes a steady arc, higher on the side away from them, and bringing me back to their eye-level on the down swing. The creaks of old and neglected bearings made a melody sweeter than anything on the radio, and the greens of the trees are more vibrant than ever before. The red azeleas blur around me, and I look up at the bright blue sky and see a few puffy white clouds swirl. I giggle dizzily. They stop pushing, and the merry go round squeaks get farther and farther apart until I’m stopped, spent from laughing so hard and so long.

Wendy’s won’t stop laughing. She walks over to azelea bushes under the noontime shade of a few tall pine trees. She picks a red flower, tucks it above her left ear between strands of her long straight strawberry blonde hair, and skips back and sits beside us. She stands on one of the thick sagging plastic swing seats, grasps the chains with both hands, and leans back while pushing her feet forward. She begins swinging, and sports the sweetest smile you’ve ever seen. Her eyes are crinkled like an old lady’s crow’s feet, a smile that I notice more when it’s not there than when it is.

On the way home, we stop at Brian the one-armed drug dealer’s house. It’s full of people passing joints under Brian’s big oak tree. Cindi, Debbie’s sister, is there with her baby. They all seem to know who Debbie and Wendy well, but Cindi and Brian are the only one who calls me by my name. Craig and Linda hadn’t been there since they moved back, though Craig’s paintings of moss-draped trees and swamp elves adorn the outside walls. Without Craig and Linda there, Brian is the only person who talks with me. He says he’s happy to see me, and he shows me the motorcycle he was trying to modify so that he could ride again. He heaves me up with his arm and sets me on the seat and shows me how to pull the new cables on the right handle that pull the clutch on the left. It’s a fine motorcycle and I like Brian, but I say I’m hungry and I would like some cookies. It’s all I can think about. He apologizes and said they don’t have any. I must look disappointed, because Wendy stepped over and says she’ll take me home. She says it would be just us, because Debbie is staying. I look over and see her sitting cross-legged, under the shade of Brian’s oak tree and surrounded by Cindi and their friends. Her little bag is out on the big wooden power-line spool Brian used as an outdoor table. She’s rolling a joint with both hands; Brian could have done it with one. She pauses rolling and waves goodbye. I wave back, and Wendy and I get in the Datsun. I get to sit in the front seat this time. We wave goodbye to everyone, and move forward smoothly; Wendy had gotten better with a stick after practicing stopping and starting at each house that received a yellow phone book. We drive along Foster Road with the windows rolled up. It’s warm and windless inside. I doze off.

I wake up to Wendy shaking me. Her head’s turned away and she’s talking to a man whose face is peering into her window. I had never seen a police officer before. His shiny gold badge flashed blue and red. I stared, mesmerized. He glances at me smiles the same smile as Brian. I feel fine. He looks back at Wendy.

“I’m sorry, officer,” she says, still shaking me. “My brother’s sick and I was trying to get him home. I was scared and didn’t know what to do.”

He looks at me again and gently asks, “What’s your name, son?”

“Jason Partin,” I say, pronouncing my name like Debbie did, with a Cajun accent and two clear syllables: Pah’tan. Her name was Debbie LeBeaux, pronounced L’Bow, like bow and arrow, or like the LSU football chant, “Geaux Tigers!” She pronounced my name like the women I saw in a commercial for Patin the Plumber, the one where a woman sees her overflowing toilet and wags a finger at her puppy-dog faced husband and says, “You shoulda called Pah’tan!” Most adults, other than Debbie and PawPaw, pronounced my name like the big bosomed country singer, Dolly Parton. Even Wendy said it that way. I don’t know why I pronounced it Pa’tan for the officer, but I assume Debbie had been teaching me new French words at some point, or she may have said my name in her accent and it stuck. Or, I may have been so high from second hand smoke that I couldn’t say my own name. The officer is holding what I now know was Wendy’s driver’s license. He gazes down at it and then back up at me, and his smile broadens.

“I hope you feel better, Jason,” he says. Glancing back at Wendy, his smile fades and he says that she should slow down and get home safely. She laughs awkwardly and says she will, and takes her license back with a shaking hand.

He stands back, and Wendy drives forward so slowly and smoothly that I don’t notice at first. For a moment, I’m confused. I watch the officer slide backwards without moving his legs. He goes out of sight, and I lean between the seats and peer at him and his car behind us. I keep staring backwards at his car. On it’s roof, red and blue lights revolve. Their reflections pulse on his badge and reach us inside the Datsun. He must have seen me staring, because he smiles and waves. I smile and wave back, and then I notice his Batman utility belt. It has a revolver pistol like The Lone Ranger’s, and lots of impressive gadgets. I decide I’d like to be like him, whatever he is, if I got to wear a Batman utility belt. I turn around and look ahead. Wendy’s leaning forward, and her hands are clutching the steering wheel. She’s shaking slightly.

My body reminds me how hungry I feel. Fortunately, we’re driving along a part of the blacktop that I know isn’t too far from home. Wendy nervously tells me not to tell Mr. White that we got pulled over by a cop. I say okay, and figure it’s a secret like Debbie’s pot bag, or how to make your thumb look like someone’s nose. Besides, it wasn’t important compared to how hungry as I was. We turn left into PawPaw’s driveway and stop, and I open the door hop out before Wendy turns off the car. My feet land on the gravel with a satisfying crunch, and I immediately run towards the carport. MawMaw opens the door and steps into the frame. I rush past her car and she squats down and opens her arms. I leap into her hug. She squeezes me, and says, “Gimme some shugga!”

I squeal in delight and try to escape her arms and she has a huge grin and says, “I’m gonna get me some shugga!” I squeal again and abandon trying to escape, and instead I throw up my hands and cover my face in defense. She has that bright red lipstick on, and I know what that means. Despite my best efforts, she manages to plant several red stains on my cheeks, forehead, and backs of my hands; every time I had covered one spot, I left another spot exposed. Like I said, she was an expert shugga’ sniper, so I didn’t have a chance.

She says, “Tell Wendy goodbye.” I turn around and wave goodbye. Wendy’s standing beside the Datsun and waves back. Her smile is gone. I quickly turn around and rush inside and wipe off the red shugga’ and to wash my hands so I can eat some cookies. I pause at the hallway mirror and inspect my face. MawMaw was good. She had planted a few smeared red smooches on each cheek, and a perfectly shaped pair of red lips on my forehead. I step into the bathroom and onto my stool and turn on the faucet and scrub them all off.

Back in the kitchen, MawMaw already has a plate of cookies and a glass of milk waiting. Outside the window, I see smoke from PawPaw’s fires, and a few of the big men who worked for him tossing branches onto the flames. His truck is just outside of the gate. MawMaw asks what I did all day. I show her how I could take off my thumb. She’s impressed, and makes a serious face and asks how I did it. I tell her it’s a secret, and that a magician never tells secrets. Instead, I tell her about the big, fancy houses Debbie and I ran to and from while delivering Yellow Pages, and about the Slushies and the merry-go-round.

I finish the cookies and help MawMaw wash the plate. She tells me to go watch television so that she can make dinner. I go into the living room, push the television on and rotate the dial until I find the reruns of Adam West as Batman that came on every Saturday afternoon, just before The Lone Ranger. I crawl onto the couch and think that the man today had a better utility belt than Batman. I grab a few tools from off the coffee table and shove them in a leather work belt pouch and begin making my own utility belt. I hear PawPaw comes inside and MawMaw tell him where I am. He walks in smelling like diesel smoke and chainsaw oil, and says, “Hey d’er, Lil’ Buddy. Whatcha makin’?”

“A utility belt,” I say. “Better than Batmans!”

He chuckles and tells me that’s a smart thing to do. He goes to the bathroom to take a shower, and I practice whipping tools out of my utility belt smoothly and invisibly, getting them to my hand before anyone notices.

I wake up early Sunday morning to the smell of PawPaw by my side, wash my hands, and make myself a bowl of Rice Crispies, with the little elves on the box that go Snap! Crackle! and Pop! PawPaw said we’d be burning wood after someone shows up and I could help them. Big Keith Partin, pronounced like Dolly Parton, shows up. Like Dolly, he has blonde hair and a thick country accent. He’s my dad’s little brother, but he’s a giant, like all Partins except me. His frame fills the carport door, and he makes PawPaw look as small as the elves on the box of Rice Krispies. He looks just like Big Daddy, with the same blue eyes, bulky frame, and perpetual smile, but obviously younger. He smiles like a big kid. He ducks his head and steps inside, and tells me I’ve grown. He asks me to make a muscle. I do. So does he. His is bigger, and he laughs gently and says hard work and exercise makes you stronger. His sky blue eyes twinkle like Wendy’s.3

We walk past the gate and to the pond between the house and barn. Keith and PawPaw begin burning piles of wood, strategically placing the piles atop fire-ant mounds. The name isn’t a coincidence – they’re called fire ants because when you step in their mounds, an army races up your leg and 10,000 little but painful scintillating fires ignite your skin and send your mind racing, not knowing which part of your body to dose first. Diesel is like napalm to their army, and it’s worth the risk of dousing yourself when you’re attacked. I’m not allowed near the fire ants and diesel fires. Keith reminds me about my dad’s leg scar from pouring gas on his fire ants, and the gas catching on fire.

PawPaw takes out his cigarette and says, “That’s why we use diesel. It don’t burn as easy as gas do.” He puts his cigarette back between his lips and pours diesel on a fresh pile of branches stacked atop a knee-high ant mound.

Keith carries a branch bigger than PawPaw from the back of the truck and heaves it onto the pile. The smoke rises, and they go to and from the barn, hauling wood and trash to be burned.

I had forgotten to bring my cane pole and mesh cricket tube, and I’m bored. I look up at the gate. It’s leaning against the thick round pine-tree poles that used to hold it up. It’s much taller than the barb wire fence that circles the old cow farm. It was taller than Keith, probably eight feet or so and almost just as wide, with about six round horizontal bars going to the top. I grabbed one and put a foot on another. It didn’t have the texture of tree bark and was slippery, but I moved upwards anyway. Soon, I’m grasping the top bar with my right hand, the stronger one, and I swing my left hand up and feel myself move closer to the sky. I reach the top bar for the first time. But, before I can celebrate, my feet slip off. I hold on with both hands curved over the round bars for a brief moment, dangling as vertical as a plumb line, but I can’t keep my grip and I slip off and start falling. I hit the ground and remarkably land on both feet with my knees bent. Before I feel the pain in my knees or can straighten up, the gate comes crashing down on my head. I crumple under it’s weight.

On the ground and with the gate atop of me, I scream louder than I ever had before, louder than PawPaw’s truck or a jet airplane or even that shriveled raisin of a baby sleeping in my room. I’m trapped, unable to do anything but try to purge the pain with my screams.

“Ed! Ed! I hear Keith yell. Come quick! It’s Jason!”

I could hear myself screaming and could see the world turned sideways. Keith was at 90 degrees, running towards me with huge strides made by his long legs. His big booted feet crush branches and weeds, and the earth trembles with each step. Behind him is a dark cloud of diesel smoke rising from one of the freshly lit piles. He shouts: “Ed! Jason’s hurt! Come on!”

PawPaw’s tiny frame bursts through the smoke. He’s running so fast that it looks like he’s flying over the ground, never stepping foot. His legs are a blur of motion. I’m still screaming, seeing everything unfold as if watching a television show while lying sideways on the couch.

Keith reaches me first and heaves the gate off me as if it were a small branch to be discarded. He picks me up and cradles me in an arm and shouts: “Oh God, Ed! He’s bleedin’ bad! Hurry!”

“Get in d’ truck!” PawPaw yells. He’s waving an arm as he runs. “Get in d’ truck! D’ passenger side. Go!”

Keith reaches the truck in a couple of strides and flings the creaky door open and slides inside with me cradled in his left arm. My feet touch the door and my head is by the steering wheel. I’m shrieking. Dark red blood pools in the cracked vinyl bucket seat so quickly that it forms lakes in the indentations. Blood flows like rivers along cracks in the vinyl, and red waterfalls cascade into the floorboard by Keith’s feet. I haven’t stopped screaming.

PawPaw flings open the driver’s door and leaps in. In one smooth motion he slams the door and cranks the ignition and throws the steering column shift into gear and accelerates faster than I had ever felt that truck go. My head flops backwards, and Keith adjusts his arms and exclaims something about all the blood. The truck kicks up gravel as we pass the house. PawPaw takes a hard left and sends a wave of rocks skittering across the blacktop. Momentum drains the lakes of blood onto the floorboard, and I’m steadily filling them back up with a fresh supply.

“Oh God Ed! He’s bleedin’ bad! Hurry!”

No one had to tell PawPaw to hurry: he’s force of nature hell-bent on savin’ his Lil’ Buddy. The truck engine roars louder than it ever had, and the universe buckles to PawPaw’s will. We fly down Foster Road and hit Plank Road at full speed. PawPaw’s arms strain to pull the big steering wheel hard enough to make the turn. In mid turn, he sticks his head and left arm out the window and waves his white handkerchief up and down, higher than the roof and then back down, again and again and again, a white blurred arc shining bright enough for the world to see. His right arm is shaking from holding the steering wheel by itself, yet he pulls it with will power that would have steered the Titanic free from harm. Tires screech and we skid through an improbably sharp left turn. He’s shouting: “Get out d’ way! Get out d’ way!” The universe abides, and the river of cars along Plank Road parts like the Red Sea did for Moses.

I’m cradled in Keith’s arm and probably below the level of the window, but through the lens of my memory I see the oak tree and its branch with my swing pointing us the right way. Regardless of whether I actually saw the tree or not, the momentum of our sharp turn makes my head flop over, and the tree vanishes from my mind. All I can see is blood flowing with the same momentum that moved my head, splashing around Keith’s feet. He shouts something. I’m drained and unable to refill the lakes. I loose consciousness.

I wake up to the smell of PawPaw. I open my eyes and see him sideways, like when I wake up on the couch. I sit upright. He’s asleep on a chair next to me. He reeks of body odor and chainsaw oil and cigarettes, and he has thick stubble on his chin and cheeks, grey as the moss on our tree. He wakes up and sees me looking at him and and smiles, but his eye belie his fatigue; I say eye, not eyes, because that was the first time I noticed that PawPaw’s left eye was never bloodshot; more than forty years later, Craig would tell me PawPaw lost an eye on a destroyer in WWII. That day in the hospital, I see that his left eye is as it always has been, but his right eye is streaked with red blood veins. Under that eye, the leathery creases in his dark tanned skin are caked white with dried salt. He looks as if he is squinting with his bloodshot eye, as if all the lubrication where gone and his eyelid wouldn’t slide all the way back up.

“Hey d’er, Lil’ Buddy,” he says. “’Bout time you woke up.”

He pulls out his handkerchief, now dirty and stiff in places, and sniffs, wipes deep inside his nostrils, and smiles the most grateful smile you’ve ever seen.

I’m in Our Lady of the Lake Hospital’s children’s ward, though that’s a lie: they have no lake, so I can’t go fishing while I stay there. I have a shaved head and I’m wearing a turbine made from bandages. The gate scalped me, cutting a gouge along the back of my head, peeling a flap loose and exposing my skull and shredding my veins. The nurses change the bandage, and use two mirrors to show me a big letter C on the back of my head. PawPaw tells me I have 82 stitches, that they needed a lot of room to put the second brain inside.

MawMaw shows up and PawPaw goes home to get cleaned up. They alternate staying with me for a few days. Doctors shine a flashlight in my eyes every day and keep asking me questions, like what’s my name, what town do we live in, and who’s my favorite cartoon character. (It was Spiderman.) They must not have been too smart, because they keep forgetting my answers and ask the same things every time they come to see me. I tell PawPaw that, and he says that’s what happens when you have two brains: you remember more than other people. He says I’m the strongest and bravest kid in the hospital, and now that I have two brains I’ll be the smartest person in Baton Rouge. I agree. I feel as strong as he told me I was. I ask if we can go fishin.’ He chuckles and says we’d go fishin’ in the pond as soon as I’m home, or maybe even drive out to False River and fish from the scanoe. I ask when. He says maybe in a couple of days, depending on what the doctors say.

I watch a lot of television while I wait. Our Lady of the Lake had a big color television in the play room, the first time I had seen color TV, much less on a TV as big as a wall. Popeye and Friends comes on Saturday morning after the Buckskin Bill Black show. It was the first time I had seen Popeye; it wasn’t the earlier version, when Popeye was by himself, it was – perhaps coincidentally – when Popeye takes care of Olive Oil and her baby, Sweet Pea, by eating spinach and getting stronger. I think Popeye looks like Pawpaw, especially after seeing PawPaw squinting when I woke up. And, like Like PawPaw, Popeye smokes and laughs a lot and mumbles when he talks. The next time the doctors forget my favorite cartoon character, I tell them it’s Popeye. That causes a commotion, and I have to explain myself. Later, when they forget again, I remind them that it’s Popeye. They don’t ask me to explain why that time.

On my last day, I’m watching Batman and Superfriends on the big color TV. They have back-to-back episodes, and it’s the season where super friends teach magic tricks at the end of each episode. That’s how I learn that Batman isn’t really strong, it was just a magic trick, unlike Popeye. Batman teaches Robin how to break a rolled up newspaper with bare hands when other people can’t. Batman keeps a glass of water hidden nearby, and somehow no one notices that he dips his fingers in it and wets the paper when no one’s looking. He breaks the wet weak paper effortlessly, and seems stronger than he is. I feel let down. It was just a trick. No wonder he needs a utility belt.

But, I’m impressed by Aquaman. He doesn’t use tricks to pretend he’s strong, he makes things vanish. To this day, I still use what I learned in Our Lady of the Lake that spring. Aquaman’s sitting at a table and he wraps newspaper around the bottom of Batman’s empty glass of water. (I assume Aquaman drank the water.) You can’t see the glass, just the shape. He turns it upside down and covers a coin on the table with it. He says he’ll make the coin disappear. He lifts the newspaper covered glass to make sure the coin’s still there, and slowly puts it back down. He concentrates, then slams his hand down onto the glass. The newspaper crushes, but we don’t hear glass break. He lifts the crumpled newspaper and shows that the glass vanished instead of the coin. All of the Superfriends gasp! Not even Superman’s x-ray vision can find the glass, and not even Wonder Woman’s magic lasso can uncover the secret. Aquaman explains misdirection to us. He said he talked about the coin so we would focus on it, not the glass in his hand. When he le let the glass fall into his lap while we watched the coin. He kept the newspaper held lightly, like I hold PawPaw’s Camels so they don’t squish, and it looked like he still held the glass when he set it on top of the coin. The trick was over before anyone knew it had begun.4

During the commercial break, I play with the pile of toys in Our Lady of the Lake’s kids common room. I was shy around other kids, and pushed myself around the room on a wooden four wheel bicycle with handlebars like Brian’s motorcycle. Suddenly, a commercial caught my attention and I stopped moving and stared at the television. The kids on TV had a Stretch Armstrong, a blonde haired strongman that looked remarkably like Keith. The strongest of the kids could stretch Stretch Armstrong’s arms out, holding one arm in each and and heaving like it was an exercise band. The other kids were impressed. They all laughed together, stretching Stretch Armstrong between them. I wanted one. Maybe it seeing something on color TV, or maybe it was seeing the group of kids playing together with it when I secretly wanted to play with the kids in our common room; regardless, I wanted a Stretch Armstrong more than anything I’ve ever wanted before or since.

“I want a Stretch Armstrong,” I tell PawPaw on the way home from Our Lady of the Lake Sunday morning.

I’m riding in the passenger side of his truck. On the bucket seat between us, the foam showing through threadbare vinyl is stained dark red. The floorboard has so much old oil and grease that I can’t see if it’s stained red, too. PawPaw’s clean shaven again and smells like Old Spice again. I say I want to get as strong as Keith, and that takes hard work and exercise. What would happen if Keith weren’t there to lift the gate next time? I need to be able to lift it myself.

“We’ll see, Lil’ Buddy” he says, chuckling like Popeye.

We’re driving down Plank Road. I hold my hand flat out the window, and I notice that it flies up and down like Superman. I imagine I’m flying like superman, higher than airplanes. We gently turn right at the oak tree. It looks smaller now. I must have grown. I’m flying and I’m the bravest little man in Baton Rouge, and I know all the secrets that super heroes know. Only PawPaw knew that about me, though. The kids in the common room didn’t. I just needed a Stretch Armstrong to help me get stronger, then I’d show everyone what I could do. I could do anything I wanted, after all, especially now that I had a second brain.

Go to The Table of Contents

Ed White and Jason Partin
Paw Paw and me, 1976
MawMaw and me, mid 1970’s
PawPaw in his scanoe, circa mid 1970’s

Footnotes:

  1. PawPaw lived off Hooper Road, not Foster Road. Hooper intersects near Plank a mile east of the Baton Rouge airport, about two miles north of Tony’s Seafood and a few miles west of Glen Oaks High School. Foster Road is farther away and looked similar back then, but more developed and not as walkable. I probably remembered Hooper Road as Foster Road because people would say they were taking me to my foster parent’s house, and we sometimes took Foster Road to get there. ↩︎
  2. Wendy remembered the song as “Saturday in the Park,” by Chicago, and said that we used to sing the lyrics, “Saturday / in the park / I think it was the 4th of July.” I remember singing that with her, too, especially when we did it on the 4th of July, but never with Debbie. Debbie passed before I could ask her. Debbie adored Janis Joplin and always carried a blue bandana, similar to Janice’s red one, so maybe my mind links the song to being with Debbie and Wendy linked being in a park with Chicago. According to Wikipedia, Me and Bobby McGee was released in 1971, a few months after Janis’s 1970 death, and Saturday in the Park was released in 1972. Both songs were popular on the radio in 1976, and Me and Bobby McGee still is. It was probably played more often in Baton Rouge than Saturday in the Park because of the lyrics about Janis passing through Baton Rouge, which may be another reason it sticks in my mind so strongly when I think of listening to the radio in Wendy’s Datsun throughout the 70’s. ↩︎
  3. It wasn’t Keith, but I wouldn’t learn that until after Big Daddy’s funeral in 1990. In 1976, I knew Keith and he was a humongous 17 year old who could have easily heaved that heavy metal gate off me, but he would later tell me he never helped PawPaw burn wood and trash. The only time Keith came over was with my dad when they picked me up for weekend visits. Kieth said Mr. White had a lot of side gigs, and that one of them was training newly released prisoners to be tree surgeons. Most people call tree surgeons tree arborists, landscapers, or gardeners. Most of the prisoners were African Americans or the darker skinned Creoles and Cajuns, so any one of them that was blue-eyed and blonde-haired must have stood out and looked enough like Keith and Big Daddy that my mind’s eye sees Keith cradling me in his arm to this day. For me as an adult, what remains interesting is that even though I know it wasn’t Keith who pulled the gate off me, 45 years later I still see him vividly in my mind’s eye that day, albeit not as a 17 year old but as a grown man and how he looked when we talked about my head scar in 1990. In other words, my memory is like the spider web blocking PawPaw’s window; every time I peer back in time, my mind reforms the image it as best it can using whatever associations are strongest. I still see the event as clearly as if it had been recorded, but I know it’s fake news. ↩︎
  4. Superman and Wonder Woman didn’t see Aquaman perform that trick. He sat at the table by himself, which is verifiable in internet archives of the Superfriends cartoons that aired between 1973 and 1982. I see the episode accurately in my mind today, because I watched it again, but I remember thinking about Superman and Wonder Woman watching him perform, and that probably clouded my earlier memories. I probably watched so many cartoons in the hospital that I imagined the Super Friends as real people, and knew that that Superman was strong enough to tear Batman’s rolled up newspaper without needing a glass of water, and he could have also seen through Aquaman’s newspaper to know that the glass was already gone, no matter how good Aquaman was at misdirection. As for Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth, it made sense to me that if you really wanted to know a secret, just ask Wonder Woman to use her magic rope; that’s probably why Aquaman wouldn’t performed magic around her. Aquaman, of course, would have already known the secret Batman used to make paper weak with water, because he was Aquaman. ↩︎