Big Head Ben and The King of Fling
I never liked being called the ‘most decorated’ soldier. There were so many guys who should have gotten medals and never did–Audie Murphy
guys who were killed.
Later that evening, after most of our friends and neighbors had gone home and the kids were sprawled out on sleeping pads in Hope’s room, pretending they were asleep so they could chat by headlamp later, a few of us sipped beers on the balcony by the glow of a waning crescent moon. I’m lucky, and we have the biggest balcony on Earth that faced Balboa Park; it allows me enough space to stand and walk around while most people prefer to sit; I have a few neck and back injuries that make sitting uncomfortable, and I’m happier in moderate, constant motion, especially with friends who are used to it and don’t ask questions that have long answers.
Big Head Ben, Princess Leah, and Neighbor Carl were with me, and we were chatting about Life, The Universe, and Everything. Cristi and Neighbor Sandra were doing dishes. Cristi had heard Ben and Leah and my stories many times at Comic Cons in San Diego and Mardi Gras’s in both New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and she knew how long they were and how much we laughed at inside jokes, and she was happy doing dishes and checking in on the kids while we had a few beers on the balcony. Lysandra and her were chatting away while I sipped a homebrew IPA with old friends.
“I’d like to write a book,” I said to Ben, somewhat randomly, “about our senior trip after your dad and Big Daddy died; and the first Gulf war, of course.”
“Dude,” Ben said, “You have to tell them us getting on David Letterman! I still have the VCR tape, but I had it digitized and saved. It’s on my Dropbox, if you’d like to download a copy.”
“I’d like to hear about David Letterman,” Neighbor Carl said. His name was Carleton, and we had been neighbors and friends for about ten years, and like a lot of us shortened his name now and then to fewer sylables, like Benjamen was Ben, Lysandra was Sandy, Christina was Cristi, and Andrea Leighanne was Lea. Over time, Carl and Sandy had heard Cristi and me mention writing books about many topics, ranging from education to physics to my Partin family history; and he understood why I had waited thirty years, until after my mom had passed; everything was online, and my custody court records would have shown her part in my story, and she would have felt shamed or sad or any word that I didn’t want her to feel. As Cranky Ken had said was his favorite line in Uncle Doug’s memoir, some secrets needed to stay secret for many different reasons. Carleton was a good neighbor and friend, who limited his questions to deepening understanding of what was shared rather than prying, and he was always welcomed to chime in whenever he wanted.
Carleton hadn’t met Ben before, and didn’t know that Ben was quite the loquacious story teller, and that he was always thrilled by a captive audience. As long as I’ve known him, most of Big Head Ben’s stories start with him grinning and taking a deep breath and and saying, “No shit, there we were…”
“No shit, there we were,” Ben began, after grinning and taking a deep breath. “Magik and I had graduated high school in the May of 1990 – holy shit! that was almost thirty years ago – and we were drove across country the summer before I went to college and he went to the 82nd. Well, not really across, but a loop up the east coast and through Canada and back down the midwest. We were going to see my brother, Todd, compete in the international marching band competition. He was in the Phantom Regiment, and was spending the summer in Chicago training with them and would compete in Toronoto that summer. My mom and little brother would meet us there. My dad and his grandfather had just died, and…” he paused and glanced at me, and I said that Neighbor Carl knew the Partin family facts, but not the Abrams history.
“OK then. My dad had died of AIDS just before we graduated, and he had died slowly over my senior year. We had kept it a secret, but after Magik took care of his Uncle Bob for so long, he knew enough to come over. When he died, we still weren’t sure how AIDS was transmitted, so we kept it a secret to everyone except a few of our friends, and they were my dad’s palbearers, and were my saving grace back then. I wasn’t handling not being able to talk openly, and I don’t know what I wouldn’t have done without friends I trusted, like Magik, Steve, and Caldwell” trmy family had kept it a secret and I was shocked to learn that he had been homosexual all his life, and had used his HAM radio and code words to meet men, and that’s why not many of his friends attended his funeral and Magik and Steve and Caldwell had been palbearers; and we didn’t know about how AIDS was transmitted, so my mom had insisted we tell them so that they could choose their own level of risk…””
interjected, and told Carleton, who grew up knowing about AIDS, that in the late 80’s no one did. The Reagan administration wouldn’t admit it after the first few cases in 1985, and the words “AIDS” and “HIV” weren’t used by the federal government until around 1989. By then, the social stigma of AIDS was deeply ingrained in the public’s mind, especially in the overtly and vociferously religious “bible belt” of the south, especially in Baton Rouge, where TV evangelicals like Jimmy Swaggart ran a lucrative radio and book business, and many religious leaders old their followers that God was using AIDS to weed out the faggots, deviants, sodomites, drug addicts, and people who didn’t, apparently, praise Jesus and send checks to Jimmy Swaggart ministries or send their children to the Jimmy Swaggart accademy.
“Oh, yeah, I always forget about that,” Ben admitted. He was my age, and we assume things. He added, “Reagan didn’t even use the word or admit it was a disease until the late 80’s, and by then my dad had AIDS and my mom had HIV.”
“She never knew,” I clarified. “I mean, she never knew he was having extramarital affairs, and she never knew he preferred men. He was a traveling salesman for sporting goods, and his HAM radio lingo let him set up rendevous’s”
We debated how to pronounce “rendevous’s” a bit, and laughed about how people kept sending checks to Jimmy Swaggart after he was arrested the second time for drunk driving with a pile of porno magazines in the trunk and a Plank Street Hooker in the passenger seat.
I met the Abrams boys when they were dropping out of sports – both had quit the wrestling team – and they were saying their dad had cancer. I was lying about a lot of things, so were they. We bonded. Leah had been one of my oldest friends, and was, coincidentally, in Todd Abrams’s mixed martial arts dojo. Over time, we formed a group of people who knew each others’s secrets and had seen each other at our best and our worse and found ways to spend time together over thirty years. The common link was Mrs. Abrams.
After M. Abrams had died, she and I would chat alone quite a bit. I had tried to cheer her up, perhaps not consciously, but I had always appreciated a quote from Kurt Vonnegut about laughter and tears both being responses to trauma, and that, if you could, choose laughter because you used fewer Kleenex’s to clean up after. Kleenex’s were for happy moments, Leah would say, smiling and raising an eyebrow mischieviously, and together we all laughed and had many chats with Mrs. Abrams. I told her about my grandfather, who had died only a few weeks before Mr. Abrams, and though only a handful of Ben and Todd’s friends had attended his funeral – perhaps because of the stigma, and that his friends had all been secretive and were no willing to come out to a funeral – Big Daddy’s funneral had been national news and so full of spectators and celebrities and people crying for what a good person he had been, that I wanted to set the record straight for Mrs. Abrams, to show her that a small group of people who knew and loved you was much more important than hundreds of sychophants and a handfull of reporters from Time, Life, the NT Times, and even the LA Times.
“Mamma Jean showed me the bible a few times,” I told Mrs. Abrams. “I don’t remember all ten of the commandments, but I know Big Daddy had violated at least seven of them, that I can count.” I raised my left hand in a thumbs-up fist, and began counting on my thumb with my right forefinger.
“Rape. Murder. Adultery. Lying. Stealing.” I said, pausing for effect. My left hand was held in a high-five and my right forefinger was pointing to it; and, for the first time, I noticed the small gap between my middle and ring finger that hadn’t been there at Big Daddy’s funeral, just after I had wrestled Hillary Clinton in the city finals. That was the beginning of paying attention to the gap widening over the next year or so.
Distracted by the still fresh memory of wrestling Hillary, and perhaps influenced or even traumatized by it – he had been a three time undefeated state champ, and was a monster – I rotted my left hand and continued counting on my right fingers.
“Rape.” I said, and added that though it’s technically not a sin, I liked saying it twice to emphasize the “point” as I pointed with my left open hand at my right thumbs up fist. I smiled at the pun, and said that I believed that if, as my cousins believe, Big Daddy made it to heaven, perhaps he and God could squable over words, and maybe God would tweak the ten commandments to protect little girls from men like Big Daddy.
I continued counting.
“He bore false witness against Jimmy Hoffa and a handful of other people,” repeating what Doug had said, but not knowing if it were true about Jimmy, but knowing it had been true about other people.
“Kidnapping. But, like rape, that’s technically not a sin.”
“Pulling a knife on my dad. Same thing.”
“And Mamma Jean said he stopped going to church on Sundays a bit before he and Hoffa began planning to kill Kennedy.”
I looked at my seven fingers raised in midair and searched my brain for a tenth; I had been practicing this routine like a drawn out card trick. Ten was a hard number to recall. Seven digits in a phone number were hard enough. I said just as much, and said that’s probably why Mamma Jean pointed to what Jesus said, and even Jesus couldn’t recall all ten.
“And I never saw him worship another god or curse, but I don’t know what he did in the privacy of his prison cell. But “rape” is good enough to count three times,” I raised my right pinky finger, “and that’s all ten. And yet his funeral was filled with people saying they loved him. We all loved Mr. Abrams, and I’m sorry he’s gone, too.”
Mrs. Abrams did, indeed smile and chuckle a bit, and she hugged me tightly and as she was holding me cried a bit and said that she never knew her husband would cheat, much less with a man, and that he’d lie. And that she had HIV, too, and was still caring for him the best she could, because forgiveness is for us, not for them.
Ben mentioned something about Mrs. Abrams inviting me to stay in their home as long as I’d like.
“I’ll never forget that moment,” I chimed in to Ben and Lea without telling the story to Carl.
Ben and Leah the only two friends left alive who had met my grandfather and knew my version of things back then, two years before President Clinton released the first part of the 1979 JFK Assassination Report, and, after the war, when I visited Mrs. Abrams, they remembered me saying that the moment she welcomed me into their home was when I put to rest a little boy named Dolly, Feet, and Fartin’ Partin; and I no longer cared about Big Daddy and my Partin family. They would have to find their own Mrs. Abrams, I had joked, and I said that she had freed me more than any emancipation paperwork could have.
“Anyway, to make a long story longer, Magik and I were always good friends, and after his grandfather died he told us that he thought his family had been behind President Kennedy’s assassination. We all knew he had sent Hoffa to prison – everyone knew that – and as crazy as it sounded, we believed him. And he never judged my dad. We probably became closer friends because we trusted each other and understood why we had both lied to each other for years. We haven’t told big lies to anyone since that 1990 trip; but, of course, when someone asks me about my parents I say they died when I was a teenager, just to make a long story short. And if someone doesn’t pick up on the hint and pushes too far, I still say cancer and a brain aneurism only a few years apart, just like Magik stops at saying his grandfather sent Hoffa to prison and stopping there. Of course, in his case, that’s what Wikipedia says, so it’s hard to hide. But even before the internet everyone had seen the movies and magazines and knew that about Ed Partin, so there was no hiding it. We became so close because we could be open and honest with each other, and spent a lot of time together over the years on the wrestling team and our senior trip, and that’s probably why everything’s a long story with us…”
Ben rambled on a bit longer, and I asked him to cut to the chase, prompting Neighbor Carl to chime in.
“Just like an old movie,” he said. “They would film everything in a car chase or action scene, then in editing physically cut all the random pats out of and reglue them together at the chase scene, which is what most people want to see. It’s like with President Kennedy and Jack Ruby, everyone wants to see the shots, not the whole story, and that’s what sells books and movies.”
Carleton had gone to film school in Hollywood, briefly, and made a few short films with friends; though, the world “film” was used for things they made on their iPhones, and Carl enjoyed connecting the dots between old sayings, like “cut to the chase,” and new technologies, like digital editing, so that people learned ground zero for phrases that were more like concepts he used in his craft. He was an old school, old soul, in a way.
“Yes,” I chimed in, “and to cut to the chase, you can read my thoughts on the Kennedy assassination in the final chapter, ‘My thoughts on the Kennedy assassination.’ Of course, it’s a work in progress; we don’t have the shared vocabulary and phrases to tell it quickly yet.”
“Got it,” Ben said. “So, no shit, there we were, in Washington DC…”
We bust out laughing together, and said, in unison, as if we had told the same story dozens of times: “Home of the Greaseman Grease Vanilly on DC 101. And here’s today’s traffic beat…”
We automatically chimed in with a chorus form AC/DC’s: “We’re on the hiiiiighway to Hell! We’re on the hiiiiighway to hell!” and laughed so hard we had to pause and wipe tears from our eyes.
“So we go see Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and, of course, Kennedy’s grave. We couldn’t believe how many people crowded around it, crying like they had loved him even though it had been, what…,” he looked up and did some quick math, “almost thirty years by then. Wow! that was thirty years ago! We’re old!”
No one disagreed, and I’m still unsure how I feel about that.
“Magik and I had obviously heard about Kennedy’s death, and we both remembered when Reagan got shot, but we never felt emotional about it. It was all ancient history to us. But, seeing all of those people crying and saying how much Kennedy had meant to them, the first Irish Catholic young and charming president, made us begin seeing the bigger picture about Kennedy.”
I reminded Ben about Audie Murphy. Just like back then, some parts of the story are more in my mind than his, and vice-versa.
“Oh, yeah, I almost forgot about that. Magik and I followed a tour group that we overheard telling a lot about Kennedy. We followed far behind, so they wouldn’t notice we hadn’t paid, and joked that it was like practice for the army or being a secret agent. It was fun to pretend we knew nothing about Kennedy’s death, and to listen to people say things we knew weren’t true. The group stopped at Audie Murphy’s site, and the tour guide said it was the second most visited site in Arlington Cemetery, second only to President Kennedy’s, and that Audie Murphy was America’s most decorated war hero.
I interjected, for Carleton’s sake, both to clarify that he knew who Audie was, and to top off his beer from the kegerator, and to give everyone an opportunity to politely excuse themselves and go to the restroom or to help Cristi with the dishes or chat inside; she had known Ben long enough to know that his stories rambled even more than mine. We sipped beers for a few moments to change the momentum, and I told Carleton, who was almost twenty years younger, that, at the time, Ben and I had thought Audie Murphy was just another actor playing the role of a WWII soldier. He had stared in almost forty films, and though Ben and my grandparents’s generation had viewed him as a national hero for decades, our parents’s generation only recalled him as an actor, and by Carleton’s time few people recalled his name.
“And, to sink the message home even more, just before my first jump in Airborne school, I visited the Infantry Museum in Georgia, and there was a huge display of him next to a display on President Kennedy. Side by side. It showed a huge wall sized photo of Kennedy in Vietnam as a merchant marine with a MK 19 grenade launcher and a lot of special forces memorabilia from his presidency, and it was next to the Audie Murphy display.”
Ben had never heard that part, surprisingly, and I continued.
“So there I was, about to jump for the fist time, and I was staring at Kennedy and Audie Murphy again, only a few months later. It was an important moment for me. I read Audie’s memoir, “To Hell and Back,” the one made into a movie that made him famous, and all the quotes from famous people who said he had been their inspiration growing up. He was an All American Hero, not my grandfather. And, of course, I was going to the 82nd, “The All Americans,” and my mind saw patterns and wondered if Mrs. Abrams had been right, that God had brought me into her life for a reason, and that, perhaps, there would be a point to my family history one day. I saw that Audie had died poor – at that time I still believed Big Daddy had had him killed – and that even at the end, he refused to accept lucrative advertising contracts for tobacco and alcohol – it was the 70’s – because he loved his mother and knew she wouldn’t want him being an unwholesome influence on children who looked up to him. It was like Spider Man, with great fame comes accountability, and he never lied. He had become addicted to uppers and downers to deal with his PTSD – he and Big Daddy had swapped drugs back then – and he was one of the first war heroes to use his fame to advocate for PTSD help and mental healthcare for All Americans. He, like Big Daddy, slept with a loaded revolver under his pillow; and, he was also always smiling. It sunk in a message that had been shown to me in Arlington cemetery and all the stories Uncle Doug had told me, and I walked out of the Infantry Museum and two days later began my five jumps for Airborne, and two weeks later I was in a war.”
“It was a rememberable moment for me,” I emphasized. Even Ben doesn’t see how deeply it sunk in when I saw Audie and Kennedy at the Infantry Museum.
I stopped rambling, and Ben continued.
“So, no shit, there we were, listening to a huge group of people talk about Audie Murphy, and a few of them start talking about Magik’s grandfather. They still wondered if Ed Partin had killed Audie. We were flabergasted! I mean, everyone in Baton Rouge knew him, of course, but to overhear people in Washington DC talking about him killing Audie Murphy shocked us.”
I interjected, and briefly recounted how Audie had died in an airplane crash in Virginia a few days after leaving the airport, and all four passengers died. His wreck has been investigated, and online reports confirm it was pilot error. But, in Doug’s 2018 memoir, I said, he still swears that Big Daddy had something to do with Audie’s death, despite all the evidence, just like a lot of other people did in 1990. Doug would always laugh and joke that Big Daddy could have anyone killed he wanted to, and that he had even threatened to kill Doug if he kept talking so much. All of us recalled the date of Audie’s crash, because, in my recollection of events told to me by Wendy, that was the month my dad had a slight nervous breakdown and was confused at why his father was spending so much time with Audie and Richard Nixon, and it was the month she had met him and was sad about her boyfriend’s death and had respected my dad’s definance. For Doug, Audie’s 1971 crash was too coincidentally the date of Aunt Cynthia’s wedding, and Big Daddy had made quite a point of being photographed at the wedding with lots of witnesses. Doug always insisted that Big Daddy wouldn’t have been above orchestrating the deaths of a plane full of people to keep secrets; that line always stuck with me.
Carleton digested what I said while he sipped his beer, and said he was happy to hear people use the word “flabergasted,” and Ben continued, picking up where we had been surprised, shocked, and dumbfounded by being a silent observer to people whispering my grandfather’s name in Arlington Cemetery, as if they were afraid to speak what they knew out loud. Ben continued telling us about what happened next, and all the baseball games we saw, and his favorite parts of the Smithsonian Museum, and, of course, our daily morning ritual of listening to the Greaseman on DC 101, the city where the bitch set him up.
“Washington DC’s Mayor Berry had just been arrested for using crack cocaine with hookers,” I interjected for Carleton’s sake.
“He made national news, of course,” I said, “And, when he was being arrested, instead of being silent he was recorded as saying, ‘Goddamn! The bitch set me up!’ and the Greaseman looped that quote on his morning show and for a while DC 101’s slogan was ‘the city where the bitch set him up.’ Ben would turn it on while shaving – I was still too young to shave back then – and, to us, the Greaseman show was one of the funniest things we had ever heard; it was nice to see other people laughing about serious things so that a larger audience could be let in on the joke.”
“Well,” Carleton said, sipping his beer and then choosing his words as best he could. “I hope the hookers made enough money from their book or movie deal to stop hooking and doing crack with politicians.”
We raised a toast to prostitutes all over the world, wishing them success in setting up any hypocrite they can.
Ben continued, “So all of that’s on our mind, and we drive from DC to New York City to stay with…” he explained how we were staying with girls we had met on our weekend mini senior trip with practically the entire graduating class of 1990, a ritual where every year teenagers descend upon Panama City in the panhandle of Florida a few hours from Baton Rouge.
“The Redneck Riviera,” Carleton said. “I’ve seen that on old youtube videos of MTV’s spring break shinanipans. Of course the two of you would have gone there on your senior trip.”
“Exactly!” Ben said, and said the girls from New York had tought we were handsome and charming and they loved our accents, and had invited us to stay with them and their parents on Long Island, if we ever made it to New York.
Ben had always been good at finding free places to stay in expensive cities, I said, grinning broadly, and no one disagreed.
“No shit, there we were, with tickets to Late Night with David Letterman on August 3rd, 1990. Magik had been doing three card monte around the CBS building, and that guy we kept seeing on the trip bumped into us again and told us about free tickets to fill seats for the 11am filming of that night’s show. Of course we said yes! And just like that, we were inside CBS and on the set of the David Lettermen show. We stank from having stayed out all night on the streets…”
He rambled about the prostitutes who had grabbed our crotches and how much fun we had performing tricks for them, literally. Ben, like his mother, was and is a Christian who, though not explictly stated to avoid prostitutes, simply felt that anyone who sold themselves must have had a rough childhood, and the most Christian thing we could do was treat them as the Good Samaritan would; their wounds may not be visible, but we could still help them, and he thought it was remarkable that I performed magic tricks for a group of prostitutes on 50th Avenue, the red light district just around the corner form CBS. But, I was glad; I hadn’t thought about that part in years, and it had been a lot of fun. I smiled and let him continue.
“So, Magik’s wearing this ridiculous hat with a grinning, creepy cartoon magician in a tuxedo and top hat and extending his big magic wand, and the hat says, ‘It’s not the length of the wand, it’s the magic in it…”
I interjected, “One of the wrestlers gave me that at a graduation gift.” I probably wanted to justify why I’d wear such a hat in public, much less on international television. “And someone else had given me an Orlando Magic hat; the team had just formed, and Shaquelle Oneal had left LSU to play pro ball there.”
“Shaquille O’Neal wasn’t drafted by the Orlando Magic until 1992,” Ben interjected. “However, I did go to college with him at LSU from Fall of ’90 until Spring of ’92.
“Thanks. I never followed sports. I had the Orlando Magic hat then, but, for some reason, I wore the magic wand hat, probably because it made me smile more than the Orlando hat. And, me smiling and that hat started more conversations with people on our trip, like, well… I guess with those hookers on 54th Street.” I smiled like the magician on my hat had smiled, and held up my beer glass as if were a wand with lots of magic in it.
“52nd Street,” Ben corrected. “54th was from the movie A Miracle on 54th Street. Those hookers were on 52nd.”
I shrugged at that detail, and said, “So, Big Head Ben’s in one isle of the David Letterman audience with his big noggin’ standing out above everyone else, and I’m across the isle and a a few seats behind and wearing a ridiculous magic hat that stood out.”
“Right!” Ben said. “And then Dave comes out and tells some jokes and gets us warmed up and conditioned to the ‘applause’ sign, and then the cameras began filming and a guy on a mountain bike drops down the stairs and the isle between us, and he hops around and up and down and onto the stage with Dave, and they joke around a few minutes. And then Cindi Crawford came on…”
We both smiled and paused and looked wistfully into the air, remembering what it was like to be an 18 year old and 17 year old with all of our hormones and seeing the world’s most famous supermodel only a few feet away. She had just been in a Superbowl commercial, sipping Pepsi, and the entire world fell in love with her and that beauty mark, and we were only a few feet away from her, and I was wearing an embarrassingly awkward hat, and that’s proof, to me, that not all choices are necessarily mature and useful when hoping to meet a supermodel.
“And then Martin Downey Jr. comes out,” I said, “fresh out of rehab, and he talks with Dave about his drug use and making a comeback in films.”
“Robert Downey Jr.,” Ben corrected. I said “of course,” and then, perhaps because the beers were kicking in, I over-explained and went into too much detail about what Carl already knew, that I swap names in my mind, just like my dad did.
“I grew up thinking my name was Justin-Goddamnit-Jason Partin,” I said, an old joke I had been making since a kid in order to not feel badly that my dad called me by the wrong name so often. I didn’t realize I did it, too, until I was being interviewed about a few battles after the war, and I kept swapping the names of the M1 Abrams tank the M2 Bradley fighting vehicle, no matter how many times I was corrected over the years. I thought about how that had happened, and only partially listened to Ben’s version of what happened next.
I still joke with Big Head Ben and Princess Leah that those hookers on 52nd Street were the real miracle on 54th Street, if only to get Ben to chime in. That was one of his favorite stories, too. The lovely young ladies who earned their livelihood hookin’ on the street had laughed about our southern accents, and how we kept calling them “ma’am,” and they took us arm in arm and strolled around New York City as our free tour guides, nothing more; it’s one of both our favorite memories from our 1990 senior road trip.
Carlton interjected and we talked about actors and films for a bit to reduce the momentum of old stories, and we talked about Robert Downey’s role as Tony Stark and Iron Man, and how he stopped doing drugs and practiced martial arts and was, from our perspective, being paid to be himself as Tony Stark, and modeling the role after Elon Musk, just as the creators of Iron Man had modeled Tony Stark off of Howard Hughes. I said it was funny to see him on David Letterman being celebrated for doing tons of cocaine, heroin, pot, and of course alcohol and tobacco; yet my dad had been vilified and sent to prison for two pounds of shitty shake weighed with the rat turds included. We all laughed at how ignorant people and laws can be, and talked about Comic Con and all the stars down the hill from me that weekend, and we took turns taking bathroom breaks and topping off our beers. After we settled back down, Ben continued.
“So, of course we called everyone we knew and told them to record that night’s David Letterman. We didn’t want to trust just one person to do it, so we called a bunch of people. It cost us a fortune in quarters! We ran out of money and only had enough for a large NY style pizza and a train ride back to Long Island. Magik kept his four half dollars, just in case he wanted to perform for tips; but, instead, we stayed up late eating pizza with Audry…”
Her name had coincidentally been Audry, like Audie, and I still write “Audry Murphie” about half the time because the names are the same in my mind. Back then, that coincidental similarity had led to a lot of conversations between Ben and me about learning styles and what we call learning disabilities, and it would influence both of our lives and how we spoke with children. And we chatted about coincidences, and the coincidences simply became jokes. The short version is that on that trip, we chatted about nothing and Life, The Universe, and Everything; I hope that everyone can share moments like that with at least one person or hope or belief or Being in their lives. But, Ben and I discussed if God were able to speak through coincidences, or if that was just a sign of schizophrenia.
At my grandfather’s funeral, Walter Sheridan told me that Big Daddy and likely our entire family had schizophrenia, and of course i get the irony of having the FBI tell you that you imagine seeing things and overanalyze coincidences and believe in government conspiracies. Sometimes, my life felt as if I were under drugs, hallucinating, or crazy. As Ben said, he and I had a lot of time to sort through a lot of things on that trip.
”…and a group of her friends and The Funnel of Fear and a bunch of cases of beer they had brought to Audry’s party. Magik wasn’t drinking back then, but he could funnel beer faster than anyone! He had set a record at MTV’s spring break once and had the nickname “The Funnel King” for a while, and I cajoled him into coming out of retirement at Audry’s.”
“Everyone there was older than us, at least 19 or 20,” Ben told Carleton, mostly. “and even that old, they had had to find someone 21 to buy beer for the party, and that’s when it first sunk in that Louisiana was the only state to still have an 18 year old drinking age, and we even had drive-through daiquiri shops and buckets of iced beer by gasoline self-serve islands. The New York people were around 20 years old, and still sneaking beer, and Magik realized he would spend three years in the army and get out and still not be able to buy a beer anywhere but Louisiana; and that was funny, in a bullshit kinda way, especially because if enough 18 year olds voted they could make old people do whatever they wanted. After that party, that was the first time Magik and I talked about democracy.”
I was pleasantly buzzed, and I raised a pseudo toast to democracy, whatever that means, and Ben continued.
“So everyone hushes and we gather around the TV that night,” Ben said, slowing his tempo to emphasize that a point was, finally, coming. “And, sure enough, there’s me and Magik in the audience, and Magik’s wearing that ridiculous hat and looking like he’s constipated…”
“I had had four half dollars palmed in my right hand since filming began,” I interjected. “I thought that maybe that was my chance at fifteen minutes of fame, and I was trying to play it cool, and, if the opportunity arose for whatever reason, I’d produce them one at a time and be set up for either coins across or hanging coins, depending on if I were asked to show something on stage or in the audience.”
“Right!” Ben said, “and you looked constipated, because you were concentrating so hard on not being noticed.”
I didn’t deny that.
“Just then, after Magik’s constipated face and that ridiculous hat was seen all over the world, the news interrupted Late Night With David Letterman. We all groaned and said we didn’t care about the news, we wanted to see Cindi Crawford. Most people got up and looked for lone slices of pizza lingering in one of the boxes or grabbed a beer from the fridge, but Magik and I watched the TV in case it cut back to Dave. And, not shit, it was a special announcement from the president, last minute, breaking news, that Iraq had just invaded Kuwait and that he sent the 82nd to Saudi Arabia to draw a line in the sand.
Carleton agreed that that was a remarkable coincidence, especially with all of my scars from the wars, and Ben continued.
“So, of course I knew it was important to Magik, but we were kids and didn’t really empathize, just like we dind’t really understand anything in Arlington Cemetery. But, from that day on, Magik kept paying attention to the news and talking about it like I talked about baseball and Cecil Fields…”
Ben went on to describe how we would see Cecil Fields set a Guiness records batting average in Yankee Stadium later that week, and that we’d see him again in the Detroit Tiger’s stadium, but had missed him in Toronto’s Blue Jay Sky Dome.
“And that’s the point,” Ben said. “Empathy. No matter how much it meant to Magik, I dind’t get it. I still don’t.”
I agreed, and said, “And I still phase out whenever Ben talks about baseball, just like I did on that road trip.”
“We never know what each moment means to another person, or how simple bits of news have ripple effects on our lives and posterity. No one probably will ever know what it felt like to me to see my face on TV and then see the 82nd going to war and to know I still had a choice. I could still change my mind and cancel my contract, and that’s what dominated my thoughts for the rest of that trip, especially as the news emphasized Saddam’s SCUD missilles and history of using chemical weapons. They showed WWII footage of people dying from nerve agents on TV, and of course some of that horrible shit they did in the Holocaust…”
“Oh shit! I forgot we went to the Hollocost Museaum in DC,” Ben chimed in.
I hadn’t. The images bore deep into my mind, and resurfaced with every news clip about Saddam’s chemical weapons and the millions of people who stood by and allowed the Holocaust to happen, and had even voted for Hitler. In the museaum, they quoted Martin Luther King Jr., who, along with Malcomn X, had been assassinated around the time of John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy, for, as many hip hop bands claimed, speaking out against the war in Vietnam and the draft that was disproportionately sending 19 year old African Americans to die in a white man’s war. As Malcomn militanty wrote, “the white man takes the red man’s land, and sends the black man to kill the yellow man for him.” King said it a bit more poignantly for me, especially as I read it and pondered it as I walked around the Hollocost Museum alone – Ben and I decided to part ways and see different museums the rest of that day – and I will always recall King, a flawed man himself, saying that the only thing that allows evil to exist is good people doing nothing.
“Freedom of choice,” I continued. “That’s what I remember pondering on that trip. I had signed a delayed entry contract that could be abandoned or modified, if I wanted, and I had intentionally set my departure date for after the summer, assuming I’d be wrestling in junior olympics. But I had gotten sick at camp, just a flu or cold or something simple, but because I was cutting so much weight it knocked me out and I slept through the departure day. I had the whole summer with nothing to do, and Mrs. Abrams had invited me to live with them and had even slipped a little extra money to Ben so that I wouldn’t have to contribute to gas. We had set up places to stay…”
“Or slept in the car,” Ben interjected, “And lived off large boxes of pizza for two days at a time.”
I made a sound that said agreement, and continued, “But, in fairness, I had to earn any spending money, and that’s why I kept performing on the streets of…” I paused and counted on my fingers, like I had to do with the ten commandments.
“New Orleans, DC, New York, Boston, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, Dallas, and Austin. I don’t count performing in Panama City, because that had just been to meet girls, and it turned out that was more useful than money on our trip. I got really good at three card monte and finished with Paul Harris’s Immaculate Connection and my own version of torn and restored cards, restoring the torn three cards I had used in monte and leaving it with the audience; it distracted them enough that I could ditch the torn pieces, and I kept telling them that three card monte was a scam, that any magician could do it, and they tipped me well, probably better than if I had tried to con them.”
Carleton had been in the San Diego magic club, and his dad, a coin collector and trader for his livelihood, and taken Carleton to Brad Burt’s magic shop. Neighbor Carl had always been more interested in my shelf with old magic books, like Paul Harris’s “The Art of Astonishment,” and the cookbooks we swapped quite a bit, than any of the books on my shelf about Hoffa and Kennedy. We had spoken more about the Magic Castle in Hollywood than Hoffa or my high school days, and in my buzzed state I was slipping into phrases he’d know but Ben wouldn’t. Interestingly, Big Head Ben had never been interested in magic, and that’s why he always wandered off to a baseball game when I performed or wandered into a magic shop, like Tannen’s in New York and Magic Master’s in DC.
My tongue was, indeed loose. Big Daddy had been right, and that’s why few people have ever seen me drinking alcohol: there’s no telling what secrets I may share. And, though Ben breezed by the part about seeing the same man in Panama City, New Orleans, and New York; and, I think but can not be sure, in Detroit near where Hoffa had disappeared and we took a quick stop, just to see it. My family had been followed by the FBI ever since Bobby Kennedy had asked Big Daddy to infiltrate the Teamsters and find “something” on Hoffa in order to stay out of prison, and J. Edgar Hoover authorized federal agents to protect us against inevitable retaliation. After several mob hits on my family, Hoover increased the people following us and I had learned to spot them quickly, without realizing other people didn’t have that skill. I also got used to strangers approaching me, and I walked without fear. The guy I kept seeing had said he was a merchant marine, like Kennedy had been, which is probably why we kept bumping into him in port cities. In Detroit, I saw someone who looked somewhat like him from a distance, but we never spoke, and I didn’t see him in Dallas wehn we stopped by the book depository, just to see it. Ben had only glanced at him once or twice, but I believed that I had seen him several times when he joined the crowd watching me perform Paul Harris’s Immaculate Connection, followed by a three card monte from Darwin Ortiz’s “At the Card Table,” and a few booklets by Scarne and Harry Lorayne. And, of course, by then I had met so many real street hustlers that I had swapped techniques with them, too, and the crowds around me had gotten quite large and attracted attention.
“I could teach magic in a book,” I either thought to myself or mumbled out loud. To everyone else, I said, “I’ve been thinking about the Kennedy assassination ever since Washington DC, and maybe one day I’ll write a book about it, though King and Malcom said it all already, and no one listens to them, so there’s probably no point in me repeating it.”
“What’s so funny about that trip,” Ben continued, “is that neither of us can recall exactly what we talked about on the final leg home. I drove all night – Magik’s always disliked driving – and he whittled wood and I drank diet Pepsis – we all called them Coke’s like everyone in the south, except after we saw Cindi Crawford we started saying Pepsi – and I talked and talked on a caffiene high…”
“It’s even worse than his beer buzz,” I interjected, my tongue getting more and more loose.
“But, it changed our lives. Now we use catch phrases to describe our chat, nature vs. nurture and freedom of choice. I wanted to chose the type of man I’d be, and I wondered if I’d be like my father, and if he had had a choice in his sexual orientation. I concluded that, kind of like Popeye said, “we are who we are,” but that anything Jesus taught is a choice. My dad chose to be an adulter, which is just a form of lying, and Jesus said to live a perfect life follow the commandments and love God. And when he prayed, he prayed for gratitude and forgiveness for himself and others, nothing more.”
“And,” I interjected, my tongue wagging on its own by then. “Jesus was okay with gay men and whatever they did with their cocks, whenever asked about what you can eat of Fridays or when fasting. talking about whether or not you can eat some type of food on Fridays: ‘Fools!’ Jesus exclaimed, ‘Nothing you put in your mouth can be a sin!'”
Everyone laughed, and Carleton chimed in, “So everyone in Hillcrest is free from sin, for that bit at least.”
I grinned like the cheesy magician on my hat, and continued, not unlike Big Head Ben and Cranky Ken, “But what comes out of your mouth can be a sin. Don’t lie. Adultery is just a form of lying. And it killed him and maybe even Mrs. Abrams, had she lived long enough. Thou shall not lie, and freedom of choice. Everything’s a choice.”
“Exactly!” Ben said, “Don’t lie, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t kill, and don’t bear false witness; which is another form of lying. That time in my life and the experiences we shared on that road trip made a big impact on both the man and teacher I’d become. It opened my eyes to a larger reality that, up to that point, I hadn’t been aware of outside of my own comfort “bubble”. For what it’s worth, I still use some of our shared stories as teaching tools in the classroom. And that’s were Magik talked about his family and his grandfather’s testimony against Hoffa.”
“Doug said he perjured,” I mumbled, “But Big Daddy never said either way, and of course Hoffa denied everything; but, also, Hoffa seemed to let Big Daddy slide after finally getting out of prison, and I’ve always wondered if, perhaps, Big Daddy had told the truth. He intended to lie, or to do whatever he had to do to get out of prison, and Hoffa probably respected that, in a way, because everyone knows that you never, never say exactly what you’d want done. Even before wire taps, you never say things like that out loud and live long after.”
“Did I ever tell y’all,” I slurred, “about SERE School?”
I hadn’t, and I was delighted to have a captive audience. We topped off beers.
“Survival. Evasion. Resistance. Escape. You sign wavers, and shit… no food or sleep, and you can get tortured. And they drug you and loosen your tongue, like I am now.” I was buzzed, but no so much so that I didn’t enjoy their reactions whenever I told old military stories for the first time. I saved good ones for nights like this.
“And whenever I coached at Belaire, under Coach at LSU, we chatted a bunch about those words, too…”
“Coach was Coach Dale Ketelsen, our wrestling coach,” Ben interjected. I was quiet for a bit. Ben put his hand on my shoulder and I cried a bit.
“After the war,” I told Carleton. “When I was asked about how we got out of that bunker alive and with prisoners.”
I paused a bit and no one moved.
“No one died. I got a tiny award for that, a bit about capturing 14 prisoners with a bayonette. It’s a long story.”
A bit more.
“When I was asked, at the end, after they had given me a diplomatic passport and so many levels of psyche eval. I was able to carry concealed weapons around presidents and kings and queens and warloards; and I had imunity if I killed them.”
I cried a bit.
“When asked how and why I made the choices I made, I always said Coach and Mrs. Abrams. I had forgotten about PawPaw by then…”
I cried real hard, and Ben finished for me.
“And his father. Ed Partin Junior was a good man. He was mentally ill. But he’s a well know lawyer in Baton Rouge now, a public defendant. He doesn’t discriminate, and he’s… well… he’s intense. He’s who you’d want as your defense attorney, no matter what the cost, but Magik’s dad treats everyone the same. And he’s how Magik and I define honorable. We still don’t know enough yet to forgive like we should, and neither did they. The bible says some mean shit. We’re still trying to figure out how to honor our fathers. If there’s anything good that comes out of our trip, I hope it’s that other people find their way to rise about their family history.”
Carleton put his hand on my shoulder, and he shared a remarkably similar but extremely more concise version. His dad had been a good man, too. I said it would make an interesting film one day.
“Anyway,” I said, getting back to the funny part. “Coach and I never talked about religion.” Ben agreed, and mentioned that Coach read from The Daily Bread at the end of each practice, but only the parts that were about family and friends and self worth, never anything that would violate separation of church and state, and only because Coach would quote other people more than he would speak his own views.
“It’s not about religion. Coach and Mrs. Abrams are the basis my definitions of hope, faith, love, trust, honor, and having no doubt in something. It’s how I define choice.”
“Anyway,” I said to remind myself to stay on target. Out of 260 special operatives, I was the youngest and one of only nine to graduate. Six of us wrestled, and that’s what Coach meant to me; just like Ben’s mom meant so much to me at the same time. But, the trick to finishing SERE school is easy. Survival is from Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Wilderness Survival, the book I had at my dad’s. Evasion is running through the woods of Arkansas, hiding from armed yahoo’s in Reagan’s war on drugs. Resistance is Todd and Leah’s Kempo and Aikido. And Escape is anything on that shelf, and I pointed to my magic shelf and a few books by Houdini and The Amazing Randi.”
“Dude! I forgot about that!” Ben exclaimed. “The Amazing Randi used to come into town and debunk fake evangelists and mind readers. And he told Magik that being a magician was safer than being a knife thrower, and Todd had gotten a kick out of that.”
We chatted about a few things for a while, alternating getting up and getting a few leftovers, and more than one tangent, like Ben telling us what it was like to win Teacher of the Year in Houston; he’s really good at empathy. Just ask him one day, if you have time.
The conversation went here and there, tither and twitter, and my mind revisted the first Gulf war and the all the news about the twenty years we had been in the next versoin, and, because alcohol’s a depressant, tears began to drip from both corners of my eyes; that’s another reason I try to avoid drinking too much, especially without friends there. I’ve lost a lot of friends to war and suicide, but I rarely shared their stories, because it’s not my story to tell. My friends know not to ask questions, and I simply raised a glass to friends and family no longer with us, and with wishes that wars, suicides, and poor choices one day end. We clanked glasses, ensured we all made eye contact, and sipped mindfully before speaking again.
“You know,” I said, “Muhammed wrote about friends drinking in the Koran. He said he walked by a group laughing together, and first thought that alcohol was a good thing. Later that evening, he walkedb back by and they were all crying or shouting or fighting, and Muhammed changed his mind and banned alcohol for anyone saying they were Muslim.”
We raised a toast to Muhammed and all Muslims of the world, wishing them friends like ours, and I began smiling again.
“In fairness,” I said, “I didn’t have many choices. I had graduated with a 1.8/4.0, a D average, depending on if you rounded up or down, and I couldn’t get any funding for college and had no place to live, and though Kieth had offered me a job as a pipe fitter apprentice, and after I learned the trade I could earn $8/hour…”
Ben interjected, “That was a lot of money back then. Minimum wage was around $3.50/hour, and a starting teacher’s salary was $19,000/year.”
Ben was about to retire as a teacher in Houston, and had recently won Teacher of the Year. He taught math to a special program for at-risks youths who could use a teacher that empathized with the private lives all kids have, but without needing to know details to know that we all suffer at times, and some times there are much more important things than school or math tests. Mrs. Abrams had felt the same way, but never won Teacher of the Year; and, unfortunately, she died before she could retire from teaching and take a much needed break for herself. I thought about that, but didn’t mention it to Carleton; that was Ben’s story to share, if he choose to.
“But I dind’t want to be anything like my Partin family,” I continued. “I knew that much for sure. I felt that bad choices were contagious, mentally, and just as contagious as the flu or a cold or AIDS. We cover our mouth when we cough or sneeze to not spread germs, yet we don’t mind our tongues and spread mental illness freely. That’s what I think Jesus meant about what comes out of your mouth is a sin, not what you put in it. Mental illness is an invisible sickness and spread by our choices. Like The Buddha said, everything’s a series of cause and effect, and I believe that everything’s a choice. That’s what I took home from that road trip. Well, that, and herpes. But, you get the point. Freedom of choice is what allows us to change our situation, and to break the cycle and to emancipate from our past. It’s freedom. Just like entrepreneurship. Everything’s a choice.”
I must have been really drunk by then, and I saw myself babbling and I set down my glass and tried to focus on practicing my Miranda Rights and not drinking any more that night.
Ben went on to talk about drive through daquiri’s and the Church of Elvis on State Street, a bar that, because of a loophole, could legally give communion to 18 year old members of the Church of Elvis, and that they defined “communion” as a Long Island Ice Tea or a beer.
We chatted about the old times, and we had ourselves some beers, and we said we we’re still crazy, after all these years. We all hummed along to Paul Simon, and we knew the evening was coming to an end.
“I love being a grandpa!” Ben exclaimed, breaking the somber song. “I’m loving being a step-father as well. Ross, the older step-son who’s 31, absolutely loves me and makes me feel more like a father than a step-father. I know I’ve left a legacy in the classroom with my students, but to have the opportunity to do it with two step-sons, two daughter-in-laws, and soon to be five grandkids is something I never imagined would happen. I am blessed!”
“One question, Magik?” he asked, and I nodded to say I was still somewhat coherent.
“Where y’at on free will lately?”
I pulled up my arm and showed one of the more recent tattoos, the words, “Everything’s a choice,” written in what looked like my handwriting and under an old one of a black and white lotus flower. Ben laughed, and pulled up his leg and showed me his new 1980’s looking shark rocking an electric V guitar, like Eddie Van Halen’s; and of course some of his less tasteful tattoos were still there. We laughed at old ideas that would seem like bad choices today, like my bayonette and a misspelled word, and he said that not all choices made sense to others later in life, but he was happy with how things turned out.
“Yeah,” I said, wiping tears of laugher away. “I get a medal for capturing prisoners with a bayonette, and I still couldn’t buy a beer without joining the Church of Elvis! And, when the Seargent Major said, ‘How’d you get so good with a knife, Partin?’ I almost said, “Because my brotha’ from anotha’ motha’ is Jack Fucking Daggar: The Motherfucking King of Fling!” Ben and I laughed so hard that it was a sign it was time to go to bed, and got up and hugged and stumbled off to our respective beds.
Jack Daggar, The King of Fling, was the stage name of Todd Abrams. He had been state karatee champion in high school, and he and Leah had trained together and had helped me train for wrestling Hillary Clinton in 1990. Todd had organized a small knife throwing club in his back yard, and that’s where I refined my skills. He was in the Guiness Book of World Records as the world’s fastest knife thrower, and was slowly getting paid for shows when I left for war. You may have seen him on many television shows and Conan Obrien and a few movies, and he’s in the Guiness Book of World Records as the World’s Fastest Knife Thrower. He coaches and trains, and my favorite scene of his is in Adam Sandlar’s commedy, Don’t Mess With The Zohan, about an Israeli special operations soldier who wants to be a hair stylist in Hollywood, and in the scenes of him spinning knives and hair trimming scissors as deadly weapons, that’s Todd’s hands.
Todd chose the stage name, Jack, to honor his grandfather, Jack Bennet, whom we called Opa. His grandfather, along with Oma, had stood by Mrs. Abrams’s side and supported her choice to forgive her husband and help him like they had demonstrated the Good Samaritan would, and Opa and Oma had moved in with us and I had learned a lot from Opa, too. He was a drastic contrast between my two grandfathers, the one who did unspeakable things to Wendy and the other who may have killed Audry Muprhy and President Kennedy. I was honored when Jack Daggar asked his brothers if they were okay with me being the best man at his wedding, and when I was invited to meet his first son, Jack.
Fortunately, though, during our long chat on the balcony, no one asked me to elaborate on my drunken tither about Jack Daggar, the mother fucking King of Fling! But, I thought it was an interesting bit of trivia that concluded this chapter nicely, and tied in with Ben and my conversations about coincidences and how to honor your mother and father.
I’ve always said that the Abrams’s boys are my brothas’ from anotha’ motha’, and that how we define mother and father, or grandfather or grandmother, may change, but how we honor them, for me, doesn’t.
I asked Ben if I could quote him in a book, and that I believed it would become a film one day, and he said, “Of course. You have my blessing. Take creative liberties, if you need to. I believe that our 1990 Road Trip is worth sharing. And we’be both pondered how to love our fathers and to honor them for decades, and I think it’s a good conversation to continue with a larger audience. God willing, it will happen. And like Mom said, God is Love; I love you, my brotha’ from anotha’ motha’!” We embraced one last time for that night, and parted ways without saying more.
With that on my mind, I slept peacefully next to Cristi, mumbling a few things about what my war movie would look like. I don’t know. There were so many names and stories over the seven years I served in the 82nd and the Louisiana National Guard. It would be too long of a story, even for a group of friends on the balcony. In the end, what’s important to me is to believe that everything’s a choice, and to know I wouldn’t change a single choice I had made in the past if it meant not being there in that moment. Life had been an interesting story; I hoped it continued, as best it can.
A few days into the ground assault of Desert Storm, my platoon, D-Co. 1/504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division; United States Army, was the lead force of approximately 560,000 soldiers. I was told I was the youngest of all half a million, which I thought was remarkable the day I was on point guard at the tip of the spear piercing into Iraq and following behind the allied air assault, the largest and most deadly the world had ever imagined possible. In other words, I was the first of only a few to witness what had happened, and I may have been the youngest. We’re not completely sure, because of records being what they were; just like we’re not sure which ones of us took the P Bromide pills we were told would minimize the damage from Saddam’s nerve agents.
I saw the largest air assault that the world had ever imagined, and I witnessed bombs rain death and destruction along our path, paving the way for us to follow and spearhead the ground assault, and after 24 hours of relentless pounding from above, the French equivalent of our platoon crossed the imaginary border Saudi Arabia and Iraq and we followed, and thus the ground assault of Desert Storm. Desert Shield became Desert Storm by the air assault that kept us up the previous 24 hours. We got back into our Humvee, Sgt. Shaq updated higher up with what we had seen, and we moved forward through a mine field very slowly, and avoided the exploded anti-armor bunkers in front of us. Men had fought bravely there against the inevitable, and their burnt and mutilated bodies were littering out path between mine fields, and we moved forward slowly and methodically, and periodically peeked over the highway to report what we saw to higher command. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers were spread over the many miles behind our spearpoint, fanning out like the Battle of the Bulge pierced through, and when the 82nd famously defended the largest German tank fleet the world had ever imagined, and that guy got his picture in the news digging a trench in the snow with a tiny bazooka strapped to his back, and he said, “We’re the 82nd, and this is as far as the bastards are going.” But, instead of digging in and shooting at the underbellies of German panzers, we were scouting, light weight anti armor, with a TOW-2 missel in the Humvee, and a .50 cal with armor piercing rounds made for very thin personnel carries mounted on top of our exposed, bare turret of the first generation humvees. Our other squad had a MK-19 grenade launcher with HEDP rounds that could melt through two inches of armored steel and explode on the other side with a five meter kill radius. They only had three people on board, unlike our humvee which had to make room for me, and the MK 19 ammo boxes took up more space than .50 cal ammo boxes and therefore it was a good decision.
Any single tank could kill us quickly; we could probably destroy most infantry companies; it was a matter of luck for either side.
Four days later, we had barely slept and had seen many small battles. We took turns on guard duty for brief catnaps and to provide security as each other shit whenever we had time to squat instead of flinging our shit out the windows or taking quick shits when Top fueled us in his ceaseless circling to deliver the proverbial beans and bullets and diesel.
We were a small force, only 100 or so in D-Co., and only four in squad #1, Anti-Tank Platoon #4, D-Co., 504th PIR. We were tired but at peace. Nothing could shock us now, it would seem; but we had said that before, and we would it again and again over the years. We aged quickly every time we were proved mistaken, and I was a different person a few days into the war. I had just turned 18 years old, and could finally vote and buy a beer legally, if only in Louisiana. It had been less than a year since I had won MTV’s senior trip funneling contest; and it’s still one of my crowning achievements.
We pulled onto the berm and saw the first fleet of tanks turn their turrets towards us.
Hermie exclaimed, “Oh! Shit!” And, in a funny moment, he glanced at Achmed the Lizard, a humongous reptile with a black letter V spray painted on his back as a joke by a national guard unit that Hermie had deemed that worth of stopping and saving; but, because Achmed kept hissing at us and trying to bite us. Hermie, whose name was Hernandez, had tied him to the hood of our humvee, inside of a loop of consantena wire strapped down in a loose circle.
Hernie was a 19 year old kid who wanted to be a dentist, just like the blonde headed elf, Hermie,” had in the claymation Christmas film, Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer; he was doing the best he could to move the Humvee off the road and back down the berm, where the tank couldn’t see us. He was distracted, because everyone was shouting at him to do something, and the previous tank shell had exploded only a few meters from us and had sprayed his weindshield with shrapnel. He was a good person.
Parrot Heat rotated the turret and pointed our .50 cal at the fleet of tanks in an almost useless gesture; it’s true that enough well placed .22 pistol rounds could kill a charging bear, just like enough machine guns took down King Kong. Parrot waited for Sgt. Shaq, and he gave us his blessing as he focused on the bigger picture. Parrot began firing. He was the oldest in our platoon and had joined the 82nd after earning a college degree in political science and history, just like my dad. He was a cheerful guy with a moustache bigger than regulations permitted, and he hummed JImmy Buffet songs and had a somewhat large and colorful parrot tatto0ed on his upper back. He would go on to be a smoke jumper. He was a good person.
I was Scarhead, the cherry Coonass who was a pain in their ass and no one could understand because of that hillbilly accent, and who was cocky because he had wrestled and thought airborne school meant jack shit. They were all good to me, but I knew what I was, and would one day be kind to cherries who were a pain in the ass and didn’t know jack shit. It’s cyclic.
An Iraqi Soviet T-54 or 55 tank, I don’t recall which, was moving it’s turret more in line with us as I struggled up the unarmored hole in our Humvee roof, and tried to get more .50 cal ammo. Parrot was doing his best, but our armor piercing rounds were bouncing off the Iraqi tank practically harmlessly, and the people insider were moving thier turret towards us as fast as they could, and I assume the equivalent of me, their ammo bearer, was doing the best he could, too. I did my best.
Sgt. Shaq was in the TC seat, shouting into the mike. But we were out of range. Radios back then only had a 3-5 click radius, and D-Co, the anti-tank platoon in a dozen or so humvees, were spread thinly. We had been the front line – literally, the front line – for four days, aided by engineers with Volcanoes to clear minefileds, a shit ton of support in duce and a halfs from companies A through C, about 200 swingin’ dicks each, all armed like mother fuckers and battle hardened from having just returned from 30 days in Panama, where they, and the 505th and a few SEALS and a couple of Delta Force dudes had just taken over a country. They hadn’t seen a woman in nine months, and they were pissed and ready to go home, and would kill anyone who would help them get home faster.
Hermie shouted that he was doing the best he could, and to shut the fuck up and let him drive, and no one argued with that.
Sgt. Shaq, whose name was Sgt. Caldwell, was a 6.6″ African American with a Ranger tab and a chest full of badges he had earned over the years, including a mustard seed on his jump wings from the Panama Invasion only a year and some change before. He was relentlessly focused on the situation, not the mission, and he was shouting to keep everyone informed, us and whoever could hear us on that shitty little old school radio. Our maps were outdated, and the Lorans system only worked on radio towers that didn’t exist in Iraq. Sattelight GPS sounded like science fiction. We were unsure where we were, and Shaq was doing his best to stay calm and lead by example: Rangers never leave someone behind, and they focus relentlessly on the situation at hand before they consider a mission’s goal or how to execute that mission; and then, only if there’s time, do you consider your service and support. He was on command, signaling our situation simultaneously to us and to them, so that we could all be on the same sheet of music as soon as possible. He’s a good person.
I was trying to stand up and reload the .50 cal while Parrot Head was doing the best he could. The humvee shook and rattled with the force of the .50 cal, which shoots very large bullets at a theoretical rate of 1,800 rounds per minute, if you can keep it loaded. We had already pumped a few cases of ammo into the Iraqi tank bearing down on us and able to fire six to seven rounds a minute, unless we could distract them enough with the .50 cal anti-armor rounds barely denting their ten to twenty inch steel hulls. We were acting as quickly as we could; we had no intel, and we were the first to poke our humvees over the berm. At first, we had focused on the thousands of dead, oozing bodies, reaching forward as if hoping for one more moment of life in the midst of the largest air assault the world had ever imagined. We were flabergasted, as Neighbor Carl would say, but I have no word that describes how I felt, and you’d have to ask the others what their thoughts are about it.
The fleet of armored Iraqi vehicles had been hidden on the other side of the berm that made the highway elevated, minimizing sand dunes from piling too high on it, and paving the way to the Khamisiyah Airport. They probably saw us first, because we were so dumfounded by the death and destruction, and one of them must have popped off a round too soon, and the first explosion is what led Hermie to shout, “Oh shit! Tanks!”
We were on a mission to take that airport, and had been delayed for almost four days of 24/7 crawling through mine fields and light resistance that had somehow survived the largest air assault the world had ever imagined, and we had decided to move onto the road and see if we could get to Khamisiyah faster. It was less safe, we knew, and we joked that it was like following the Yellow Brick Road to Oz, and Shaq communicated that, and The Universe gave us their blessing. The fleet of tanks was new information, and the situation had to be updated.
Another tank round exploded very close behind us, sending shrapnel across our humvee as Hernie picked up momentum and drove forward on the highway. We wer skidding over bloody corpses; the first thing we had seen when we summitte the bern, were miles and miles of blackened and smoldering passenger trucks, cars, vehicles, tanks, and small, family trucks from nearby villages; and thousands and thousands of dead Iraqi men, women, children, soldiers, dogs, pets, reptiles, and birds. Until a few seconds later, that was the most shocked I had felt in a long time; and then Hermie shouted, “Oh shit! Tanks!” and shit really hit the fan.
They were defending Khamisiya with everything they had, for whatever reasons; I don’t know. Honor? Glory? Orders? Threats to their families? Ignorance? the image of 40 black eyed virgins? They had nothing else to do for nine months of their lives, and this is how they chose it to end? All I know that I stopped thinking, and here’s what happened.
I farted. I had been filled with a month’s worth of Chicken and Rice MRE’s, a joke Hernie had suggested when they learned a cherry would be joining them, despite there empahtic requests otherwise. Space i a humvee is tight, and they would be the only anti-tank platoon in the entire 82nd Airborne having to train a cherry in the months leading up to the inevitable ground attack. That was bullshit, they had all agreed. And then they focused on how to do the best with an inevitable situation, and then there we were. I farted a week’s worth of Chicken and Rice MRE’s into the cab of that humvee, and I’m glad I did it; my ass gas was so bad, no one cared about Saddam’s gas attacks any more. For a brief period in Khobar Towers a few months later, one of the leading nicknames for me up for debate was Fartin’ Partin; in the end, Dolly won, and Dolly Patin did the best he could that day in first few days of Desert Storm.
Somehow, despite my malodorous interference, Parrot and I got another box loaded and he chambered a round and leaned into the butterfly handle of our .50 cal to help steady the recoil, and he focused on firing controlled, three round bursts; and as the humvee rattled and shook and Hermie dodged wreckage and slid on bodies and Shaq tried to make everyone stay calm and relay the situation to as many people as necessary, I dropped into the turret and began removing straps for another 100 round box. It was difficult, because things were flying around and my mind was deafened by the sounds of machine guns and tank shells and, the loudest of all: I will never forget each and every head I heard squished and popped, like bubble wrap on a Christmas gift mailed from loved ones; nor will I forget every bump that shook me as I tried to load a new box of .50 cal ammo, knowing rather than seeing that those bumps were heads of bodies that still wore helmets. Somehow, my body kept doing what it had practiced again and again, and I focused on whatever was faster than human thought forms words, and I brought another box of ammo to Parrot.
The tank turret aligned with us, and we had no where else to go in time to avoid it. The next round would kill us. I had no doubt. I was okay with that. I had led a good life, as best I could. As Grandma Foster said when she summarized my entire Partin family, “We is all just flawed people, Jason, doin’ the best that we can, in the situation we is in. I love you, hon. You a good boy. Your daddy was too. So was Ed. They just had rough lives, that’s all. So has you. But you have a choice, Jason, and no matter what you do, I’ll always love you.”
And I thought of Mrs. Abrams, and I wished her happiness, too.
And that’s when Sgt. Shaq’s shouts into the mike finally arrived, and I saw an M1 Abrams tank hurl itself between us and that round, and take a hit that would have killed us. It’s armor deflected an aged Soviet T-54 or 55 round relatively easily, and much more than our open cockpits in a first generation humvee ever could. Engineers somewhere in some office, and a manufacturing floor and entire company I’d never know saved our lives.
And then an M2 Bradley jumped the berm in front of us, clearing burnt wreckage and oozing goo and flesh and bones, and, as if by magic, its turret began tracking and firing upon the fleet of Iraqi tanks and armored carriers that had been on the far side of the berm.
An entire company of American armored vehicles began flying by us, and Hermie did his best and got us through the much and to the safe side. We let Achmed go, and resumed the fight. We all would agree that Achmed was a good lizard; and though we never learned what would happen to Achmed the lizard, all of us would spend a few years afterwards explaining the next few days to different senate committees that still linger in beurocratic sentate meetings, like a far lingers inside a humvee, or a turd that just won’t flush. This is most of what I told them in the thirty years since.
Approximately 12 hours later, I had reaccessed what it means to kill or murder. Was a radio call to a C-130 Spectare gunship that razed hundreds of people murder? Self Defense? Or, could we have waited a bit longer before pulling that trigger. It’s hard to say. Just like it’s hard to say that the next time you though you saw dust from a tank fleet, you called in Warthogs, and witnessed a fleet of A-10 tank killers do their job. Even if you had been right, that they were Iraqi tanks, how could you know they were a threat? Who killed them? The Warthogs? Me? The U.S. Army? Saddam? God? The Universe? The engineers I’d never meet who made the A-10 Warthog so good at it’s job? Did the gunners on the Spectare gunship have these thoughts? The Vietnam door gunners? Drone pilots behind their video game counsol? Voters? Good people who do nothing?
We did the best we could, as tired and ignorant as we were. No one had the internet. Americans had fought in a few tunnels in Vietnam, but not since WWII had we gone into bunkers. AT4 went into a lot of bunkers. I got a small award for capturing 14 of Saddam’s Republican Guard. Apparently, I was okay at the Arabic phrase book all of us had been given; and I tended to remain calm and smile often. As we chatted with our prisoners, holding them at gunpoint with their hands bound, we had approximately eight hours to wait for “army intelligence” to arrive and debrief them and learn what was in Khamisiyah. I was on the shittiest guard shifts, the 1am and 4 am, which left very little room for decent sleep, especially in the cold desert night and the harsh windstorm and the ceaseless explosions from Specter gunships and A-10 Warthogs. I must have dozed off, and out of habit, as if I were in math class or a boring lecture, I played with my half dollars. I must have woke up, and dreamed that I had what every magician dreams of: a captive audience. I performed David Roth’s “Hanging Coins,” and, seeing their reaction, I got bold. I pulled out the big guns. I tried my best at Chris Kenner’s Three Fly. I failed. But, the 14 Iraqi prisoners seemed impressed, and so did a few of the Delta Dawgs, and pretty soon I was chatting with the captain of Saddam’s personal guard, and he showed me photos of his family and said he was just doing his job, and told us that there were lots of chemical weapons in Khamisiyah. Army intelligence arrived and took over.
A few hours later, I was standing next to a Soviet MiG fighter, the same plane Tom Cruise had flown inverted over and flipped off in Top Gun, and I had a bayonette in my hand. I was under orders to puncture all airplane tires so no one could use them, and then we’d get the M1 Abrams or the Engineers to move them and make way for our C-141’s: we were going to jump into Bagdhad and capture Saddam Hussein the next day.
But I couldn’t. It was a beautiful plane. Just like I had imagined after seeing Top Gun. If someone took off in it, good for them. I kinda felt like trying it myself, at that point. I was very, very tired. I was 18 and a half years old, but I had been a legal adult since I was 16. I don’t know what I was at that moment.
I defined an order, and just stared at that MiG. In my periphery, I saw dozens of explosions and knew people were dying. New “bunker busters” were called in, and bombs dropped anonymously penetrated deep bunkers that we had just crawled through, puncturing through dozens of feet of dirt and protection and killing everyone inside. Other versions exploded a few dozen feet above the target in a ball of fire designed to consume all the oxygen inside the bunker and within a large radius outside, suffocating the people inside. I was tired, and I didn’t feel like sticking another tire, and that was okay.
Plans changed, and theoretically the war ended, and we were ordered to evacutate and blow up the airport. D-Co did perimerter duty, and the engineers who had operated the Volcanoes brought in lots of explosives, and some other unit coordinated dropping a 15,000 pound bomb. It’s the size of a Voltswagoon Beetle and dropped by a parachute from the back of a C-130. The explosion is very, very loud, and the shock wave is surprisingly strong. Two months later, I returned to North Carolina; a few weeks lager, the 1/504th went on a two week group leave, and I flew to Arkansas to see my dad and then to Baton Rouge to spend time with my family. Leah and the Abrams greated me at the airport, with a sign that said, “Welcome Home, Magik!” and when I visited Mrs. Abrams 5th Grade class to thank them for their letters, they gave me a pen they had all worked to contribute to, a silver engraved pen with fancy writing that said, “Welcome Home Magik” and they said that Mrs. Abrams always said the pen was mightier than the sword, and I told them that she was a very wise and kind woman, and I performed a few magic tricks and told a few lies about the war, and here we are now.
But, on a funny note, when the many generals and senators and ambassadors and weapons contractors met with me over the years, only a few learned the truth behind my folder. No one had bothered to ask, and I grew up good at keeping secrets.
I had tripped and stumbled in that bunker, because it was pitch black and my NOD light was off and all I could see was Parrot’s tiny LED on his NODs and a few Iraqi faces trying to follow the sounds and smells we were trying to avoid, and when one heard one of us and raised his AK47, I tripped over my big feet and stumbled between him and Parrot Head. I must have looked silly, dancing around and wiggling like some kind of Aikido energy deflection move, but I was really just trying to balance myself, and I was waving my hands in the remarkably spacious inside of their massive and deeply buried bunker, and in my right hand I held a Berretta 9 mm and in my left hand I held the only Vietnam era bayonette in the 82nd Airborne, the only one they had left in supply before I left Fort Bragg a few months before, and I must have terrified or flabergasted the guy so much that he dropped his machine gun and said something and I said something back that I don’t recall, and Parrot and I backed out of the bunker with his shotgun and my Berretta pointed at the 14 men who had just surrendered to us.
A couple of months later, as we all joked about the war, one of the nicknames tossed up for me was Bigfoot.
By the end of my service, I had many nicknames and gained many more scars. I’m still unsure if any of it mattered, except, perhaps, to Achmed the lizard.
Life goes in cycles, and can be funny, if you think about it in the right way.
I had never told Ben that story; and that wasn’t the night were it would have felt right. There was no point; it wouldn’t improve the situation. I was happy listening to my friends and neighbors have a good time on the largest balcony on Earth facing Balboa Park that night.