Big Ben and The King of Fling

“Since I came to the White House, I got two hearing aids, a colon operation, skin cancer, a prostate operation, and I was shot. The damn thing is, I’ve never felt better in my life.”

President Ronald Reagan

Big Head Ben and Princess Leah were flying into town for the 2018 Comic Con, and they would bring their grandkids this time. We rearranged our sleeping to give them space in our condo, and pulled out Auntie Lo’s cast iron gumbo pot and heaved it onto the relatively tiny stove in our downtown San Diego condo and spent the day making gumbo. We invited a few neighbors over for dinner to meet Ben and Leah the next day, and everyone knows gumbo tastes better the next day and when shared with friends and neighbors.

Hope and I walked across the street and picked some bay leaves from the medicinal garden, then we pulled Granny’s copy of Paul Prudhome’s Louisiana Kitchen off the bookshelf and I taught her how to make Cajun napalm.

“First, you begin with a roux,” is a standard beginning to a Cajun or Creole gumbo recipe. Paul Prudhome called a roux “Cajun napalm,” and his 1984 book showed how to make Cajun napalm quickly, albiet dangerously, and had included color photos of each step in the process. My handwriten notes abound in the book and it had been taped together several times over the years, but it was still useful. He had passed away in 2015, and he had been on my mind lately, especially after he had been accidentally shot by a .22 bullet while playing golf a few years before passing away; some bits of news stick out in my mind, probably.

Paul, named after St. Paul and also known as Gene Autry Prudhomme, was a self-taught chef who dropped out of high school to pursue his passion, and became famous as the first and only Ameircan to win France’s prestigious chef of the year award. He became head chef at Commanders Palace and was invited to cook dinner for President Reagan and Prime Minister Gorbachov in one of the first peace summits during the cold war, and with that fame he found investors and opened up New Orleans’s K-Paul’s, named for Paul and his wife, Kay, and you’ve probably seen his apprentices and sous chef’s on televison, like Emiril Lagasse and others, and may not have know about Paul, may he rest in peace.

Hope had already practiced cooking in Auntie Lo’s cast iron skillet, but the big gumbo pot was a different beast all together, and making a roux is very, very dangerous. You could easily splash the thick, hot flour and oil mixture and it could ignite on a gas burner, and the flaming flying goo could spread all over your kitchen and set it on fire, or land on you or someone you loved and stick to them and melt their flesh like the napalm America dropped on the Vietnmese during the conflict over there. I stopped joking when we began making Cajun napalm, and focused on keeping the people I loved safe. We had already chopped the Holy Trinity – onions, bell peppers, and celery – and added lots of garlic and parsley, more like Chef John Folse’s versions in the less used cookbook on the cookbook shelf, An Anthology of Cajun and Creole Cuisine, and we added the Balboa Park bay leaves and let it simmer for a while and then turned off the stove and let it cool. Cast iron retains heat and takes a long time to cool, I told Hope, and in the morning all the flavors would blend together and we’d reheat it slowly until it was simmering again, and that’s when we’d add the seafood, timing it just before everyone ate so that the seafood wouldn’t be overcooked, and tossing in a handful or two of fresh parsley and some chopped green onions and putting several bottles of Tobasco and Crystal and Louisiana hot sauces around.

We had spent the day before buying seafood from the farmer’s market, like local Carlsbad oysters and chunks of catfish from a nearby farm and a few pounds of Sea of Cortez shrimp that I had, illegally, purchased from a guy I know who sneaks them across the border and bypasses laws about only transporting frozen shrimp; though not as tasty in a gumbo as the pink gold from the Gulf of Mexico, Sea of Cortez shrimp were much, much better tasting and much more sustainable than the ubiquitous frozen Tiger shrimp from Vietnam that most grocery stores sold. And, as an extra treat, we had stopped in the Carlsbad lagoon near the oyster farm and caught a few small rock fish to add at the very, very last minute; they flake apart if cooked to long or if the gumbo is boiling to violently, and I enjoy the challenge of preserving a filet of rock fish to float in everyone’s bowl.

The next afternoon, Big Head Ben buzzed the front gate and I walked out and greeted him through the iron bars.

“My brotha’ from anotha’ motha!” I exclaimed.

“My man, Magik!” he retorted.

I opened the gate and we embraced as best I could; Ben has always been considerably taller than I was, and has always outweighed me by 50 to 60 poiunds; though, by the time I went to the army, I was still growing taller and he began growing wider. He had wrestled at Belaire in the 189 pound category, then quit the team when he grew to be in the heavyweight class, which had placed him at 200 or so pounds against a few formidable opponents who weighed 275 pounds.

But that had been almost 30 years ago, and on that day he must have weighed 275 pounds himself, and he picked me up and bear hugged me and threw me around like a rag doll, squeezing me and telling me how good it was to see me.

He dropped me like a bad habit, and I caught my breath and hugged Princess Leah. She hadn’t changed a bit, and her nickname since we had known each other in ninth grade has always been Princess Leah. In high school, Leah had almost always dressed as Princess Lea for halloween, and in the warm October’s of Baton Rouge we had all been happy that she choose sexy slave Lea from Return of the Jedi.

I hugged her and picked her up and tossed her around like Big Head Ben had tossed me, and I told her I hoped she still wore her sexy slave Lea costume; it would have probably still fit her. She tapped her suitcase and said of course! It was Comic Con, and time to cut loose!

I began helping with their bags and everyone introduced the people we didn’t know; they hand’t met Hope yet, and Cristi and I hadn’t met their grandson and granddaughter yet; I couldn’t get over my friends being grandparents, and they said that neither could they. We all knew that, statistically, people in the south begin having kids 10-14 years before people in California, a combination of culture dating back to farm land and the fact that jobs in California require much more education, often graduate degrees, and that we spent much longer in school before traveling or settling down. Ben and Leah were teachers, and had come out almost every summer ever since her children left home, and when her children began having children Ben became their version of a PawPaw or an Opa or, simply, Grandpa Ben, and in the summer of 2018 they thought their grandchildren would enjoy joining them at Comic Con and staying with Uncle Magik and Miss Cristi. 

Ben and Leah had rough childhoods.

Leah was part Japanese, though few people knew it. She had a subtly tan complexion, more like an olive color than a brown tan, and similar to the Cajuns of southern Louisiana who had mixed with Spanish and Creole slaves in the 1800’s; today’s word, “Creole,” is usually associated with the people around New Orleans who look and sound like Princess Leah. But, she stood out because of her slightly narrow eyes and meticulously trimmed eyebrows that accented her features to her liking, and she had always been considered “exotic,” or “sexy,” or some time of word we used to differentiate her in that j’nes ce’ pas way that simply meant she was remarkable in a region known for gorgeous women. But, like most people, we never know someone’s history, and Leah’s mom had been a kid whose American born parents were imprissoned in Manzanar, one of the American concentration camps that held almost 250,000 Japanese Americans against their will in remote prisons during WWII. Her dad, a Vietham veteran who had worked for my grandfather throughout the 60’s and 70’s and adored him so much that he spoke freely to me, had first shared that fact with both Leah and me when we watched The Karate Kid on a VCR tape one day; in a scene most people overlooked, Mr. Miagi was drunk and looking at his American war medals and a photo of the wife and daughter he lost at Manzanar. It was a quick scene, overlooked by most people, and probably an attempt to get American’s to look in the mirror before judging other country’s actions.

The Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park had a small display of artwork created at Manzanar, and Cristi and Hope would take Leah and her grandkids there; if they had time after Comic Con, they were considering driving the five hours it took to reach the Manzanar memorial along Highway 395, deep in the wilderness and in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada, the “snowy mountains” not unlike Mt. Fuji, where Leah’s mother had last seen her parents alive.

Big Head Ben was Benjamin Abrams. He was one of the only kids in middle school who stood up for me. No one ever bullied him because of his size and cheerful nature, and when he began inviting me to sit with him and his friends at lunch, I became invisible because I no longer stood out as the weird kid who sat alone; I was the cool quirky kid who knew magic and hung out with his friends, and those friends were so cool that Magik must be cool, too. When I joined him in high school, I seamlessly transitioned into a group of friends and my life forever became better, all because of a few shared lunches with Ben and his brothers and their friends.

Ostensibly, the Abrams brothers had idealic lives, and they were the most looked up to kids in high school. Their mom, Mrs. Abrams, had been many of our peers fifth grade teacher, and she was universally adored. Mr. Abrams had been a boy scout leader and had shared his love of HAM radio with the troops in our neighborhood, opening their spacious home up for sleepovers and showing us the huge antenae he had erected above their garage, and letting all of us play with the equipment and speak to people all over the world. Erik “The Viking” Abrams was a younger brother but had already reached Eagle Scout and was a star student in middle school, and everyone in the neighborhood compared our families to theirs enviously.

At Belaire High, Ben was on the baseball and wrestling teams and a straight-A student, and his younger brother, Todd “Mace” Abrams, was just as tall as Ben but much more lean and athletic looking; he was state karate champion and wrestled at 175 pounds, and was in the the Belaire Bengal’s marching band and a star on stage in our school and community theater departments; and, as he repeatedly pointed out, he always had lots of girlfriends because he choose to spend time in theater than on sports teams, that he had done the math, and that the odds of meeting girls was much higher in theater than in the football and wrestling rooms; he had a point, and he and Leah were close friends in theater and in karate classes, and Ben and I had lots of guy friends on the teams of football, baseball, and wrestling. But, most people didn’t know their family history, just like they didn’t know mine, and when they dropped off the wrestling team they admitted to me that their dad didn’t have cancer, like they had told everyone. He had AIDES in the late 80’s, before the Reagan administration would admit that the disease had existed and churches propagated a shameful social stigma that the so-called “disease” was really just God punishing sodomites and drug addicts. When Mr. Abrams began to show open sores and plummet in weight, he stayed home and the Abrams family lied and said he had cancer and was going through chemotherapy and that’s why he was covered in sores and so thin. Mrs. Abrams had learned all of this in 1988, and then learned that she had HIV and would probably die the same long, slow death that her husband was suffering, and the Abrams boys had quit most extracurricular activities, especially the activities like wrestling that often had bloody noses and close contact with other wrestlers, and Todd began bragging more and more about what a lady’s man he was, and how many girls in theater he was sleeping with, and how all the wrestlers were just closet homos wanting to roll around on the mat with other homos in wrestling tights.

Mace and I were just as good of friends as Big Ben and I were, and we preformed a magic and knife throwing act at Belaire talent shows and at Baton Rouge’s annual Fest For All. Our act was called, “Magik and Mace’s Mystical Mischief and Meatcleaving Mahem,” and we were pretty good. Our signature act was having me go into the audience and, through a somewhat funny way, have what would always be the cutest girl, to me, sign a playing card from a deck I always carried. I’d control it to the top and palm it in my right hand while holding the deck up in my left hand, telling everyone to keep watching it, and as Todd helped me back up on stage, he took the palmed, signed card from me and loaded it onto one of this throwing knives as I walked towards the wooden throwing target with the deck held high. After considerable build up and enough time that people would forget that we had been near each other for a brief moment, I’d toss the cards into the air with a flourish that made them spread into a perfect wall of cards, sort of like a fireworks explosion that seems to open up and stay still for a moment, and at that moment Mace would fling his knife at the bullseye on his target, through the wall of cards, and everyone would see him ostensibly impale a single card and stick it into the bullseye with the back of the Bicycle playing card showing. The audience was impressed by his knife throwing, of course, but then they saw the impaled card and their minds began to imagine the impossible. I’d learn to let the cute girl come on stage and try to pull Todd’s knife out, and her inevitible struggle would demonstrate to the audience how good of a throw Todd had thrown, but without me having to say much. And because everyone’s minds had already imagined that the blue Bicycle backed card would have the cute girl’s signature, all eyes were on the board and my hands, suspecting a switch, and that’s what made the revelation so powerful; few people thought that many steps back, and few realized that the magic happened long before all eyes were on me. Until then, all eyes had been on Mace, The King of Fling.

Sometimes, when we performed in New Orleans street fairs, where no one knew us and would suspect that we collaborated, Todd would perform as The King of Fling and I’d just be one of the many people in the audience, along with Leah. In those times, it was even easier. The King would toss a deck of cards to someone – me – and ask someone else to pick a card. I’d force the card on whichever stranger was nearby, and Todd would ask the gorgeous lady near me her name, and she’d say, “Leah,” and he’d ask, “Like Princess Leah,” and she’d chuckle and blush and pretend to be shy and sign the card with her name, a name everyone would now recall, and I’d take it back and palm it and hand the deck back to a stranger. He’d go on stage to toss the cards, and I’d hide Leah’s card in my baggy cargo shorts pockets, and Todd would load his throwing knife with a duplicate card signed with Leah’s name in the same way she had practiced so many times. The crowd, as they say, would go wild, and I’d applaud and pretend to be just as shocked as Leah.

You’ve probably seen Todd on television or the movies, or at least you’ve seen his hands or his work. But, you don’t know Jack. Todd’s stage name is Jack Daggar, the King of Fling; he changed his moniker to honor his grandfather, Jack Bennet, whom we called Opa, and he has lived in Hollywood, Los Angeles, for longer than I had lived in San Diego, where he earns his livelihood performing in street fairs and as an acting coach and world famous knife thrower. You’ve probably seen him, abut if you haven’t, you can search on Youtube and see him on late night televisions shows, teaching Conan Obrien to hit a bullseye after only a few minutes of practicing with The King of Fling, or as a goofy sushi chef spinning ginsu knives in each hand, or, my personal favorite, as Adam Sandler’s hands in the film “The Zohan,” a comedy where Adam plays an Israeli secret service agent who comes to America to live out his dream of being a hair stylist, and he’s remarkably skilled at spinning and throwing his barber scissors; Adam never got as good as Conan, so whenever you see a close up scene of the secret agent spinning scissors, that’s really Jack Daggar’s hands and a lot of history blended into a simple scene.

The Abrams and Leah and our group of friends were like family to me, and we all knew each others secrets. I had been a pallbearer at both of the Abrams families, along with our circle of friends, and for thirty years none of us had shared their secret, until now.

Later that evening, after most of our neighbors had gone home and the kids were pretending they’d get to sleep in Hope’s room, Ben, Leah, Neighbor Carleton and I were chatting on the balcony while Cristi and Lysandra were doing dishes. Cristi had heard Ben and Leah and my stories so many times over so many Comic Cons in San Diego and Mardi Gras in both New Orleans and Baton Rouge, that she was happier doing dishes than hearing increasingly embellished versions; and Lysandra was somewhat shy around people she didn’t know yet, and was happy to chat with Cristi in the kitchen and to check in on the kids now and then while we sipped a few beers and told stories.

“I’d like to write a book about 1990,” I said, “And our senior trip, and of course the first Gulf war.”

“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.”

“I’d like to hear that,” Carleton said. He hadn’t met Ben yet, and Ben was quite the loquatious story teller, and most of his stories begin with the phrase, “No shit, there we were…”

“No shit, there we were,” Ben began. “Magik and I had graduated high school and were driving around the country the summer before I went to college and he went to the 82nd. We were going to see 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. My dad and his grandfather had just died, and his grandfather had just died…” he paused and glanced at me and I said that Carleton knew about my family but not his.

“OK then. My dad had died of AIDS 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 frineds 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. 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. 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 since that 1990 trip, but of course when someone asks me about my parents I say they died, and if someone pushes to far and asks, 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. All of that was in the newspaper and is online now, and we keep each other’s secrets…”

Ben rambled on a bit, and I asked him to cut to the chase.

“Just like an old movie,” Carleston said. “They physically cut all the random pats out and reglue them together at the chase scene, which is what most people want to see.”

“Got it,” Ben said. “So, no shit, there we were, in Washington DC…”

We bust out laughing together, and said, in unison, “Home of the Greaseman Grease Vanilly on DC 101; and here’s today’s traffic beat…”

We both chimed in a chorus of AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” and wiped tears from our eyes and Ben continued.

“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. Magik and I had obviously heard about Kenndy’s death, and we both remembered when Reagan got shot, but we never felt emotional about it. Seeing all of those people crying made us begin seeing the bigger picture about Kennedy.”

He told a few side stories about Reagan and the denial of AIDS and how the evangelicals who put him in office said the disease was punishment for homos and deviants, and how that had made him feel. We all have our triggers, and Ben can sometimes get trapped in his emotions from when he was a teenager, like all of us, and sometimes it’s nice to be triggered to continue past hard times and get to the fun parts. I reminded him about Audie Murphy.

“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.

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 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. In Doug Partin’s 2018 memoir, 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. My family knew Audie well, and 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.

Carleton digested what I said while he sipped his beer, and he said to Ben, “What was so remarkable about Audie Murphy’s tomb?

“Well,” Ben said, organizing his thoughts. No one had ever asked him that before. He had usually simply stopped at being flabergasted and continued on to 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. He said, accurately, that both of us hadn’t really empathized with people who remember Kennedy or Murphy, and that that was the first time we, as teenagers, began to look at history differently. He then continued for a while and talked about how much we laughed at the Greaseman’s daily traffic beat and the sound track that began each show by saying “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 who turned him in and sold their story; and, Carleton chimed in, hopefully they made enough money from the deal to stop getting paid by a mayor for sex, and he hoped they lived happily ever after.”

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 youtube videos of MTV’s spring break shinanigans.”

“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. But, for some reason I wore the magic wand hat because it made me smile more, and started a conversation with… well, I guess with 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.

“So Big Head Ben’s in one isle with his big noggin’ standing out above everyone else,” I told Carleton, “And I’m a few seats over in a ridiculous magic hat.”

“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 between us and hops around and up onto stage and sits next to Dave’s desk and they joke around about the new sport of mountain biking, and Cindi Crawford comes out next…”

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.

“And then Martin Downey Jr. comes out, fresh out of rehab, and talks about making a comeback in films.”

Carlton interjected and we talked about actors and films for a bit to reduce the momentum of old stories, and we talked about his 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. We took a bathroom break and topped off our beers, and 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. We stayed up late eating pizza with Audry…” (Her name had coincidentally been Audry, like Audie, and had led to a lot of conversations between us about coincidences that Ben, thankfully, skipped mentioning that night.) ” and a group of her friends and The Funnel of Fear and a bunch of beer they broght. Magik wasn’t drinking back then to get drunk, but he could funnel beer faster than anyone! And it was funny to learn that New York’s drinking age was 21, like every other state, and that Louisiana was the only one that let 18 year olds buy beer, probably because a board member of Budweiser was one of our state legislators and allowed us drive through daiquiri shops and piles of cold beer by gas station pumps so you could take one for the road.”

Ben went on a tangent about how I had won Panama City’s funneling contest and even gotten on MTV’s coverage of some gorgeous girls doing naughty things, though that wasn’t published when they asked for ID and realized I was only 17; I had told them, truthfully, that I was a legal adult and had even shown my emancipation paperwork, but they said their lawyers wouldn’t allow them to show underage kids drinking and dancing. I hadn’t drank alcohol ever since the late 80s’, when my grandfather gave me perhaps the best advice any grandfather could give, and that was to avoid drinking alcohol except in occassional moderation with people you trust, because it lowered your inhibitions and loosened your tongue and was a depressant, and that to keep a secret you had to never slip up and say something when you were around people you didn’t trust or weren’t willing to kill. I had no intention of killing Big Head Ben, and I trust him and love him like a brother, and he’s one of the few people alive who’s seen me drunk.

“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. I could still change my mind, and that’s what dominated my thoughts for the rest of that trip. Freedom of choice. 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 New Orleans, DC, New York, Boston, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Nashville, Dallas, and Austin; though performing in Panama City had just been to meet girls, and that turned out to be more valuable than money. 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.”

I was pleasantly buzzed from beer, and 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.

“I’ve been thinking about the Kennedy assassination ever since,” I said, speaking freely because of the beer. “Maybe one day I’ll write a book about 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. He 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,” I interjected, my tongue wagging on its own by then. “Jesus shouted at his followers, ‘Fools! nothing you put in your mouth can be a sin!” I grinned like the cheesy magician on my hat, and continued, “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.”

“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. 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.”

“Right! It all stems from lying,” Ben continued, himself a bit drunk. “If you never lie, you can’t do much wrong. You can’t steal or kill or cheat or anything, because you can’t lie. It’s that simple. And it helped me understand that whoever we are born as, it may be God’s will or it may not, but it’s our choice on what we do with our feelings. It helped me be a better grandfather to Leah’s kids, eventually. It took a long time to sink in. And of course that led to talking about free will and nature vs nurture, and if we were bound to our father’s mistakes. Magik had already made a choice to be emancipated from his family when he was 16 – I can’t imagine that now that I’ve been a stepdad to teenagers – and on our road trip he watched Desert Shield get ramped up to about a half million people from all over the world, and he saw daily news about chemical weapons and horrible deaths, and he could choose whether or not to continue going to the army. Apparently, we were going up against the world’s second largest army and largest tank force, and Saddam had already used chemical weapons against Iran and his own people. It looked like a horrible way to die, blistered and writhing, like dying of AIDS except much faster, and I asked him why he wouldn’t just back out of his contract. Why risk all of that? But, we can’t recall what he said.”

I agreed. It was strange. We had tried several times to remember. I think I simply said I don’t know, but it feels right, and Ben said that was pretty close.

“And of course that led to talking about if he really felt that; free will. And we talked a lot about the bible and Thou Shall Not Kill, and Magik’s wondering what happened if he killed someone in combat and then died immediately after, whether writhing in pain from chemical weapons or shot by someone, and what would happen.”

He paused and he and Carleton peered at me for a moment, because I had a sad look and a small tear in the corner of one eye. Alcohol is a depressant, and that’s another reason I try to avoid drinking too much. 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. We toasted fallen comrades and family members and loved ones, 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, more contagious than the flu or a cold or AIDS, and yet an invisible sickness. My thought was, and is, that all answers are complex, and that nature vs nature is a combination of the two. Everything’s a series of cause and effect, and also everything’s a choice; 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.”

I must have been really drunk by then, and I focused on practicing my Miranda Rights and not drinking any more that night.

“But,” Big Head Bean said, “Whenever we kept concluding that no one could know what free will looks like, because something could always be telling us that we were choosing on our own, and no one knew what happened after we died, Magik said, ‘Well, one day I’ll find out what’s on the other side, one way or another, and I’m okay with that.’ And then he signs his paperwork, and, get this, because the government allowed him to join the 82nd at 16 and he was the youngest one in our graduating class, he became the youngest of more than half a million soldiers fighting the war!”

I said I never verified that, and that I had only repeated what military lawyers reviewing my emancipation paperwork and contract had said, and what the supply sergeant in the processing station for me to join the 82nd in Saudi Arabia had said when he issued me uniforms and a bayonette to go fight an old man’s war, I added cerbicly, probably because of the alcohol.

Carleton stopped us from talking and asked more about being the youngest in the war. He pulled up his phone and said that Wikipedia said 560,000 American soldiers were stationed in Saudi Arabia as Desert Shield transitioned into Desert Storm, and that of all the hundreds of people in congress and the senate, none sent their children to fight in the first Gulf war, and if I really had been the youngest then that would be a remarkable and poignant way to emphasize young boys fighting old men’s wars, especially because I couldn’t vote or legally buy a beer or a firearm in every state except Louisiana. No one disagreed.

We wrapped up the evening and went to our respective rooms and homes and loved ones, and I slept peacefully next to Cristi. I wouldn’t change one thing that had ever happened in my life, if it meant not being there at that moment. I just hope that one day my story helps prevent young boys from fighting old men’s wars; and that everyone on Earth can have a peaceful nights sleep knowing that someone loves them, and without fear of being shot or drug out of your home or going to bed hungry, and that no one ever feels they don’t have a choice when they want to do the right thing.

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