But then came the killing shot that was to nail me to the cross.
Edward Grady Partin.
And Life magazine once again was Robert Kenedy’s tool. He figured that, at long last, he was going to dust my ass and he wanted to set the public up to see what a great man he was in getting Hoffa.
Life quoted Walter Sheridan, head of the Get-Hoffa Squad, that Partin was virtually the all-American boy even though he had been in jail “because of a minor domestic problem.”Jimmy Hoffa in Hoffa: The Real Story
I began a three month sabatical in April of 2019 and had just arrived in Cuba on an entrepreneurship visa when I suspected that Wendy was dying. I can’t describe exactly how I suspected, it was more of a feeling than what she said in her voice mail. I listened to her message several times in the small Plaza San Francisco de Asis, one of only two places for a gringo to get wifi service in Havana, even in 2019. I was curious where my feeling was coming from, the intuitive, gut feeling that often can’t be described intellectually. The best I can imagine is that I noticed a small pauses where it seemed as if she was choosing her words carefully, which was rare, or that she wanted to tell me more.
“Hey Jason, it’s Wendy,” she began, followed by a pause. “I know you’re going to Cuba, but I was hoping to speak with you about my will.” Another pause. “It’s not a big deal,” she said quickly and then and continued at a fast pace,“I’d just like to add Cindi as executor because you travel so much.” There was a pause, as if she realized she rushed through that last sentence and was collecting her thoughts, perhaps wondering if she had exposed too much personal information, even though – or perhaps more because – she was speaking to me.
Wendy was my mother, Wendy Anne Rothdram Partin. She had taught me to call her Wendy when I was a small child in the foster system. Old habits are hard to break, and I still called my mother Wendy.
She had gotten pregnant at age 16, the night she lost her virginity to my dad, Edward Grady Partin Junior, and quickly married him, but he was soon arrested for drug dealing and abandoned her and she had a nervous breakdown and abandoned me and divorced him. A judge removed me from both of their custody and put me in the care of a legal guardian for seven years, allowing Wendy and my dad monthly visits. She had been embarrassed to be an uneducated, single teenage mother in the traditional and ostensibly religious southern town of Baton Rouge, and felt that people would assume I was her baby brother if she had me call her Wendy on our monthly visits, when she was looking for work or trying to date like other teenage girls. She found a decent paying job as a secretary at Exxon Plastics, which, though she never earned her high school equivalency, allowed her to learn and advance, and allowed healthcare benefits which were crucial for either one of my parents regaining custody. For years, she fought my foster family and the Partin family for my custody and eventually won, but she never quite recovred from the ordeal. Almost fifty years later, she still joked that she had been born WAR and marrying a Partin WARPed her, and though she made jokes about our past she was still prone to bouts of depression that would last months or longer – what I call small nervous breakdowns – after events she felt were stressful or reminded her of mistakes she had made over the years, mostly aroudn the time she abandoned me the first time. In those times of feeling depressed, she’d shelter at home with some of the dogs she rescued at The West Feliciana Parish Humane Society near her rural home in Saint Francisiville, where she barely had cell phone reception and avoided talking on the phone so that I wouldn’t worry. She was a private person, and some would say she was passive and skirted discussing topics that caused her stress, and most of her phone calls had hidden motivations. I was used to ambiguous voice mails and long periods without hearing from her, but I felt something about this voice mail was different.
“And I thought…,” Her voice mail said, followed by a pause long enough for me to take two breaths. “It’s not important. Call me back when you can.” There was another pause and a slight, barely noticeable sigh that was as subtle as the b in subtle. It would have been missed by most people who hadn’t known Wendy as long as I had. She was prone to long periods of depression and tried her best to muster a positive tone when she was down, but her subtle pauses and sighs belied her words for the few of us who knew her well.
“If I miss you,” she finished, “Have fun in Cuba and we’ll talk when you get back.” She hung up, not saying words of love, but she was a reticent person and I was used to not hearing words most of us associate with a loving mother, but I had no doubt that she loved me the best she could, and that even leaving a voice mail was a major effort for her. I had grown to recognize her affection relative to her ability to show it, though sometimes I struggled to see past her words or read between the lines of her infrequent texts and emails.
I listened to the voice mail again and then took out my headphones and sighed in the same way Wendy had, barely noticeable but belying my smile for those who knew me. I was her son, after all. No one knew me in Cuba yet because I had just arrived, and I was the only gringo checking WiFi in public space, probably because most foreign tourists were staying at government owned hotels that had Wifi, but, as an American, my entrepreneurship visa required me to only use private casa hospitales and purchase WiFi cards from independent street vendors and seek out the few public places were WiFi cards could connect my phone to the internet. The connection was painfully slow and my hour on that card was almost over. I had to decide what to do.
I tried calling back, but as usual her cell phone wasn’t getting reception in her remote location in Saint Francisville, an hour north of Baton Rouge, and she didn’t answer her land line. I sent a text message and an email letting her know I had already arrived in Cuba. In the voice mail, I chuckled so that she’d hear humor in my voice and said that that the cell reception in Havana was worse than Saint Francisville, and that I’d only be able to check messages when I came back to Havana every week or two but to text me if it were important and I’d stay in Havana longer. Coincidentally, I added with a tone she’d recognize as our shared humor centered around coincidences and ironies, I was calling from a small square named after St. Francis. I finished with a perfunctory “I love you,” the type of words that may have a truthful source but that we use out of habit.
I tried to sound cheerful in the voice message and choose my words carefully for the text and email, but I sighed again as I hit send. I sent a message to Cristi, the only person I knew who knew my and Wendy’s history and her nuances, and I told her I had arrived safely and that the WiFi was less than I had expected and I would be mostly offline until I returned to San Diego in a month, and that I had a cryptic message from Wendy and was concerned. Cristi would know what to do, and could sometimes see through Wendy’s words more than most people who didn’t know Wendy’s history of having nervous breakdowns in times of stress.
I sent a message telling two American reporters and a German rock climbing buddy I had arrived and where I was staying. The Americans would be arriving in a few days on journalism visas, writing for a travel magazine about up and coming adventure and eco sports in Cuba, like rock climbing, diving, and sea kayaking near the Bay of Pigs, and the German was, ironically, more free to travel than Americans and was on a simple tourist visa. We had coordinated meeting with an up and coming but illegal rock climbing guide in Vinales; in Cuba’s managed healthcare system, some recreational activities are deemed too risky and therefore illegal, because no one wants to pay for recreational risks. The journalists and I had climbed together in Joshua Tree and Yosemite and had brainstormed this trip a few months before. They would ostensibly write about the burgeoning eco-tourism industry in Cuba, and how as an almost self-sustaining island they were more attuned to the fragility of thier ecosystem and were trying to balance tourism income with preserving nature and resources for future generations. Anything the journalists wrote would have to be approved by the newspaper funding thier visa, and probably a Cuban official or two, but the journalists were young and idealistic and believed they could write things between the lines, like a discussion of which activities are covered in a national healthcare program, that would help Americans see our place in the world as a big island surrounded by lots of little islands worth listening to, if only to learn from each other.
That’s where my visa came in: learning from each other. President Obama’s administration had temporarily opened new visa opportunities for exchange between Americans and Cubans, squeaking in an entrepreneurship option that wouldn’t offend too many Miami voters still upset about losing their family’s land to Fidel Castro’s cuba in the 1960’s, just before the failed Bay of Pigs invasion and President Kennedy’s embargo. I was a faculty of engineering and entrepreneurship at a couple of universities and worked with a few national nonprofits fascilitating entrepreneurship in early childhood education, therefore I qualified for the visa and I took advange of it for a three month sabatical that I’d begin in Cuba on the premise that I’d only spend money with private, non state controlled businesses, like private cars instead of state taxis, small restaurants instead of ones in hotels, and other things that, to me, sounded like a better vacation than one isolated from the people, anyway. Besides, I would have gone rock climbing and scuba diving on sabatical, anyway, and I had heard that Cuba had some of the world’s best for both.
I’m still unsure what entrepreneurship means. People throw that word around all the time and have all kinds of opinions on how to do it, but that’s like debating the best way to drive a car without first deciding where we’re going. Everyone may have an opinion of how to drive based on where they think they’d like to go, but few people agree to a destination before offering their opinions for how others should drive. An entrepreneur may be a person with many side gigs, a skilled worker who hires themselves out and manages their own marketing and finances, or a small buisness owner wanting to compete locally, or inventors who use patents and business models to create wealth on an international scale. For me, entrepreneurship has always meant freedom. When I was younger, it was freedom from never having a boss; I was known for being defiant of authority, even as a little kid, and had surprised everyone by joining the army in 1989 so that I could leave Louisiana and earn money for college with the college fund (my grades wouldn’t have allowed scholarships or even grants). After college, entrepreneurship was freedom from financial worries – though that can be obtained by having and desiring less rather than seeking and obtaining more – and I found that without student loans and free healtchare I was able to take risks towards higher goals and differ spending money on things like mortgages and bills, and over time I invented a handful of medical devices and worked with colleages to form small R&D companies to develop the ideas and build intellectual property, and we sold those small companies to large corporations and that opened opportunities to lead courses at universites despite not having a PhD; another form of freedom that included annual sabaticals, and the freedom to visit Cuba in 2019 despite archaic laws preventing freedom-preachign Americans from visiting the small island off our coast.
On the trip to Cuba, I was mostling interested in scuba diving and rock climbing and listening to music, but I also had an alterior motive, similar to the journalists wanting to write between the lines about America’s natural resources and our struggles with a practical healthcare model. I wanted to research a small part of President Kennedy’s assassination that had been on my mind for years, and to visit the American base at Guantamano Bay, where Amercican politicians and military leaders had kept prisoners without an attorney or a trial for almost fifteen years, despite President Obama promising to close it if he were elected. I had long ago stopped believing anything any president said unless I witnessed it myself, but even I admit that I had hoped Obama would have been different. He probably wasn’t different than his predecessors, or at least the ties that bind him to office weren’t different, and any president would be shackled.
I sent a few more emails and my WiFi card ran out of minutes, so I turned off my phone without hearing back from Crisiti or Wendy and stretched in a few quick yoga poses and I left the Plaza and strolled over to an open air bar and grill playing live music that had a stand-up bar where I could relax and order some food.
I walked up to the bar sand stood next to a small horn band with instruments seemingly straight from a 1950’s New Orleans jazz band, probably left over from the tourism and mafia parties of the 40’s and 50’s before Kennedy’s embargo and the failed Bay of Pigs. I sighed again, but the bartender didn’t notice and I shouted over the band that I’d like a Hemingway daquiri and whatever local seafood tapas they had on special. It was squid a la parilla, cooked too long on the grill but served with a decent mango salsa. The Hemingway daquiri was strong and good and I had another.
The daquiris loosed my mind and then my body, and I stretched while obstensibly moving to the music. It wasn’t hard; Cuban Funk seems to be made to move to, and even the private driver I had hired to take me from the airport to downtown had tapped his fingers on the steering wheel of his classic 1955 convertible as we cruised into town with the top down and the Buena Vista Social Club blaring on his upgraded speakers. Of course I had heard of the Buena Vista Social Club – who hasn’t? – but there was more music worth discovering and I was looking forward to hearing something few people had yet. I had seen Cuba’s Cima Funk play with New Orleans’s Dumpstafunk at Tipatinas, a bar and small music venue owned by the renowned Galactic, and I had been impressed and had planned on spending as much time in small music venues as possible on my month long visa. After my visa ended, I planned on traveling to Kingston for a few weeks and then to Peurto Rico for their annual San Sebastian street festival, something I expected was like our Mardi Gras, and to look into the 1968 assassination of thier Teamster president and try to find some old vinyl of ????, an relatively obscure singer in the United States but still adored in Peurto Rico, and if I were to find an old analog copy of his voice, it would be wandeing the streets of Peurto Rico. Of course, I could order anything online, but I enjoyed having excuses to walk among neighborhoods and chat with people and adapt plans to whatever happened.
I was the only gringo in the bar and didn’t want to attract attention by standing still or stretching, but my body was screaming in pain form the long flight and even with the two dacquiris loosening me I needed to move my old and scarred muscles. Over the years, I’ve learned which poses stretch the complex muscle connections between my scalp, back, and hips. It’s not typical to see. Fortunately, I’m such a poor dancer that the odd moves I used to stretch my neck and lower back weren’t noticeable compared to the odd moves I used to dance, similar to how Wendy’s sigh wouldn’t have been noticeable with her typical choppy message.
The band took a break and I stopped stretching and leaned against the bar nonchalantly and ordered ceviche and asked for a side of the mango salsa and opened file on my phone labeled JiPBook and opened a letter from Mamma Jean – my dad’s mother, Norma Jean Partin – that Aunt Janice had scanned and sent to all of us when Mamma Jean died in the late 90’s, just as I left the army and had gotten old enough to ask questions about the Partin family. The Partins had been nationally famous in the 1960’s and 70’s, known for working with the working with the Kennedy’s and their vendeta against Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamsters and organized crime, both of which had used Cuba as a safehaven back then, shuttling guns and drugs through the port of New Orleans and along Teamster trucking routes to supply the organized crime hubs of New York, New Jersey, Detroit, and Chicago; and to create the burgeoning City of Sin, Las Vegas. My grandfather, Edward Grady Partin Senior, whome everyone called Big Daddy, had been a Teamster leader in jail for kidnapping and manslaughter when Bobby Kennedy freed him and infiltrate the Teamsters, and Hoffa went to prison in 1968 based solely on Big Daddy’s word that Hoffa had asked him to bribe a juror in what would have otherwise been one of the many minor cases that Hoffa had won against the Kennedys over the years.
All of that history had been on my mind when planning my trip to Cuba because a major film was about to be released about Hoffa, Martin Scorcese’s quarter of a billion dollar epic “The Irishman,” based on a memoir of a guy claiming to have killed Hoffa in July of 1975, and Big Daddy had a small role in the film. The actor portraying Big Daddy, Craig Vincent, was a big, rough looking guy who had played thugs in some of Scorcese’s other ganster films, and he had reached out to my family to research the role. It was easy to find us: Uncle Keith still ran the Baton Rouge Teamsters Local #5, just like his uncle, Douglas Wesley Partin, had after Big Daddy went to prison in the 1980’s, and James Hoffa Junior was still president of The International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The role was small, maybe only 20 minutes filmed that would be edited down to only a few, and Scorcese had admitted that he was making an entertainment film, not a documentary, so the chapters of The Irishman about Big Daddy and President Nixon and Audey Murphy would be omitted so that audiences could focus on what they already knew and the actors they were paying to see, like Al Pacino, Robert Denero, Joe Peci, and all the Good Fellas they had paid to see in decades of Scorcese films. Craig new his role would be small, but he wanted to do it well because, as he told me, he had just learned he had leukemia and The Irishman was likely to be his final film and he wanted to do a good job. I could respect that. We had chatted about Big Daddy’s charm and accent and how he could fool Jimmy Hoffa and all the Teamsters and FBI agents for so long. Craig never could quite manage the southern accent, so Scorcese was chaning his roll to be “Big Eddie Partin,” a big Italian guy, but my family was used to reality being changed to fit roles in films. For me, the conversation reawakened my interest in presidents and their quirks and broken promises, and the timing had been perfect for my conversations about visiting Cuba and wanting to understand Guantanamo and, perhaps, learn more about my grandfather’s role in Kennedy’s assassination.
I took out my phone and opened the files that synced with my cloud accounts. I was used to traveling where there wasn’t cell reception, and I’d soon put my phone away and rely on my sattelite phone for emergencies, and use my old solar Seiko scuba watch for time and dates. I looked at the date on my phone and adjusted the Seiko’s rotating, analog date to match; it cylces from 1 to 31 and must be changed on months with 28 to 30 days, and I hadn’t changed it since the previous year’s sabatical. I had one more thing to do before putting my phone in a waterproof and padded bag inside my backpack, and I opened a letter from Mamma Jean to reread it and look for subties I may have missed before. I had two copies, a photocopy of her original, hand written letter on the stationary she kept on her nightstand, and a typed .pdf I had painstakenly reviewed to include typos and grammar errors, though there were only a few even though Mamma Jean had scribbled the letter hastily, just as she learned she had breast cancer and had wanted to share a story about her ex husband, my grandfather, for posterity.
504 9th N.E.
Springhill, LA 71075
Aug. 17, 1996
My dear children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren,
I don’t know how to begin this. I should have written this when you were small, while it was fresh on my mind, also while your daddy was living. After someone dies, you seem to forget all the bad things and remember only the good in them. That is the way it is with my memories of Ed.
He was so charming when I met him. As Jimmy Hoffa wrote in his book, “Ed Partin could charm a snake off a rock.” It was Aug. 1949 and I was living with my sister, Mildred and her husband, Percy Cobb in Natchez, Mississippi. International Paper Company was building a mill and Percy was superintendent of construction. Ed was steward over the Teamsters, Union (I.B.T.C. and W.). He came to the house one afternoon to talk to Percy concerning the Teamsters, and that is how I met him. I was 18 years old and he was 26. I thought he was the most handsome man I had ever seen. He had blond hair, blue eyes and teeth like pearls. Keith, he looked just like you, except he was 6’2”. He didn’t smoke or drink, not even beer, and I believed every word he said. He loved to come over to Mildred’s when I babysat James Paul. I thought he would make a good father. After six weeks we were married in Fayette, Mississippi, Sept. 27, 1949.
Cynthia, I guess it was good thing I waited three years for you. Ed had not told me about his debts. He owed for three cars and we didn’t even have one. He had sold them before we married, spent the money but had not paid for the cars. He also had to spend three months in jail in Woodville, Mississippi, from October 10, 1949 until January 1, 1950. He wouldn’t tell me why; just that he was innocent. I wrote the judge a letter and he let him out. It was not until March 1964 that I found out why he was in jail.
He made about $75.00 every two weeks, which was pretty good in 1950. We moved to Pascagoula, Mississippi in the spring of 1950. The Electricians went on a strike the first week we were there. Ed drew his unemployment, $20.00 a week. We paid $8.00 per week for our rented room and shared a kitchen. It was nice, we had no responsibilities so we would go to the beach everyday and cook hotdogs or hamburgers. We started going to church and were baptized June 17, 1950. The strike lasted three months. By that time, International Paper Company, had started an addition to the mill in Natchez and we moved back there, to the Pharsalia Apartments, which were brand new and real nice, two bedrooms, kitchen, living room and bath, no air conditioning in those days. That is when we bought furniture, the old mahogany bedroom suite, sofa, chairs and tables for the living room and a red Formica top, chrome kitchen table and chairs. By this time Ed had let me start handling the money and I had him out of debt by the time you cam, Cynthia. You were the answer to my prayers. Ed was real disappointed that you were a girl. Your grandmas Foster always said she was so glad you were a girl because “Son,” (that’s what all his family called him) didn’t get his way for the first time in his life. You were so pretty and you soon won his heart because you cried after him every time he went to work.
Janice came a year later. I didn’t mind because Maurice was pregnant with Susan and we had the best time together. You and Susan were a week apart. I was going to help Maurice when she came from the hospital and then she was going to help me with Janice. I was not due until the first of August, but you came early so we had to call Mildred to come to our rescue. She was always so good to come stay with me when the first three of you were born. She stayed two weeks the next year when I had Edward. Ed was real good to go to church, he even went to Men’s training class when we lived in Natchez.
The construction ended with I.P. Company so we moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, September 1, 1953. He got a job with a construction company driving a truck, and then in March 1954, he was elected business agent and Secretary and Treasurer for the Teamsters of Local #5. He made $75.00 a week.
Baton Rouge was booming. Houses to rent were scarce. We rented a small two bedroom, kitchen, bath and living room on Ellerslie Drive, behind Memorial Stadium. By this time I was pregnant with Edward.
We were doing better financially. We bought a brand new 1954 Ford. Edward was born July 1, 1954, finally a boy. You were so precious. You had the most beautiful brown eyes and dark brown hair.
Ed began to find excuses not to go to church with us. He had union meetings on Sunday morning, so sometimes he would have them at the house and he would keep Edward while we went.
He organized Louisiana Creamery, Holsum and Sunbean Bakeries, and the Refineries that were being built between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. I really think he was honest during this time.
We bought a lot on Prescott Road and in 1956 we built a house. I drew the plans and selected everything in it. Ed was very cooperative. It was just what I wanted, 2,586 square feet and a double carport. We moved in December 15, 1956. By this time we had two cars. The Teamsters had bought our 1954 Ford for Ed and we bought me a 1955 red and white Oldsmobile. I suppose that was the happiest time of my life. I really wanted another baby, now that I had this big, pretty house with two bathrooms. I was thrilled when I had you, Teresa. Especially to have one with blue eyes.
Ed bought a truck stop and restaurant on Airline Highway, in April 1959, called the J and L Truck Stop. He also bought and old house with fifty acres out in the country close to Greensburg, Louisiana. He made a garden and mad repairs on the old house. He wanted us to move in it an sell the one on Prescott. I wouldn’t agree to it. I’m sure glad I didn’t. This is when our problems started. He was gone most of the time. Always Union Business or at the Truck Stop Restaurant. Mildred Kelly was a waitress there. I began to have suspicions of her and Ed having an affair. It would make him mad and deny it when I confronted him about it.
I am so thankful you all don’t remember how abusive he was to me. Cynthia, you probably remember some. I might could have tolerated his “other women,” if he had been good to me, but the only good thing about him was his generosity with is money. He thought money could buy anything. He never cared how much money I spent and he never objected of us going to church. He wouldn’t go with us but he was good to help me get you all dress. I am thankful for that. He was continuously buying me things what I called “a peace offering.” He bought me a 1959 Impala Chevrolet and the transmission went out on it with only 80 miles on it. He wanted to have it fixed but I told him I didn’t want it, that I would keep my Oldsmobile. I later found out he had given it to Mildred Kelly. He also started my silver with a place setting and all the serving pieces. He could never save money. He thought it was made to spend. He lavished you all with toys. Edward you had a gun and that lovely knife by the time you were five years old. I guess it’s a good thing I was conservative and learned how to handle money, because by the time we separated I knew how far a dollar would go.
He seemed to blame me for everything, even the fusses you all would have. He insisted I get a maid so I hired Olivia, remember her? She worked for me until we separated.
It was in January 1960 that I knew he was having the affair with Mildred Kelly. He had to go to Washington, DC on union business. He had driven and called me on his way back to tell me he was snow bound right outside of Atlanta, Georgia and would be home when he could. I knew she was with him but when he came home he denied it. I guess he thought if I had another baby that I wouldn’t leave him, so Keith, you were on the way soon after this.
By the summer of 1960, I knew Ed was doing things that were dishonest. He had to go to Atlanta and while he was gone, C.J. Brown, a Baton Rouge realtor, called and told me that the grass needed cutting at the house we had rented on Sevenoaks Drive. I quickly asked what was the house number and he told me. This was a shock to me, so that night I went over there. Ed came to the door but he turned out all the lights and wouldn’t let me in. The next day he told me that he was hiding dynamite for Jimmy Hoffa in that house. He also told me he was on some kind of drugs. I had called your Aunt Mil to come help me decide what to do. She came and I went home with her to Pine Bluff. Ed called everyday, begging me to come home. I was gone about two weeks, but we did go back. When I got home, I realized there was something wrong with him. He tried to keep it from me, but he finally showed me where he had been stabbed, the lowest part of his stomach, a horizontal cut about six inches long. It was always a mystery as to who did it. It needed stitches but he wouldn’t go to the doctor. He had been stabbed on his shoulder about four or five months before this. He wouldn’t tell me who did it either, but wouldn’t go to the doctor. When he left in January, the cut on his stomach had still not healed. In later years, Mrs. Rankin, one of my lawyers, said he probably was bringing in some kind of drugs in the wound. It sounded horrible to me, but I never knew.
Keith, I didn’t think you would ever get here. All the rest of you had been three or four weeks early, so by November 1, I was ready, but you didn’t get here until November the 17th. I worried about you while I was in the hospital, not knowing if Ed would be home, but I had Olivia and she took real good care of you.
Keith was nine days old when Ed told me he had to go to Havana, Cuba to see Fidel Castro. I didn’t believe him, but he gave me a number at the Havana Cabana Hotel for me to call. I called and talked to him, so he was there. This was another mystery. I never knew why he went. When President Kennedy was assassinated, and Lee Harvey Oswald arrested, I really thought Ed was going to be involved, but I don’t suppose there was any connection. When he got back from Cuba, there was some argument we had every day. Marge and Orlan were so good to me, helping me decide what to do. He advised me for one and a half years to stay with him. He would talk with Ed and Ed making promises not to see Mildred Kelly anymore, but finally said that she was blackmailing him. I tried to believe him, but there was always something disturbing and a mystery.
One nite I was giving Keith a bottle. Ed was asleep. I looked down, there under the bed were his shoes with a lot of money in them. I counted it quickly, I would guess about $20,000. I put it in the drawer and the next a.m. he asked where it was. I asked him where he got it. He said it wasn’t his, that he was to pass it on to someone that was to meet him at the Palms Motel. I never knew.
He had made several trips to Chicago, he said, and then
<That’s where Mamma Jean ended her letter. She never finished her story. She passed away from breast cancer a few years later. – Love, Janice>
I was unsure what I was seeking in Havana. I had Googled and Duck Duck Go’ed the Havana Cabana and only found references to a newer hotel in Miama that had taken the name, perhaps just after Kennedy’s embargo and catering to exhiled Cubans or Americans still wanting some Cuban flavor in their vacations to southern Florida. But, I knew I may meet someone around my grandfather’s age who may remember the hotel, and that would tell me a lot about that person and I could go from there. Or, perhaps I’d meet someone around my dad’s age, a big Cuban with uncharacteristicly blue eyes and an ambiguos paternal history; Big Daddy was handsome and charming and did whatever he felt like, and he had left a wake of blue eyed children in his path. But, even if I met people who may be tied to my family history, I was unsure what I’d learn and unconcerned about that. I was mostly in Cuba to have fun, and anything else was lagnaippe and I’d pivot and ajust my path if and when that happened.
If anything, being an entrepreneur teaches you to adapt quickly and not be stuck on one path. I never knew how to “teach” that aspect, and I never learned how to tell people what I was searching for every time I began inventing a medical device to solve a problem. In fact, I had been tasked by The University of San Diego to do just that, help bring entrepreneurship into engineering curricculum by “teaching” students to “embrace ambiguity” and “develop empathy” for people instead of marching forward with assumptions; we would be the second university to do that, following Olin University’s lead, and the fact that I wasn’t entrenched in the academic system and had never tolerated it and refused a PhD ironically put me in an opportunity to change the system I loathed.
Similarly, I was unsure what I’d seek in Guantamano. Similar to my loathing of America’s heirarchial academic system, everything in my body detested political beurocracy and idealogical hypocracy, and my body had tensed every time I saw Guantamano on the news. I couldn’t change anything, but perhaps working wiht a few journalists would chip away at the ignorance that kept fellow humans imprisioned outside of a system I believed in, the right to an attorney and a fair trial. That part of my background was personal: I had served on two presidents quick reaction forces as a paratrooper, George Bush Sr. and Billy Clinton, and had been given a dipolomatic passport to serve with the “temporary” multinational peacekeeping force Jimmy Carter had facilitated in 1979 that was still operating in the Sinai, just like Guantamano was fading from memory and could perpetuate in government beurocracy indefinately. Of course, my youthful ambitions for peace in the Middle East failed – most news on any day would tell you that – so I had no delusions about Guantamano, but a part of me wanted to at least take a look and see if something would speak to me, the same way I wanted to ask around about the Havana Cabana and see if The Universe aligned my path with something that mattered to more people.
The ceviche and salsa arrived and I sighed behind my smile and put away my phone and thought about Wendy while I ate. Focusing on the moment is not as easy as saying it. My thoughts swirled and I resisted the temptation to order another dacquiri and was distracted as I stretched to the band, wondering about Wendy more than rehashing my family history. But they’re inseperable: knowing a bit more about my Partin family in 1972, you can imagine the shock a 16 year old girl would experience stepping into their world, and it’s not surprising that she had a nervous breakdown and fled. What’s remarkable is that she returned and spent seven years fighting the courts and the Partin family, with all of their mafia connections and legal immunity, and won. We may have had an atypical mother-son relationship, but we had evolved into a friendship based on shared experiences and insider knowledge of what it was like to grow up as a part in the Partin family.
“La cuenta, por favor” I asked the bartender.
He and I chatted a bit and he asked how I spoke Spanish so well. I chuckled and said I lived in San Diego, on the border of Tijuana, and couldn’t help but learn Spanish via osmosis. The truth is a bit more complex. I grew up in Southern Louisiana with the Cajun French influence and French and Spanish are similar Latin based languages, unlike English’s Germanic roots, so I had an advantage in learning a bit of Spanish when I moved to San Diego. And if you pay attention to how most strangers speak, the first five minutes are so similar that you practice the same phatic comments again and again and sound more proficient than you are. I had realized that long ago, and in 1993 was given a diplomatic passport and a title “Communications Liaison” with the Multinational Force and Observers, a temporary coalition of 17 countries trying to monitor President Carter’s 1979 Camp David Accords, because I was a reputable soldier who ostensibly spoke many languages. Carter won the Nobel Peace Price for that and a few other things, and citizens have forgotten that the MFO is still there today. Obama won the same prize, and even he admitted he didn’t know why, the same way I’m unsure why so many people believe I speak more fluently than I do. Maybe it’s like Guantamano and the MFO and JFK and phatic conversations, and not everyone pays attention to patterns that seem obvious in hindsight.
The bartender brought the check and I said gracias and paid in U.S. Dollars he said buen viaje, and as I walked out I dropped a $5 bill in the band’s tip jar and smiled and bowed a thank you to them without interrupting the music. One of the trumpet players nodded back with his horn without missing a note and I limped to my casa particular, though only people who knew me well would have noticed the limp, because it was sublte and slowed my gait more than altered it, thankfully.
The next day I bought another WiFi card and checked messages. Cristi had been unable to reach Wendy, but that was typical both because of her remote home and her tendency to be emotionally unavailable for weeks or months at a time. The reporters were already in Vinales and had met the alleged climbing guide – many adventure sports were illegal in Cuba’s free healthcare system – and they were ready for when I’d arrive. I sighed, and decided to continue my trip and check back on Wendy whenever I was in Havana.
I traveled with only a carry on backpack and a pair of extra large scuba fins as my personal item, so I was agile and able to quickly move in and out of buses and rental cars. But, because of my visa, I wasn’t supposed to use government transportation, so I rented another personally owned 1950’s classic and practiced my Spanish on the way to Vinales with real conversations that lasted longer than five minutes and used real time, present situations that are difficult to foresee and therefore require more focus and nuanced sentences. He asked about my fins, which always attract attention because they’re so big. One of my nicknames since childhood has been “Bigfoot,” and I long ago realized that few rental shops carried size 14 Wide scuba fins or rock climbing shoes, so I traveled with them. The shoes were inside my carry on backpack, but the fins were obvious and attracted attention not just because of their size or the fact that I carried them, but that they were unique looking Force Fins, invented by someone who got their first contract with the U.S. Navy Seals and Rangers, and their short and wide appearance with lack of toe covers was remarkable: they were designed to travel compactly and propel a strong swimmer great distances by not applying force at the toes and keeping the moment arm as close to your ankle as possible, which was useful for someone with disproportionately long feet.
I didn’t know the Spanish word for “nickname,” so I said, “No se como se dice una parabola en Espanol,” and paused for a bit, slightly exaggerating a countenance of contemplation, “En Englais, es ‘nickname,’ una nombre familiar con amigos o…” I paused for a brief moment and contemplated earnestly, “… abusadors.”
“El apado,” he suggested.
“Gracias. En escuela, mi apado fue Bigfoot, pie grande.”
“Como la monstera? Ha!”
“Si! Ha!” I held up my similarly disproportionately large hands and smirked slyly and said, “Y tu sabe lo que dice sobre un hombre con manos y pies grandes como la monstera…” I paused for effect and waited for him to glance away from the road to smirk back at me before delivering the punch line I had said in dozens of languages over the decades, “Dificil para comprar guantes y zapatos!”
He laughed and laughed, and I laughed too because I had known he would laugh and I still chuckled at how many languages I knew the words for gloves and shoes, just like I could order a beer or ask for a telephone in 20 or 30 lanuages and to tell a joke or two with timing that had been perfected hundreds of times. We chatted more on the hour and a half drive, and in that time he would have eventually admitted that I had a lot to learn, but that knew a few good jokes in Spanish.
Over the next four weeks my Spanish improved but out of habit I still asked for the best place to get WiFi service and I checked messages at Plaza San Francisco de Asis when I could and only received one text message from Wendy, reiterating that it was not urgent and that she’d wait until I was back in San Diego. Her silence amplified my worry, and I skipped going to Guantanamo to send another voice mail and wait. While I waited, I purchased a Spainish copy of Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, a book Castro carried with him to the Bay of Pigs battle, from a local used book store and cafe called, humorously, Cuba Libre, and walked to Hemmingway’s house and passing by where someone told me the Hotel Havana had once been. I didn’t see anyone with blue eyes and didn’t feel inspiration. But Hemmingway’s home was fine, and I was glad I saw it. I returned to Cuba Libre and read for Whom the Bell Tolls and bought a copy of The Old Man and The Sea, and I believe that I gained a deeper appreciation for the stories by having read them in Havana; the only thing I remember from four years of high school English classes is an experimental program in 11th grade that combined literature and history and asked us to read about the time period of an author to empathize, and of course Hemmingway was showcased. Over time, I added reading the literature in the location where it was written or was about, though I doubted I would understand Guantamano any better by visiting it. But, I thought why not? And, in hindsight, I’m happy to have read The Old Man and The Sea and envisioned him struggling in Cuba’s waters and all the tourists Hemmingway briefly mentioned that saw him at the end of his ordeal and had no idea of his story. I could relate, I chuckled to myself, and at the end of my thirty day visa I boarded an airplane for what I knew would be a long, painful series of flights back to San Diego, even if I hand’t gained insight on Guanamano or Big Daddy’s trips to meet Fidel.
I stared out the airplane window on the leg between Fort Lauderdale and Houston and was surprised to realize that in all the flying I’ve done, this was the first time I had flown over southern Louisiana in the daytime and had been able to look down on where I grew up. The Crescent City of New Orleans was obvious, and so was the rembrents of the old Mississippi River that had whipped 18 miles across the delta in the 1916 Missouri earthquake. Less obvious was the small port of Baton Rouge an hour upriver of New Orleans, and even less noticeable was the tiny bend near Saint Francisville, site of a famous civil war steamship battle as northern forces navigated past New Orleans and Baton Rouge to the plantation country where Wendy now lived. The two seemed far apart when I was a kid down there, and now they seemed like two little dots less than a pinky-width apart from my perspective 30,000 feet in the sky. I sighed, recalling Mamma Jean and Big Daddy and all of my family that had died down there, and then I shuddered and had a sudden, terrifying feeling that Wendy could commit suicide. She wouldn’t, I’d soon learn, unless you count slowly killing yourself with daily alcohol consumption, but that was the feeling I had then and it was beginning to dominate my thoughts. I don’t know where that feeling came from, and I knew that she was too stubborn to take her own life no matter how depressed she felt, if only because she seemed to enjoy drinking wine so much. Perhaps it was the view of Baton Rouge and my memory of my many cousins who had committed suicide in the 1990’s, beginning just after Big Daddy died and several years after Walter told us that Big Daddy had been scizophrenic and that mental illness ran in our fmaily, and from the conversattions with Mamma Jean in 1996 as she began trying to explain to us what had happened.
Looking down on the mighty Mississippi River and the specs that were Baton Rouge and Saint Francisville, where my mom had just called me and left an ambiguous message, led to a flood of memories as my mind tried to make sense of everything, not just how to honor my mother, but something akin to an existential crisis, an empty feeling, and perhaps my mind was seeking meaning from old memories to fill that void. It’s likely that I even imagined the feeling of Wendy pondering suicide to give me a sense of purpose urgency that would fill that void faster. I was, after all, her good friend. No one else knew her as well as I did, or knew what she had overcome almost half a century before.
Many hours later I arrived in San Diego and greeted Cristi and Charity, her eight year old daughter. They were used to my travels and knew I’d like some time alone. I did about an hour of yoga and chatted with Charity a bit until she went to bed, and then Cristi and I talked briefly about Wendy and I told her about a few Cuba highlights. The next day a few friends came over and I made a Hemmingway Dacquiris and a ceviche and salsa similar to the bar in Havana. I wasn’t feeling social, and fortunately they were good friends who new my family history and noticed the worry behind my jokes and smiles. We chatted about Wendy for a bit. They had all known my struggles with her growing alcoholism, just like they knew how many of my dad’s side of the family had committed suicide. I told them of the odd feeling I felt from the coincidence, almost irony, of only having WiFi reception in San Francisco de Asis and Wendy not having reception in Saint Francisville. It sounded crazy or synchronistic, depending on your experiences or beliefs, I said. Regardless, I continued, I felt something important was happening that I couldn’t explain with logic and I couldn’t shake the feeling that Wendy would kill herself. I was able to sort my random and chaotic nonlinear thoughts by speaking freely and unfiltered among friends, and I made a decision on what to say to Wendy when I would eventually speak with her, and I knew what I’d do to prepare. We finished the dacqaris and chatted about the mango salsa I had made to go with the ceviche Cristi had made, and we talked about Hemingway and The Old Man and The Sea and it was a good evening.
The next day I dug out Uncle Bob’s old Rolex and walked uphill from our condo on Balboa Park to a tiny watch shop, a barely noticeable slot in long line of businesses in Hillcrest called, humorously, Just in Time. Moe, the proprietor and watch smith. Moe had replaced the strap on my old Seiko solar dive watch before Cuba, and I had bought a few batteries from him over the years for my daily wear watch. Moe had once refurbished a vintage Swiss wind-up watch of Uncle Bob’s that I wanted to wear with my suit for a wedding, and I trusted his work. He told me it would have cost $600 to disassemble, clean, lubricate, and replace the cracked face on Uncle Bob’s 1970’s Rolex Oyster Perpetual; Moe was one of only five watch smiths in Southern California who had trained with Rolex in Switzerland and had their approval to repair the Oyster Perpetual. He said it would take a week, and in that time I tried reaching Wendy several times. Coincidentally, she returned my call as soon as I walked home from piking up Uncle Bob’s watch. I told her about joking with cab drivers in Cuba, a slight lie becasue they were private car drivers, but she knew what a cab was and that was easier, and how I still used Uncle Bob’s jokes. He was a French Canadian who had immigrated to Louisiana in the 50’s and had spoke Latin in his Catholic church back on Prince Edward Island, coincidentally where the Cajuns had originated, and had managed Montreal’s Bulk Stevadoring in New Orleans, traveling the world negotiating contracts wtih international shipping companies to load and unload their cargo and learning jokes in about a dozen languages. We laughed at a few old jokes he had told us both as kids, that led to chatting about her Canadian family that had all died decades before.
You may have heard of Wendy’s grandfather, my great-Grandpa Harold Hicks, because he was a moderately famous hockey player and had played for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins. Later, he was known in the English speaking part of Canada as managing Canada’s railway system. It seemed that all of my family was somehow inolved in transport and shipping, Wendy had always noted, usually with a joke about never knowing what a Stevedor or Teamster actually did, and assuming that when I became an engineer it meant I’d work on trains like Grandpa Hicks. And her great aunt, my great-great Aunt Edith Lang, was a famous Canadian spinster who married one of Canada’s wealthiest men at age 80 and donated his art collection to museums and gave some to Wendy and me; each one was worth more than I had earned for college in almost four years of military service, and both Wendy and I had always laughed about the irony of that. It was old jokes about our Rothdram and Hicks families, and almost invariably Wendy would make her joke about beging WARPed by the Partins.
But, Wendy wasn’t making the same jokes as before, and that alerted me that something was wrong. Instead of listening more, like I know I should do, like how I preached in classes that you learn more by listening than by talking, I assumed she was just in another bout of depression and that her slower speech was due to drinking earlier and earlier each day, aggrivating her depression and making her otherwise sharp mind dull. She had done so before, usually in sadness following the passing of one of her rescue dogs that always seemed to stay with her for years. I had tried to discuss important things with her, like stopping drinking, but it’s challenging to empathize over the phone, and in my previous attempts to have serious conversations she had taken offense or become more saddened and hung up on me and not answered her phone for almost a year at a time. Based on my assumption that she was about to begin another bout of depression and had been drinking, I took a deep breath and focused on what I wanted to say.
“I love you, Wendy,” I said. It was true, but I said it without pausing because I was anxious to continue speaking, “And I had Uncle Bob’s Rolex fixed because I was thinking of you and wanted to talk about when he died. Please don’t hang up this time – it’s important.”
She acquiesced. I took another deep breath and ranted at her about living without regrets. It was, practically speaking, the closest thing to advice Uncle Bob ever offered.
“I love you so much that I can’t stand to see you drink yourself to death,” I finally said.
She said she wanted to see me in San Diego, but I had heard that before and she had always canceled before taking the long flight and forgoing her typical lunchtime glasses of wine. I dismissed the probability and sighed subtly. I don’t know if she noticed.
“Wendy, I love you so much that I can’t say yes,” I said with a slow cadence, ensuring she heard every word. “I can only focus on helping you to stop drinking. Go travel. See the world, like Aunt Edith. She married at 80, and you’re still young and could meet someone who’s in the same place in life. Think about all the stories she told about golfing at St. Andrews and travling the world after Mr. Lang died; she had fun being a single lady travelign the world and never regretted being single most of her life.”
I used the gender neutral “someone” because I had long suspected that Wendy leaned a bit towards other women, but may not have realized it in the traditional and ostensibly religious culture of Southern Louisiana. After she left my dad, she had one relationship with the engineer from Exxon for almost 17 years, followed by many short term dating relationships and a female “friend” roommate for a year. She was fiercely private and hadn’t shared details; she had always felt ashamed by her choices, still judged like she felt she had been as a 16 year old girl, unaware that most people were not paying much attention to you other than to guage your reaction about them. Since then, it seemed she was always looking for another relationship with someone who wanted to travel, someone who would override her tendancy to lean toward meloncoly.
“Have fun!” I said, like a robot programed to say upbeat things. “You deserve it.” That part was true. She had had a rough life. I reminded her of a magnet Auntie Lo kept on her refrigerator after Uncle Bob died, one of those motivational decors with a cute litle picture of a home with a rainbow that said, “The past can not be changed, but the future is whatever you want it to be.” I probably sounded like a pompus bore repeating cliches and offering bromides rather than listening and saying what could have helped. I finished my layman’s sermon smugly, quoting an old Spanish toast – in English – that I had once told Wendy with sincerity but now repeated like a machine, “To love, wealth, and health; and the time to enjoy them all.”
She sighed the same sigh as in her voice mail and said Uncle Bob always said to live without regrets.
She was mistaken: he never once suggested how other people should live, he only said he tried to live a life without regrets. But I didn’t correct her, thankfully. She had built him up in her mind over the years as a father figure, though he was far from a perfect role model. He and Auntie Lo, who was born Lois Hicks, couldn’t have children and were self admittedly too selfish to adopt or even assume legal responsiblity for my care when I was removed from Wendy and my dad. They partied every day, and Uncle Bob drank and smoked daily like he had since he was 14 because, as he said, he enjoyed it and paid for his own health care and had no children and planned on using up all of his savings on him and Auntie Lo, that you can’t take it with you. He bought the best Scotch and Rolex’s he could afford becasue he could and wanted to, but he was unattached to either and that, too, was financial freedom. He said Wendy and I needed to figure out our own lives, and that we could have the things he was leaving behind but not his money, because he and Auntie Lo would use it up on experiences and go to thier graves without regretting anything. His wise words were counterbalanced by his unkind words: he was, by today’s standards, a racist upper middle class white male who used words like nigger, spic, jew, chinaman, redneck, and coonass. But, he was a good person who lived by his beliefs, and one of those beliefs was the lesson behind the Good Samaratan. When Wendy’s mom, Joyce Hicks Rothdram, fled her abusive husband in Tonto and moved in with Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo in their big, nice home in Baton Rouge, of course Uncle Bob would care for her. And he cared for me a few times in my youth, and even stood up to my dad and the Partins more than once. But, like the Good Samaratan, who did first aide on his wounded enemy and paid for his care but never followed through or invited the wounded man to live with him, Uncle Bob would treat the immediate problem with a bandage and maybe some cash, but then it was up to us to take the next step and, as he said, figure it out for ourselves. He even became an American citizen, giving up his national healthcare and willfully depleting his savings, not on decadence but on sustaining his life as spinal cancer took him at age 64. Even at the end, he’d remind us that he was dying without regrets, and that you can’t take anything with you. And, as Wendy and I always recalled, his neighbors spoke highly of him, especially after his 1950’s fine home had become weathered and the middle class neighborhood became a haven for lower income people working up the social ladder, and it seemed that every nearby nigger, spic, jew, chinaman, rednecks, and coonass visted him when he was bedridden for his final months in 1989, when I was living with him, bringing us cooked hams, tamales, chala bread, spring rolls, venison, and gumbo; he had helped all of them at some point over the years, regardless of what he thought of them, and they all seemed to admire his adamancy that he’d die without regrets, and he was unattached to things because you can’t take them with you. Wendy, in my opinion, had mistaken living without regrets as doing things perfectly rather than self forgiveness, and she had never really listened when he talked about being unattached to the nice things she coveted in his home. When Wendy retired, she focused on her fine retirement home in an area unlikely to go out of style, and she had decorated it with Aunt Edith’s artwork and Auntie Lo’s fine china plates and silver tablewear. I had watched her become attached to her home and forego her youthful desire to travel and experience the world, and in our conversastion I probably had a scolding or irritated tone in my voice, despite my intentions, because it had been a persistent conversation for almost ten years and she was drinking too much and the same age as Uncle Bob, Auntie Lo, and Granny had all died from alcohol and tobacco diseases, and yet she didn’t see the same pattern becasue few of us see ourselves as our parents age.
She sighed and said she had finally grown close to Granny when Granny stopped drinking, due more to her throat cancer radiation and chemotherapy than will power. I listened to what wasn’t said and knew she was hoping we’d become closer, but instead of simply telling her I loved her I built upon the momentum of her words and implied that she was in control of her future.
Three days later I received a voice mail from Cindi, telling me Wendy had gone into a coma from liver failure and was not expected to live to the end of the a week. I bought the next plane ticket to Baton Rouge and had two days to wait and ponder our final conversation. I was wearing Uncle Bob’s watch for the first time in twenty years, and as I watched the second hand move smoothly around the face, smooth from freshly lubricted Swiss coil springs and unlike the jerky movements from quartz watches, and I regretted my tone and emotions when speaking with Wendy for what I felt was the final time. I saw the irony every time I looked at Uncle Bob’s wacth, waiting for my airplane date and wishing I could go back in time and change the final words I had spoken to my mother. It wasn’t just the words. I had said I love you many times and had repeated words of affirmation, but I had told her I didn’t want to see her and I knew she’d ruminate on those words and pick up on my frustrated tone more than anything. There was nothing I could do to change that. I may have wanted to find ways to honor her, but I had obviously failed. I dind’t know what Uncle Bob would say about that, because even if I could learn and chose different words I was sure Wendy woudln’t live to hear those words, and I knew I’d remember that the rest of my life.
I don’t recall sleeping the two days I waited for my airplane, and I never stopped pacing long enough for Uncle Bob’s perpetual motion watch to wind down. Two long days later, I wore his watch as I boarded an airplane destined for Baton Rouge for what I felt was the final time.
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