Daniel still prays to his God three times every day. – The Book of Daniel
“Like this, Uncle J?”
Hope was standing on a footstool so that she could reach the stove, holding a sharp knife in her right hand and steading an oblong avocado on a cutting board with her left.
“Just like that,” I said.
She paused and asked innocently, “Do giant sloths really shit the pit out?”
I made a mental note to say “poop the pit out” next time.
We were making avocado toast with a Fallbrook avocado and a loaf of Bread and Cie from the farmer’s market that morning, and when I returned from the market I had told her that giant sloths used to live in Balboa Park, a long time ago, and that later that day we could walk to the Natural History Museum and see one. It must have stuck in her mind, and when she held the avocado in her tiny hand she must have imagined how big a giant sloth would have been.
I put my right hand over my heart and held up my left hand, the one with the scars, and repeated that yes, they had, indeed, been so big that they could eat an entire bunch of big avocados, and that they swallowed them whole and shit out the pits and that’s how we got more avocado trees.
I told her that the Natural History Museum had giant sloth skeletons, and she could see for herself. She said that sounded fun, and I told her that they also have skeletons of mammoths and saber tooth tigers and sharks and whales; and that underneath the humongous whale flippers, their bones looked just like our hands! But, I said, their forearm bones weren’t humorous, like ours, and I thought that was funny.
She didn’t laugh, either.
I told her that Fallbrook said it was the avocado capital of the world, because of Sloth poop, and she laughed that time.
“Let’s focus on using your knife safely,” I said to us both, and we began slicing the avocado thinly.
Each year, dozens of people in San Diego cut themselves making avocado toast. They end up in our emergency rooms, sometimes embarrassed. An avocado fits perfectly in the palm of your cupped hand, and it’s tempting to cup it there and push the knife instead of slicing on a cutting board, or to hold a half of an avocado and whack golfball-to-peach sized pit with your knife blade and pop out the impaled pit. But, it’s easy to miss and cut yourself. From what I had seen, but without statistical evidence, the majority of avocado injuries in San Diego emergency rooms are inflicted upon middle aged men talking while making guacamole before an LSU football game.
Hope did a better job cutting the avocado than I would have at her age, and though I felt happy at the prospect of avocado toast on the balcony and a walk through Balboa Park to the museum, I was distracted and unfocused. Few people would have noticed, but I saw my thoughts returning again and again to my walk home from the farmers market.
I had woke up feeling sad by my mom’s passing, and that’s normal. I wanted some time by myself, so I left our condo and walked up 6th Avenue towards the Hillcrest Sunday farmers market. It’s only a mile away, and it’s a beautiful walk through Balboa and then through the urban streets of Hillcrest.
There’s no denying it when you approach Hillcrest. It’s one of the world’s most expensive zip codes, yet remarkably diverse, socioeconomically and ethnically and everything, and one of the most densely packed of San Diego’s neighborhoods. It’s walking friendly streets are packed with shops, restaurants, thrift stores, six grocery stores and what’s advertised as the world’s largest and most phallic LGBT flag pole and it’s perpetually flying giant rainbow flag. It’s easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle, and it was exactly what I wanted that day; freedom from small talk and phatic questions common in a small neighborhood. I didn’t want to chat with anyone.
Cranky Ken had got me thinking about The Irishman since it was released to theaters a few months before and Ken wanted to talk about it with someone. That led me to thinking about my mothers history; to me, they’re the same thing. I was born in 1972, the year after Jimmy Hoffa was pardoned by Nixon and three years before Frank “The Irishman” Sheerman allegedly painted the walls of a Detroit house with Hoffa’s blood. Obviously, I was too young to know about Hoffa then, but my grandfather, Edward Grady Partin Senior, was the Baton Rouge Teamsters leader for thirty years and knew Hoffa well. He was nationally famous for about a decade for infiltrating Hoffa’s inner circle and being the surprise witness that sent Hoffa to prison in 1964. Few people remember Ed Partin, but Ken did, and ever since he made that connection he couldn’t stop talking about it with me.
Ken was split on what to think about my grandfather. He had pointed out Hoffa’s words in the book, Hoffa on Hoffa:
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
And, like most people at that time, he focused on Hoffa’s rants about Bobby Kennedy; Hoffa used to call him “Booby,” or “that snot nosed little shit,” and had tried to strangle Bobby on national television once. And Walter Sheridan had retired from the FBI and was, for Ken’s generation, a respected news anchor. But, Hoffa always insisted that Sheridan, Booby, and Walter influenced national media and were killing America. Conversely, the Kennedy’s said Hoffa’s ruthless labor practices and mafia involvement were killing America. They had recruited Edward Partin to portray an “All American” in national media and to testify against Hoffa. Ken, like most of America, seemed to skim over lines like, “because of a minor domestic problem.”
The “minor domestic problem” was two-fold: manslaughter in Mississippi, and kidnapping the two small children of Baton Rouge Teamster Sydney Simpson. My grandfather was arrested and placed in a Baton Rouge jail cell, but Bobby Kennedy had him released and ensured his criminal records began disappearing bit by bit, like a magician’s handkerchief being tucked piece by piece into a closed fist. Hoffa had a lot to say about that, too, in his chapter about my grandfather. Hoffa was sentenced to eight years in prison based soley on Ed Partin’s sworn testimony that Hoffa had asked him to take $20,000 from the petty cash box and give it to James, “The Negro” mentioned in Hoffa vs. The United States.
Bobby and FBI director paid my grandmother to remain silent about all of my grandfather’s “minor domestic problems,” and they assigned teams of FBI agents and federal marshalls to follow the Partins and protect them from inevitable retaliation from Teamsters loyal to Hoffa and the many mafia bosses were were told that all of the $120 Million or so owed to Hoffa would be forgiven if “someone” got Ed Partin to recant his testimony and free Jimmy. There were a few houses exploded and several attempts on my grandfather’s life that were somewhat exaggerated – small caliber pistols that would threaten more than kill – because if he died then Hoffa could never be free. Instead, my uncles, aunts, and father were often targeted.
In 1971, Hoffa funded Richard Nixon’s campaign while in prison and promised the endorsement of almost 3 million voting Teamsters, if my grandfather would recant his testimony. Nixon sent a national celebrity, Audie Murphy, to Baton Rouge with a presidential pardon for perjury if Ed Partin would recant his testimony. He didn’t, and Audie died in a plane crash with four other passengers the following week. Though that was proved to be a pilot error, Doug swore in his autobiography that my grandfather was behind it, like a lot of people believed back then.
Coincidentally, that week was the week that my 16 year old mother met a 17 year old Edward Grady Partin Junior; ten months later, I was born. 47 years later, she died. A lot had happened in that time.
All of that had been on my mind ever since I returned form her funeral a few weeks before, and the timing with all of Ken’s thoughts on The Irishman had flooded my mind with thoughts of what life must have been like for her back then. She had fought the Partins for seven years to regain custody of me; most custody battles are brutal, but to have a custody battle with a family involved in the Teamsters and mafia, and who had a reputation of handling “domestic problems” outside of the court system, must have been exceptionally challenging for my 16 year old mother; she had been only eight years older than Hope, and I had never considered that until recently.
I didn’t want to talk about it – I take a long time to process things – and I was enjoying the autonomy of walking in a densely packed urban area when I saw an old man sitting by himself in a wheelchair. He was beside a bus stop at a busy intersection by the 7-11 a few blocks from the farmers market. He was remarkable enough to distract my ruminating thoughts.
He twitched slightly with muscle convulsions that shook the super-sized drink in his hand and spilled sticky bright red fluid onto his pants. I think he must have been wearing them for a few days at least. Two 99-cent hot dogs rested on one of his legs, still whole and in the bright white and red carboard boxes that said 99 cent hotdogs, as if someone had bought one for him and rested it on his leg, and then another person had bought one and set it beside the first.
I approached caustiously. He was not a threat by himself, but San Diego had just made national headlines for a hepatitis outbreak that began in the homeless camps down the hill from the farmer’s market, in downtown San Diego. I always assume someone’s contagious when I approach them, and even if hepatitis is only communicable by consuming contaminated food or water, or not washing your hands before eating, it’s hard to tell if someone has tuberculosis, RSV, the flue, or, by now, Covid. I was once a paramedic, and knew to remain a few feet away and assess the situation before approaching, even before the Covid pandemic tried to get everyone to stay six feet apart.
His wheelchair had a metal stamp that said, “Property of the San Diego V.” That hospital was north along the Highway 163 that bisects Hillcrest and then north on Interstate 5 for a few miles, but they have a direct bus linked to Hillcrest, and I imagined that he may have been waiting for the direct bus between Hillcrest and the VA Hospital, maybe to return their wheelchair that was also stamped “Please return to the San Diego VA.”Perhaps he was an old vet, simply following orders out of habit.
But then I noticed that his right wrist had a bright, clean admissions bracelet from Scrips Mercy hospital, the Hillcrest charity hospital only six clicks away and along flat sidewalks, and I assumed he had been a 5150, the California police code for a potentially mentally ill patient. Coincidentally, 5150 was the street address of a California recording studio that Van Halen used for their first album with Sammy Hagar, entitled “5150.”
A 5150 code is unique to California; it uses taxpayer money to pay for up to 72 hours of emergency room care for a potentially mentally ill patient who may be a threat to themselves or others. All American hospitals must treat all emergencies, but most emergency rooms aren’t prepared to handle 5150’s, especially ones that could disrupt the ER during a multi car accident or explosion or disease outbreak. California voters had pushed for some what to address the many facets unique to our disproportionately large homeless population, drawn to dreams and unincentivised to leave the mild climate, or without somewhere else to go. One solution had been the 5150, and for up to 72 hours of free healthcare in any emergency room in California for a potentially mentally ill patient who could be a threat to themselves or society.
Scrips Mercy was a charity in the northern neighborhood bordering Balboa Park, and 24 hours a day police and ambulances and paramedics bring homeless people from all over San Diego County there because there are few alternatives for the poor or homeless, even in America’s Finest City. The hospital is stocked with some of the best healthcare medical devices on Earth, partially because of its proximity to highly profitable and publicly traded medical device companies headquartered in San Diego. But even in the best of times, they are overwhelmed by the immense need in a county of 4 million people and a city of 1.2 million, and they often can’t wash a patient’s clothes or take time to address the root cause of illness; they are an emergency room, and must release people who aren’t in urgent, life-threatening need, and that’s fair. They must remove the arrow and stop the bleeding, and are not empowered to stop the archers, and they do their duty better than I can imagine doing myself.
They offer 5150 patients their clothes back, and retrieve their disposable gowns and escort them to the front door. Many have no where to go, and they stay for a while and become our neighbor. Some return to Scripps as quickly as they can, happy for a safe place to sleep and a meal or two and someone to talk to for a change. The cost approaches $75,000 per day for a 5150, and I wondered if it would be cheaper to hire people to care for old men in wheelchairs; I wouldn’t do it voluntarily now, but I would have accepted a job taking care of people when I was younger, especially for disabled veterans. They seem to have interesting stories, and few people who listen or can relate.
Our homeless population has had 4x more veterans than other cities since at least WWII, when San Diego became a major naval station in the Pacific theater, and then became the outprocessing station for all branches of military returning from Vietnam. Most had been drafted, unable to attend college or flee to Canada, and returned home via San Diego with no where else to go, and the pleasant weather all year makes San Diego a fine place to be homeless for a while.
I said hello and waited for him to acknowledge me; I didn’t want to startle him or make him spill more of his drink.
I asked if he’d like to be pushed into under the shade of the bus stop.
He nodded “no” strongly enough to be noticed over his twitching body.
I offered him water, and he nodded no just as loudly.
I said my name was Jason, and I asked if he needed anything.
He said no in a voice that was muffled by lips that flapped in and out of his mouth. His breathing was forced and was punctuated by gasps of breath common among COPD patients, an acquired disease from things harsh to our lungs, like smoking; or Hillcrest warehouse asbestos, Kentucky coal mines, or Vietnam Agent Orange, Desert Storm dust and debris, etc.
He looked about the age to have been in Vietnam. I couldn’t tell how tall he was because he was seated, but about 5’6.” He was thin and his flesh seemed weak, but his arms retained hints of former physical labor or exercise, perhaps from pushing his wheelchair, though he appeared to struggle with it that Sunday. In my periphery, I watched the diverse people shuffle by the bus stop and 7-11, and none seemed to notice him struggling, but I don’t think I was imagining it.
He was almost bald, and his forehead was bright red from the San Diego sunshine. His neck veins bulged with the extra force necessary to circulate enough oxygen to stay alive, and most of his front teeth where missing, which would explain why he mumbled and why the hotdogs hadn’t been touched. The corners of his mouth were dotted with pinpoint open sores that I did not recognize an hoped for the best. He had one eye open, and it was a lighter blue than the cloudless skies above us. His other eye was squinted shut, and I assumed it was hollow. His face was red and wrinkled with deep lines, as if from many cycles of burning and healing over a lifetime. I assumed he had been sitting by the busstop most of the day.
I leaned in closer and asked his name and rested my left hand on his wheelchair, by his head where I could see my watch. His pulse was beating through his neck veins, and he was breathing through his mouth and his flapping lips were easy to see with each breath. Upon closer inspection, I still didn’t recognize the pinpoint sores. They were not herpes, and they were similar to razor burn, but he obviously hadn’t shaved in several days and they were slightly inflamed and not sunburnt, as if a recent outbreak of something that may have been triggered by UV light. He had an adam’s apple, which is always a wise thing for some types tourists to notice in Hillcrest (it used to be known as a prostitution layover catering to the sailors in town for autonomous R&R before going back to war, and before then it was a secret enclave for transgender people). Otherwise, nothing was remarkable about him.
I repeated that I was Jason and asked his name, calling him “sir” to be polite. He waved his hand as if to dismiss the idea of a name and said “Daniel or Dan or Danny; it doesn’t matter!” His hand fell back to his lap beside the other one and he clasped his super-sized drink.
He could breathe through his nose, and his breath rate and pulse were high but not dangerously so. He likely had mild COPD, Chronic Obstructive Pulmanary Disease, common among smokers and coal workers and veterans who had been exposed to chemicals. I kept my hand on the top of his wheelchair so I could see the time in my periphery. I was expected home, but I was lucky to have time to spare and that I knew that. I focused on Danny, and felt remarkably relaxed. This, to me, was more real than any quick phatic question from people on my normal walk home.
I asked Danny if he’d like my hat to protect his head, and his eye perked up and his lips formed what I assumed was a smile and he mumbled yes! I took off my LSU baseball cap and handed it to him; it had been one of my older ones, faded and practically colorless, but still with a quirky purple and gold quirky old school Tiger that made me smile. I smiled, and he smiled back.
He stuck his drink between his legs and took my hat and moved his hands so deftly that I was shocked; it was as if he had instantly transformed from a feeble old man into a spry magician doing a magic trick with a hat. I smiled even more brightly as I imagined him pulling a rabbit out of his hat, and using Bullwinkle’s voice. He seemed delighted, and he quickly bent the bill into a smooth curve and tucked the top in closer to the front. Satisfied, he slid the hat on his balding head in a quick motion and lowered the bent bill over his eyes and peered up at me with a broad smile. He looked sharp.
He was breathing through his nose by then, calm and happy it seemed. And I could understand him better.
He said that in the army they used to fold his cap in a duck bill, like the special forces, and I assumed he had been a veteran from the Vietnam Ware era, when President Kennedy tried to use a few Special Forces teams instead of expanding the draft. He was about the right age, and that would have explained the hint of musculature lingering in his arms. I looked at his smiling face and realized that with his LSU cap pulled low and folded like a duck bill he looked like me, or what I’d probably look like in 10 to 20 more years. Of course, he was older and smaller and more frail. I’m about 6 feet tall and 205 pounds, somewhat fit though obviously enjoying a few tacos or Po’Boys now and then, but we still bore a remarkable physical resemblance, perhaps because of the hat, especially with old and faded Tiger patch that resembled the Viet Cong Tigers.
And his look, his countenance and his gaze, even if only through one eye. There’s a unique look in the eye of someone who feels unthreatened. Danny had it. I had seen it ever since I was a kid; it was a combination of my grandfather’s charming yet threatening bright blue eyes and my dad’s intense and unthreatened dark brown eyes, like mine. I had never seen the combination of them before, and I was fascinated by Danny’s gaze.
I didn’t have time to think much more about it, because he stopped smiling and leaned towards me and began telling me stories quickly and without pausing. I could barely understand him, and I leaned in and tried to be mindful of the spittle that flew from his flapping lips as he told stories quickly and without pausing, especially because of his open sores. This was before Covid, but I knew enough to be cautious. I tried to balance caution with leaning in. I didn’t want to offend him, but I was interested in hearing what he had to say and couldn’t understand his mumbling from that far up. I knelt, and tried to stay alert and avoid his breath and spittle.
“Tell them about a veteran who takes experimental medicines and falls asleep in the Los Angeles Veterans Hospital.” He opened his eye wide and pointed a finger up at me and said parts of a funny story about falling asleep in a VA hospital, like how people wouldn’t even notice, but I didn’t understand all the words and he didn’t pause before changing stories. It was as if his words were bouncing as randomly as his thoughts, and it was difficult to follow what he was saying.
“Tell them about a good friend who’s annoying, rubs dog shit under your care door handle!” He mimicked rubbing dog shit under a car door handle, and his face lit up in a joy that I didn’t understand, and he continued.
He spoke of aliens that know what we’re feeling. “From exactly,” he said, emphasizing his words by lurching his finger at my face with every syllable, “14,” point, “miles,” point, “away.”
He pointed the final time and held it steady for a few moments to… make his point, I thought to myself, and I smiled.
He leaned back into his wheelchair and smiled back up at me, then he quickly leaned forward again and continued talking ceaselessly and continuously laughed at other people’s naiveté.
“How would you explain a duck to an alien?” he asked, smirking slyly, and allowing me time to ponder. I had no idea, because I wouldn’t know how they communicated or what they already knew of Earth, and I was pleasantly amused by the brief moment that Danny allowed me to consider what he was saying.
Suddenly, his face animated and he shouted, “ Quack! Quack!” and he laughed loudly and with his entire body, closing his eye so that crow’s feet bunched around both of them in what seemed like genuine joy, and spewing spittle from his flapping lips and slapping his hands on his food and beverage stained pants.
I felt awkward at the attention, and I glanced around at the people walking past the busstop and stopped in their cars at the red light in front of us, and saw that noticed that no one seemed to notice us, even with Danny quacking loudly between fits of laughter. It was as if we were surrounded by an invisible field of someone else’s problem. I felt a twinge of anger and cynicism; Hillcrest is America’s second largest, self defined gay community, with a huge brightly colored rainbow flag celebrating LGBT and a host of other acronyms demanding equality, yet no one stopped because, apparently I felt, not everyone who asks for recognition gives it. Hypocrites, I said to myself, then caught my negativity and refocused on Danny. He stopped laughing and resumed talking, unconcerned about the people passing us or ignoring us. He was probably used to it.
“Ha! They think a compass helps them get where they’re going,” he said with a smirk, as if he knew where he was going. I was unsure if he meant his army field navigation days, or the people staring into their phones as they walked by or waited for the traffic light to change.
“Magnetic fields aren’t important!” He said as he waved his hand backwards, towards north of Hillcrest and the hospital, and dismissed the magnetic field by saying, “It changes every 45,000 years, anyway.” He swirled a hand around his head a few times to emphasize the magnetic poles flipping. He was probably right: constant streams of volcanic lava cooling on the ocean floor are polarized by the magnetic field, and we can measure the rate of oozing and the field and assume that Earth’s magnetic field flops every 45,000 years or so. I was so distracted thinking about flip flopping magnetic fields and what that would do to us that I missed what he said next, though I know it was something about focusing on what’s real, or what’s important.
He spoke of so many things that I didn’t understand that I can’t recall them all, like tales of a giant plant with a single tap root that circled 2/3 of Earth. “What happens when they cut it?” he asked, continuing without a pause. He spoke of a one legged table and people trying to eat from it, and asked what happens when they cut the leg. I imagined people standing around a one legged table, eating and drinking mindfully, so that everyone could take turns as long as they remained balanced. He spoke enthusiastically and incessantly, perhaps happy to have someone listening for a change, even though my mind was still surprised about the coincidence of his name and his comment about an IRA and the images I formed from stories I did hear.
I listened without interrupting for 20 or 30 minutes. People passed by us without seeming to notice, carrying bags of groceries from the farmers market or walking in and out of the convenience store. Cars stopped at the traffic light in front of Danny’s bus stop and drivers checked their phones or adjusted their stereos without paying attention to us. I began to feel uncomfortable, both physically from kneeling and, for a reason I didn’t understand, slightly embarassed, as if I were watching people with more health and resources and judging myself for not being them. I’m human, and most humans seem concerned about what others think; but Danny seemed unworried, like he had been unworried if his name were Dan or Daniel or Danny, or whether or not I was listening.
I had been with Danny for almost 35 minutes and my knees were sore and my neck ached from leaning in and I remembered my bags of groceries to carry home before the fruit spoiled in the sunshine. “Danny… Danny… Danny…” I repeated until he paused and looked up at me, then I stood up.
“I have to go now,” I said, and his eye lit up and he apologized and said he was an old man who liked to talk too much and he asked me to sit and tell him about myself. I said sure, and squatted, because sitting hurts my lower back, and I ostensibly listened for another ten or fifteen minutes, unable to understand most of what he said and worried about being late, and finally I pushed up on my knees and stood and interrupted him again and apologized and said I had to go.
Danny stopped shaking and glared up at me, and then he opened the eye that had been squinted shut all that time, and he stared at me with two sky blue eyes, alert and focused. He was smiling subtly, and calmly breathing through his nose.
Later that evening, when I would sit with Cristi on our Balcony and tell her about Danny, I would say that I almost shit a brick when he opened both eyes. I knew I’d be late getting home, but I collected my bricks and kneeled beside his wheelchair again, and I stayed and leaned in and concentrated on listening to what he had to say.
“How would you explain Love to God?” he said, speaking clearly and with a calm, concentrated countenance, much different than when he had asked about describing a duck to an alien. But he didn’t give me time to ponder, and he said, “How could he explain it to you?”
He paused and I stared, mesmerized by a feeling I did not understand. He pointed a finger at my face, remarkably no longer shaking, and said, “Point to the sky,” and then he pointed to the sky and so did I. “Now touch your belly button,” and we both did.
“When they cut the chord, what did they sever?”
I felt more than thought about my mom, and how I had missed so much of love in life until her passing. My breathing became shallow and my lip quivered.
He pointed back at the sky and said, “How do you know if it’s wind that moves the clouds?”
I was shocked, because I had misunderstood him. I pronounce my mother’s name, Wendy, with a Baton Rouge accent that makes it sound like “windy,’ and for a brief moment I thought I heard him ask about my mother, and if she were moving the clouds that day. She had been on my mind, and I probably had thoughts of her final days in the hospital when I rested my hand by Danny’s head, just like I had done with her.I felt saddened again, and I looked back down at Danny and tried to focus on listening.
And I kept an eye on his eyes; I was confused by what was happening.
For the first time that afternoon, Danny had been silent until I was ready to listen again. When I focused, he resumed telling stories and kept both eyes open. But, he was shaking and mumbling like before, and I didn’t understand everything he said. He spoke and I listened for another 20 minutes or so about things I didn’t understand or can’t recall. When I stood to leave again I asked, again, if he’d like to be pushed into the shade. He said yes this time, and I pushed his chair under the covered bus stop in front of the convenience store with people walking to and from the nearby farmer’s market. I threw away his fly covered hot dogs and asked if he’d like some strawberries from the farmer’s market. They’re fresh, I said, and delicious. His eyes lit up and he smiled and mumbled yes, and I rested a pint of strawberries on his lap. He popped one in his mouth as deftly as he had put on my LSU hat and slid the juicy berry to the back of his mouth, where he still had a few teeth, and munched happily and thanked me through red strawberry stained gums and lips that flapped like a loose sail in the wind. I said I was writing a book and asked if I could tell his stories, and he mumbled yes and waved his hand backwards, as if brushing away my worries about quoting him. I collected my four bags of groceries, wished Danny well, and began walking home.
I was too sore to put into words, just like every time I sit or kneel too long, like any office job or on a long flight to Baton Rouge. The discomfort is like a buzzing, not unlike being shocked by a light socket or touching your tongue on a 9 volt battery, but all over. It’s distracting, and my mind was overwhelmed with buzzing and racing with thoughts about Danny’s eyes and everything he had said. My knees and hip and back and neck were shrieking in pain, shouting at my mind, demanding its attention, and something kept clinging on to the words Danny had said, trying to remember words that made no sense at the time.
I limped back down 6th Ave, distracted, and stopped at one of the children’s playgrounds in Balboa Park that has adult-sized pull up bars and exercise stations, and I tried to stretch and clear my head before going home.
I rarely discuss this, but the VA Healthcare System ranks me as a 75% disabled veteran due to a wide range of injuries to my spine and bones and joints, which isn’t uncommon after seven years of service and many parachute jumps and more battles than I care to recall. The landings were always worse than the jumping; and, because I’m here to write this, the battles turned out better for me than for others. I was, remarkably, the youngest American soldier in the first Gulf war, Desert Shield and Storm, and I was one of the one given experimental anti-nerve agent pills called Pyridostigmine Bromide. At the time, the threat and fear of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapon arsenal outweighed risks of taking experimental anti-nerve agent pills. Danny had said a few things that triggered my memories, and being given experimental medications was one of them.
Giving Americans experimental medications is not new or unique to Desert Shield and Storm. Nor is withholding them. In an infamous program studying syphilis, hundreds of southern men suffered when medications were withheld. After WWII, soldiers were exposed to radiation so that we could better prepare for nuclear war. In Desert Storm, it was Pyridostigmine Bromide pills. And though the pills are likely benign, the statistics imply a link between taking them and a range of symptoms the VA calls Desert Storm Syndrome. Those symptoms overlap with the civilian population, like fibromalaysia, irritable bowel syndrome, skin rashes, asthma, sinusitus, and, of course, PTSD; and after thirty years of research studies comparing Desert Storm Syndrome with the civilian population using randomized, double blinded studies to reduce biases and extract trends not obvious at first, the VA concluded that approximately 60,000 veterans were affected. The common factors include having taken Pyridostigmine Bromide, having a certain type of protein in your body that’s in about 40% of the population, and having been within 100 miles of the only chemical weapons explosion in the first Gulf War, at the Khamisiyah airport.
My platoon led the captured of the Khamisiyah airport, planning to use it to launch a parachute assault onto Bhagdad. The ground war ended, and we helped blow it up, per our orders, and we unknowingly unleashed the only chemical weapons in the Gulf wars, sending the nerve agent sarin into the sky in the biggest mushroom cloud I have ever seen, like a nuclear explosion you’d see on television or the internet or in a nightmare. The explosion was deafening, and the shock waves shook the ground for miles. My platoon was the closest, forming a perimeter to keep others away and safe. Thirty years later, reading the statistics, it’s ironic that we were trying to keep people safe when we unleashed nerve agents into the air.
The office handling the case is still called VA’s Office of Agent Orange, a redundant department of redundancy, left over from the 1970’s and built upon the office that had and still is investigating the effects of American warplanes dropping Agent Orange on Vietnam and affecting Americans; I don’t know what we do about the Vietnamese people affected and still living there. I heard that that office had handled the consequences of experimental nuclear tests after WWII, though few of those soldiers are still alive. I had met one once, and many Agent Orange sufferers, because I often sat beside them in the San Diego VA hospital and listened to their stories. I’ve never seen one fall asleep, no matter how long the wait has been to see a doctor, and many seem to enjoy the rare opportunity to talk with someone, anyone, about anything.
There are only a few things I rarely discuss, and two of them are my military experiences and my Partin family history. They’re intertwined. I chose to become emancipated from my family when I was 16 years old, in 1989, the year the 82nd Airborne parachuted into Panama and overthrew their government as part of the War on Drugs, and the United States allowed me to join the army before I was a senior in high school. My grandfather passed away in 1990, and at his funeral I met many of the characters portrayed in movies over the decades. The Partin family was called America’s first family of paid informants by a few pundits, because they had been paid for their silence since 1962, the year before Kennedy was assassinated and two years before my grandfather infiltrated Hoffa’s inner circle and sent the Teamster president to prison. I grew up knowing details about two of America’s greatest mysteries, Kennedy’s murder and Hoffa’s disappearance, and I served for seven years without discussing it and have kept silent ever since, except for a few close friends over the decades. Over time, keeping secrets became a habit so deeply ingrained in me that I rarely notice it, and if it hadn’t been for The Irishman film and my mother’s passing I probably would have kept those secrets.
Danny, and he brought up a lot of memories. Most were coincidences, like the experimental medication, and a few were specific, like how I had inherited my mom’s Individual Retirement Account, and how in the old testament Daniel leaves the lion’s den and then comes into his inheritance. I’m still not sure how I feel about all of the coincidences, nor do I recall everything Danny said, especially the things that didn’t make sense at the time. In a way, it was a lot like listening to my family or overhearing conversations when I was a little kid, I can recall some of the words, but over time I probably read my own experiences and lessons learned from hundreds of books and films into them, and I no longer trust my memories. In the short time between meeting Danny and walking home, I had already reimagined his stories to fit what I already understood, because I’m only human.
I recall walking home feeling glad to have met Danny. I sometimes appreciate listening to others and empathizing as best I can; it helps keep my own aches and pains in perspective. The San Diego VA hospital is only a few miles downhill from the Hillcrest farmer’s market, and I still have time and I can drive there from my lovely home facing Balboa Park. And, my family and I get half off of camping spots at all United States national parks!
I didn’t know if Danny were a vet or not, and as I walked home I wondered if being a vet mattered. After dozens of thousands of people studied in randomized, double blinded research studies, one group gets half off camping spots and a check for $680/month and access to relatively good healthcare; yet the other half does not. As the Buddha pointed out, every human will grow old, get sick, and die. Human suffering is a noble truth. Almost the planet would go to bed hungry that night, many in war zones or farming in hills filled with landmines. Many children live in danger; in San Diego alone, 55,000 calls are made each year to the child abuse hotline, and the 300 social workers tasked with investigating them are often dealing with their own families at home. Life can be suffering for many. I’m lucky, and chatting with people like Danny, who didn’t seem to be suffering despite his physical appearance, reminded me of just how lucky I am.
With that on my mind, I walked home, happy to see the park across the street from our place being used by a few families. But I was still distracted, and thoughts planted as seeds by Daniel were germinating and swirling and competing for my mental bandwidth. I was looking forward to focusing on something fun, like making avocado toast with a lovely little lady, and maybe telling her a few stories from my youth. Not all of the stories, of course, because that would take a lifetime. But, bit by bit, I’d like her to gain wisdom faster than I did, and hopefully make wiser choices for herself and her family one day.
I looked up at the few clouds sprinkled across our bright blue sky, took a deep breath, and I felt lucky to be alive.