Havana, 01 March 2019

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.”1

Jimmy Hoffa, 1975

On March 1st, 2019, I was on one of a series of flights to Havana, about to begin a 30 day sabbatical using former President Obama’s entrepreneurship visa to enter Cuba and to focus on uncovering my grandfather’s probable role in President Kennedy’s assassination. I was scribbling notes in the sidelines of a book when we laid over in Houston. The man who got on board and sat next to me was a nondescript 35-or-so year old with a polo shirt that was too tight and emphasized a bulbous belly that had likely grown since he bought the shirt. I assumed he chose the shirt either mindlessly or to emphasize his arms, which were not strong but also not unathletic, as if he had played some sport in college before getting an office job. He had a red face and a hint of white raccoon-eyes, and I imagined he wore expensive sunglasses and bright colored polo shirts when golfing with coworkers on weekends.

“What are you reading?” he asked.

I looked up slowly, flicked my pen around my right thumb like a magician whirling a wand to distract someone, and placed it in the fold of my paperback to mark the page. I closed the book, took off my reading glasses with my right hand, and reached up with my scarred left hand to remove an earbud. It wasn’t playing anything, but I wore earbuds with noise-canceling software to soften engine noise and discourage small talk. I removed one because I didn’t want it to be obvious that I could hear him with my earbuds in.

“Say again,” I said.

He repeated himself. I tilted the book so he could see the cover. It was “I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran and Closing the Case on Jimmy Hoffa,” by Charles Brandt. His eyes gazed across the words briefly. I assumed he didn’t need reading glasses.

“What’s it about?” he asked.

I forced a thin smile. I kept my glasses in my hand, pinched the book with a few fingers, and rotated it to show the back cover and all the quotes about the book. He glanced at it perfunctorily, then looked back at me. He may have mistook my smile.

“Did you go to LSU?” he asked with a cheerful tone.

I said, “I’m not sure why you asked.”

He tightened the seatbelt around his belly, nodded towards my head, and said, “Because your hat says LSU.”

You couldn’t get anything by this guy. I had chosen an older, wool baseball cap for the cooler months that was so faded you could barely make out the letters, trying to be discrete yet still wearing things that made me smile inside. I adored that hat. I saw it bobbing in waves almost 100 yards off Point Loma, coincidentally when I needed a hat to block the sun so I could continue what had been an epic surf session soon after the 2018 San Diego LSU Alumni association crawfish boil, which is the largest crawfish boil west of the Mississippi and packs Qualcomm stadium with 36,000 people each spring. I wore it on the plane to shield my thinning hair and bald spot from overhead air conditioners; a wool cap works better than a perforated one. At LSU, I was co-captain of wrestling program and appointed by the president as an LSU Ambassador, a representative of the university for visiting high schoolers and parents and a mentor to a handful of freshmen; it got me out of having to sit in classes. I graduated in 1997 with a summa cum laude degree in civil and environmental engineering – one of only eleven environmental engineering programs in America back then – and at home I had a desiccated cardboard box with my degree and small stack of awards from campus organizations that I carried with every move but never looked inside. I moved to San Diego soon after I graduated, and I fly to Baton Rouge for some football games every now and then – LSU’s Death Valley is America’s fifth largest stadium, holding around 96,000 people and becoming Louisiana’s third largest town on game day – and sometimes I swing through town for the Blues Festival or Fest-for-All when I’m in New Orleans for other festivals. My email address has been LSUmagic for almost two decades.

I said, “I grew up in Baton Rouge.”

He asked if I lived in Houston now.

In fairness, Louisiana’s agriculture and tourism based economy meant that a lot of LSU engineering graduates move to either Houston or Atlanta, and so many LSU graduates are in Houston that they host the second largest crawfish boil west of the Mississippi every spring, and Houston golf courses are probably packed with people wearing LSU hats. I saw no end to his questions, and suspected he’d begin asking what I did for a living or inquiring about family, so I said I was focused on reading and didn’t want to talk. He seemed put off in the way that someone who wants something from other people is put off when it’s not given. He pulled out his phone and busied himself by scrolling Facebook. I put my earbud back in and returned to reading and underlining passages and scribbling notes. The plane took off, and the man paid the WiFi upcharge and scrolled through his phone the rest of the flight. He was more impressed by whatever was in his stream than the idea of Facebook posts capturing his attention 33,000 feet in the air. He left me alone for the three hour flight. There wasn’t much to look at out our right hand side of the plane other than clouds and glimpses of the ocean, and I finished the book somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, then went back through it and reread my notes to sink them into memory. As a freshman at LSU, I stumbled across and read a Harvard research study that compared memory retention for three groups given the same class and a test three weeks later: one group did not review notes, one reviewed just after taking them but not again, and one reviewed them just before the test. By far, the students who reviewed notes immediately after performed better on tests. As a student, I excelled at tests for memorization, regardless if I understand the material or not. I attributed my high GPA more on that Harvard study than any skillset or aptitude. When I graduated, I skipped award ceremonies and gave the group of freshmen I mentored a copy of the study and a few others I had discovered while in school, and said they could feel free to scribble as many notes on it as possible, and that I once I learned the trick to memorizing lessons I focused more on science and universal concepts than rote memorization. Ironically, I can’t recall the name of the study or the journal in which it was published, but I’ve used the lessons from that serendipitous discovery for more than 25 years, and I usually read with a pen in hand.

I spent the flight reading and taking notes, focused on finding patterns that fit a few dozen similar books I had read over the years. We landed in Fort Lauderdale. My row stood up, and everyone prepared to debark by gathering baggage from overhead bins. When the airplane doors opened, the man moved forward and looked over his shoulder and bid me a cheerful “have a nice vacation,” though I had never told him where I was going or what I was doing. I imagined he had golf clubs waiting in checked bags and was anxious to begin his vacation. I nodded and said, “You, too.”

I hadn’t checked anything, so I carried my rolled up yoga mat and wore my carryon backpack with squat scuba fins tucked in the outside flap, and walked through the airport to a terminal with a smaller plane that was part of a new service to Havana, where they verified my passport and visa. On board the small plane, the older Cuban gentleman who sat next to me simply smiled and said good afternoon. I smiled back and wished him a good flight, put in my earbuds, pulled out my Lonely Planet, and began underlining casa particulares and making notes in the margins about the streets and neighborhoods of Havana.

About an hour and a half later, I stepped off the plane on onto the tarmac in Havana and took a deep breath of JP-4 jetfuel. I immediately felt nausea, but I exhaled with a content sigh and smiled. Suddenly, though, I realized I had forgotten my yoga mat in the overhead bin. I exclaimed, “Fuck!” too loudly, even over the roar of the engine, and I whipped my head around and looked back up the ladder to the airplane door. It was too late to go back. Cuban officials were directing me towards customs. I took another deep breath of jetfuel, and I reminded myself that I had planned on shopping, anyway, to see what was on the shelves in a communist island and to keep an eye out for entrepreneurs sprouting between the cracks of Havana sidewalks, so I could buy another mat tomorrow. I sighed. I snapped my head back and forth to loosen my neck muscles, inhaled a deep breath of JP-4, resisted the sense of nausea from inhaling jet fumes, exhaled, and followed the official’s finger across the tarmac and towards a sign for customs.

I walked reflecting on why I had forgotten my yoga mat on the plane. I wasn’t sure. I’ve left things here and there as long as I can remember, like water bottles and jackets and other things I set down mindlessly, but I only had two things to grab from the plane and I wanted the pad to unwind after a long day of sitting in cramped seats. After last year’s sabbatical, my primary physician at the VA began memory testing after I reported lapses in simple things like multiplication and, probably, forgetting things on planes and busses. I had been slightly claustophobic since childhood, and I knew that being inside a small space without many exits agitated my mind and exacerbated my forgetfullness, but I had begun overanalyzing every lapse since testing began. I knew older friends and mentors who had entered dementia so slowly that no one noticed, saying that their increasing grumpiness was just getting older, not seeing that it was growing frustration at a world that was changing faster than mental processes could adapt. I was only 46, but my primary care physician at the VA was concerned that I was showing early symptoms of a neurological disorder akin to Alzheimers or Parkinsons, so I tried to pay attention to my memory and my mood, and hoped that I could at least be aware of my decline, and possible avert it. I retraced my steps, the people I saw, and how I felt each time. Though preliminary research was inconclusive, it implied that exercising the mind and memory was as useful to avoiding mental ailments as exercising the body was to avoiding physical ailments.

I entered the building and strolled up to two customs officials sitting at a simple folding table. I took off my backpack and pulled my passport and a copy of my round-trip plane ticket from a moneybelt tucked into the front of my pants. I was on the first day of a three month sabattical, and had a 30 day visa for Cuba. My flight back was on March 28th to provide a safety window for delayed flights or anything unexpected. An entrepreneurship visa was a new loophole under the Obama administration, adding one more waiver to the 12 already possible for things like journalism and humanitarian volunteering, but it was already being reversed by the Trump administration.

I wondered if the officials would comment on the uniqueness of my visa, but the senior official was more interested in the Force Fins strapped to the back flap of my backpack. He ran his finger along the thick polypropolene and flicked one of the tips with a curious countenance. Force Fins look different than most SCUBA fins. They’re thick, short, black, duck-feet-looking fins modeled after a dolphin’s tail, invented by a guy in the 1980’s whose name I can never recall and used by SEALS and Rangers in the 80’s and 90’s for long-distance underwater missions; conveniently, their stubby shape fits in a carryon bag, and I stuck them there in lieu of the Frisbee I usually carried. I was prepared to answer any questions about my atypical visa. Had I had my Frisbee, I could toss it around while discussing the Frisbee Pie Company outside of Yale university, and the students who tossed empty pie tins around until someone had the idea to patent the shape as a flying disc; and how Frisbee is like a Kleenex, Band-Aide, Zerox, or Q-Tip; a trademarked brand rather than a current patent, usually the first of something so unique that people attach the brand to the thing. In the south, where Coca-Cola, was invented, we call all soft drinks “a Coke,” and movie theater clerks ask us which type of Coke we want, Pepsi or Dr. Pepper. I didn’t know if Cuba had similar words, but I was ready in case they asked.

The senior official laughed politely and said something to the other, and he laughed too. My Spanish was rusty and I didn’t understand, but I smiled as if I had. The first put his hand through the open-toed fins and spread his fingers wide and moved his hand in and out and laughed and looked at me and made a joke I didn’t understand, but I surmised that he was either being vulgar or joking about my feet, and I was used to both. I chuckled back, and shrugged ambiguously as if to say any one of the following: “What’s one to do?” or “I don’t know, I just work here.” or “That’s what she said!” They both laughed at whatever they imagined. They opened my backpack and made similar comments about my climbing shoes, an older pair of size 14 leather crack-climbing shoes stretched out to fit my feet, and resoled for Cuba’s limestone face-climbing. I also had a compact alpine harness, locking carabiner, and a guide’s multi-pitch ATC. My head was normal sized, so I could always find a helmet. I had a nice pair of dive googles that fit me so comfortably and sealed out leaks so well that I brought them rather than roll dice with rentals. I carried a small custom filled first-aid kit, and a slightly larger kit with a dozen small red handkerchiefs, two decks of cards, and a handful of Kennedy half dollars for passing time on busses or in community rooms of climbing areas. I had an e-reader with a few hundred books, the complete 1979 congressional JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. Assassination Report (the paper version fills a small library in the national archives, yet only took up around 3% of my e-reader), a few dozen court reports from my family’s long record of arrests, and a few old hand-written letters transcribed to .pdf’s, complete with typos. With all of the gear and books, there was only room for a handful of clothes. I had packed lightweight, compressible, fast-drying clothes that were as faded as my hat and unlikely to seem ostentatious in the working-class neighborhoods of Havana I planned to visit.

They helped me zip up my backpack, and the senior official asked where I would be diving. I said Playa de Giron. He said it was beautiful there. His colleague agreed. The senior one stamped my passport, and I cocked my head and stared at him, at first surprised that he stamped an American passport, then realizing it was okay because I had a visa; according to The Lonely planet, since the 1961 embargo, Cuba stamped a removable piece of paper for Americans in lieu of stamping our passports, which would deter our tourism dollars. With my visa or without, the Cuban customs officials were just like officials at any other airport. I felt disappointed that I hand’t simply visited from Mexico City or Toronto instead of waiting for a legal entry. I hmph’ed to myself, wondering what else I had built up more than I should. Maybe if I hadn’t been so worried about the trip, I wouldn’t have forgotten my yoga mat. No, that’s not it; I was mentally drained from being cooped up all day, and I had been more focused on getting off the plane than anything else. Or maybe it was all the information I was trying to absorb on the flight. Or it was just another thing left on a plane or bus or theater seat, just like hundreds of jackets, water bottles, sunglasses, and books from my past. Still ruminating, I smiled and stood upright and tightened the hip strap on my backpack. The officials waved goodbye and said buen viaje. I waved back and said gracias, and turned around and strolled out of the building.

Per my visa, I had to use private rather than state-owned businesses, so I only peripherally glanced at the taxis as I left the airport grounds. I walked to a row of private drivers. It was exactly as the Lonely Planet guide book had described, effortless and a good introduction to what many Americans expected to see: the 1950’s trapped in time, before Kennedy’s 1961 embargo halted trade with America. I scanned the options and chose a convertible that was older than I was; it had an almost ineffable look of care that implied love rather than labor, and was probably in better condition than my body though my body was younger. I don’t know which type of convertible – I’ve never been good at identifying vehicles – but the top was down and it looked like all convertibles from that time period; from what I know of history, just like the one in which President Kennedy was riding when shot by Lee Harvey Oswald. It was in pristine condition, buffed to a shine like a Sergeant Major’s dress boots, and I stared appreciatively. I may not be a car person, but I appreciate anything that shows someone cares, and when people care it shows in ways I can never articulate. It’s like a Sergeant Major’s boots vs the battalion commanders: the working-class took extra time to buff every nook and cranny and then stopped, and the other dropped them off with a cleaner that polished them to an ostentatious shine. The driver didn’t miss a detail, but he had stopped with enough time to park in front of the airport and, I hoped, spend any extra time enjoying his ride.

The driver saw me admiring it and proudly said it had been his father’s, and that he had maintained it and tried to keep it looking original. It was a fine automobile, whatever type it was, and we agreed on a price to a downtown plaza within walking distance of several casa particulares I had circled in the Lonely Planet. I put my bag in the back seat and sat in the front. He had installed a surprisingly modern Bluetooth stereo and door speakers, with a large screen that played videos and had seizure-inducing flashing lights circling the knobs. He turned on something I had never heard but sounded like what was, in my mind, classic Caribbean Funk, like the Cuban performer in New Orleans named Cima Funk I heard at Tipatinas the year before. We took off smoothly, and soon we were out of the airport and cruising down the melecon. The driver tapping his fingers on the steering wheel to the music, just like The Lonely Planet said you were likely to see in a country that revered music and Caribbean beats. I hoped it was real. I rotated my cap backwards to keep it from blowing off, stretched my arms above my head, and took a deep breath from the clean salty air. I exhaled and we drove with the ocean to our right, and I leaned back and rested my arms on the seat to open my chest and mind, allowing the moist ocean air replenish what the airplane air conditioners had taken.

I looked over and asked where I could get public WiFi, but I must have said it poorly because he turned down the radio and asked me to repeat the question. I said I would like a public WiFi card and access: quiciera un tarjeta de WeeFee, y una lugar con ‘access.’ (I didn’t know the word for ‘access,’ but I said the English with a pause that, in San Diego, implied a Spanglish word followed. He told me near where we were going, Playa de San Francisco de Asi, and I asked if he’d drop me off there. “Claro que si!” he said, and turned the radio back up and resumed tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, practically oblivious to me and having as much fun driving as I had hoped he would when I first saw him standing by his convertible.

I road the rest of the way silently, smiling and watching stones in the wall of the melecon zip past my window while the ocean seemed to stay the same. In the rear view mirror, I could see Spanish forts illuminating in the late afternoon sunlight. I extended my hand flat, like an airplane foil, and held it by the mirror and rotated my wrist back and forth to make my hand fly up and down like Superman flying over the wall of the melacon. We slowed down near downtown, and I asked if he knew of a hotel that existed in the 1960’s called The Havana Cabana. He shook his head and said no, that he had lived here all his life and hadn’t heard of it. He was about my age, so it could have been before his time. I thanked him and dusted off my Spanish at stop signs and a few long waits in after-work traffic, and we chatted about a few things and laughed a bit and passed time until we arrived at the edge of the plaza. I hopped out, grabbed my backpack from the back seat, paid and thanked him. I handed him a tip wrapped in a small red silk handkerchief, and stretched my colloquial Spanish but made a pun that fell flat. He shrugged and waved and drove off. I shouldered my pack, took a deep breath, and adjusted the straps to fit my expanded chest so breathing would be easier, exhaled, and looked around.

Beside me was a private kiosk selling WiFi cards. I bought one and walked to where a handful of people were gathered staring at their smart phones around a few benches and a statue that the Lonely Planet said it was a statue of ______. I set down my backpack and clipped it to a bench, and pulled out my already outdated iPhone 8. I doubted anyone would ask, but it’s useful to know case studies of everyday objects when trying to explain what some types of entrepreneurism look like compared to all the small businesses that surrounded the plaza, which are often forms of entrepreneurship but rely much less on international patents and laws. I had used my iPhone the week before and bought the latest Lonely Planet guide for Cuba from Amazon. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, was a famous entrepreneur who needed no introduction; so was Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person and founder of Amazon. The married couple who founded Lonely Planet in the 60’s or 70’s had recently sold the brand to a big publishing company for around $51 million Euros (they were British). If a conversation organically steered towards the people behind products, I could point out that the married couple never had children and spent their retirement traveling and blogging in a van; both Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos were adopted and saw no limitations in that; and if I saw a Wendy’s hamburger chain, I’d mention that the founder, Dave Thomas, was an adopted kid who named his first restaurant after his daughter, became a billionaire, and changed the American laws to make adoption easier and less expensive for working-class parents. I know practically nothing about small businesses, except that I like to spend my money in them more than with large corporations or state owned businesses, and my heart has a special place for working class families hoping to make the world a better place for posterity. The Obama visa requirements suited me just fine.

Despite having earbuds, I used my smart phone just like I used my old flip phone and held it to one ear. My phone transcribed voice mails, but I didn’t feel like rummaging for my reading glasses, so I told Siri to play voice mail. I kept the phone to my ear and moved into a modified warrior pose, one hand on the phone and the other outstretched. I rotated my feet and squatting into the pose, hoping to stretch my hamstrings and open my hips until I could find a mat and do a proper job of releasing wound-up tension.

The first voice mail was from Wendy. I wasn’t expecting anything important, so I was more focused on stretching than listening.

“Hey Jason, it’s Wendy. You’re probably in Cuba by now, but I thought I’d call just in case.”

She paused longer than usual.

“It’s not important.”


I stood upright and tensed involuntarily. Something felt wrong.

“I just wanted to talk with you about my will.”

Another pause. I pressed the phone tighter to my left ear, and plugged my right forefinger into the cauliflower-scared canal of my right ear. I breathed softly and leaned in to what she was saying.

“It’s not big deal… You travel so much that I wanted to add Cindi as executor. We can talk about it later.”

There was another pause, and I heard a hint of a sound, as if she had inhaled deeply and began to say, “I…” I can’t explain why, but I suddenly thought that Wendy would commit suicide and that she was calling me first; she wouldn’t, and I had no reason to suspect she would, but that’s the thought that popped into my thoughts and dominated my actions. My body tensed as springs wound up inside me, and I pressed the phone and my finger more tightly. I held my breath and listened. She sighed a subtle sigh, and said in what was obviously a forced cheerful tone, “Tell Cristi I said hello, and have fun in Cuba. Call me when you get back.” Then she hung up.

Gut instincts can be wrong, so instead of calling her back immediately I kneeled by the bench and dug through my backpack and pulled out my reading glasses and earbuds – or iBuds or whatever they’re called – and rewound her message. The VA says I arrived in the army with perfect hearing, but I left with a 15% hearing loss in each ear at different frequencies. The earbuds are in stereo, the software on my phone allows me to adjust frequencies so I can hear clearly, and the noise-canceling features would soften the din of live music wafting from bars circling the plaza. I put them in, wiggling the right one to fit in my cauliflower-scarred ear canal, and listened to her message twice more while reading the transcript. Despite the stereo headphones, my head rotated back and forth as if trying to catch missing frequencies by whichever ear could. I bobbed without hearing differences, habitually rotating one ear and then the other to catch sounds at different frequencies; anyone noticing probably thought I was moving my head to music. I listened twice. Nothing changed from what I heard the first time. The transcription made a few mistakes translating her southern Louisiana accent and missed her beginning to say, “I…”, but she had definitely began to tell me something and stopped before the first word manifested. I was fixated on wondering what she had wanted to say but had stopped, and wondering what had sparked my feeling that she could kill herself.

Wendy was my mother, Wendy Anne Rothdram Partin, but she had taught me to call her by her first name when I was a toddler in the Louisiana foster system. When she was 16, she lost her virginity to Edward Grady Partin Junior, the 17 year old drug dealer of Glen Oaks High School and son of the president of Teamsters Local #5, Edward Grady Partin Senior. She realized she was pregnant two weeks later, but she couldn’t afford the $150 for an abortion and was estranged from her single mother, a Canadian immigrant named Joyce Hicks Rothdram. Wendy accepted my dad’s proposal, and they dropped out of school and eloped to Mississippi, where state laws allowed a 16 year old to marry without parental permission. They returned to Baton Rouge a few days later as Mr. and Mrs. Edward Partin and moved into one of my grandfather’s houses near the Comite River Basin, on the outskirts of town and not too far from the airport. She had two small nervous breakdowns while my dad was in Jamaica buying drugs wholesale, and she abandoned me in a small home-based daycare center near Glen Oaks and left Louisiana with a guy she had just met and who was looking for someone to split gas on a drive to California. The daycare called her emergency contact and best friend from school, Linda White, and her dad, the custodian of Glen Oaks, dropped what he was doing and rushed to get me. Judge Pugh of the East Baton Rouge 19th judicial district removed from my parent’s custody and assigned Mr. White as my guardian. Over the next few years, Wendy visited me at the Whites once or twice a months, but she was ashamed of being a young single uneducated mother who had abandoned her infant son, and when she drove us around town she taught me to call her by her first name so people would think I was her little brother. Despite her shame and youth and lack of education, she fought long and hard to regain custody, and I began living with her when I was seven years old. Old habits are hard to break, and I still called my mother Wendy.2

I sighed. When she was drinking, Wendy sometimes called me to mumble about things no one else would understand. She never remarried, and had no other children or surviving relatives in America. She didn’t drink when I was a kid – she always quipped that she was born WAR, but marrying Ed Partin WARP’ed her and that’s why she drank now – but she was making up for lost time, and her slurred speech had gotten more pronounced and began earlier each day over the past few years. In addition to an inexplicable sense of dread, I recalled all the other slurred voice mails over the years, and felt frustrated that I was beginning my vacation worried about Wendy. I fidgeted in place. My mind kept going back to Wendy, my neck, and a growing headache; then leaping away to somewhere else it wanted to be again and again. I took a deep breath and held it until I felt a need to breath, then released slowly and took a few more breaths more slowly than my body wanted.

I rotated my left wrist and glanced at my watch despite the phone in my hand. It was a 30-year old solar powered Sieko dive watch with a rotating bezel and a glow-in-the-dark minute hand to tick off time underwater. It had a thick black corrugated band that survived abuse and still circulated air, so it’s not too hot to wear on land or in the air, and without a battery to fail I trusted it on deep dives when I was distracted or slightly intoxicated from nitrogen narcosis. I replace band changed before every sabbatical, because even the best polymers break after too much salt and UV light. A week before, a watchsmith who runs About Time in San Diego changed the band, and I had left the time set to Pacific Coast Standard. I did the math; it was almost 5pm where Wendy lived in Saint Francisville, a town of about 1,500 people an hour upriver from Baton Rouge. I glanced at her voice mail time stamp, but it showed when I turned on my phone in Havana, not when she left her message. She could have called any time since I last checked messages in Houston, about eight hours or so, and she was probably already on her third bottle of wine.

I set the Seiko to Havana time, lowered my hand, and watched thoughts bounce around inside head. The feeling that she was contemplating suicide was so strong that the thought that dominated my mind was – despite being glad to be off a plane – getting on a flight to New Orleans, renting a car, and driving two hours upriver to her home in Saint Francisville. I ignored the urge, closed my eyes, stood still, and told myself that she’d be fine, that she was probably just drunk, or one of her dogs had died. She was always upset when one of her rescue dogs passed, and she sometimes called and talked about updating her will to include the West Feliciana Parish humane society. When she did, she called with slurred speech, trapped in her own thoughts. I was sure she’d be fine.

But an analysis can be wrong. “Fuck,” I said, and opened my eyes and put my earbuds back in and called her while I still had WiFi minutes.

Her mobile phone went to voice mail, probably because she was at home and the cell reception there was spotty. I called her land-line, but after four rings her vintage answering machine picked up. I called her mobile again, just to see if she’d answer. It went to voice mail.

I forced my voice to sound cheerful, and said: “Hey Wendy, it’s Jason. I got your voice mail. I’m in Cuba. I’ll be offline for a month and diving and climbing in a remote areas, but I’m in Havana for a week and will check messages every day or two.”

I chuckled clearly enough for her to hear, and said, “The cell phone reception here is worse than in Saint Francisville, so I have to find spots where I can check messages.”

On a whim, I told her that I was calling from a plaza named St. Francis, after the patron saint of kindness to animals, and said that I hoped that coincidence made her smile. She had been fostering dogs for about fifteen years, volunteering at the West Feliciana Parish humane society next door to Angola Prison in Saint Francisville. If anything made her smile, it was kindness to animals and her work with the human society. And to me, but not her neighbors who wouldn’t understand her sense of humor, she joked about the irony of Saint Francisville having so many prisons named after slave plantations. I added a perfunctory “I love you” as sincerely as the man between Houston and Fort Lauderdale had wished me a good vacation, and reiterated that I’d check messages once every day or two.

I hung up and sent Cristi a WhatsAp telling her I had arrived safely. I didn’t feel like checking other messages, but because I already had my reading glasses on I glanced at the names. Nothing jumped out and I didn’t have many minutes left, so I called a few of the casa particulares I had circled in the guide book. In my best but most simple Spanish possible, I asked each one that had availability a few questions about the spaces because I didn’t want a cramped room. One that said their room had a private door with a lock, a glass door looking onto a small courtyard, and another door to a private bathroom with a shower and hot water. Breakfast was included. It was a reasonable price and within walking distance from the plaza. I said that if it were okay, I’d be there after I had dinner, mas o menus a la nueve. They said that was fine, and told me what to look for outside their building. They said to knock when I arrived, that they went to bed a las diez, mas o menus, so me showing up at around nine was no problema.

I packed away my earbuds, phone, and glasses. I stretched my hands above my head and twisted this way and that, trying to crack my cervical spine. I sighed again, but it was a pleasant sigh empowered by putting my phone away. I kept breathing intentionally to calm my mind, and glanced around the plaza. It was happy hour, and small groups of mostly young professional-looking Cubans walked around the square, peering in bars and occasionally glancing at their phones. No obvious tourists were in sight. I scanned the perimeter and listened to the competing beats of music and summed up the clientele of each. I stopped at what looked most promising, a bar with wide open double doors next to a large window that was also open.

A couple of small round tables with 2 to 3 chairs each was outside, and a six-person band with a guitar, three brass horns, a stand-up wooden bass, and a congo drum set stood just inside on one half of the open doors. The evening sunlight was fading, so I could see inside clearly enough. It had a stand-up bar with high bar stools, and a hand-written sign that I couldn’t make out but looked like a daily food menu; being hand-written implied it was fresh. There were about a dozen low-sitting tables with six chairs each generously spaced around the room, and a few booths opposite of the bar that would hold the same number of people. I couldn’t see the entire bar, but I assumed it had six stools since the owner seemed to like groups of six. Three tables and one booth had people sitting, and there were approximately a dozen people inside all together. The barstools I could see were empty.

I glanced at my wrist and felt a bit of gratitude that I could see the hands of my old analog watch without needing my glasses to read a digital screen. I smiled, and looked around the plaza wistfully. I could still catch happy hour and begin my sabbatical with a Hemmingway Daiquiri, if only to raise a toast to Papa Hemmingway and say that I did it. I imagined toasting Coach and my old high school English teacher, who would be as surprised as anyone that I was standing in Cuba and read Hemmingway on my own; before LSU and the army, I flunked out of Scotlandville Magnet High School for the Engineering Professions, and scraped by with an impressive collection of shop and theater classes to graduate with an upper D grade point average from Belaire High School, a 1.87/4.00, only 0.37/4.00 points above the minimum required. I had skipped the required Hemmingway reading, but had paid attention in class enough to make a B on the test about The Old Man and The Sea and Hemmingway’s time as an ex-patriot; in hindsight, had the teacher not been such a good story-teller and told us about Hemmingway’s escapades in Havana, things like driving around with Fidel and hunting for U-Boats invading America by WWII by tossing hand grenades from his boat into the Gulf of Mexico, I wouldn’t have done as well on the test. Like a war lost because a battle was lost because a knight’s horse threw a shoe, if I hadn’t been given that B I wouldn’t have made a C in his class, and I would have missed the 0.37/4.00 margin that let me graduate. For that matter, if Coach hadn’t tasked me with earning a B average my senior year. Without either of them, I wouldn’t have developed a penchant for deep diving to German U-Boats stuck in sand around the navy bases of Pensacola, buried in the silty effluent of the Mississippi River, and sprinkled along the abrupt rocky ledges of North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras. Without them, I didn’t know where I’d be, but it probably wouldn’t be Cuba. The least I could do is read the assigned book 25 years later.

All of those memories flooded my mind, squeezing out worry about Wendy, and I wanted to begin celebrating my arrival as soon as possible.

I didn’t see a sign with the bar’s name, but it stood out well enough and I could describe its location. I reached in my backpack and pulled out a flip phone, opened it, and waited for it to connect. I began typing a text message using the archaic buttons. The tactile feedback flowed, and I automatically pushed buttons once, twice, or three times to spell the words in my mind: C was ABC pushed three times, etc. I typed out that I had arrived and gave my buddy the bar’s location. He was old army and dive buddy who didn’t need to hear a lot of words or engage in typical small talk. He responded immediately. I replied “yay!” and packed away the phone, then unclipped my backpack from the bench and shouldered it but didn’t bother to adjust the straps. The bar was only a phone’s throw away. I stretched my neck again, took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, and began walking towards the bar, walking slowly and intentionally like I had at the airport, ostensibly unrushed, smiling to belie how a part of me felt, and trying not to limp. I was finally ready to begin that year’s sabbatical.

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  1. The “minor domestic problem” was a reoccurring point in Hoffa’s defense strategy. His “sarcasm” was probably justified, and what remained of my grandfather’s minor domestic problems after Bobby purged courts across America is summarized in a missive attached to Hoffa’s 1966 supreme court case, Hoffa vs. The United States, by Chief Justice Earl Warren, a 40 year veteran of the supreme court who authored the flawed 1964 Warren Report on Kennedy’s assassination. Here’s a part of what Warren had to say about my grandfather:

    Here, Edward Partin, a jailbird languishing in a Louisiana jail under indictments for such state and federal crimes as embezzlement, kidnapping, and manslaughter (and soon to be charged with perjury and assault), contacted federal authorities and told them he was willing to become, and would be useful as, an informer against Hoffa, who was then about to be tried in the Test Fleet case.

    Big Daddy’s cellmate was Billy Simpson, a 21 year old Teamster who had lost his two children in a custody dispute. He and Big Daddy were in jail for kidnapping Billy’s two young children from their mother after a disputed custody settlement. Billy and Big Daddy faced life in prison, compounded by a coincidentally timed manslaughter charge from when Big Daddy was driving back from his (our) family’s home in Woodville, Mississippi. The charges of assault and perjury came later, and Warren, justifiably emphasized the charge of perjury to his colleagues during their debate, and permanently attached his thoughts in a three-page summary for posterity to ponder at the end of Hoffa vs. The United States; to this day, the case is studied in law schools all across America, because it created a precedent of using paid informants, trusting a dubious witnesses, and monitoring American’s without the 4th amendment’s focus on having just cause and a clearly defined reason to monitor each person. Warren was the only dissenting judge; five voted to accept my grandfather’s testimony, and two obstained. Despite the public display of Big Daddy being “an all American hero,” Hoffa’s team of celebrity attorneys tried to discredit Big Daddy, but the FBI’s Get Hoffa task force and prosecuting attorneys told Hoffa’s jury – and later national media – that Big Daddy’s charges were simply a “minor domestic problem,” and Hoffa was sentenced to 11 years in prison based on my grandfather’s word. It’s no wonder he remained sarcastic about it.

    For the next 13 years of his life Hoffa, quoted Walter and Bobby’s lawyers by using “rabbit ears” to emphasize my grandfather’s “a minor domestic problem.” He said it was obvious that my grandfather was incintivised to help Bobby Kennedy, whom Hoffa called “Booby,” to “set the public up to see what a great man he was in getting Hoffa.” Hoffa swore Bobby Kennedy or the media influenced them, and would repeat his disdain for Life magazine and easily influenced media until the day he vanished. Even after Booby’s 1968 assassination, Hoffa so hated the man that he continued to call him Booby and insult him after Hoffa was pardoned by Nixon in 1971, just to rub it in and remind everyone how easily fooled anyone could be, even himself and the Supreme Court. Wendy had me around this time, and quickly learned that the Partin family wasn’t above kidnapping disputed custody hearings and had assassination attempts by Teamsters and, according to a full-feature 1968 article in Time’s six-issue expose on the mafia, New Orleans mafia boss Carlos Marcello, who kept sending low-level henchmen to Baton Rouge to intimidate the family of Edward Grady Partin when Wendy and I were living in a house listed in the phone book under my dad’s name, Edward Grady Partin. A 1964 feature on my grandfather had talked about his houses, and how he kept plastic explosives in them on behalf of Jimmy Hoffa to blow up Bobby Kennedy’s home, and emphasized what a hero he was for defying Hoffa at the risk of his life and his family’s lives. Wendy was 16 when she met my dad, and she hand’t read those issues of Life, but quickly realized she had married a family of drug dealers murderers who weren’t above kidnapping kids if they disagreed with a judge’s decision. It’s no wonder she had a couple of nervous breakdowns after having me and moving in with my dad What’s impressive is that she kept fighting them to get me back. ↩︎
  2. My custody records, like most of my family history, are easily downloaded by anyone with internet access. Judge Pugh isn’t named by name, he’s “the trial judge” referenced by Judge JJ Lottingger, the judge who stepped in and assumed my case. Lottingger was a 30 year veteran of Louisiana legislative law who served in the Baton Rouge state capital building down the road from Big Daddy’s Teamsters Local #5 headquarters, and he had spent almost three decades and thousands of taxpayer dollars trying to rid Louisiana of Big Daddy on behalf of three governors, similar to how Bobby Kennedy had spent fifteen years and millions of taxpayer dollars trying to prosecute Hoffa, and how before that the then senator John F. Kennedy had targeted Hoffa and the Teamsters; my grandfather was a less known fractal version of Hoffa, pursued by governors and district attorneys instead of presidents and attorney generals. Lottingger assumed my case soon after Hugh died, around the time Hoffa vanished on 30 July 1975. For the next year, he took a personal interest in Wendy’s well being, if only to help her against the two Ed Partins. Lottingger oversaw her effort to meet Judge Pugh’s surprisingly strict requirements against her, and his inexplicable ruling that, on paper, my dad retained custody despite the Whites dictating when and if my parents saw me. Lottingger doesn’t mention Pugh by name, nor does he mention Hoffa, but I believe he knew more than he wrote and was being prudent, because he barely mentions my dad – who had just shaken his drug charges from Jamaica, probably because of his name, and Lottingger’s tone seems kind to Wendy. Here’s what he had to say about my family in his 26 September 1976 custody court ruling:

    This is a suit by Edward Partin, Jr., plaintiff, seeking a divorce from his wife, Wendy Rothdram Partin, defendant, after having lived separate and apart for more than one year following a judgment of separation from bed and board. Plaintiff also seeks custody of the minor child, Jason Ian Partin, and the defendant reconvened asking that she be granted the permanent care, custody and control of the minor child.

    The Trial Court had previously, by ex parte order, awarded the temporary care, custody and control of the minor to Mr. and Mrs. James Ed White. Following trial on the merits, plaintiff was awarded a divorce as well as the permanent care, custody and control of the minor child, with the temporary physical custody of the minor child to remain with Mr. and Mrs. James Ed White. The defendant has appealed this judgment as it regards the custody of the child.

    This couple was married when plaintiff was 17 and the defendant was 16 years of age. Nine months following the marriage, they gave birth to young Jason. While we are not concerned with the facts surrounding the separation and divorce, it was apparently one of incompatibility as defendant testified that at the age of 17 she found herself married to a man who did not love her and so she left. Her testimony was as follows:

    “As I say I was emotionally upset. I was receiving little support from Edward. I was scared, very confused. I didn’t know exactly which way to turn. I felt I had no one to listen and help with the situation at hand.”

    Several weeks later she returned and lived with her husband again. She found that the situation hadn’t changed, and felt she had to get away again. She heard of a man who wanted someone to share expenses on a trip to California, so she quit her job and with her last wages left with him. She testified that she had no sexual relations with this man, and plaintiff does not accuse her of such. Following this trip she returned to Baton Rouge still emotionally upset. Her husband was suing her for separation and told her he was going to take custody of Jason. She went to live with her aunt and uncle, got a full time job with Kelly Girls paying $512.00 per month.

    In February, 1975, the defendant’s mother was injured in an accident and she moved in with her to care for her. In September, 1975, following the recuperation of the mother she returned to live with her aunt and uncle.

    During these above periods of time, the minor child lived with Mr. and Mrs. White. The Whites came to regard Jason as their own and, although the separation judgment awarded custody to the plaintiff with reasonable visitation privileges to the defendant, the Whites decided the defendant-mother could only see the child two days a month and that she could never keep the child over night. The reason the defendant did not contest custody at the separation trial was because at the time she felt unable emotionally and financially to care for her son.

    [Judge Lottinger wrote a paragraph of legal jargon here, citing the “double burden” placed on Wendy by the deceased Judge Pugh to go above and beyond what was typically necessary to regain custody.]

    We note that the petition for separation was grounded on habitual intemperance, as well as abandonment of the husband and the minor child. There are no other grounds listed for the separation nor for custody. The petition for the separation and custody of the minor child was not contested by the defendant, and a default judgment was granted. Defendant testified in the instant proceedings that the reason she did not contest custody in the separation proceeding was that she was not financially or emotionally capable of caring for the minor, and that knowing the Whites were going to be caring for him, she knew he would be in good hands.

    Though the petition for separation had as one of its allegations “habitual intemperance”, the plaintiff in the instant proceeding testified that he had never accused his wife of drinking, nor had he ever seen her drink.

    [Judge Lottinger goes on to cite a few precent cases, verdicts from previous judges in higher courts used to justify his opinions, a detail that’s less important in Louisiana’s version of the Napoleonic code, but still useful to show one’s logic and suggest unbiased decisions.]

    The welfare of the child is the main issue that the Court is concerned with. This issue is more important than any wishes or wants the parents may have. Fulco v. Fulco, 259 La. 1122, 254 So.2d 603 (1971), rehearing denied (1971). As a general rule, and in particular where children of young age are involved, preference is given to the mother in custody cases. This preference is very simply explained, the mother is normally better able to care for the child and look after the education, rearing, and training necessary. Estes v. Estes, 261 La. 20, 258 So.2d 857 (1972), rehearing denied (1972).

    No argument is made that the mother is not now morally or emotionally fit to care for the child, or that the house in which she lives is not a proper place to rear a child. In fact, the Trial Judge admitted that it was a fine home.

    The Trial Judge has not favored us with written reasons for judgment, however, we must conclude from various statements by the Trial Judge that appear in the record that he could find no fault with the defendant, nor was there anything wrong with the house in which she lived. It thus becomes apparent to this Court that the Trial Judge applied the “double burden” rule to the defendant. We have already ruled that the “double burden” rule does not apply in this situation, and thus, under the established jurisprudential rules, we can see no reason why the defendant-mother should not be granted the permanent care, custody and control of the minor child with reasonable visitation privileges granted to the father.

    In consideration of our above opinion, there is no need to discuss the specification of error as to the ex parte granting of custody to the Whites.
    Therefore, for the above and foregoing reasons, the judgment of the Trial Court is reversed, and IT IS ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that the defendant-appellant, Wendy Rothdram Partin, be and she is hereby granted the permanent care, custody and control of the minor, Jason Ian Partin, and IT IS FURTHER ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that this matter be and it is hereby remanded to the Trial Court for the purpose of fixing specific visitation privileges on behalf of plaintiff-appellee Edward Partin, Jr. All costs of the appeal are to be paid by plaintiff-appellee.

    Wendy never discussed that time of her life, so I don’t have a lot of details to share. In hindsight, it’s worth repeating that she overcame a lot and kept fighting and eventually got me back despite what most people would call overwhelming odds in an atypical situation. Calling my mom Wendy was a small price to pay for what she overcame. ↩︎