Havana: 01 March 2019

“Edward Grady Partin was a big, rugged man who could charm a snake off a rock.1

Jimmy Hoffa, the opening lines of Chapter 10 – The Chatanooga Choo Choo – in “Hoffa on Hoffa,” published by Stein and Day just after Hoffa vanished in 1975

Who can wait in stillness while the mud settles? Who can rest until the moment of action?

Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching, Chapter 15

Tim had barely changed: a cherub faced Irish Bostonian with eight siblings and a mother he adored and called frequently, and a friendly smile that belied his kill count. Despite having been in Cuba for a few weeks, he still had rosy cheeks and a pale complexion from no sunlight in his Washington DC office. There wasn’t even a hint of raccoon eyes. He probably wore a wide brim hat and used sunscreen diligently. He was always more cautious and diligent than I was.

He commented on my beard again.

“I grew it out in Nepal,” I said, stroking my chin. “It keeps my face warm in snow. I’ll probably shave it to fit my mask soon.”

We plopped down and we jumped back in to a conversation that hadn’t stopped since we met in 1991. We reminisced about diving u-boats off Cape Hatteras and climbing Grandfather Mountain until the bartender arrived. Tim asked for a mojito. The bartender winked at me, tapped the table, and whirled around. Tim and I swapped a few updates about each other and people we knew, and he finally asked what brought me to Cuba.

“Wait,” I said, because the bartender arrived. “You gotta try this.” I smiled and nodded towards the bartender. “This guy’s a maestro de mojito!”

Tim took a sip and uttered an explicative and agreed. He didn’t comment on the glass of water that magically appeared. Mine was refilled just as deftly. The guy was good. I sipped water to reduce the alcohol muddling my mind and loosening my tongue, and to allow Irish Tim to catch up.

“Hey, Tim,” I said with a grin. “Did you hear about the Irishman who walked out of a bar?”

I paused and he smirked but didn’t know.

I shrugged and said, “It could happen…”

He forced a groan, but I could tell he’d use it soon. We sipped and talked about rum and mint for a minute. I lamented to him about not having a knife. He offered his. I declined and said I’d look for one on the streets the next day, that I wanted to walk around and see what was for sale to most people, anyway.

“I’m on some kind of entrepreneurship visa,” I finally said. “Obama added it towards the end of his last term. I’m supposed to ‘promote entrepreneurship,’ whatever that means. It was a chance to come here without adding more time on flights to Mexico or Toronto. Now that I’m at a university, I figure I should be respectable.”

He said that was unlikely to ever happen. I told him about my new role at the University of San Diego, the only Catholic University in America not under control of the diocese. That kindled his interest.

“I designed an innovation lab called Donald’s Garage,” I said. “A San Diego billionaire’s widow donated $21 Million to make it. He was an engineer who invented the world’s most successful heart valve in his garage. They renamed the department after him. It’s now the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering. They recruited a dean from another university that won awards for integrating entrepreneurship into all classes. He had money to spend and didn’t have to work with PhD’s entrenched in the Ponzi scheme, and he asked me to join even though I never finished mine. I got lucky. I run the lab with about 36 student employees, including a bunch of vets from Afghanistan on a free ride. Tuition’s $56,000 a year, but the VA has bumped up disabled vet’s GI Bills to attend any school they want.”

I let that sink in. In our day, after almost four years of service and two tours, I was capped at $36,000 to pay for college. Tim had joined with a degree from Boston University in political science and American literature. He knew he’d never go back, so he waived the GI Bill to keep the $100 per month it cost and spent it on beer for everyone in the barracks.

I glanced down at Tim’s watch and said, “Two were in Group. One was in Fallulah, and has a scar around his head from an AK47 round that spun around the inside of his Kevlar.” I ran my finger around my head like a halo.

“The other lost both legs and his nuts in Herat.” I didn’t feel the need to illustrate. “They run small teams of students and most of the lab. We also have a few Saudi Arabian royalty who can afford the tuition and want to spend a few years in San Diego.”

I thought he’d question that, but he merely cocked his head and let it sink in; we both had small medals from the Saudi royal family, who had offered to pay the 82nd $2,000 each – all 12,000 of us – as if we were mercenaries; instead, America scored a lot of oil.

“I lead a couple of project-based engineering classes and break the class into teams,” I said. “A couple of the guys volunteer to help coach team leaders.”

“So after I got the visa,” I said, “I had a call that rekindled my interest in my grandfather. Have you heard of Scorcese’s upcoming film, The Irishman?”

“Yeah,” he said without hesitation. He had always been a film buff. “With DeNiro and Pacino.”

“And Joe Pesci and Ray Ramono,” I added, “And all the Scorsece favorites. He raised $257 Million to hire all the big guns that people pay to see.”

I paused just a bit and said, “My grandfather is a small part in the film…”

I paused agaim to let the pun to hit. It missed. I made a mental note to improve my enunciation and timing. Humor takes iteration.

I continued, “The actor playing my grandfather called us to research the role. Do you know Craig Vincent?”

He didn’t.

“Craig had a small part in Casino. He was the big guy in a cowboy hat Joe Pesci reached up and slapped on behalf of DeNiro.”

A light bulb turned on in Tim’s mind and lit up Tim’s face, and he said, “Oh, yeah. When he was on the phone.”

I nodded yes and said, “He’s an Italian Catholic from New Jersey, and got the role for my grandfather despite being dark skinned and with an accent more like yours than mine.” I exaggerated Tim’s lingering New England nasal tone and faster cadence.

“He called my uncle, Keith, to research the part. Kieth’s still president of the Baton Rouge Teamsters, so he was easy to find. So was my aunt, Janice. She’s a genealogy website contact for the Partin family. That led to me.”

I put up a finger and sipped my mojito, mostly to slow down my thoughts and not rant, but also because it was approaching room temperature and I wanted a fresh cold one. Tim sipped his faster than I did, which was good. My tongue was looser than his by then, and I wanted us to be on level ground so I wouldn’t feel foolish thinking out loud. Like telling a bartender to experiment, working out a thought takes trial and error without feeling judged.

“Anyway,” I said. “He looked up an old Youtube of…” I hesitated for a fraction of a second – I almost said Big Daddy. Tim didn’t seem to notice. I continued, “…My grandfather, so he knew the accent. And he had watched Brian Dennehy copy it in Blood Feud when my grandfather was still alive and people knew what he sounded like.”

“But Craig couldn’t do the southern accent. Scorcese tweaked my grandfather to fit Craig, and he’s now ‘Big Eddie Partin.’ Craig said he wanted to honor his mother with his work and focus on the nuances of my grandfather’s behavior that let him fool Hoffa. I respected that. I told him to watch Brian Dennehey in Blood Feud and sent him a bootleg DVD. Brian did the role when my grandfather was still alive and everyone knew what he looked and sounded like. I told Craig that my grandfather was patient, calm, and always smiling. He planned ahead and knew how to wait. He could sit in a deer stand all night and wait for a one-shot kill”

I paused to let that sink in, though it wasn’t 100% truthful. Walter described Big Daddy being nervous before walking into Hoffa’s hotel room to report what he saw and heard. In fairness, he went unarmed and knew he’d be surrounded by a dozen armed men as big as he was and fiercely loyal to Hoffa, who was only 5’6″, but smart to not feel bashful recruiting the biggest, roughest men he could find. And Chucky Obrien, Hoffa’s adopted pitbull of a son, would be there, probably cheat-high among all the muscle. The last time Big Daddy and Chucky had been together, a gunman entered the courtroom with sites set on Hoffa, but was pounced on by a surprisingly fierce and agile Chucky, who disarmed the would-be assassin and pistol-whipped him with his own gun before courtroom security and federal marshals could pry him off. And Big Daddy rarely smiled around my dad; I had seem Big Daddy pull a knife on him twice; but, in fairness, my dad had that effect on most people. Otherwise, Big Daddy was a patient man, confident and smiling and charming. He set his hunting clothes out a few days before sitting in a deer stand to camouflage human scents, but was never upset when a shot didn’t manifest after all that prep. He was unencumbered by short-term impulses that stymied weaker men.

“The scene where the guy playing Walter slaps my grandfather was the only fabrication I noticed,” I said. “He only got nervous when business risked his kids.”

“You’d like Craig,” I said. “He was raised Catholic and talked about his mom a lot, and how proud she was that he scored another role in a Scorcese film. His part is only about 20 minutes, but he took it seriously.”2

Here,” I said, and pulled out I Heard You Paint Houses, and handed it to Tim. “The film’s based on a book that came out just before the police records vanished.”

He laughed at the worn edges and marked up pages. He said, “I remember getting my Let’s Go Israel back from you like this,” he said. “worn out and written on.”

I beamed and reached into my bag and showed him my Lonely Planet and all the scribbles around the Plaza de San Francisco de Asi, and we had a good laugh and talked about counties we had seen together for a while. I told him about the Lonely Planet selling for $51 Million Euros. He was uninterested; he never had an entrepreneurial spirt. I returned to The Irishman.

“Painting houses was mob lingo for making a wall red with someone’s blood,” I said. I took the book and opened to a page and showed him something I had bracketed:

“Partin was a big tough-looking man with an extensive criminal record as a youth. Hoffa misjudged the man and thought that because he was big and tough and had a criminal record and was out on bail and was from Louisiana, the home states of Carlos Marcello, the man must have been a guy who paints houses.”

Tim asked. I said I didn’t know for sure, but I that I couldn’t imagine my grandfather ever doing anything for anyone else.

“He never wanted a boss,” I said. “I think that’s where I got my interest in entrepreneurship.”

I pointed to the book. “There’s a ton in here about the mob and Bay of Pigs, and Castro and Kennedy,” I said. “And the Bay of Pigs. And Audey Murphy. But that’s too many subplots, so Scorcese whittled it down. He said he wasn’t making a documentary, that he was making entertainment to sell tickets. People from his generation just wanted to know who killed Hoffa, and younger people will buy tickets for anything with DeNiro and those guys.”

I flipped to chapter 20. The first paragraph was circled, and several sentences of the second were underlined. It was the most marked-up chapter, with practically every other paragraph a gold mine of information that probably meant more to me than anyone else left alive.

“He talks a lot about Audie and Richard Nixon,” I told Tim. “But Craig said all of that was left out of the script.”

“Funny,” I said, “Craig’s the first person I’ve ever heard question that big part in the story…”

Nothing. Damnit. I’d work on it.

Tim asked about writing a version. I admitted I was working on it.

“Craig offered to introduce me to a ghost writer.” I pointed to the book cover. “Like Charles Brant. But even I don’t like books like this. Besides, I don’t know more than anyone else. That’s part of why I’m here. I bought a couple of books on how to write books, and I wanted nothing else to think about. I just want to dive and climb and eat and try to make it into a story.” I shrugged and said, “Maybe Martin Scorcese will make a film about it one day. What really happened.”

Our conversation slipped into films, mostly centered around DeNiro and Pacino, like Raging Bull and Scarface, which got us laughing again. The mojitos came again and the bartender laughed a bit with us without knowing why. Tim and I sipped and chatted our way through the 1980’s war films and others we liked and even laughed at, like Apocolypse Now, Platoon, The Deer Hunter, Tropic Thunder (the spoof with Robert Downey Junior as a black man who looked and talked just like someone we knew), and a few others. We were both laughing too loudly when we reached the 2001 film Black Hawk Down. We stopped laughing. Both of us stared at our mojitos. Tim spoke first.

“To Mike,” he said, raising his almost empty glass.

“To Mike,” I said, clanking my glass against his.

Tim tapped his glass on the counter and we both drank deeply. I put down my empty glass. My jaw tightened and I lowered my gaze. My upper lip quivered. Tim rested a hand on my shoulder.

“Alcohol’s a depressant,” I said. I looked up and wiped my eyes. In lesser company, I would have said, “Sorry.” Veterans have four times the suicide rate as the civilian population. You never get immune to the pain, thank God, and you know how to remain silent when someone feels it. All loss is painful, but I’m biased to believe that the loss of a friend you had fought beside and lived to fight again cuts deeper than most people will ever know, thank God.

We sipped silently for a bit until our glasses emptied, then we sat in silence and ostensibly listened to the music. In my peripherial vision I saw the time on my watch and noticed the bartender approaching. Before he could ask if we wanted another round, I held my left palm face-up and pretended to scribble on it with an invisible pen held in my right, the universal sign for the check: la cuenta, por favor. He nodded, tapped the counter, and went to his pile of notes and fished around for ours. I deftly snuck out a few twenties from my money belt. Even drunk, I can do math well, unless my memory is slipping. Just in case, I added an extra twenty and told the bartender to keep the change. If I had made a mistake, at least he’d think I was a great tipper.

Of course Tim protested, and of course I said he’d get me next time. He suggested something, but I said I wanted a few days to relax before committing and would text him then.

“Oh!” I exclaimed. “One more thing.” Tim perked up. “I need to make a joke about a tip, but I don’t know local slang.” I reached in my bag and pulled out a quart-sized Ziplock full of plastic thumb tips stuffed with tiny red handkerchiefs. I sometimes called them silk, but they had been made from some polymer since before I was born and did the same job more cheaply. Each one was barely big enough to seem like an actual handkerchief, but maybe one for traveling because it was only 4 inches square. The polymer could squish into the tip of the thumb tip and be retrieved without being so wrinkled that it gave away the secret.

“I give these away as tips after I do a trick,” I said. “I want to give them away to drivers as a tip and have them get the pun.”

He cocked his head, unsure where I was going.

“Seriously. It’s fun, especially if you meet a kid who wants to talk with an American.”

I slowed my cadence and slipped in a reoccurring point in our talks that cut Tim like a sharp knife. “It’s like you learned in Catholic school: giving gifts and sharing knowledge is a good way to build teams.” He ignored me.

I showed him how to shove it in and hold your thumb pointing towards someone so less plastic was visible. It takes just a few seconds and is easy to learn. It’s a tip that would keep on giving long after a dollar was forgotten. Tim saw the light, but he couldn’t think of anything colloquial that would be funny. I thought of another idea.

“Hair today, gone tomorrow?”

I tilted my head down and rubbed my hand across my thinning hair. He couldn’t think of anything for that, either.

“What good are you?” I asked with a huge smile. I offered him a tip. He declined. He never appreciated magic. He relished the book, though, especially with my notes. We hadn’t talked about Audey in years. Several of our friends either went through AIT or rehabilitation in the San Antonio Audey Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital when we all remembered his films. But, like how most young people don’t really know who Hoffa was, most young soldiers don’t know about Audey. His character had been replayed in films so often that his image was a Zerox of older Zeroxes, changing slightly each time and now generalized and unrecognizable from the original. Audey had been ground-zero for a young handsome southern farm boy, cheerful and fearless, who stood up between enemy guns and his troops with his machine gun blaring, saving people who would live to tell the tale and award him every medal the United States military had to offer, from the purple heart to the Medal of Honor. He was a true all-American hero. Hoffa had funded some of his films; it’s no wonder Hoffa despised Bobby for, among many things, calling my grandfather all-American anything. Though he never served, Hoffa seemed to respect servicemen, and upon his release from prison, just before he vanished, he said he’d like to travel to Vietnam and negotiate freeing prisoners of war. I didn’t know if Tim knew that, but I knew he’d read The Irishman and learn more soon.

We stood to part ways. I straightened up to hug him and winced. He began to say something. I told him yes, I hurt, but I didn’t want to talk about it. Surprisingly, he pressed. I was firm.

“I don’t like to see my friends hurting,” he said.

“I don’t want to talk about it now,” I said, “but it’s mostly from sitting all day.”

He reluctantly acquiesced and hugged me and wished me well. A lesser man would have persisted. Timing is crucial in many things. Tim had been a sniper, and he was more patient than I was.

We left and I dropped a folded up five in the band’s bulbous brass tip bucket – at least I thought it was a tip bucket, not a spittoon to match the foot rail- with the five obviously showing to alert other patrons who wondered how much to tip. A one is too little for someone to see, a twenty too intimidating for others. A five feels right. They had been a good band. The volume camouflaged conversations without overwhelming them. The place had grown packed since I arrived, but I hadn’t paid attention until then. I glanced down, and my five was atop of mostly US dollars and a scattering of local pesos. I looked back up and The French horn player, and our gazes met. He nodded without missing a beat. I kept the gaze and nodded back, then limped out the double doors.

I stumbled to the casa particular and arrived a bit late. The family was pleasant and the room was as expected. They went to bed and I shut the door without locking it. I felt dizzy, and cursed myself for drinking too much. Then I said to myself that it was worth it. Old friends are the best friends.

I left the door to the courtyard open and listened to small frogs chirping like crickets. I laid down a towel and stretched on the cold Spanish tiled floor. Maybe Douglas Adams was right, and traveler should carry a towel.

About 20 minutes later, my scalene quit twitching, and I began to sob. A few tears fell on the towel, but instantly vanished into the frayed fuzzy texture. The younger self in my mind’s eye was clueless about how much he’d miss those days when they were no longer feasible or possible, and he was sad for Mike and many others. But life is for the living. I thought of Timmy. I knew I’d see him again; when we hugged goodbye, I stole his watch.

Go to The Table of Contents


  1. A basis for Hoffa’s defense and one of the main reasons his conviction went to the supreme court, was that, in addition to possibly violating the 4th amendment, using anything Hoffa may have said would violate the 5th amendment: the right against self-incrimination. In other words, the 4th specifies that a search and seizure must be specific, and the 5th says that if it’s not specific then what a person says would be self-incrimination if they knew they were being recorded. Hoffa’s defense team said that because Big Daddy was a trusted friend he could, in theory, influence Hoffa into saying something incriminating; it’s no different than any one of us being around someone we look up to and repeating what they implied – or we inferred – and then being charged for what they may have thought they were only agreeing to as a talking point. To this day, I don’t know how much Big Daddy influenced Hoffa. What is certain is that Hoffa went to prison based solely on my grandfather’s testimony, and that I have little doubt that Hoffa could have said anything Big Daddy wanted him to, like how a magician can influence spectators to think of a card or believe they have free will in a mentalism routine. It’s likely Hoffa said what my grandfather said he said, even if Hoffa denied it on stand. Big Daddy wooed the jury, too. They deliberated for less than an hour before believing my grandfather’s testimony over the testimony of Hoffa, who was, at the time, considered to be the most famous man in America not a Kennedy, and sending Hoffa to prison for suggesting to Big Daddy that they bribe a juror; ten months later, the Life magazine article came out and Hoover verified that Hoffa had been plotting to kill Bobby Kennedy, cementing into public minds that Big Daddy had saved lives and was “an all-American hero,” with tons of photos showing how charming he could be; Hoover and the FBI even released Big Daddy’s lie detector results to prove it. ↩︎
  2. Craig’s role as Big Daddy was edited down to only about 5 minutes. Even then, the film was released at a whopping 3 hours and 29 minutes. Scorcese was kind enough to give Craig the unused footage for his portfolio. The film missed its summer release date and was sent to theaters just before the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic shuttered all doors globally, but Netflix bought it and The Irishman set streaming records that persisted for a couple of years. ↩︎