Havana 2

“We can report that Edward G. Partin has been under investigation by the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office in connection with the Kennedy Assassination investigation… based on an exclusive interview with an Assistant District Attorney in Jim Garrison’s office. We can report that Partin’s activities have been under scrutiny. In his words: “We know that Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald were here in New Orleans several times… there was a third man driving them and we are checking the possibility it was Partin.1

WJBO radio, New Orleans, June 23rd, 1964

I took a deep breath and inadvertently inhaled a lung full of JP-4 jetfuel. Despite the sudden urge to vomit, I exhaled with a content sigh and smiled. Any day you land with the plane is a good day.

Suddenly that feeling fled, and I whipped my head around and looked back up the airplane stairs and at the door that I had just been so grateful to exit.

“Fuck!” I exclaimed loudly enough to hear over the jet engine’s roar.

I had left my yoga mat in the overhead bin. It was too late to go back. Officials were pointing me towards a sign that said customs. I took another deep breath of JP-4 and reminded myself that I had planned on shopping, anyway, to see what was on the shelves on a communist island, and to keep an eye out for budding entrepreneurs sprouting between the cracks of Havana sidewalks. I could buy another mat tomorrow, or something that would suffice, like a blanket or thick towel. I had once read that every traveler should always carry a towel, and maybe they were right. It would have folded up into my carryon backpack, and I wouldn’t have been upset about leaving something behind that I was mentally, but not physically, attached to.

I exhaled and snapped my head back and forth to loosen neck muscles. My gaze flowed the official’s finger, and I tightened my hip belt and slowly walked towards customs, willing my stiff hips to move as smoothly as possible. Someone watching may have assumed I was strolling care free.

As I strolled, I was like a duck slowly moving across a pond, propelled by webbed feet frantically paddling below the surface; my mind raced to retrace my steps and look for how or why I had forgotten to grab the yoga mat. Since childhood, I misplaced anything not strapped to me, and I viewed water bottles, jackets, pens, and other things I set down mindlessly as disposable. If it wasn’t dummy-chorded to my backpack or tucked inside, it wasn’t important enough to worry about. But I only had two things to grab from the overhead bin, and I had planned to use the mat after a long day of sitting. After a day of carrying it from plane to plane, I could not see how I forgot it on the final flight.

I was worried. During the previous year’s sabattical, I realized that my memory may be failing. I was converting US dollars to Nepali rupees and couldn’t complete simple math. Six times seven is 42, the answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything; a number I should have known from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the book that suggests always carrying a towel. Yet 42 alluded my mind for almost two minutes, the length of a round of wrestling, a lifetime in my mind after 16 years of wrestling hundreds, if not thousands, of two minute rounds. And the number 42 was in the news in 2018, because Elon Musk launched his red Tesla convertible into space atop a Space-X rocket; he was a fam of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and had pasted the car with “Don’t Panic” bumper stickers and other references that reinvigorated internet memes about the book and answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything. 42 was also the Ranger Pat Tillman’s jersey number when he played for the Arizona Cardinals, before he quit football and joined the army and was shot and killed in Afghanistan. And in 2006, my first San Diego startup, Kinetikos Medical, Inc., was acquired by the international and unideal conglomerate Integra Life Sciences for $42 Million. But, for two long minutes in a Nepali street market, I stared at a kiosk vendor who was expecting an answer to his question about buying a trinket for a handful of rupees, unable to convert his price to dollars alomg a series of steps and possible miscommunications (my Nepalinise was weak). When six times seven finally came to me, I connected all of the reasons I should have instantly known the answer, and I became concerned and began paying more attention to my mind. Over the next two months, I saw more lapses I would have otherwise never noticed. I had no idea when it may have begun.

I returned to San Diego and told my primary physician at the VA hospital what I had been noticing. I was only 46 years old, but he was alarmed and said that I may be showing early symptoms of a neurological disorder akin to Alzheimers. He thought it could be related to what the VA called Desert Storm Syndrome, a hodgepodge of symptoms without unambiguous biomarkers, and the VA began monitoring my memory.

I had VA medical records and psychological exams for security clearances dating back to 1990 (I joined the army’s delayed entry program in 1989, at age 16, but my medical records began in basic training a year later). But the army never tested my memory, so I had no baseline from which to measure and therefore started anew in 2018. I passed all preliminary exams – they were simple memorization tests designed for gross losses and couldn’t compare to what I had been like – but I remained mindful of the possibility of gradual and almost imperceivable memory degradation.

Neural links break bit by bit, so slowly that most people son’t notice. I knew older friends and mentors who entered dementia so slowly that not only did they not notice, neither did anyone else. We assumed that their increasing grumpiness and forgetfulness was just getting older. Coach was one of them. His 2015 passing was still fresh in my mind, and added to my concern. He was the strongest man I ever knew, and if it could happen to him it could happen to anyone.2

After the VA’s alarm and preliminary diagnosis, I began trying to pay attention to my memory and mood throughout each day. I also dusted off the magician and memory expert Harry Lorayne’s books, and began exercising my mind, hoping to avert or at least slow down any possible decline. The mind needs exercise, just like the body. I began writing a memoir, verifying childhood memories with news events and court records available online, just like my 88 year old great-uncle Doug Partin had recently done from his Mississippi Veterans convalescent home for similar reasons.

The title of Doug’s book, which was self-published, tells you how my family viewed Big Daddy. It is, “From my Brother’s Shadow: Teamster Douglas Wesley Partin Tells His Side of the Story.” Doug published his memoir in 2017, almost 30 years after Big Daddy’s death in 1990. He barely grazed the surface. A three month sabbatical would allow uninterrupted time to write and exercise my mind and body and see how things progressed. Like the feet of that ostensibly carefree duck floating across an opaque pond, my mind paddled furiously, even when ostensibly on vacation.

I paused before entering the building and sighed again, though not contently this time. I took a deep breath, smiled, and strolled up to two customs officials sitting at a simple folding table.

They stopped joking with each other to greet me. I took off my backpack, pulled out a money belt from the front of my pants, and handed them my passport and round-trip plane ticket. I smiled more broadly to emphasize it, and they smiled back.

The older and presumably senior official checked my travel insurance and return flight more thoroughly than my visa. I was on the first day of a three month sabbatical, but only 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. I wondered if they would comment on the uniqueness of my visa, but the senior official was more interested in the Force Fins strapped to my backpack. He ran his finger along the thick polypropolene and flicked one of the tips with a curious countenance. With all of the tourists flocking to Cuba’s beautiful Carribbean dive sites, he had never seen fins like mine.

Force Fins are 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. The patents had long since expired (back then, patents expired 20 years after issue, now they become public domain 17 years after filing). But, the market was so small that no new companies invested in manufacturing processes: Force Fins were still the originals. Conveniently, the 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 near Yale university and the students who tossed empty pie tins around until someone had the idea to patent the shape as a flying disc. At the time, it was an innovative toy. Patents expired after 20 years back then, and now flying discs are ubiquitous because that anyone can copy the design. Saying Frisbee is like saying Kleenex, Zerox, Band-Aide, and Q-Tip for tissues, photocopies, adhesive bandages, and cotton swabs. I didn’t know if Cuba had similar brands or concepts, but I was ready to show examples of the differences between trademarks and patents and brands if anyone asked. Force Fins patents expired, too, but the niche market and expensive injection molding methods prevent them from becoming as ubiquitous as flying discs. Force Fins are much harder to toss back and forth than a Frisbee, but they can still be made into a fun learning lesson in the right context.

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. He moved his hand in and out, and laughed and made a joke I didn’t understand, but I surmised that he was either being vulgar or joking about my feet. I was used to both. I was the runt of my family, only 5’11” in the morning (we all shrink about 1.5-2.5 cm by the end of the day because our spinal discs compress, ironically more from sitting than from standing or walking), but I inherited Partin-sized feet and hands that are disproportionately big for my height. It’s like having natural fins and flippers, though I still use Force Fins to dive. I chuckled back and shrugged ambiguously, as if to imply 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.

The senior official asked where I would be diving. I said Playa de Giron. He said it was beautiful there, and handed back my passport. I put it away and straightened my posture and tightened the hip strap on my backpack. The officials smiled, waved goodbye, and said buen viaje. I said gracias, turned around, and strolled out of the building, still ruminating about my mat, but smiling and strolling through the terminal like a duck moving slowly across a murky pond without anyone noticing that its feet are frantically paddling under the surface. But, I thought as I approached the airport exit, at least I was through customs.

The adventure I had envisioned since my grandfather’s funeral on 11 March 1990 – almost 29 years to the day – had begun. Not even a lung full of JP-4 could remove the smile on my face.

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  1. Garisson spearheaded the only trial against anyone allegedly involved in Kennedy’s assassination, New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw, who was found not guilty. Garrison’s book about the trial, JFK, emphasized alleged CIA and FBI involvement, and became the 1992 Oliver Stone film JFK that prompted voting Americans to demand that incumbent president Bill Clinton release at least a part of the classified 1979 JFK Assassination Report; Big Daddy was mentioned throughout, but no charges stuck. The witnesses who placed him with Oswald and Ruby all vanished before testifying, and the single black and white photo they claimed as evidence vanished with them.

    To see Jim Garrison, an outlandishly tall southern man and media magnet, watch Oliver Stone’s JFK: Garrison has a cameo portraying Chief Justice Earl Warren. ↩︎
  2. Coach’s family, specifically Craig and Mrs. K, graciously gave me permission to publish anything about him, no questions asked. I choose his obituary.

    Dale Glenn Ketelsen, 78, Retired Teacher and Coach, passed away March 22, 2014 at Ollie Steele Burden Manor with his wife by his side. A Memorial service will be held Saturday, March 29 at University United Methodist Church, 3350 Dalrymple Drive. Visitation will begin at 10 am with a service to follow at 12 pm conducted by Rev. Larry Miller. Dale is survived by his wife of 52 years, Pat Ballard Ketelsen, 2 sons: Craig (Emily) Ketelsen of Covington, La; Erik (Bonnie) Ketelsen, Atlanta, Ga and one daughter, Penny (Lee) Kelly, Nashville, TN; 5 grandchildren: Katie, Abby, Brian and Michael Ketelsen and Graham Kelly; a Sister-in-Law, Karen Ketelsen of Osage, Iowa, and numerous neices and nephews. He was preceded in death by his parents, 2 sisters and a brother. Dale was born in Osage, Iowa where he attended High School, lettering in 4 sports. Upon graduation, he attended Iowa State University as a member of the wrestling team where he was a 2 time All American and won 2nd and 3rd in the NCAA finals in Wrestling. He was a finalist in the Olympic Trials for the 1960 Olympics. After graduation, he joined the US Marine Reserves and returned to ISU as an Asst. Wrestling Coach. In 1961, he took a job as Teacher/Coach at Riverside-Brookfield High School in Suburban Chicago, Ill. While there, he also earned a Masters Degree from Northern Illinois University. In 1968, he was hired to start a Wrestling program at LSU in Baton Rouge, La. He was on the Executive Board of the National Wrestling Coaches Association and a founding member of USA Wrestling. He was the wrestling host for the National Sports Festival in 1985, He was instrumental in promoting wrestling in the High Schools in Louisiana. He was head Wrestling Coach at Belaire High School for 20 years and Assistant Wrestling coach at The St. Paul’s School in Covington, La. He was devoted to Faith, Family, Farm and the sport of Wrestling. Among his many honors were induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and being named Master of Wrestling (Man of the Year) for Wrestling USA magazine. He was a long time member and Usher of University United Methodist Church. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Alzheimer’s Services, 3772 North Blvd., Baton Rouge, La. 70806. ↩︎