But then came the killing shot that was to nail me to the cross.

Edward Grady Partin.

And Life magazine once again was Robert Kenedy’s tool. He figured that, at long last, he was going to dust my ass and he wanted to set the public up to see what a great man he was in getting Hoffa.

Life quoted Walter Sheridan, head of the Get-Hoffa Squad, that Partin was virtually the all-American boy even though he had been in jail “because of a minor domestic problem.”

Jimmy Hoffa in Hoffa: The Real Story

I had just landed in Cuba on an entrepreneurship visa when I first suspected that Wendy would commit suicide; she wouldn’t, and I had no reason to suspect she would, but that was my first reaction when I listened to her voice mail. I was standing in the small Plaza de San Francisco de Asi, which I was told was one of only two places a gringo could catch public WiFi, even in 2019. I was wearing my sun faded carry on backpack and listening to messages for the first time since a long day of transfers from San Diego. Gut instincts can be wrong, so I listened to her message several times. It wasn’t what she said that led to the feeling, it was the pauses between what she said, as if she were choosing her words carefully or that she wanted to tell me more, both of which were rare for her.

“Hey Jason, it’s Wendy,” she began, followed by a pause.

“I know you’re going to Cuba, but I was hoping to speak with you about my will.”

Another pause.

“It’s not a big deal,” she said quickly, and continued at a similar pace, clumping words together like one long word: “I’d just like to add Cindi as executor because you travel so much.”

Her last few words blended together, like when she rushed her words to camouflage that she was slightly drunk, imagining no one noticed her sluggishness. I don’t recall the exact time of her voice mail stamp, but it was early afternoon in U.S. Central Time Zone, on Tuesday, February 19th. I realized she must have received the Valentine’s Day card I mailed her, telling her I’d be in Cuba and probably Puerto Rico and Miami, traveling off line and with an open agenda after the 30-day Cuban visa expired. That’s almost exactly what I wrote on a postcard using a hotel pen when I was in New York City a few weeks before. I signed it: “Happy Valentines day! Love, Jason,” with a little squiggle after my name that I had used since kindergarten. I had hoped to speak with her before Cuba, to tell her about a few of the jazz clubs I visited that Uncle Bob would have appreciated, but Wendy was hard to reach sometimes. A few weeks passed quickly, and now I was in Havana.

Wendy was my mother, Wendy Anne Rothdram Partin, but she taught me to call her by her first name when I was a child in the Louisiana foster system and she was ashamed of being a single teenage mother who had abandoned her son twice. She hoped people would assume I was her baby brother, and it worked so she continued. She regained custody of me in 1976, and I’d begin living with her in 1979, but old habits are hard to break and I still called my mother Wendy.

Almost twenty years before, she said the thing she missed most after she and my stepdad, Mike Richard, split, was not giving and receiving Valentine’s Day gifts. She had given me my first, in White Oaks Elementary School, when I didn’t get any from class; I returned the favor after Mike left, and began trying to mail her something wherever I happen to be; I travel in spring, mostly, to coincide with music festivals I enjoy. She usually me one from St. Francisville by the first week of February, but she missed 2019. She had missed years in a row before.

Wendy lived in Saint Francisville, Louisiana, a 1,300 person town about an hour upriver of Baton Rouge. It had spotty cell coverage, and she often missed checking her PO box for weeks at a time. The St. Francisville postmaster, a gregarious and plump African American lady, humorously named Pamela Anderson, a fact she’s the first one to point out when someone new walks into the post office, which isn’t often, secretly kept keep Wendy’s mail from her overflowing PO box, which was mostly junk, piled in a cardboard box for when “Miss Wendy” brought her dogs into town once every few weeks for a catfish po’boy at The Magnolia Cafe. At home, she was usually walking her dogs along the trails of The Bluffs at Thompson Creek, a golf community along one of the rare clear water creeks in Louisiana, or practicing her putting on the 9th green midweek, when noone was around. She retired after her and Mike split, and the cell reception hasn’t improved in twenty years. When she was near her land line by early afternoon, she was usually a few glasses of wine by noon San Diego time, when I wasn’t thinking of calling and usually didn’t have my phone nearby; San Diego has excellent coverage, and the county has about 4.1 Million people. I don’t know my postmaster’s name.

Wendy and I didn’t speak as often as we could. She had had a rough life, and I was used to lapses of months and even a year or so without hearing from her, and tried to not judge her for the drinking or the lapses. When drunk, not just buzzed, she often referred to her will. She would have turned 64 that summer.

“And I thought…,” Her voice mail said, followed by a pause long enough for me to take two breaths. “It’s not important. Call me back when you can.”

There was another pause and a slight, barely noticeable sigh.

“Tell Cristi I said hello, and I hope y’all are enjoying San Diego,” she said quickly, habitually, trying to leave her voice mail on an upbeat tone. It reeked of cover up.

“If I miss you,” she finished, “Have fun in Cuba and we’ll talk when you get back.”

I listened to the voice mail again using ear buds that blocked the sounds of downtown Havana traffic and music emanating from bars and restaurants circling the square. I have a 15% hearing loss in each ear, but at different frequencies, and in person I rotate my head to point one ear or the other towards whomever’s speaking, depending on their pitch and cadence, like a chicken with eyes where ears should be, pecking at something only after rotating it’s head to see in 3D. I miss a lot when I hold a phone to one ear, so I use earbuds that speak into in both ears simultaneously and have expensive, but worthwhile, noise-canceling software that helps me understand what people are saying. I can even adjust frequency inputs, like a fancy home stereo equalizer, bringing up midranges and lowering bass, and that also helps. It’s pricey, much more expensive than a less effective hearing aide, but it’s worth it to me. But, even with the earbuds I didn’t learn anything from Wendy’s voice mail that would help me understand where my feeling of worry originated, other than her pauses.

But, out of habit, I still rotated my head when listening to Wendy. Anyone noticing may have just assumed I was bobbing my head to music playing in my earbuds. But, I was lost in focus and touching my phone screen to rewind – an archaic term from cassettes and VCR’s that I still use in my head – and relistening to one specific pause, again and again, a pause within a pause, and I was leaning in so strongly with my mind that my head acted on its own, bobbing to memories of Wendy’s voice as I pecked again and again at the pause. It was the one after she said, “And I thought…”

I thought I heard her inhale a bit more than before, as if poised to let loose something important, and then a subtle sound, as subtle as the b in subtle, that my mind assumed she said, “I…” and was about to tell me why she really called. Of course that was crazy: Wendy never said why she was was really calling, she just talked about her dogs or will, or asked how I was doing or where I was going next. I deleted the message after deciding what to do, and didn’t try to retrieve it after she died to analyze the past.

She had met my biologic father, Edward Grady Partin Junior, at Glen Oaks High School in 1971, when she was a 16 year old junior and he was a 17 year old senior and the school’s drug dealer. She soon lost her virginity to him at a New Years eve party, and two weeks later realized she was pregnant with me. She couldn’t afford an abortion, so she accepted my dad’s proposal and they eloped an hour and a half away to Mississippi, where state laws didn’t require parental consent to marry. They returned as Mr. and Mrs. Ed Partin and moved into one of Big Daddy’s houses on the outskirts of Baton Rouge, near the muddy Achafalaya Basin and a bridge over the murky, slow flowing Comite River, where Big Daddy dumped safes and bodies. I was born at 9:36AM on October 5th, 1972 – gestation takes ten weeks, not nine, as we’re told when births happen nine months after weddings – and I weighed nine pounds and eight ounces, a huge undertaking for Wendy’s petite 5.1” frame; but, an unsurprising size if you knew the Partin men, or had been squeezed between a couple of them in a cramped room while they threw their muscle around, or sat between men like them on a long airplane flight or concert venue. It’s a wonder she stayed around as long as she did.

About a year or so after I was born, she had a nervous breakdown and abandoned me at a daycare center near Glen Oaks and fled to California in a car with a young man she had met that morning. My dad had been gone for a while with a few of his friends, on a motorcycle ride to Miami and then a trip to Kingston, to see a Bob Marley concert and buy a boat load of prescription opioids obtained, I think, from newly formed offshore Puerto Rican pharmaceutical manufacturers, where labor was cheaper and regulations were less enforced. My dad’s name was well in the islands back then; Big Daddy had been threatened by Chavez, the Puerto Rican Teamster leader, who spoke his threat after Hoffa began his prison sentence in 1966. Chavez was assassinated in the spring of 1968, and in 1973, the new local Teamster president knew the name Edward Grady Partin Senior well and never spoke ill of my family. Big Daddy had also put men in power in Miami, home of Cuban mafia boss Santos Traficante Junior, so my dad would have had plenty of couches to crash on while traveling, and I can’t imagine anyone refusing him.

No one knew when my dad and his friends would return. The daycare didn’t know what to do with me – this was before social services were common in Baton Rouge – and they allowed me to go home with the first people who said they knew me, the custodian and groundskeeper of Glen Oaks, Mr. James “Ed” White, and his wife, Mrs. Delores Lamar White, my MawMaw and PawPaw.

When someone finally notified the police, I was at PawPaw’s and a judge removed from my parents custody on paper. He was Judge Pugh, the only family court judge in East Baton Rouge Parish’s 19th judicial district, which is a unique place. Louisiana law is a form of Napoleonic code different from all other states that still lingers from the Louisiana Purchase, so Judge Pugh had more freedoms and fewer predicates to follow than judges in other states. For reasons no one understands, he removed Wendy’s legal rights to me and assigned custody to my dad and made PawPaw my legal guardian with granted him physical custody of me and the ability to dictate when and if either of my parents, whom he had known for years at Glen Oaks, saw me.

Wendy returned from California on her own, divorced my dad, and moved in with Cindi’s family, the Cindi from Wendy’s voice mail, and tried to find work as a teenage high school dropout without marketable skills. She was a sweet and attractive young girl. My dad, his friends, and my dad’s little brother Kieth all said, in their words, that Wendy was “fine” and had the finest ass at Glen Oaks and probably in all of Baton Rouge. I wouldn’t know about that, but they seemed pretty sure of themselves. Mostly, I think people helped her because she was sweet and polite and had a nice smile, and because she kept the Partin name. Big Daddy was president of Baton Rouge Teamsters Local #5, and he influenced most companies in the trucking-industry dependent capital city of Baton Rouge, and everyone recognized our last name. But, she was ashamed of her youth and lack of education, and she taught me to call her by her first name so that people would assume I was her little brother, and a lot of people just assumed we were two of Big Daddy’s many kids, or that I was one of his growing number of grandkids; at the time, he had two, my slightly older cousin Tiffany, also the daughter of a teenage pregnancy by Aunt Janice, and me.

Wendy was given a part time job with Keely’s Girls earning $512 a month delivering Yellow Pages, and she was able to rent a two bedroom, one bath apartment in a shitty part of town behind a Chinese restaurant along Florida Blvd, a mile or so from the ramshackle neighborhood around Belaire High School.

In the August of 1975, coincidentally a few weeks after Jimmy Hoffa disappeared and almost exactly on Wendy’s 20th birthday, Judge Pugh allegedly committed suicide and was replaced by Judge J.J. Lottingger, a thirty year veteran of Louisiana legislative law. He took over my case, and a year later reversed Pugh’s decision. He assigned my custody to Wendy September 26th, 1976, but my dad and PawPaw both appealed, both trying to get custody.

The next two or three years are murky for me, but in 1979 I was living with Wendy during the school year, and with my dad over the summer and winter holidays, helping him grow weed deep in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas, just before Big Daddy left Louisiana in early 1980 to begin an eleven year prison sentence; though he continued to receive a Teamster salary in prison, just like Jimmy Hoffa had, and was still in the news almost weekly, dictating events in Baton Rouge from his Texas prison cell, and would be released after only six years, also just like Hoffa. By the time Big Daddy was in prison, she had a salaried job as a secretary at Exxon Mobil Plastics Division, and I never asked why she kept the name Partin. Old habits are hard to break, and I still called my mother Wendy.

She talked about Pugh a few times over the decades, saying he probably did kill himself, because only a crazy man would have allowed my dad to maintain legal custody, especially after all of his arrests. Almost every time she mentioned him, she’d joke that she had been born WAR, but marrying a Partin WARP’ed her, and that’s why she drank now.

Judge Pugh had coincidentally been on my mind just before I landed in Havana. I had been considering writing a book about Jimmy Hoffa and Big Daddy, and I had downloaded and reread my custody records for the plane ride to Cuba, looking for clues about that time period, maybe something I had overlooked or not put into context when I was younger and knew less history. The more I learned, the more I realized how rough Wendy’s life must have been. Empathy’s a bitch, and it takes time for words to sink in deeply enough to be useful, especially when you mostly speak via phone and texts and she beats around the bush, using seemingly unimportant topics to postpone what she wants to talk about but somehow can’t find the words.

I took out my earbuds and sighed in the same way Wendy did, taking a deeper breath than normal and exhaling in a single puff while averting my eyes downward; like Wendy, I avoid eye contact when something’s on my mind. I was her son, after all, and some mannerisms stick with you no matter where you move or how long had passed. I had lived in California for almost thirty years, ironically moving to San Diego long after Wendy returned to Baton Rouge for me. I can see why she wanted to live there. It’s heaven on earth, and became my home. Over time, I visited Baton Rouge less and less, like most people who move away from an old life and rebuild a new one elsewhere. She had begun drinking after Mike cheated on her and they split up, when she was still young and dating for fun, but it became a habit, and for the past few years she had left other ambiguous voice mails with slightly slurred speech many times. I still don’t know what made the message in Havana feel differently, other than the pauses and the thoughts that had coincidentally been on my mind.

I tried calling back, but as usual her cell phone wasn’t getting reception and she didn’t answer her land line. I sent a text message and an email letting her know I had already arrived in Cuba, and, in a voice mail spoken into air and magically picked up by my earbuds and hurled through space, I chuckled to lighten the tone and said that that the cell reception in Havana was worse than Saint Francisville, and that I’d only be able to check messages when I came back to Havana every week or two, but to text me if it were important. Anyone noticing would have probably assumed Inwas talking on my phone and laughing at something someone said, not my fascination with technology we take for granted; imagine yelling your younger self what was possible now, and how little you need to worry about temporary things that can improve.

I said I’d stay in Havana longer, if necessary, so we could schedule a time to speak. Coincidentally, I added with another forced chuckle, I was calling from a public square named after Saint Francis, the patron saint of kindness to animals, and I hoped that put a smile on her face.

Wendy had volunteered at the St. Francisville humane society, the only one in West Feliciana Parish and just down the street from Angola prison, since Mike moved out and her two Irish Setters, Sean and Kelly, died. If anything made her happy, it was rescuing dogs and finding loving homes to adopt them.

As I spoke into the air and my earbuds caught the words and hurled them across space, like magic or the science fiction of my youth, I imagined her face lighting up and her crows feet crinkling and her still sweet smile resurfacing like the old days, and I smiled, genuinely, not forced like my chuckle, and I wished she could have been there to see it. She always had a warm heart for animals without homes, even before I was a foster kid she had brought home stray dogs and boxes of kittens, and she was an avid reader of popular paperbacks with science fiction or horror themes, like Stephen King and the guy that wrote Jurassic Park, the brain surgeon. A sure way to get her to smile was talking about her work at the humane society, or any one of the dozens of dog that came in and out of her home and the two that had lingered around longer than I had. She’d nurse other rescues back to health, train them to not pee inside, and get their coats soft and shiny and ready for adopt-a-pet events in St. Francisville.

I reiterated that I’d check messages when I could and added a perfunctory “I love you,” then sent a message to Cristi and I told her I had arrived safely, that the WiFi was less than I had expected, and I would be mostly offline, as usual when I was on sabbatical in what’s harshly called second or third world countries. I paused to emphasize what I was about to say, and said that I had a cryptic message from Wendy and was worried. Cristi would know what to do; she was one of only three people still alive who knew me and had met Big Daddy, my dad, and Wendy. She knew about Wendy’s depression and alcoholism and why I called her Wendy; it was a long story, and I never saw a reason to explain it to most people, unless the topic of adoption or fostering kids popped up organically.

I didn’t tell Cristi the coincidence about St. Francisville, because I wanted to her emphasize my concern Wendy and not leave a lengthy message, though I would tell her when I got home. Cristi felt improbable coincidences were a form of synchronicity, her favorite topic. We had lived in the same subsidized apartment complex as kids, and when we met up again at Belaire High School we skipped school and ate lunch at the Chinese buffet and ended up with matching matching fortune cookies that said: “Friends long absent are coming back to you.” She still has her copy, tucked into a tattered copy of The Artist’s Way, so I knew she’d like hearing about the Plaza de San Francisco de Asi later. It just wasn’t ideal timing, and I wasn’t feeling genuinely humorous at the end of a long day.

Satisfied that I had done all I could do, I sent a message telling two young American reporters and a German scuba buddy flying to meet us that I had arrived and the address of the casa particular where I would be staying. I doubted they’d have a reason to contact me before we met in Vinales, a tobacco farming area about two hours east of Havana which and surrounded by towering limestone cliffs. I contacted the alleged climbing guide, a cheerful guy of Spanish decent and only a couple of years older than the journalists, and wrote him the same. We had to be discrete, because rock climbing wasn’t legal in Cuba, which I felt made it even more fun. Routine life can seem boring after war.

Unnecessary risks are shunned in countries with national health plans. According to their sytsyem, there’s no need to climb the cliffs of Vinales unless you’re pursuing food or fleeing something, and even then you should have filled out the required forms in advance. Scuba was popular in Cuba because the coral reef was within swimming distance of shore, and the sport existed when Fidel Castro came into power, and he was a fan of the sport. He dictated that dive shops circle the island and provide affordable recreation for the people. He so enjoyed diving that many books claim the CIA tried to kill him by planting exploding clam shells here and there, in addition to stuffing his cigars with poison, not knowing he stopped smoking and only used Cuban cigars for publicity photos.

Climbing, especially bolted sport climbing on sandstone, was probably safer than diving, but I wasn’t there to discuss statistics or debate national healthcare policies, I just enjoy climbing in new areas. There’s something about immersing in the unknown I’ve always appreciated, and bolted sandstone would be an interesting change from the granite cliffs and trad climbing in Yosemite, Tahquitz, Joshua Tree, and other meccas within driving distance of San Diego. And, my aching body wouldn’t have to lug a massive backpack crammed with trad gear to the base climbs, and I could focus on what I called “vertical yoga,” focusing on posture and breathing more than placing gear. Part of my visa requirement was travel insurance that would reimburse Cuba if anything happened to me, because they’re Good Samaratans and would treat me, even though I was American and the CIA operatives during the Kennedy administration had, ironically, tried to assassinate Fidel. And, of course, there was the whole Bay of Pigs invasion to forgive, not to mention Guantanamo. But, over time, most countries forgive Americans and welcome our tourist dollars; just ask Japan.

Clandestinely, the travel journalists were aspiring investigative journalists, and they plotted to slip subtleties into the text of their magazine articles that could spark bigger picture conversations across a diverse audience, not just preach to the choir, and try to change the world. I wished them luck. An assistant had coordinated their trip and insurance, and I had arranged to meet an alleged guide in the tobacco farming valley of Vinales. As a side conversation, we briefly discussed whether or not Fidel was still alive and running things behind the scenes, like was rumored after his little brother, Raúl, inherited the presidency in 2008. Raul stepped down in 2018, but conspiracy theories linger; just ask what people what they happened to Kennedy. I had joked that Fidel was laying low with Elvis and Hoffa, and maybe we’d bump into them in a bar and ask what they thought about things. The young journalists, who had a vague notion of who Hoffa was, laughed, and I laughed with them, but only because today’s aspiring investigative journalist only have a vague notion who Hoffa was. Former Teamster boss Frank Sheenan said it well in his 2004 memoir about allegedly killing Hoffa in 1975: “Nowadays, young people, they don’t know who Jimmy Hoffa was. They don’t have a clue. I mean, maybe they know that he disappeared or something, but that’s about it. But back then, there wasn’t nobody in this country who didn’t know who Jimmy Hoffa was.”

My Wifi ended and I was tired and worried and sore from the flight, so I picked up my carry on backpack with scuba fins strapped to the outside and climbing shoes and a harness crammed inside, and limped across the Plaza San Francisco de Asis towards a small bar and grill. It had double doors wide open so that live music flowed out of the bar and across the plaza, and the open doors attracted my attention more than the other venues circling the square plaza. I’m slightly claustophobic, and after a long flight I always felt cramped and don’t want to be inside and needed to move my body. Sitting is one of the worst thing anyone can do for their body: at least five randomized, double blinded clinical trials with and a meta analysis of more 800,000 people followed over fifteen years by independent research teams says so. I walked into a bar so that I wouldn’t become a statistic.

As for why sitting is risky: a right angle bend increases lumbar disc pressure 120% due to muscles yanking on your spinous process to maintain static equilibrium, and seat pressure against the back of your thighs restricts blood flow, which relies on pumping action from muscle movement to deliver oxygen and remove toxins. Over time, your back squishes out all the juice and you’re at risk for herniation and cracked outer annulus, where the nerves are, and your lethargic circulatory system doesn’t bring as much oxygen to your brain, and your body stores calories as the unhealthy kind of fat rather than burning them to stabilize the spine and legs and strengthen the balancing muscles. Truck drivers are one of the number one suffers of back pain, followed closely by nurse’s aides, who work on their feet but bend their backs to reach over gernies to move patients or change bedsheets, restricted from bending at the knees because of the gernies and sending huge spikes of forces through their lower back every time. Office workers are next. I’m unsure what happens to the toxins that build up in our legs while sitting, but sitting for long periods each day has overwhelmingly been shown to, statistically, drastically increase the chances back pain, diabetes, and, not surprisingly, obesity. Anyone who’s sat crammed between strangers on a long airplane ride sees that. Even The Buddha talked about it, something he realized simply by observing his mind over time, advising against sitting far from the ground and trying to maintain an upright posture with crossed legs, which adjusts the forces and is much more relaxing for your back and mind in the long term.

Sitting is today’s smoking, they say, but no one’s ever listened to them. But I wasn’t about to start preaching about the risks of either. Smoking was banned on planes in the late 70’s, and I didn’t want to discuss the risks of chairs to the chubby people sitting on either side of me during the long leg of flight between San Diego and Orlando. Besides, we had reruns of Seinfeld and at least 300 other shows to watch on the backs of our seats, and I had noise-canceling earbuds and things to read on my iPhone. I don’t know if they smoked, but they laughed a lot at Seinfeld and seemed like nice enough people on a vacation to Disney.

Maybe I was just grumpy after a long series of flights, squished between different groups people on each leg. I thought that could be what led me to worrying about Wendy. That made sense, I thought, and I figured I should relax and let my mind settle before thinking about her message any more. I tried to laugh about the situation, remembering that Uncle Kieth and my dad, who hadn’t spoken with Wendy in decades but saw her around town now and then, had both coincidentally told me that Wendy still had a nice ass, though they admitted no longer the finest in Baton Rouge. I’ve never known how to respond when they tell me things like that, so I try to laugh it off. Sometimes it works, but not that day. If anything would help, it would be live music and a Hemmingway dacquri on my first day in Havana. I was Wendy’s son, after all. At that thought, which at first made me smile, I realized that Hemmingway had put a shotgun to his head in Ketchum Idaho, after Kennedy’s embargo made him leave his home in Havana. I shook my head to knock loose the stickiness, and realized I had to stop ruminating about Wendy’s voice mail and start having fun.

I approached the bar and saw it was spacious and uncrowded, with standup bar that appealed to me and about a dozen wooden tables with six or so seats each, and only about a third of the seats taken. A six man band was standing between the bar and the open doors and were loud but good. They were young, dark skinned Cubans of probable Creole desent, and had a scuffed wooden stand up bass, relatively new congo drum set, three dented and tarnished brass horns, and an unremarkable acoustic six string guitar. There wasn’t a slide trombone, but that can be a good thing in a small bar. They were talented and played together well and all seemed to know how to play a small venue, putting less emphasis on the horns and more on the guitar and bass. The horns were pointed outside, like sirens beconing people to come inside, and it worked on me. I grew up wandering in and out of jazz clubs in New Orleans, and Havana had a similar feel and I instantly felt at home, and I felt some of the residual claustrophobia slide off me and settle into a puddle on the plaza’s cobblestone street, freeing me to walk inside the bar.

Happy hour was just beginning, and small bands were beginning to play to entice people inside after work. This wasn’t a tourist venue, thankfully; tourists are chatty. I walked past the band and stood at the bar a few feet from the young trumpet player. I rested a foot on the brass rail below the bar, which, a long time ago, people intuitively realized changes spinal loads beneficially, and the muscles from balancing pump blood up from your feet to get oxygen and keep your mind alert, especially if you alternate feet every now and then. And I have big feet, so there’s a lot of blood down there that pools and makes my brain stagnant if I didn’t move around a bit now and then.

Only about half of the patrons were focused on the band, but even those chatting or laughing moved their bodies to the beat, channeling the band’s vibes or vice versa. It should have been the perfect time for me to start happy hour, before the crowds arrived, but I caught myself sighing again. My mind had drifted back to Wendy and my aching back, and my posture had slouched. I realized I wasn’t helping the room’s energy; drastic measures would be necessary. I straightened myself, and kept an eye up for the young light skinned bartender to notice. He walked over and leaned forward and said something I didn’t understand, but I assumed and shouted over the band that I’d like a Hemingway daquiri and whatever local seafood tapas they had on special. I rotated my head to listen to what he said, but I couldn’t make out the words. I smiled enthusiastically at whatever he said and gave a “thumbs up” because details shouldn’t matter on vacation; I was renting the space, and supporting the venue, and realized I was beginning to think of my sabbatical as a vacation. It always took longer than you’d imagine.

The bartender brought out the daquairi within a few minutes, but the food took a bit longer. It was “calamar a la parilla,” grilled squid, cooked longer than ideal and toughened. But, my eyes lit up when I dipped them in the side of mojo sauce, packed with roasted garlic and a tang from what was probably freshly squeezed orange juice, and I sliced the next bite of squid thinly, and spread the mojo on thickly. I savored the next bite; the creamy mojo balances the chewy calamar enough to be enjoyable. The Hemingway daquiri was strong and good and I ordered another.

The placebo effect of the first daquiri had loosed my mind before the alcohol hit my brain, and about fifteen minutes into the second my body joined the party. I finally relaxed a bit, but my neck muscles were still tight and my lower back still ached, and I stretched while ostensibly moving to the music. It wasn’t hard. Cuban Funk seems to be made to move to, and even the private driver I had hired to take me from the airport to downtown had tapped his fingers on the steering wheel of his classic 1955 convertible as we cruised into town with the top down and the Buena Vista Social Club blaring on his upgraded stereo.

Of course I had heard of the Buena Vista Social Club, but there was more music worth discovering and I was anxious to listen to bands I hadn’t heard yet. I had a few ideas to prime the pump, because I’ve seen Cuba’s Cima Funk play with New Orleans’s Dumpstaphunk, with a ph, at Tipatinas with Trombone Shorty, two of the Neville brothers, and a few members of Galactic. Everyone was enthusiastic about the Afro-Cuban music scene, which is like the Pope saying he digs a preacher’s sermon in tour town. They planted a seed in my mind, and a week later it sprouted when I saw a few other Cuban and Carribbean bands at Lafayette’s Festival International, mostly from French speaking colonies, like Louisiana had been, and had been the focus of Lafayette’s international music festival that began, unfortunately, just as I left Louisiana. (Louisiana = France’s King Louis + Queen Anna). Several Carribbean bands had participated that year, and they overlapped with the Creole music in Cuba that I dug so much, especially with the congo drums.

The seed sprouted in Lafayette, but it bore fruit only because the Obama administration announced it was relaxing travel restrictions to Cuba with a new loophole, an ambiguously titled “entrepreneurship visa,” and it was of about a dozen existing loopholes, like journalism and academic research. Of course, most Americans just bypass a visa and fly from Canada or Mexico City, like Lee Harvey Oswald had attempted, or take a cruise from the Bahamas or Puerto Rico. Fidel himself took a boat from the Dominican Republic to infiltrate Cuba, and Cuba has a long history of not stamping passports of Americans. It wouldn’t have been difficult for me to get there any time – I even held a diplomatic passport for a while – but I never accepted that risk of visiting Cuba, because it never was really that important to me, and I was lucky to have a lot of seeds bearing fruit every year.

After Festival International, I saw a news blurb about the entrepreneurship loophole, and I quickly requested a visa; I was faculty of engineering at USD, and worked with a few national nonprofits facilitating entrepreneurship and STEAM in public schools, therefore I met the requirements and my visa was approved soon after I applied, a rarity in government bureaucracy. It was meant to be. Cristi called it all synchronicity.

As another coincidence, I remembered that Big Daddy had been in Cuba, because Martin Scorcese had just cast actors for his upcoming epic Hollywood film about Jimmy Hoffa and the mafia, The Irishman, based in Frank’s memoir and set around the time I was born. Craig Vincent was slotted to portray Big Daddy in a small role, and had reached out to Uncle Keith, the one who thinks Wendy has a nice ass, and my Aunt Janice, who had been a popular Homecoming Queen, just like her daughter would, researching it. Scorcese had raised more than a quarter of a billion dollars – that’s billion, with a B, more than I can fathom – from investors to recruit the most well known actors who would help sell the most tickets, at a time when they planned to release in theaters and then score a lucrative Netflix streaming contract. They hired old Scorcese standbys from decades of mafia films, like Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Ramano, and a host of other Goodfellas and Godfathers. Craig Vincent, who had starred in Casio as a big brute, would portray Big Daddy in a brief role. But, they were changing Big Daddy’s smooth southern accent to match Craig’s harsher, New York Italian accent, and Big Daddy would be known as Big Eddie in The Irishman, which was scheduled for release in theaters the summer of 2019; it would be released a bit late, in November, and would set Netflix streaming records, a business model I don’t understand as well as ticket sales, especially because, according to financial reports, Netflix looses money every month, something theaters probably couldn’t afford to do.

Craig researched his role by calling Kieth, whose full name is Byron Keith Partin and was easy to find because he’s president of Local #5 just like his uncle, Douglas Wesley Partin, had been, just like Doug’s big brother, Big Daddy, had been. The Partins have an unbroken line of elected leadership in the Teamsters since the 1950’s. Similarly, James Hoffa Junior, J.D., was the elected president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, like his dad had been from the 50’s up until Big Daddy sent him to the big house in the late 60’s. The memoir Scorcese bought the rights to, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” was a reference to secret mob lingo for painting walls red with splattered blood, had a lot more about about Big Daddy, Hoffa, Nixon, Audie Murphy, and, of course, President Kennedy, than the film would, because it’s hard to cram everything into a three and a half hour film, especially when, as Scorcese said, his film was made to sell tickets, not educate people.

Craig, who tried but couldn’t master Big Daddy’s southern drawl, even with Youtube clips available to hear it, had embraced the change in Big Daddy’s character to Big Eddie, and wanted to worry less about the accent and more about a seemingly simple question that not even Scorcese had asked: what were the characteristics and nuances of Big Daddy that allowed him to fool Hoffa, Hoover, Nixon, the Kennedy’s, and Audie Murphy? I don’t know for sure, but it seemed Craig was the only one who had read “I Heard You Paint Houses” instead of just memorizing his lines for a few minutes as Big Eddie, or glancing at Big Daddy’s Wikipedia page that had long since matched his role in The Irishman.

Craig had asked a good question, and one I had wished more people pondered every time a new book or film came out. I didn’t know how to explain it to him, so I simply quoted Mamma Jean, who had also been fooled, as explaining it by saying the devil can quote scripture.

Mamma Jean was been a well known hair stylist in Houston, based in an upper middle class suburban home Bobby Kennedy had arranged for her in exchange for not talking about Big Daddy publicly, and she spent her later years publishing cookbooks with her neighborhood’s church as fundraisers. She remembered every detail about each and every one of her clients and everyone at her church, nuances about their hair, names of their children and grandchildren, and everything they said over the decades. We never doubted a word she said. She was the first entrepreneur I remember. She can’t tell you how she was fooled, either.

Craig, incidentally, had grown up Catholic and coincidentally had his family had ties to the New Jersey mafia, and he knew a bit about Mamma Jean’s background from reading about her in a couple of books on Hoffa and Chief Justice Earl Warren’s comments about her secret income in Hoffa vs The United States, and Craig recognized her reference from the bible and, like everyone I ever knew, trusted Mamma Jean. That probably loosened his lips when we spoke.

Chatting with Craig on my earbuds in San Diego, when he was living in Miami, I mentioned Mamma Jean’s letter to us at the end of her life, he admitted that he had been diagnosed with Hairy Cell Luekemia, which is as terrifying as it sounds, but hadn’t updated his IMDB profile yet. I didn’t ask, but I assumed a film producer wouldn’t want to risk hiring an actor who may die half way through filming. Craig, whose mom had passed not too long before, said he had a small role among legendary actors and wanted to do his best, if only to honor his mom, and that’s why he was researching Big Daddy’s small role so thoroughly. I could relate, and we ended up chatting more about life, the universe, and everything than history from the 1970s.

I wasn’t aging well. I didn’t have Hairy Cell Leukemia, thankfully, but a VA review board had recently upped my disability to 65%, originally a lower percentage related to my hearing loss after the first Gulf war and a handful of other ailments from the explosions, chemical weapons, sandstorms, and months of smoke from burning oil fields. I’ve had mild asthma and sinusitus since then, a 10% disability rating and about $175 a month to splurge on things like ear buds and Hemmingway dacquiris. I didn’t know what I’d do with the $1,360.61 per month now that I scored a 65% rating, but a trip to Cuba was a start. My plane ticket had cost around $700, so I had cash to spare, and three months to use it while the VA dumped my monthly windfall into direct deposit.

About fifteen years before, the VA and two independent surgery centers had recommend bilateral hip replacements; all of my labrums are blown out and cysts of leaking synovial fluid surround the joints, and the few remaining chads of cartilage clinging to my hips and right shoulder complain a lot. Last year, the VA recommend C5/6 spinal fusion because I was developing radiculopothy in my right fingertips, though it turned out to be transient and hadn’t returned since, thankfully, so I felt fine climbing with the risk. I had neither surgery, just a few minor ones around fifteen years ago, for things like an abdominal hernia and to put bone screws in my ankle after I fell climbing fall and shattered the bones in what’s called a pylon fracture, named for the big wooden pylons you see at construction sites splitting and mushrooming at the top as big machines pound them into the ground. It hurt, both the landing and the surgery, and the recovery was long. There’s an 18% change that ankle will develop arthritis and require a fusion or artificial joint. My hernia was fine. Those surgeries had stemmed from emergency room visits, and I didn’t see better alternatives to either one with such short notice.

Ironically, the week of my ankle surgery, June 2010, one of my inventions was being showcased in New Orleans in front of 10,000 orthopedic surgeons and medical device company representatives at the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons: Active Compression Technology, ACT, screws with tiny Nitinol springs that adapted in situ to apply active compression and reduce small bone reoperation rates. I have three 7.5 mm Synthese stainless steel passive compression screws holding together my pylon fracture, which healed nicely, thanks to the VA’s chief of orthopedic surgery, who thankfully wasn’t at the AAOS meeting, and who thought the coincidence was as funny as I did. In lieu of of physical rehab, I cycled the coast and became a rock climbing guide for low level grades, slowly rebuilding strength one step up at a time. ACT was acquired by a small company bigger than the Lotus Medical LLC I had formed with a partner, Andrew K. Palmer, MD, a respected former president of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand, and ACT was changed to something that played on Andy’s name – wrist surgeries are done via the palmar approach – and those small companies had investors with millions of dollars and they hoped to be bought by a big corporation after they sponsored a few years of clinical trials to test if the extra $30 per screw was worthwhile. Passive Synthese screws cost $7 each, and the first rules of small bone startups is don’t compete with Sythese, but I was never good at following rules. Wendy would have agreed. So would Cristi. Mamma Jean, too, probably.

Andy’s doing well, and we chatted just before Cuba. He’s retired on Cape Cod, sailing most weekends in summer, and he and his wife foster babies and run a nonprofit thrift store called Kind Hearts for Kids that provides kids clothes, beds, and toys to foster families and struggling single parents. Neither of us has looked into the clinical results of ACT, or whatever it’s called now. Over the years, I’d brainstorm with him about my bigger injuries, and I’ve avoided more invasive, elective surgeries because the failure rates are high and recovery times long. I preferred to change my lifestyle to prioritize health and happiness without surgery, which meant time to sleep when I wanted; maintain relatively constant, moderate motion; and avoiding talking about religion or politics. I’m working on drinking less.

Like Craig Vincent and Mamma Jean, I was probably viewing life through an older lens with a wider perspective, hoping to make the most of time however I could, and to die without regrets. Maybe that’s what honoring your mother and father is all about. Craig agreed, but we could both be wrong.

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