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,” 1975
I landed in Havana on a 30 day entrepreneurship visa and was pondering my grandfather’s role in President Kennedy’s assassination when I first suspected Wendy would commit suicide; she wouldn’t, and I had no reason to suspect she would, but that was my first thought when I listened to her voice mail in the small Plaza de San Francisco de Asi, where I was told was the only place a gringo could get public WiFi, even in 2019.
I stopped listening and lowered my already outdated iPhone 8 and stared at the transcribed message that matched her words, but without the tone and nuances of her speech. I almost jumped back into the car that had dropped me off and returned to the airport and took the next flight to Fort Lauderdale and then New Orleans, where I could rent a car and drive two hours upriver to Wendy’s home in Sant Francisville; gut instincts can be wrong, so I reached in my backpack and pulled out my in my earbuds – or iBuds or whatever they’re called – and listened to her message again, looking for nuances that few, if any, people would notice or understand.
“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.”
“It’s not a big deal,” she said quickly and continued at a similar pace, clumping words so they almost sounded as one: “I’d just like to add Cindi as executor because you travel so much.”
Wendy was my mother, Wendy Anne Rothdram Partin. She had taught me to call her by her first name when I was in the Louisiana foster system and she was 16 years old and ashamed to be a single, uneducated mother who had married someone she said didn’t love her; on her monthly visit, she taught me to call her by her first name so people would think I was her little brother. She had become pregnant in the 11th grade the night she lost her virginity to Edward Grady Partin Junior, the Glen Oaks High School drug dealer. She couldn’t afford a $120 abortion, so she dropped out of school to marry my dad. They eloped to Woodville Mississippi, where my dad still had family and a couch to crash on, and where state laws didn’t require parental consent for a 16 year old girl to marry a 17 year old boy. They returned to Baton Rouge and lived in one of my grandfather’s suburban homes near the Achafalaya Basin and the Comite River Bridge. A year later, she had a small nervous breakdown and fled for a week. She returned, and my dad soon left with friends on a motorcycle trip to Miami, where they knew people and could take a boat to Jamaica to buy prescription opioids in bulk – probably obtained from new American offshore pharmaceutical manufacturing plants in Puerto Rico by a drug lord in Kingston – and she had another nervous breakdown and abandoned me at a day care center and fled to California with a young man she had just met at a coffee shop who was looking for a driving partner to split gas. That night, the daycare center began calling the emergency contacts Wendy had left, which included her classmate and friend Linda White, who’s father responded and took me home and called the police. Judge Pugh of the East Baton Rouge 19th Judicial District signed a piece of paper that assigned Mr. James “Ed” White, the custodian and landscaper of Glen Oaks, as my legal guardian, and I began living with Linda and her parents, whom I grew to call PawPaw and MawMaw. My parents returned on their own, Wendy filed for divorce, and they began a custody battle. PawPaw allowed her to take me around town once a month while she looked for work and found a place to live, and I spent some overnights with my dad at my grandfather’s home near the river. A year into my custody case, Judge Pugh allegedly committed suicide; he was replaced by Judge JJ Lottingger, who left thirty years of legislative law to become the Baton Rouge family court judge. He assumed my case in late summer of 1975, two months after Jimmy Hoffa vanished from a Detroit parking lot on 30 July 1975, and that’s not coincidental; at the time, my grandfather, Edward Grady Partin Senior – whom everyone in Baton Rouge called Big Daddy – and his immediate family were protected from legal prosecution as long as Hoffa was alive and trying to regain control of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Union. Lottingger had known Big Daddy well, and had spent almost 15 years under three governors trying to rid Louisiana of him. “I’m not going to let Edward Partin and his gangster hoodlum Teamsters run this state!” Governor McKeithen had proclaimed on the front page of the newspaper more than once, and Lottingger was McKeithen’s lead legal expert trying to change labor union laws and override Big Daddy’s federal protection that had begun by U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy after Bobby pulled Big Daddy from a Baton Rouge jail cell for, coincidentally, kidnapping kids of a fellow Teamster, and expunged his record; America didn’t know that, but everyone in Baton Rouge did. Bobby was assassinated in 1968, but the FBI’s Get Hoffa Task force was still overseeing Big Daddy, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who had died in 1972, had assigned federal marshalls to protect Big Daddy, my grandmother, Mamma Jean, and their five children, including my dad and me, Big Daddy’s second oldest grandkid (the oldest by ten months was safe in another state and with a new last name). I believe Lottingger intentionally stepped into the role of Baton Rouge’s only family court judge to help Wendy and defy the Partins; he coached Wendy for almost a year, and reversed Pugh’s decision and assigned me to her custody in September of 1976. But, I languished in system for another few years because both the Whites and my dad appealed, so my case went to another court and began the bureaucratic process again. Wendy persevered, and eventually won full custody in 1979, when she was 23 and I was 7 and just as my grandfather had finally went to prison. (Humorously, he was sentenced for stealing $450,000 from the Teamsters; the safe was found at the bottom of the murky Comite River by our house; the only two witnesses were found beaten and bloody, and the survivor refused to testify, so the charges of murder hand’t stuck). My dad, who takes after Big Daddy, refused to accept the judge’s decision. He demanded that Wendy let him take me out of state and live with him in Arkansas. She capitulated out of habit, and I began living with her in Baton Rouge during the school year and with my dad during summers and holidays in a cabin about 30 miles into the woods from the small town of Clinton, helping him grow fields of marijuana deep in the Ozark mountains. We were arrested in 1985 by the Clinton sheriff and about 20 deputized men armed with hunting rifles, and my dad went to federal prison in 1986 for “cultivation of a controlled substance” during President Reagan’s war on drugs. I was a minor, so the deputies let me return to Louisiana. I began living with Wendy full time for the first time in my life at age 13. (Coincidentally, Big Daddy was released from an east Texas federal prison that same summer, and returned to Baton Rouge when his brother and son, uncles Doug and Keith, were still running Teamsters Local #5.) Wendy had spent most of the 80’s distancing herself from their names because, as she kept saying, the Partins drover her crazy, and she set her sites on moving to her favorite little community with cute antique shops and B&B’s: Saint Francisville. She had another nervous breakdown in 1989, when I was 16, and I petitioned the latest family court judge of East Baton Rouge Parish, Judge Robert “Bob” Downing, for emancipation from her so that I could become detached from her ups and downs. He knew Lottingger and my case well, and had been following the news about Big Daddy since he returned from prison early; Downing, whom I called Judge Bob, signed a piece of paper that gave me the rights of a legal adult. I immediately joined the army’s delayed entry program and opted for the GI Bill, planning to leave Louisiana and attend college in a state where no one knew my name. Eight months later, on 11 May 1990, Big Daddy died, and once again was national news that led to Wendy withdrawing again. I graduated high school a month later without seeing her, left for a summer road trip with a friend, then left Louisiana for basic training. On 03 August 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the army’s quick reaction force, the 82nd Airborne, landed and began what would become the first Gulf war. I went to war while Wendy had been in a pit of depression, something for which she never forgave herself. But, the war was the impetus for us reconnecting as adults, and we learned to laugh about it: a favorite joke of Wendy’s was saying she was born WAR, but marring a Partin had WARPed her, and that’s why she started drinking. Twenty nine years later, I was living in San Diego, coincidentally where Wendy had fled after abandoning me almost half a century before, but my lifestyle led me to traveling often and I always held a fondness for New Orleans and jazz music. Wendy would meet me there for brunch, and sometimes I’d rent a car and drive two hours upriver to make jokes about our crazy lives in the 80’s while sipping mimosas on her back porch. We had developed relationship as close as we were able given our lack of time together when I was an infant, but we had a unique bond that included laughing over brunch and making jokes about our last name. But, old habits are hard to break, and I still called my mother Wendy.
“And I thought…,” she said, but paused with her next word trapped in her mouth.
I held my breath during the pause that lasted as long as two breaths would have been, and I caught a whiff of a sound that I thought was her taking a deeper breath, mustering the courage to let loose the words trapped inside of her. I rewound the message – an archaic term from cassettes I still use in my head – to lean in and listen. That subtle sound in the pause had triggered my dread. It was so subtle that the transcription I read on my iPhone didn’t register it. After listening twice with my earbuds and their noise-canceling software that dulled the din of downtown Havana and the live music wafting from the bars lining Plaza de San Francisco de Asi, I wasn’t sure if there were really a sound, or if my mind placed one in the pause, so I listened to the rest of the message again to see if something else had triggered my reaction.
“It’s not important. Call me back when you can.”
There was another pause, and a barely noticeable sigh; it was an audible sound, unlike the whiff, but the transcription software had missed it.
“Tell Cristi I said hello, and I hope y’all are enjoying San Diego,” she said quickly. She was trying to sound upbeat, and her tone was forced.
“If I miss you,” she finished, “Have fun in Cuba and we’ll talk when you get back.”
Wendy had called about her will several times over the past ten or fifteen years, and every time she used the same brisk cadence. It was always after drinking a bottle or two of Chardonnay alone, which she had been doing every day for almost fifteen years, timed with something happening that led her to feeling sad. Usually, one of the dogs she fostered from the West Feliciana Parish humane society had found a home; she cried every time. A year before, it was when her little fluffy dog of fourteen years had passed. I don’t know how many fostered dogs it takes to heal a heart guilty for having your child put into the foster system, but Wendy had spent twenty years trying and still wasn’t close.
My head hurt, my back ached, and I was wound up from sitting in confined spaces next to chatty people. It was the first day of what I planned to be a three month sabbatical, a month in Cuba thanks to President Obama’s new visa to promote entrepreneurship (whatever that means), and two months of hopping around Caribbean islands, climbing and diving and following any leads about my grandfather’s time there in the 1950’s and 60’s. Separately, I wanted to learn where my dad had visited in 1973. Like in Woodville, the name Ed Partin name opened doors throughout southern American ports and small islands. One of my favorite examples was Frank Chavez, the Teamster leader of Puerto Rico, who, after Bobby Kennedy was assassinated and Jimmy Hoffa put out the word about Big Daddy, publicly proclaimed, “I’m gonna fuckin’ kill Edward Partin!” Frank was murdered by his body guard almost immediately after, and the new Puerto Rican president knew Big Daddy well, and I never found evidence that he uttered a negative word about the Partin family; he retired peacefully.
My grandfather was Edward Grady Partin Senior, former leader of the Woodville Mississippi sawmill union and president of Teamsters Local #5 since 1957. He was famous for being pulled from jail by Bobby Kennedy to infiltrate Hoffa’s inner circle, and testifying that Hoffa tried to bribe a jury in the relatively minor Test Fleet Case. Big Daddy’s surprise testimony about a minor, state level case convicted America’s most powerful and famous man not a Kennedy for the federal crime of jury tampering, punishable by 11 years in prison. Hoffa and an expensive team of lawyers that represented the International Teamsters and most major mafia families appealed Big Daddy’s testimony all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in a nationally followed case, Hoffa vs The United States, but only Chief Justice Earl Warren dissented, so Hoffa was found guilty and sentenced to eight years in prison based solely on Big Daddy’s word, and a separate charge brought up later added a few more years. During the appeals, Bobby created a media image of his only witness by showcasing Big Daddy and his children – my dad, Uncle Kieth, Aunts Janice, Cynthia, and Theresa – as being all-American heroes and standing up to union corruption. All criminal cases, like the kidnapping, a few manslaughters, several thefts, and, ironically, perjury to a jury, were hidden from the public. Separately, and to the defiance of the FBI overseeing him, Big Daddy was being indicted as a possible suspect in President Kennedy’s 22 November 1963 assassination in the only trial for anyone involved.
The world knew the basics: Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly shot and killed President Kennedy from the 6th floor of the Dallas schoolbook wharehouse using a 6.5mm Italian army surplus carbine outfitted with a hunting scope by a Dallas gunsmith. Oswald had been born in New Orleans, joined the army, and then defected to the Soviet Union. He married a Russian woman and they had a son, and the FBI inexplicably paid for their return to New Orleans, where Oswald took odd jobs and spent time promoting pro-Castro and socialist reform, and training in the Baton Rouge civil air force under the alias Harvey Lee. A month before Kennedy’s death, Oswald got a job at the Dallas book wharehouse. A few minutes after Kennedy was shot, Oswald was caught leaving a movie theater and he shot and killed the unsuspecting officer, J.D. Tippet. Oswald was apprehended by the Dallas police, and Kennedy was pronounced dead less than two hours after being shot. Forty eight hours later, Oswald was handcuffed and being led out of the police station by approximately 20 officers on live international television, when Jack Ruby, a low level mafia runner and night club owner known by the police walked to within a few feet of Oswald and pulled a .38 Colt revolver from his pocket, and using the old mafia method of shooting from the hip by pointing the barrel with your forefinger and pulling the trigger with your middle finger, Ruby shot and killed Oswald. Ruby was arrested and convicted of first degree murder, and died from lung cancer in prison two years later. Oswald was never tried, because the American system does not try deceased people, but the 1964 Warren Report proclaimed that Oswald had acted when he shot and killed Kennedy, and Ruby acted alone when he shot and killed Oswald.
But, according to New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, who prosecuted New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw and ignited the widespread belief that American CIA and FBI had been involved in Kennedy’s death, Big Daddy was the main suspect seen driving both Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald around New Orleans. Garrison said a black and white photograph of Big Daddy and Ruby in New Orleans the summer before Kennedy died proved the association with Ruby, and there was speculation that Oswald trained in the Baton Rouge civil air force near my grandmother’s house under the alias Harvey Lee. It was public knowledge that Ruby had known Hoffa, because he had called Hoffa and visited New Orleans in the months leading up to President Kennedy’s death and that was part of the Warren Report’s investigation, but the witnesses linking Ruby to Big Daddy vanished and the photo was never seen again, and the connection to Oswald was invalidated speculation. Garrison’s indictment failed, and Big Daddy faded into history. He resurfaced again in 1992, two years after his death, when President Bill Clinton released the classified 1979 JFK and Martin Luther King Assassination Report, which reversed the Warren Report and said Kennedy was probably killed as part of a conspiracy, and that the three main suspects of orchestrating the assassination were Jimmy Hoffa, New Orleans mafia boss Carlos Marcello, and Miami mafia boss Santos Traficante Junior. A basis for suspecting Hoffa was a 1962 FBI report from ten months before John F. Kennedy’s death, claiming Hoffa and Big Daddy plotted to kill US Attorney General Bobby Kennedy with plastic explosives (that part was well known, and was covered in a 1964 Life article focused on both the newly appointed President Johnson and his family in Washington DC and Big Daddy and my family in Baton Rouge, headlining “Inside Hoffa’s savage kingdom, portraying Big Daddy as having saved Bobby’s life at the risk of his own) but adding the part that had remained classified until 1992, that Hoffa and Big Daddy also plotted to kill the president’s brother, US Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, by recruiting a sniper with a high powered rifle and scope to shoot Kennedy as he rode through a southern town with the top down in his convertible; the south was chosen for being warm convertible-riding weather, and because so many people in the south were vocal opponents of Kennedy and the democratic party, therefore alliances would be easier to find and evidence easier to conceal. The similarities between plots to kill Bobby and what happened to the president were remarkable, but by that time Big Daddy had been dead for two years, Hoffa had been missing for 15 years, and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who had overseen the 1962 investigation, had died in 1972, so no one was left alive who could discuss what had happened, at least for the parts of the report Clinton had released.
Thousands of books and dozens of films and television series popped up in the 80’s, but the release of the JFK and Martin Luther King Junior assassination report skyrocketed conspiracy theories. Oliver Stone’s 1992 film based on Garrison’s trial rose to the top, and about 10 million voters saw it in theaters during the 1992 presidential election and demanded that whichever candidate won release the classified 1979 report. Nothing changed that would improve our system, and soon films and television media was portraying consolidated caricatures of former caricatures who had been based on real people: Zeroxes of Zeroxes of a faxed document. Today, most people know the fiction that’s been portrayed more than the history that had happened.
By 2017, Martin Scorcese had obtained the rights to a 2014 memoir, I Heard You Paint Houses, where former Teamster leader and mafia hitman Frank “The Irishman” Sheenan claimed to have killed Hoffa and seen aspects of the mafia preparing to kill Kennedy; Scorcese had raised $257 Million to fund a film with a gaggle of actors famous for having portrayed mafia men over the decades, men like Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Rae Ramano. The burly actor Craig Vincent from Scorcese’s Casino film – starring DeNiro and Pesci – would portray Big Daddy; DeNiro would be Frank Sheenan; Pacino would be Jimmy Hoffa, Pesci would be Russel Bufalino (the Pennsylvania mob boss), and Romano would be Bill Bufalino (the coincidentally named attorney who was one of the lawyers represented Hoffa and the mob). Scorcesse said he was simplifying the book into a film for entertainment, and Big Daddy’s role was shrunk and his accent changed to be “Big Eddie” Partin, an Italian guy who infiltrated Hoffa’s inner circle. But, Craig wanted to be as authentic as possible, and he had reached out to my family in 2018 to research his small role by first calling Uncle Keith, who had stepped into Big Daddy’s role and become president of Teamsters Local #5. My aunts and I spoke to him later, and after talking with him I was inspired to pick up where I had left off around fifteen years before: finding out what parts of family lore were true, and learning how involved Big Daddy had been in Kennedy’s death and growing Castro’s militia.
Over the years I researched Hoffa and Kenndy, I learned that Wendy’s nervous breakdowns may have been warranted. When she met my dad, Big Daddy was still portrayed a national hero by Bobby Kennedy and Hoover in Life and Look! magazines and in a few rare news interviews. In Louisiana, Big Daddy’s criminal background was known and celebrated. He ran the local Teamsters, and brought in work, industries, and a sense of flare to the capital city of Baton Rouge. Three governors had tried to prosecute him, which is how the former legislative attorney Judge JJ Lottingger knew him so well. Publicly, Hoffa’s attorneys had begun shedding the light on Big Daddy to discredit Bobby’s only witness, and Hoffa publicly offered $100,000 to anyone who could find evidence that would stick. Privately, he told his attorneys, Bill Buffalino and Frank Ragano, both of whom also represented Marcello and Traficante, that Hoffa would forgive $121 Million of debt to all American mafia families if anyone could do anything to get Big Daddy to change his testimony. If the only witness died, Hoffa reiterated again and again, Hoffa would have to spend fifteen years in prison. But, if someone, somehow, influenced Big Daddy to either change his testimony or sign an affidavit saying that Bobby Kenendy had used illegal prosecution methods, thereby invalidating Hoffa’s conviction, all debt would be forgiven and Hoffa would return to lending the families money from the $1 Billion Teamster pension fund. Obviously, Big Daddy knew that signing anything would be a death warrant, and his best bet was to do nothing and let Hoffa sit in prison.
$121 Million was a lot of money back then, and low level mafia hitmen began showing up in Baton Rouge, threatening, kidnapping, and beating leaders in Big Daddy’s Teamsters and anyone in the phone book named Partin. I’m not an expert on mafia hitmen, but I assume most could read or at least knew someone who could, and there were only about a dozen Partins in the phone book: Wendy and I lived in the house listed under Edward Partin. Several of the houses on our street caught fire and a car blew up, and the news reported that one of Doug’s homes exploded. Doug and another Teamster leader, Dudhom, were beaten so badly that Doug was put in the hospital, and Doug’s son, Donald, was in a wreck that left him paralyzed; though never proved, he claimed it was Marcello’s men who ran him off the road when he was driving drunk (most of us assume he wrecked himself). When Wendy abandoned me, she was a young girl with a crying baby, absentee and drug dealing husband, and an inexplicable number of accidents and job refusals and creepy men lurking around our home. She didn’t know any of the back story about the mafia; even Chief Justice Earl Warren didn’t, and few people would until 1992 and the onslaught of books and media that followed by anyone remotely associated with Kennedy and Hoffa who tried to cash in on the momentum. In hindsight, it’s no wonder she had a nervous breakdown; what’s more remarkable is that she returned and kept fighting.
I had been thinking about my Partin family history on the flight, and Judge Pugh had been on my mind when I landed in Havana. I had been re-reading my custody reports on the airplane ride to Cuba, looking for hints of clues that may have been unknowingly included in my custody records. Big Daddy was known to kidnap kids and kill people who got in his way or did anything he didn’t like, and part of me wondered if he had orchestrated Pugh’s demise after Pugh removed me from my dad’s custody. I don’t think so, but I was tired from the flight and re-reading my childhood history, and when I’m tired I don’t always think clearly.
I may have overreacted the first time I listened to her voice mail, I told myself. I didn’t hear anything unusual with my earbuds. She was probably just drunk; she had been opening her first bottle earlier and earlier each day over the past few years. Maybe she was calling because Liam, her big and goofy and grey haired golden retriever had passed away, leaving her wallowing with a case of wine; she probably wouldn’t even remember having called me, nor would she be coherent if I called her back.
I was holding my phone and lost in thought when I realized I was mindlessly fingering the long sliver of a scar on the back of my head, feeling the raised ridges from sutures that formed a giant backwards letter C about a finger width thick: a habit I had had since I was a kid. In 1976, just before Judge JJ returned my custody to Wendy, an 8 foot heavy metal gate fell on me and sliced my head open PawPaw’s sprawling rural back yard near Glen Oaks High. When I was four years old and recovering in the children’s ward of Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, he told me the doctors added a second brain, which is why I was so smart. He said that I had so much more smarts in my head than anyone else, that the doctor needed to put 82 stitches in my scalp to hold in all those smarts. That wasn’t true, of course. Most doctors put 1-2 stitches per centimeter on a scalp wound, and when I count the raised ridges from skin being pulled tautly it adds up to around 30 stitches, though I didn’t learn that until I worked with medics in the military who told me 82 was too many. The number stuck in my head, because as a kid I used to show off the scar, telling everyone I had 82 stitches and not being surprised when their single-brains didn’t believe me. When I went to live with Wendy, she viewed the scar as a reminder of my time in the foster system and of all the accidents that plagued us when she was a young girl, and she taught me to hide it with long, awkward, mullet haircuts and baseball caps. I grew self-conscious whenever my scar showed, and my hand would find its way to the scar and remind myself that I was a smart kid who was lucky to have had doctors and PawPaw tell me I was smart. Of course, the army shaved my head the first day of basic training, and in almost every military school I attended my first nickname would usually be Scarhead, taken from the 1980’s Oliver Stone film staring Pacino as the Miami mobster Scarface. (Invariably, my nickname would settle on Dolly, because most people outside of Louisiana pronounce my last name like the country singer Dolly Parton, not like the way PawPaw did: Pah’tan.) By the time I was a paratrooper, I had nothing to be self conscious about, and the habit faded away like names from history. But, sometimes, when I’m feeling cooped up and my mind races, or when I’m so fatigued that I revert back to the oldest habits of my life still lingering in my subconscious, I find myself fingering my scar and feeling better because PawPaw told me it was special, and so was I.
In the years leading up to my Cuba trip, a bald spot had been growing atop my head. The backwards C now looked more like a semicolon; when my fingertips reached the top end, I felt the bald but unscarred skin atop my head and realized how fatigued I must be. I lowered my hand, corrected my posture by standing upright, and took a few breaths. I glanced around the plaza to see if I had been mindless long enough to attract attention. Small groups of young Cubans just getting off work were peering in bars and chatting about where they’d go, and some people were staring down at their phones. No one seemed to notice anything.
Despite the smart phone in my hand, I rotated my left wrist and glanced at my 30+ year old solar powered Seiko dive watch. The technology was cutting edge back then; it hadn’t needed a battery changed or to be wound in three decades, and the charge from an average day lasted six months. But, the plastic parts oxidize and have been known to break unexpectedly, so I replace the thick black corrugated band before every sabbatical. (One of the most dangerous things about deep wreck diving is nitrogen narcosis, which makes you mindless, and many skilled divers have lost their lives when a piece of gear they were mentally attached to slipped off and they automatically followed it to irrecoverable depths.) I had replaced the band at San Diego’s Just-in-Time on Tuesday, and it was still on Pacific Standard Time. I could call Wendy back before she passed out that evening.
I sighed, and dropped gaze dropped from my phone to my two big feet. I craved a beer. I adjusted the time on my watch to delay making a decision.
I sighed again, took a few deep breaths, and tried calling Wendy. As usual, her cell phone wasn’t getting reception. She didn’t answer her land line (another archaic word in my head, used for old home phones and for a line of wire hastily stretched across the ground between positions, to use in lieu of radio or light signals; any signal can be intercepted and decoded, or triangulated to locate the sender). I sent a text and an email letting her know I had already arrived in Cuba. I chuckled to lighten the tone, and said that that the cell reception in Havana was worse than at her place, and that I’d only be able to check messages when I came back to Havana every week or two, but to text or email me if it were important. I said I’d stay in Havana longer, if necessary, so we could schedule a time to speak. If it were urgent, I said, tell Cristi and she would know how to reach me.
Coincidentally, I added, chuckling, 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. She volunteered at the West Feliciana Parish humane society just outside of St. Francisville and had fostered dozens of dogs over the years, and the fastest way to cheer her up was to get her thinking about her dogs. I reiterated that I’d check messages when I could, and added a perfunctory “I love you.”
I left a voice with Cristi, saying I arrived safely and that the WiFi was less than I had expected, so I would be mostly offline. I slowed my speech and articulated more than my southern accent usually does, and told her I had received an ambiguous message from Wendy and asked if she could look into it; but, I avoided mentioning the coincidence about St. Francis, because Cristi would have focused on the coincidence and called it synconicity, and I wanted to emphasize that I was worried without saying it explicitly; I’d tell stories when I was home and could share her reaction. Cristi was used to gaps of contact, and had been ever since we were in middle school and I left for summer vacations with my dad. That pattern continued with the first Gulf war, where I was gone for most of 1990-1991, and my time with the 82nd Airborne – the 82 that I will forever associate with PawPaw – when I was a paratrooper on the quick reaction forces of President Bush Senior and President Clinton and we would deploy with two hours notice and often be gone for weeks to months at a time without contact. After Clinton released the 1992 JFK report, I was reviewed for a secret clearance and given a diplomatic passport to spend six months of 1993 in the Middle East with the Multinational Force and Observers, a program created in 1979 by former President Carter in 1979, the first president to see the JFK and Martin Luther King Junior Assassination Report and decide to keep it classified; another case of syncronicity, according to Cristi, just like The Irishman being promoted just as I was going to Cuba. She’d get a kick out of the part about the plaza de San Francisco de Asi.
When not on sabbatical, most of my time was spent teaching or running small startup companies. I had followed through with my promise to Judge Bob Downing and used the GI Bill to attend college for engineering. I ran an innovation lab at The University of San Diego’s Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering, and led a few project-based classes in engineering, physics, and entrepreneurship at USD, UCSD, and a few inner city schools and refugee centers in the 90,000 person community of City Heights near USD; that’s how I was eligible for Obama’s entrepreneurship loophole for visiting Cuba. Every year, I took off a few months for sabbatical; my lifestyle hadn’t hanged much since childhood, and for almost twenty years I alternated between running medical device startup companies and leading classes. When I was between companies, usually exhausted after a year of intense focus, I spent about two to three months offline in remote countries, just like I had in the military, and just like I had with my dad when we grew weed in the Ozarks every summer. It’s not as rare as it sounds; I had read that 2,600 years ago, even The Buddha took off a few months a year to wander where no one knew his name, and Cristi’s fond of pointing out that Indiana Jones was a college professor who took off on adventures every year. There’s something refreshing about immersing somewhere foreign and relying on wits and kindness from strangers, and it always humbled me to remind myself how much easier entrepreneurship was in America, where we had enforceable patent laws; relatively easy access to libraries, the internet, and seed funding; a culture that embraced risk; and abundant mentors. I always tried to envision what I’d do in the countries I visited, and invariably I returned realizing how lucky I was to have been born in America and had the GI Bill, and that gratitude invigorated my research and work in biotech. Traveling led me to remaining in academia, like Indiana Jones, and working with refugees who were probably smarter or harder working than anyone with 82 stitches in their head but weren’t as lucky as I’ve been.
My circle knew I wouldn’t answer messages until I returned home. Wendy knew, too, but kept forgetting when I was supposed to leave because she had been a bit buzzed every time we had spoken for the past few years. The time zone difference between St. Francisville and San Diego was two hours, so it was only 2pm my time by 4pm her time, and by the end of my day she was so schnockered that there was no point in calling back.
I looked up, hung up the phone, and sighed again. I took out my earbuds and held them, inhaled deeply, and exhaled forcibly. I glanced at my watch; it had been less than a minute since I began pondering what to do. I could still beat the happy hour crowd. I had a few minutes left on the WiFi card. Would Wendy call back? Should I get another WiFi card and wait?
No. It had been too many years of too many nervous breakdowns. I was on vacation – or sabbatical or whatever it’s called – and had been fatigued from the long plane ride, so I was probably overreacting. I had spent the flight reading old court reports, family letters, and The Irishman (the book was republished and renamed to match Scorcese’s film promotions) so my mind was trapped in the past. I overreacted, I reiterated to myself. She’d be fine.
I sighed. I was tired and wanted a drink. I was Wendy’s son, after all, and all habits are hard to break.
I made a decision, opened my Lonely Planet guide book, and called a couple of casa particulars I had circled before leaving San Diego. My visa required not using government owned businesses in the state-run Cuban economy, so I had rented a driver with a private car at the airport and would only stay in casa particulars. I had circled some that sounded relatively spacious, because I’m slightly claustrophobic and didn’t want a windowless room with only one door, which is common in most big cities. I spent precious WiFi minutes calling and chatting in Spanglish until I confirmed which had a room with two doors; they said the room had a main door facing the kitchen and a glass door opening onto a center courtyard, and I told them I’d be there after dinner. I hung up and sent a burst message to my circle. (“Burst” was once an encrypted scramble between synchronized frequency-hopping radios in a single-integrated network, ground-and-airborne radio system, the most advanced communications technology known; now burst messages are accomplished by typing a list of names in the “bcc” line of a free email account.) I used the final minutes of my WiFi telling Wendy I was staying in Havana a few days, but would be offline for at least a day. I reiterated that I hoped to speak to her before I went deeper into the country and wouldn’t have cell coverage.
Out of minutes, I put my phone and earbuds into my backpack, a sun faded black carryon backpack with two squat, black XXL Force Fins strapped to the outside. Inside, I had squeezed in a pair of 14W leather rock climbing shoes, stretched from use in the cracks of Joshua Tree and a perfect fit. I’m only 5’11”, so I can borrow or rent most gear, but I can never find fins or shoes when traveling. I adjusted my old LSU baseball cap that Cristi graciously called “vintage,” stood upright, adjusted the hip strap on my backpack to take the load off my shoulders, and scanned the perimeter for a bar and grill with big open windows facing the plaza. I saw something promising venue, a shaded northern facing fascade with double doors wide open and a six-man band standing between the doors and a stand-up bar. A chalkboard with handwritten words said they served mariscos del dia, but without my glasses I couldn’t make out what it was today. I was surprised, because it wasn’t nearly as crowed as you’d imagine. I glanced at my watch habitually, like opening the refrigerator again after having just checked inside, and reminded myself that it was almost happy hour, but not yet. Some people still had to work, I said in my head. I sighed a pleasant sigh, ready to begin vacation, and casually strolled to the bar, trying to hide the limp from tight hips and long plane rides. I smiled at how my limp would be the least noticeable thing about me in Cuba as long as I wore Force Fins and a vintage LSU baseball cap; I’d leave them at the Casa tomorrow, but at that moment all I wanted to worry about was a Hemmingway dacquiri and whatever was mariscos del dia, hoy.
In 2020 hindsight, I wish I had gotten back into the car and taken a plane home, but of course we never know when the words we say or hear will be the last thing we say or hear. Wendy would pass away from liver failure six weeks later, on 05 April 2019, in a hospital only a few miles from where PawPaw said I got my smarts sewed up in my head by 82 stitches; she had been on the transplant list for three years, but I hand’t known. Less than a year later, in 2020 and during the Covid-19 pandemic, Uncle Doug would pass away in a Mississippi veterans home. I never got around to mentioning to either that I was in Cuba hoping to write a book about Big Daddy and his part in history. The words that follow are a narrative memoir about having grown up knowing Edward Grady Partin Senior, a big man with a remarkable part in history. I’m Jason Partin, and this is my small part in his story; it’s dedicated to my mom, Wendy Anne Rothdram Partin.
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