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 had just landed in Cuba 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 reaction when I listened to her voice mail while 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 a sun faded black carry-on backpack with short black scuba fins strapped to the outside, stretching and listening to voice mail by pressing an outdated iPhone 8 tightly against my left ear while poking my right forefinger into my other ear. My head hurt, my back ached, and I was wound up from sitting in confined spaces and more than one chatty person on a long series of flights from San Diego to Havana. It was the first evening of what I planned to be a three month sabbatical, a month in Cuba thanks to Obama’s loophole to promote entrepreneurship (whatever that means), followed by two months of bouncing around Caribbean islands without an agenda; I hoped to see reggae in Jamaica, and I knew that Chali 2Na was throwing a small music festival on St. John as part of local business fundraisers for 2017’s Hurricane Irma. (I’m from Louisiana, which was still recovering from 2005’s Katrina; I have a soft spite for fundraisers, friends in St. John, and a fundraiser on St. John with Chali 2Na and G-Love was worth planning ahead, even if Special Sauce couldn’t make it.) I had planned on jumping off the plane, checking messages from my circle once, and sending a burst that I had arrived safely and would be offline for at least a month. A few knew how to contact me to get home as soon as possible, and I was only half-heartedly listening to messages that were mostly wishing me safe travels. I was stretching and glancing at the bars, taking it all in and looking for outdoor seats or a at least a window. I could still hear the din of downtown traffic as the workday ended, a hint of waves crashing on the melecon, and the feel more than the sound of live music wafting from bars circling the small plaza. I was looking forward to beginning my sabbatical, but, when I heard Wendy’s voice, I slowly stood upright, stared at the phone in my hand, and wondered what to do.
I almost called her right then. Gut instincts can be wrong, so I put in my earbuds and listened to her message again, leaning in and looking for nuances that few, if any, other people would have noticed or understood.
“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.”
She usually rushed words after a few glasses of wine, imagining no one would notice her sluggishness if she picked up the pace. She had called about her will several times over the past ten or fifteen years. Every time, she used the same brisk cadence, and it was always during happy hour.
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 only 16 years old. When I was an infant, she abandoned me after my father, Ed Partin Junior, left town with a group of his motorcycle friends to buy a literal ton of opioids in either Cuba or Jamaica, and Judge Pugh of the East Baton Rouge Parish 19th Judicial District family court removed me from their custody and placed me with legal guardians. Wendy was ashamed of her situation, and taught me to call her by her first name when she took me around town once a month looking for work, hoping people would assume I was her little brother. She spent seven years fighting my dad and foster family to regain custody, and eventually won. Old habits are hard to break, and I still called my mother Wendy.
“And I thought…,” she said. I took two breaths in the pause… “It’s not important. Call me back when you can.”
There was another pause, and a sigh as subtle as the b in subtle. I doubt most people would have noticed.
“Tell Cristi I said hello, and I hope y’all are enjoying San Diego,” she said quickly.
Most people listening would say she forced her tone to seem upbeat.
“If I miss you,” she finished, “Have fun in Cuba and we’ll talk when you get back.”
I rewound the message – an archaic term for cassette answering machines that I still say in my head – and listened two more times. After she said, “And I thought…” I held my breath and leaned in to the silence. I may have heard something, but I wasn’t sure. I thought I heard a hint of “I…” arising, but fading without manifesting, as if she had caught herself before sharing more.
I sighed. Despite the smart phone in my hand, I rotated my left wrist and glanced at the 30 year old solar powered Seiko dive watch, modified to be a satellite pager. The technology was cutting edge back then. It hadn’t needed a battery changed or to be would up in three decades, and I’ve been impressed by small solar cells ever since. The plastic parts oxidize and can break unexpectedly, so I replace the thick black corrugated band before every sabbatical, especially one where I would be wreck diving, where you’re deep and sluggish and could mindlessly follow a falling piece of gear to unsafe depths. I had replaced the band at San Diego’s Just-in-Time on Sunday and landed in Havana on Tuesday, and the watch was still on Pacific Standard Time. I did the math; I could call Wendy back before she passed out that evening.
I sighed, hung up the phone, and rotated the side knob on my watch to adjust the time. I ignored the date, which cycled from 1 to 31 and had to either be adjusted or confirmed once a month, and I never could remember how many days were in each month, especially February in a leap year. I wouldn’t need to know the date for almost a month, unless I changed plans and flew to New Orleans, rented a car, and drove to Wendy’s home two hours upriver. The iPhone would wake up four days before my visa ended, and remind me that I had a plane to catch. I should have been leaping into vacation mode.
I avoid eye contact when something’s on my mind, just like Wendy. I had moved away from Louisiana almost thirty years before, but some mannerisms stick with you no matter where you go or how long had passed. If I had seen her leaving the voice mail, I’m sure she would have been alone in her kitchen, which overlooked double French doors and her small duck pond. Her kitchen would have been spotless – she always did dishes after cooking – and she would have been leaning against the island, looking towards the long living room towards her bookshelf and the other set of French doors overlooking a rare Louisiana hill and privately shielded from the golf coarse by a thick two acres of pine forest. She’d feel lonely, and call me out of habit. When she left her message, she’d be looking down at her feet, with an empty bottle of wine on her counter, and rubbing Liam’s fuzzy and greying golden retriever ears. I’d be lucky if she were half focused on what she wanted to say.
I was Wendy’s last surviving relative, except for a few distant cousins in Canada and great-Aunt Mary, Granny’s sister (who would pass away in Toronto during Covid, at age 96). I was the only person left on Earth who knew Wendy’s history and mannerisms. She had only left Louisiana three times in thirty years: our scuba trip to Cancun in 1995, a flight to Canada to visit Aunt Mary in the early 2000’s, and once to visit San Diego in 2006. On each trip, she developed a new, favorite joke.
In San Diego, she’d begin with what’s the difference between the San Diego zoo and the Baton Rouge zoo? She’d giggle, stumble over the punchline, back up, and eventually say: The San Diego cages have descriptions of the animals, the Baton Rouge zoo has recipes! In Toronoto, it was: Do you know how Aunt Mary spells Canada? (Giggle, back up, start again) C-eh-N-eh-D-eh! I can’t recall the one from Cancun, but it involved an iguana. In San Diego, we ended our days early, because she stayed in a Balboa Park historic hotel walking distance from the zoo, ashamed to be like Granny and Auntie Lo, drunk by 3 and sloppy by 4 or 5, and she’d start apologizing to me for things that happened long ago. I never knew how to help her feel better about herself, other than to listen to her tell jokes about it.
Wendy retired in 2010, just after the housing crash, when homes were a bargain. She had just inherited some money from our great-great Aunt Edith, an ancient Toronto socialite who had inherited Canada’s largest private art collection when, as an 80 year old spinster who retired on meager secretary savings, she married her boss of 45 years, Mr. Lang. When he passed a few years later, she went from virtual poverty to being one of Canada’s wealthiest women and followed by a few gossip columns. She loved to golf, and in her 90’s would travel the world’s best golf coarse and stop by The Bluffs on Thompson Creek to visit Wendy. Aunt Edith’s passing motivated Wendy to accept a generous early retirement package from Exxon in lieu of them firing her for “habitual intemperance” and “leaving work early” to golf and drink. She accepted the offer, built her dream home, and planned to start golfing around the world, like Aunt Edith, and to live like Uncle Bob had, without regrets. She wouldn’t be like Granny and Auntie Lo.
After retiring, while decorating her new house, Wendy began getting drunk daily. She said she suffered 28 years in a job she hated, and that’s what led her to drink. She said it wasn’t worth waiting another two years for full retirement, now that she could add her inheritance from Aunt Edith to Granny’s, Uncle Bob’s, and Auntie Lo’s. As soon as she turned 64, she said (the U.S. age to withdraw retirement savings without penalties), she would begin traveling like Aunt Edith had. Not like I did. No offense to Cuba! she said. She wanted to see places like Paris and Dublin and stay in luxurious hotels with fluffy towels and room service, where she’d meet the next love of her life.
Wendy was 63 years old when I listened to her voice mail; she would have turned 64 on 14 August 2019. She’d die wealthy. In quick succession, Granny, Uncle Bob, and Auntie Lo left their IRA’s to Wendy when she was in her mid 30’s, fit and active, playing in a racquetball league with her boyfriend and in prime health. (I was a young teenager in high school, and then a teenager in the army, already out of Louisiana.) Thirty years later, because of compounding interest, she was a multi-millionaire with multiple inherited IRA’s. She owned her own home, had the best healthcare money could by, including veterinarian insurance for her fostered dogs, and plans to see the world. But, she resisted paying an extra 10% penalty on top of income taxes for inherited IRA’s.
Granny taught us that a dollar not taxed was a dollar earned; beginning when she left Wendy’s dad in 1959 and she moved to Baton Rouge, Granny had lived on her measly secretary salary but expounded happily on the concept of investing in her company’s retirement plan and a personal retirement account she had read about in the paper. Granny was a single mother with a little library beside her recliner, a reading lamp on her ashtray table, a small table of framed color photos of Wendy, me, and a few faded black and white photos of Grandpa Hicks in some of his hockey jerseys.
Granny was Joyce Hicks Rothdram: according to Wikipedia, her father, Harold “Hal” Hicks, was: Harold Henry Hicks (December 10, 1900 — August 14, 1965) was a Canadian professional ice hockey player who played 90 games in the National Hockey League with the Montreal Maroons, Detroit Cougars, and Detroit Falcons between 1928 and 1931. The rest of his career, which lasted between 1917 and 1934, was spent in various minor leagues. He was born in Sillery, Quebec. He would go on to manage the Canadian rail line, and his 1965 obituary was read nationally by people who admired the Hicks family. According to family lore, he was even more talented that Wikipedia alludes. I recall seeing Trononto Mapleleafs and Boston Bruins jerseys on Granny and Aunt Mary’s tables and walls, and I trust them more than Wikipedia. From all accounts, Wendy’s Canadian family was the equivalent of an all American family. Wendy was Granny’s only surviving child; she never told me what happened to Wendy’s little brother that prompted her to flee Canada when Wendy was a five year old girl. I never asked Aunt Mary, who lived a quiet life with Uncle John and my cousins and never did anything to warrant a Wikipedia page. She, like Granny, seemed happy in life.
Granny kept her reading glasses beside a photo of Grandpa Hicks. She wore bifocals at work, like the ones Ben Franklin invented, but she liked the feel of her lighter, plastic tortise-shell, half-moon reading glasses, and she appreciated the convenience of hanging them from her neck by their brown braided neck. She was blind as a bat without her regular glasses, and she liked to relax between book chapters or points to ponder, hanging her reading glasses from her neck and enjoying a smoke, not seeing anything else that needed to be cleaned, dusted, or dealt with. She had had a rough life, but you’d never know it by how much she enjoyed her slice of the American dream after a long day of work.
Granny died at 64 from throat cancer after smoking at least a pack of Kents a day since her first Dupont paycheck, a splurge compared to her previous brand and, according to an advertisement in Life magazine, the preferred choice of teachers and scientists who smoke. She had invested wisely, and the IRA’s Wendy inherited averaged 10.7% compounding interest and dividends over 30 years, better than somewhere between 90% and 95% of all professionally managed funds. Wendy hadn’t tweaked Granny’s much, and all of her inherited IRA’s stuck to Granny’s original guidance: all leaned towards Exxon, DuPont, Chevron, McDonald’s, IBM, GE, AT&T, and companies with plants or offices in Baton Rouge, New Orleans, and Houston. Both Wendy and Granny had always allocated the maximum monthly amount possible in thier company-sponsored retirement plans – Granny retired from DuPont after 30 years, Wendy from Exxon-Mobil after 27 years – and an additional maximum into whatever personal retirement savings option was legal. (Currently, amounts in personal retirement accounts are: $5,500 if you work for yourself; but, if you have a boss who pays corporate taxes, you can contribute $17,500. Both ceilings increase by $500 if you’re over 65.) Wendy and I learned a lot from Granny, who had a liquor cabinet stocked with the best Scotch she could afford. Every night, she reposed with a tallboy filled with Scotch on the rocks and alternate between a book from her top shelf of monthly Reader’s Digest subscription books; an encyclopedia volume from the entire second and third shelves of Encyclopedia Britanica (she paid a yearly subscription for revisions); a middle shelf of college editions of Bullfinch’s Mythology, a dictionary, and a thesarusus; three investment books of authors I don’t recall, but with Warren-esque concepts; and an assortment of classic fiction, with at least a couple of Faulkner and Twain, one Tolstoy, and a coincidentally named James Joyce; the second shelf from the bottom was mine, with the Hardy Boy series, The Illustrated History of Magic by Christopher Milbourne, and a handful of Karl Fuves’s “50 Tricks With….,” and the bottom row was Wendy’s old Nancy Drew series. The only advice she gave was about compounding interest and obeying the law, from traffic signals to not killing a loud and opinionated neighbor, because Granny made sure Wendy understood that they were both guests in America. Granny was a work visa, and they could be deported for a minor infarction, even one a tiny as an unpaid library fine. I was born in the states, and would be fine. Wendy was still a Canadian citizen. She procrastinated doing paperwork, and for 45 years had kept her married name though she had practically immediately divorced my father and regretted the whole affair. To become a citizen required paperwork and studying for a history exam; she never felt confident about studying, was embarrassed to have dropped out of the 11th grade and never gotten her GED, and her dogs never questioned her about anything or asked her to temper her drinking.
Wendy was one of the wealthiest women in America, but old habits are hard to break. She was waiting another six months before tapping into her combined IRA’s to avoid paying the IRS a 10% early retirement penalty. Until then, she was, admittedly, on a tight budget. She had just begun receiving social security checks, and that’s barely enough to pay for her air conditioning bill, vet insurance, and wine. She never gained Granny’s appreciation for a slice of the American dream.
What was bullshit, she’d slur over the phone, is that she had to wait until 62 to collect social security! And it was a Ponzi scheme! She never got any of Granny’s or Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob’s! That’s bullshit, too. (Currently, young people pay for old people’s social security, you can’t leave your social security to anyone other than a spouse, and the system is rapidly running out of money; to battle the inevitable, some European countries are advertising to their citizens that people with traditional genes should breed more citizens, even in 2019.)
I shouldn’t worry about Wendy, I thought, bitterly. My eyebrows narrowed. My headache felt worse.
I looked down at my big feet, took a deep breath and tried calling her back. As usual, her cell phone wasn’t getting reception, and she didn’t answer her land line (another archaic word in my head, used for some old phones and in the military, a wire hastily stretched between defense positions to use in lieu of radio or light signals that could be intercepted). 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. 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. (She loved her dogs more than her wine, and they never asked her to seek help tempering the number of bottles she drank a day, like I did. If push turned into shove, she’d probably choose her dogs and wine over me.) I reiterated that I’d check messages when I could, and added a perfunctory “I love you” that, I hope, belied the bitter irritation I felt.
I sighed again, and my gaze fell from my phone screen to my scuffy hiking shoes. I believe I saw, in a brief moment of realization, her situation and why she was calling.
She lived in a luxurious home in an affluent golf community near St. Francisville, a town of 1,300 people an hour upriver of Baton Rouge. Other than other volunteers at the West Feliciana Parish Humane Society, she didn’t have much in common with people in town. The St. Francisville economy centered around a handful of old plantation event centers, bed-n-breakfasts (now mostly automated AirBnB’s), a few churches, and three prisons: one state, one federal, and one private, the infamous Angola and it’s annual prisoner rodeo. Angola prison was named after the nearby Angola plantation, which was named after the region of Africa from where they bought their slaves. Even in 2019, Angola prisoners are almost exclusively African American and, many are descended from slaves brought over by the plantations that drive St. Francisville’s tourism economy. A surprising number of tourists come into town on weekends to stay in slave quarters and tour nearby Oakley Plantation, The Oaks, Audobon (the famous painter and ornithologist had done most of his work there in the 1800’s), and a few lesser known homes that had been restored.
But, that was never Wendy’s interest, other than the annual humane society fundraiser at one of the bigger plantations. She only went to town to eat at her favorite cafe, tour a few local artists galleries, or brainstorm with local craftsmen to make custom furniture for her home in a modern Acadian style and using old cypress or heartwood pine salvaged from ramshackle Cajun homesteads; she was a Canadian citizen, and our family coincidentally came from Prince Edward Island in Nova Scotia, where the Cajuns had fled 200 years ago, and she always felt a kindred spirit with the settlers who had fled Canada. She had never become an American citizen, and was always worried about being sent back to Canada, where it was too cold for her dogs and she couldn’t golf all year.
She didn’t have friends in Saint Francisville, and used to drive to Baton Rouge more often. The route followed Parish Highway 61, a straight road with wide shoulders, but long and dark and packed with massive and foreboding 18 wheeler trucks hauling chemicals and lumber towards I-110 and its connection to the cross-country I-10, the train depot near the airport, or to ferries docked in the port of Baton Rouge. When she drove to visit her old friends from Glen Oaks High School, she dodged 18 wheelers and passed ramshackle trailers and shacks of families still lingering from civil war days, a run down gas station with a hand written sign advertising used car batteries and fresh ‘coons, a nuclear power station, Fort Hudson State Park (the site of the longest civil war battle in America, a leisurely battle in dense, muggy, bug-infested woods that lasted 270-some-odd days), a row of chemical manufacturing plants and oil refineries with billowing smokestacks and names like Exxon Plastics, Mobile, DuPont, and American Oil and Gas, and eventually reached the northern terminus of Interstate 110. Twenty minutes south along I-110 she’d pass the Baton Rouge airport and the Glen Oaks subdivision, where Wendy and I grew up, and eventually arrive at LSU to walk around the lakes with her dogs and a girlfriend or two. Wendy had one of those friends as a roommate for a year, and I suspect there weren’t as many like minded friends in St. Francisville.
It’s easy to become distracted when contacting people on your phone while driving, especially if you’re anxious because you know you may not have coverage at home, and you habitually forget to bring your nighttime driving glasses. A year before, she wrecked her car, got a DUI, spent thousands of dollars on Liam’s vet bills, and was horrified that her mug shot was published by The Advocate. Everyone in Baton Rouge saw it! Even as far away as her favorite cafe in St. Francisville, which kept the Advocate out to read over cups of Community Coffee or Bloody Mary’s. She began staying home more, pouring wine instead of making cocktails, and there wasn’t a lot to do if your back hurt and you couldn’t golf The Bluffs with you neighbors. The communities around Saint Francisville don’t mingle. She slipped into a loop.
Her only break in routine was visiting the burgeoning West Feliciana humane society early in the mornings, playing with the dogs and giving them chew toys. Once every few months, she’d find a dog on death row and take it home to nurture back to health, house train, and primp with cute purple and gold LSU hair ribbons for pet adoption events. No one but the society director knew that she also brought a bag of six McDonald’s breakfast sandwiches from the drive-thru and handed each to one of the Angola’s prisoner work-release men who cleaned the dog cages for 15 cents an hour, even in 2019. The sandwiches cost only 99 cents each, she said, and the humane society prisoners still had the same brown paper bags with sad-grey bolonga, hunter-orange processed cheese, served between two slices of Wonder white bread that the road-side workers and annual Angola prison rodeo fundraiser had for at least the thirty years we had been seeing them along Parish Highway 61. Wendy had a soft heart for the less fortunate, and a reluctance to share her acts of kindness with people who, imagining they were being nice, pried into her private life, especially if they asked the dreaded question: Are you related to Ed Partin?
It was almost April. She had left messages ruminating about Angel, the tiny little threadbare dog she had fostered for 14 years, who had died the April before. And, she may have found a home for Liam, a home with kids to play with him as much as he deserved; she was sad for a month or two every time she found a home for one of her dogs. I usually listened to her slurred voice mails once, sent a text wishing her happiness, and deleted the message. I don’t know why I reacted differently that day in Havana. I figured I was tired. It had been a long day of sitting down between transfers and being cramped between too many chatty people; for years, my body has ached from sitting more than an hour or so, and my mind starts getting wound up as soon as I’m in a confined space. I’ve been slightly claustrophobic since 1983. I figured I was fatigued; it will make a coward out of anyone, and can make you imagine things. It’s easier to see how some people overreact on airplanes.
I sent a message to Cristi, saying I arrived safely and that the WiFi was less than I had expected, so I would be mostly offline. She had been used to gaps of contact ever since we were in middle school and missed each other for summer vacations, which transitioned to the first war and my service on America’s quick reaction force (we deployed with two hour notice and communication lockouts to prevent media discernment between real and simulated deployments used as training). The pattern continued because I like to travel offline, just like summer breaks in high school, but with credit cards and legally able to drink. After I became faculty of engineering and entrepreneurship at The University of San Diego, I took off once a year or more for one to three month sabbaticals.
In my message, I paused said everything was fine and loved her, then I paused to emphasize what I was about to say: Wendy left a voice mail and I was concerned about her. I avoided mentioning the coincidence about Saint Francis: Cristi would have missed my bigger intention, and locked on to such a strong coincidence and excitedly expounded on synchronicity. I’d tell her it later, when I got home. (She collected the memories, and still had our matching fortune cookies from a buffet lunch at a Baton Rouge Chinese restaurant in 1990, pressed between two pages that spoke to her in a worn first edition of The Artists Way.) Until I could tell her in person, I trusted she’d do what’s best. She was one of the few left alive who knew my family history and had met both sides of my family. Cristi has been my best friend since I was a little kid, the Jenny to my Forest, and I had loved her and trusted her for almost forty years.
I looked up, took out my earbuds, and sighed again, intentionally. I inhaled slowly and deeply, and exhaled just as slowly until my lungs completely emptied. I squeezed a puff more out, then inhaled again, but a bit less than before, and exhaled just as slowly. I began breathing naturally and glanced around the plaza to see if anyone was paying attention. There were a handful of people scattered here and there, most on their phones. A few were walking around, peering into the bars and chatting with their people about what they saw or heard inside, excited by the prospects. No one seemed to notice much.
I made a decision, opened my Lonely Planet, and called a couple of casa particulars I had circled on the plane ride from Fort Lauderdale (my entrepreneurship visa required not exchanging currency with any government owned business). I asked a few questions until I confirmed a room with two doors and learned one was a glass door that opened into a courtyard. I told them I’d be there after dinner. I sent the 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 typed a quick gmail to two thirty-something eco-sports journalists, telling them I had arrived and would see them in Vinales in a week or so. I sent WhatsAp to a young illegal climbing guide in Vinales, similarly worded but limited by my atrocious Spanish. I ere towards caution when I don’t know local lingo yet.
Under Cuba’s national health coverage, unnecessary and risky sports are illegal, and his father’s unregistered lodging could invite hardship to their family. The law wasn’t enforced, like American marijuana laws or President Clinton’s old “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies, but there was always a possibility that one law enforcement official with a bug up his ass could use an obscure law to confiscate a farmer’s land or to make an example out of a gringo or two. We would be staying on the alleged guide’s family’s farm they were remodeling to a guest house, and I prefer caution when it comes to other people’s livelihoods.
As a side gig, I was an alleged rock climbing guide in remote regions of off the beaten path countries. I’m notoriously “hands off,” habitually reticent about details, and differ almost permits and insurance to assistants. Rock climbing’s not a big deal, but it’s still illegal, and you never know who’s listening or when a local law enforcement officer with a grudge against your nationality or race would arrest you for the most trivial of infarctions. If that sounds paranoid, crazy, szcizophrenic, or hyperbolic, you may be right. But, to put my caution in perspective: Jimmy Hoffa, the world’s most powerful labor leader and, for decades, one of the wealthiest and most well known men in America not a Kennedy, went to prison in 1966 for trusting my grandfather. He slipped out a single sentence, that, timed with the motion of patting an envelope of cash in his back pocket, hinted that Big Daddy could bribe a juror in the Test Fleet case for $20,000. There was a safe of envelopes in the room; Hoffa had the best lawyers money could buy and a team of trusted men guarding the door. Two years later, he was sentenced to eleven years in federal prison for jury tampering in the otherwise minor, state-level Test Fleet case, based solely on Big Daddy’s surprise testimony. My grandfather was handsome and charming – Hoffa wrote in his autobiography that “Edward Grady Patin was a big, rugged guy who could could charm a snake off a rock” – and Big Daddy’s smooth southern drawl quickly convinced a jury that the combined actions and words unequivocally suggested Hoffa asked him, Ed, to bribe them to throw the trial, to get this bullshit from Booby over with (Hoffa always called U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy “Booby” or “that spoiled brat.”). I never met Hoffa – he disappeared when I was three years old, and my alibi’s rock solid – but I imagine he’d agree with me that loose lips sink ships, and advise me to ere towards caution. That’s an extreme case, but, it’s how I learned to communicate as a kid and it’s kept me alive in 84 countries so far.
After terrorists orchestrated the plane crashes of 9/11, the ghost of Big Daddy resurfaced to remind me about cell phones: Hoffa’s 1966 supreme court case, “Hoffa vs. The United States,” was the foundation upon which President Bush Jr built The Patriot Act, which justified monitoring cell phone messages of millions of Americans using voice-recognition software without a warrant. A side effect of The Patriot Acts led to America imprisoning and torturing people in Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay for, as of the day I landed in Havana, fifteen years. Those prisoners were still in the American base o only three hours from where was I checking email via a wireless signal, and I didn’t know if local law enforcement harbored resentment about Guantanamo. (I would, if I were Cuban.) I had read that many Cubans are upset that there’s an American base forced upon their soil; still resentful of President Kennedy’s botched Bay of Pigs invasion that killed some of their fathers; and justifiably distrustful of seemingly benign tourists after the CIA killed Cuba’s adopted son, El Che Guevara. I’m sure a few old timers may even remember their dad’s talking about President Rosevelt’s Rough Riders killing their great-grandfathers. I’m not prone to worry, and I’m not naive, which is how I’ve traveled all over the world on ambiguous visas since I was a young teenager in the army.
If I were unlucky and arrested by a someone with badge, grudge, and knowledge of history, they’d probably see the Airborne wings tattoo on my left inner bicep, and the AA for “82nd Airborne All Americans” on my wrist. (I joke with strangers invasive enough to ask, saying it means “Alcoholics Anonymous,”an 82nd vet pun ever since Alcoholics Anonymous to replaced All Americas as the first thing people heard when they saw AA.) I can’t speak for all of Latin America, but I believe many didn’t love the 82nd Airborne All Americans as much I do. The 82nd, also called America’s Guard of Honor, has always been our quick-reaction force and under the president’s orders for 30 days without congressional approval, and the 82nd had parachuted into Panama over Christmas of 1989, overthrew the government, and captured President Noriega in an internationally followed spectacle where the paratroopers surrounded Noriaga’s compound with machine guns and stadium-sized speakers blaring Van Halen’s 1985 album, with the admittedly humorous coincidence of songs like “Jump!” and “Panama.” (To be polite, they skipped over “House of Pain” and “Hot for Teacher.”) Before that, the 82nd landed in Grenada to extradite Americans in 1985; visited the Dominican Republic in 1983 and captured their airport to fly out Americans; and swung through Honduras in 1979 for reasons I’ve forgotten. In 1993, we circled Haiti with permission from President Clinton to shoot and kill unarmed civilians within blood-splattering distance of any American, 15 meters, because we suspected that 75% of Haitians were infected with the relatively newly acknowledged HIV virus; we didn’t return with food or medication. The 82nd didn’t arrive in Cuba in the 90’s, when perhaps we could have after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall fell and Cuba lost its benefactor in 1989, and our neighbors starved for a decade. The slang word, gringo, stems from Latin Americans wanting Americans in green uniforms to either help or go away. I loved the 82nd and was proud of my Airborne wings – jump, and the parachute shall appear – and I didn’t want to languish in a Cuban jail cell with trumped-up charges due to loose lips in a voice mail or sloppy thumbs in a text. I had travel insurance, including the air evacuation policy, and wouldn’t be caught violating even the most benign sounding law, especially on an Obama entrepreneurship visa: one slip could ruin the program for everyone else.
I glanced at my watch: I could still beat the happy hour crowd. Should I get another WiFi card and wait, just in case?
I sighed and put away my phone. I was on sabbatical, I reminded myself, and could look forward to lots of diving and climbing over the next few months. I had a book to research and write, and Havana was the perfect place to be still and write: Hemmingway had written The Old Man and The Sea in Havana, before Kennedy enacted the embargo against Castro, and donated his house the the people of Cuba as a place of quiet contemplation. I was wanting to sit still, without thinking, and to try writing a book about grandfather’s role in Jimmy Hoffa’s imprisonment and President Kennedy’s assassination. I had intel that Big Daddy had been in Havana after Kennedy’s embargo against Castro, when no one could visit. That was a year before Kennedy’s murder. Big Daddy was one of only a few people indicted by New Orleans district attorney in the only case against Kennedy assassination collaborators: Garrisson’s work was published as JFK, and Oliver Stone made it into a 1992 film that inspired America to demand newly elected President Bill Clinton release the classified 1979 JFK and Martin Luther King Junior Assassination Report, which is generously sprinkled with FBI reports monitoring my family as far back as 1962. Over the years, I learned that Lee Harvey Oswald had trained in the Baton Rouge civil air force under the alias Harvey Lee, Big Daddy knew new Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello well, and I’m pretty sure Jack Ruby knew both of them well. Hoover had endorsed Big Daddy’s testimony against Hoffa in national media, and the JFK Assassination Report pointed to an FBI report about a 1962 meeting between Hoffa and Big Daddy that foreshadowed the November 1963 shot(s).
At some point before Kennedy was shot and killed, Big Daddy and Hoover knew the plan. The backwards trail I had followed since 1992 ended in Havana, in 1962.
Before flying to Cuba, I had downloaded the equivalent of a library’s worth of old court reports, news articles, and records onto my phone. My eReader was full of books on Hoffa and Kennedy, including “I Heard You Paint Houses,” a relatively recent memoir in the Hoffa lexicon written by Frank Shenan, a WWII infantryman turned Teamster and mafia hitman. He knew Big Daddy and mentions him throughout the book, along with other names I grew up hearing. Frank talks about himself a lot in the book; he had measly 35 days of hands-on combat spread over two years, and we shared the same hero, Audie Murphy, that Franks lauded for reasons I didn’t see, other than to admit they both drank too much after the war. Audie was America’s most decorated combat veteran, a WWII infantryman from Texas with 287 confirmed kills and star of about 40 action films, so maybe he was peppering his book with potential characters for a movie. It worked, and Martin Scorcese picked up the rights and raised a $250 Million budget, and “The Irishman” was being toutted as Martin Scorcese’s gangster opus about Hoffa and the Mob, based on Frank “The Irishman” Sheenan saying he killed Hoffa in 1975. Craig was a veteran of Scorcese films (he was the big brute in Casino, wearing jeans and a cowboy hat, that the diminutive Joe Pesci jumped up and slapped to teach a lesson on behalf of Pesci’s boss, Robert DeNiro), but he had an Italian accent, and Big Daddy’s charming drawl is hard to replicate. Scorcese tweaked the script and changed “Big Daddy of Baton Rouge Local #5” to “Big Eddie Partin, an Italian Teamster,” and simplified Big Eddie’s role, ignoring the side stories of Audie Murphy and President Nixon. Craig’s version of Big Eddie would be a part in Hoffa’s inner circle, the mole planted by Bobby Kennedy and Walter Sheridan of the FBI’s Get Hoffa Squad.
It was only a brief bit, “a small part in the big picture,” Craig either unknowingly or brilliantly quipped. Though he couldn’t mimic Big Daddy’s charming southern drawl, he asked a question no other film producer or Hoffa biographer had thought to ask yet: what were the nuances that made men like Jimmy Hoffa, Carlos Marcello, Bobby Kennedy, and J. Edgar Hoover trust Big Daddy? In other words, besides his good looks and charming accent and smile, what made powerful men who trusted no one trust him? We couldn’t say, but I quoted Mamma Jean to Craig. She had five children with Big Daddy, and I had poised the same question to her after Walter died in 1995. She answered by saying the devil can quote scripture, and people tend to make men our gods and ignore the scripture. Craig said that he was raised Catholic, and what she said made sense.
I had spent all day on airplanes reading The Irishman (the publisher changed the second printings to match the film title) and wondering who kept changing Big Daddy’s Wikipedia page to match the simplified film script, and why it would matter that a film advertised as entertainment, not a documentary, would benefit from matching Wikipedia pages. Something was missing, a piece of a puzzle that would bring different images together. Obama had kept the final part of the JFK Assassination classified, so maybe there would be a clue when it was finally released.
Audie had died in 1971, just before my mom met my dad, and he’s mentioned in The Irishman, and that’s probably why the Partin history was on on my mind when I first listened to Wendy’s voice mail. Judge Pugh had been on my mind, too; he had allegedly committed suicide in 1975, the year Hoffa vanished from a Detroit parking lot, and I had been pondering if he really committed suicide. Big Daddy had, in 1962, only ten years before I was pulled from Patin custody, been arrested and was sitting in a Baton Rouge jail for kidnapping kids of fellow Teamster Billy Simpson, after a disputed custody case in the same East Baton Rouge Parish 19th Judicial court; forty eight hours later, Bobby Kennedy released him and asked him to infiltrate Hoffa’s inner circle in exchange for clemency. Everyone who ever crossed Big Daddy died or disappeared. Judge Pugh had removed me from his son’s custody and assigned it to a stranger.
Obviously, Wendy had a lot to handle back then. She was a single, teenage mother married to Ed Partin Jr, surrounded by federal marshals protecting us from mafia hits. We rarely discussed our time together in the 1970’s and early 80’s, but Wendy’s therapists and psychiatrists said she had PTSD from the experiences. I didn’t want to pressure her for details, and whenever she felt good and I asked what she remembered, she’d just laugh and say she was born WAR, but marrying a Partin WARP’ed her and that’s why she drinks. A lot of people drink too much, it seemed. Frank, Audie, Granny, and Wendy. No one learns from history. It had been a long day, and I may have overreacted to Wendy’s voice mail, I thought. She was probably just drunk and sad about one of her dogs.
I sighed. I wanted a drink. I was Wendy’s son, after all, and old habits are hard to break. I straightened my back and neck, looked forward, smiled, breathed, and limped across the plaza and to a bar, hoping no one would notice anything remarkable about me; except for the obvious XXL Force Fins strapped to my backpack, of course. I had the feeling it would be a remarkable trip, regardless if I reached Wendy before going offline. In the worse case, I heard the diving and climbing in Cuba were worth it, even if you didn’t solve Kennedy’s murder or bring McDonalds breakfast sandwiches to prisoners locked up in Guantanamo.
No matter what happened, I was luckier than a most people on Earth that day, and that’s a feeling of freedom. And, according to a professor I know at USD, that feeling’s a root of success at socially responsible entrepreneurship.
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