Lord, what fools these mortals be!
“Hey, Ken,” I said as Cranky Ken approached with a book in his hand.
“Here,” he said, thrusting an old hardback book towards me; it was “The Fall and Rise of Hoffa,” by Walter Sheridan, published in 1972 and including stories about my Big Daddy and Mamma Jean around the time of my birth. I knew the book and Walter well enough already, I thought, but I was curious why Ken was thrusting it at me. But, I hadn’t read The Fall and Rise of Hoffa in probably twenty years, so accepted it and flipped through it while he talked for a while.
“Pages ___ through ___ are missing, the parts about your grandfather and Nixon and Audie Murphy. Cut out. I got it at the library downtown. Beautiful place. I can’t believe they spent that much on it. But it’s a good view of the bay, and they got a lot of books. I reread The Irishman after seeing the movie and wondered why they cut out the chapter about Nixon and Audie Murphy and your grandfather. That tells you more about Hoffa than anything – he was in prison and still funded Nixon and got him elected. What was it, 2.7 million Teamsters back then, doing whatever Hoffa told them. And he tells Nixon to pardon him and your grandfather. That’s power. If people thought about that instead of all the crap they talk about, this country would be a better place. And, I tell you…”
I stopped listening fully, but Ken was probably right about a few things. I flipped back and forth and reached for my copy and saw that my original copy still had those pages. Not only were the pages missing form the downtown library copy, there was practically no evidence that they had been removed, unless you were looking for those pages and noticed the page numbers; no torn edges of paper, no discernable reduced thickness, and, conveniently, a random chapter that seemed incongruent in an otherwise focused book, and most people probably could have kept reading and not noticed that chapter wasn’t missing. But, most people weren’t Ken, and didn’t have his free time and focus and access to a brand new library with a good view of the bay.
I kept listening to Cranky Ken, sort of, and I inspected the binding of the library book. It was remarkable. I double checked the back index, and the pages missing were a subcategory under “Partin, Edward Grady.” Pages 481-514 specifically cited with an italicized word I didn’t recognize: passim.
“Hold on, Ken,” I said. “Siri, what’s the definition of passim.”
She answered in an Indian accent and told me, “As an adjective, passive means accepting or allowing or what others do, without active response or resistance.”
I thought that was remarkable, considering my recent conversation with JoJo, but it didn’t help me understand the significance of Ken’s book, so I asked Siri again, enunciating passim more clearly, and I listened to Siri, sort of, as I focused the screen. This is what I saw:
pas-sim pas-sim |’pas,im|
(allusions or references in a published work) to be found at various places throughout the text.
ORIGIN Latin, from passus ‘scattered,’ from the verb pandere.
Walter Sheridan was a thorough human being, and had documented his book well. He tried to show patterns by stating and restating some names throughout the text, as he had done all his life. He was a respected FBI veteran. Before that, he had worked with then senator John F. Kennedy’s labor union oversight committee, and helped Johnny’s successful presidential bid and the famous Checkers speech where the young and handsome Irish Catholic Kennedy defeated his opponent, Richard Nixon, in what’s considered the first major televised presidential debate. Johnny won, and then appointed his little brother, Harvard lawyer Bobby Kennedy, as United States Attorney General, and Walter became head of the FBI’s “Get Hoffa” Task Force, and Bobby funded millions of dollars to the program and that led to the infamous Blood Feud between Bobby and Jimmy. After Bobby, Walter, and Big Daddy found a way to send Hoffa to prison, Walter lead Senator Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign until Bobby’s 1968 assassination. He became a respected NBC news correspondent, and was very thorough in all his work; that book had been the basis for 1983’s film, The Blood Feud, with Robert Blake winning an accademy award for “channeling Hoffa’s rage,” ___ ___ portrayed Bobby, and Brian Dennehy portrayed Big Daddy, with Big Daddy watching the film on his big TV in the low security federal penitentiary when I used to visit him; Dennehy got his accent pretty close. I had only met Walter once, and for some reason I can’t explain, I trusted him and held on to his book; it’s difficult to modify analog copies of records.
Walter had died in 1991, a year after I think I recall meeting him in 1990, the year Big Daddy died. But, I could be mistaken; Walter looked like a lot of people from Ken’s generation, with slicked back hair and dark suits, and his book confusingly has an image of Hoffa on the front that looks remarkably like Walter’s photo on the back. All of that was on my mind as Ken talked and I flipped through my old copy of Walter’s book and remembered circling names and looking for patterns in 1992, and wondered why I had never looked up “passim” before then.
FBI agents had been following Audie and Big Daddy, and years later Audie’s plane crash was determined to be a pilot error. I read a lot about the events because, coincidentally, my dad had met Wendy the same month as Audie’s death in 1971, and Walter’s book was published the same month as my birth in 1972. Though probably not related, it’s those personal connections that led me to read a lot about Hoffa and the Kennedy’s growing up.
Walter’s book is huge. It’s thick and heavy and thoroughly researched. It’s not light reading. The back index of names is overwhelmingly about Hoffa, of course, but Big Daddy is one of the most cited people. The pages missing were all about Nixon sending Audie Murphy to propose a presidential pardon for perjury if Big Daddy recanted his 1964 testimony against Hoffa; because, if he did, Hoffa would be released from prison and be able to return to officially leading the Teamsters, officially. Audie and four passengers died in a 1971 plane crash in Virginia a few days after leaving the Baton Rouge airport, and Big Daddy was a suspect in his death.
To this day, the FBI maintains a “What Happened” team investigating Hoffa’s 1975 disappearance, and because it was almost 50 years old and still unsolved -the Irishman is probably pretty close – young FBI agents who were born twenty years after I left Louisiana call our family occassionally to ask questions, perhaps hoping to solve their first case and perhaps, hoping to get a lucrative book deal or film contract. But, I hadn’t seen The Irishman yet, nor had I paid much attention to the book, perhaps because of everything else that always seems to be going on. But, I began to wonder if I could write a book about how Kennedy was killed, and how, as Earl Warren said, Big Daddy represented a threat to the American justice system, and how Hoffa’s influence on who my dad had called The Big Dick is still a threat to democracy.
“You should right a book,” Ken said.
I told him I’d like to one day, but I didn’t feel like getting into it then. I had heard Ken’s thoughts on everything, it seemed, and I was looking forward to not thinking and enjoying the rest of my day. Besides, to me, the most important part in my story isn’t Big Daddy or Bobby or Jimmy or Johnny or The Big Dick, it was my PawPaw, the man Judge Lottingger called James “Ed” White. I said goodbye to Ken a few times, and he eventually left me standing on the balcony, lost in thought.
The evening after Wendy abandoned me, the daycare center was closing and I was the last baby there and they didn’t know what to do. They called her emergency contacts, but Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob were too drunk to answer the phone and Wendy hadn’t left Granny’s number because they were still estranged. She had given the center Linda White’s name, and when she answered she told her father and he dropped what he was doing and rushed to the daycare center and picked me up, and the rest is history. It’s likely that he had to work during weekdays and couldn’t attend my custody trials, and it’s just as likely that early family court systems didn’t view the opinions of unrelated caregivers as relevant to family matters, but it’s rare to have a non-relative given custody of a minor child, especially one with an extensive family like I had.
No one knows why Ed White was given so much authority of me as my legal guardian when both of my parents were fighting for custody. The first trial judge had “by ex parte order, awarded the temporary care, custody and control of the minor to Mr. and Mrs. James Ed White,” and after that judge’s presumed suicide another judge granted custody to my dad on paper; but, for some unknown reason that judge kept Mr. White as my guardian with physical custody.
James Edward “Ed” White was born some time in the late 1920’s in the pine tree forests of Mississippi, coincidently near Woodville, where Big Daddy had been born in 1926, though I never learned if they had met. Unlike Big Daddy, PawPaw was a physically small man, thin and wiry, but he was a cheerful force of nature with a heart bigger than anyone I’ve known since. He had slicked back black hair that smelled of inexpensive and common hair oil, and his clothes were humble and obviously well worn from physical labor. He laughed frequently, chain smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes, sipped bottles of Miller beer, and never quite figured out why other people weren’t as happy as he was.
He had lost an eye as a sailor in WWII, and though his glass eye matched his other one perfectly, he never saw the world the same again. He choose to be happy. After the war, he moved to Louisiana to find work, though I never learned why he chose Baton Rouge, but I know he became the custodian at Glenoaks High School, where his daughter, Linda White, was best friends with Wendy, and that he’d show up to work early and stay late, cleaning up and repairing things as part of his job; and, on his own initiative, he also cared for the many stately oak trees that gave GlenOaks it’s name and made it so beautiful. PawPaw loved trees, and though my parent’s school may have been in a poor district, most people felt the campus was one of the most well cared for they had ever seen, with trees more majestic than in the fancy schools funded by wealthier neighborhoods, though few knew that PawPaw was behind the scenes. He often came home in the evenings with sawdust in his, by then, mussed up hair, and he would smell more like chainsaw oil than hair tonic at the end of a long day.
PawPaw was behind the scenes for many other things, and he had even organized a small statewide movement for public school custodians, cafeteria workers, and landscapers after a massive state teacher’s strike in the 1960’s led to higher salaries for teachers and administrators, but nothing for the invisible workers behind the scenes. Some newspapers reported the outcome of the strike and said that administrators could now afford steaks instead of hamburgers, but forgetting that invisible workers like PawPaw couldn’t afford even the hamburgers. A March 1964 Time Magazine feature article about Big Daddy being an All American Hero showed him walking the picket line with teacher’s, big and handsome and smiling and handing out cash from his pocket so that teachers could pay their bills while striking, and telling Governor McKiethen that Local #5 stood with teachers and implying that if McKiethen and the state legislature didn’t provide the teachers and administrators with healthcare and a raise to afford an occasional steak dinner, Big Daddy would call a Teamsters strike and shut down the state economy, which would be unable to ship anything along the new interstate system to other states or in or out of other countries via the port of New Orleans. My grandfather was given credit for the teacher raise and benefits, but Life didn’t mentioned PawPaw. But, elderly men around town who had been invisible to most would recall PawPaw’s slicked back black hair and best suit, loose and baggy around his small wiry frame, handing out hand-written fliers telling them that they were important and valuable to the kids getting an education. He was right.
Like Big Daddy, PawPaw served in the military during WWII. But, Big Daddy had only served two weeks, being dishonorably discharged after punching a captain and stealing his watch, PawPaw served honorably in the U.S. Navy for two years until he lost his eye working on a battleship and was honorably discharged. His former shipmates said he was always hard working and cheerful, but mischievous, and he would sneak into the officer’s quarters and steal their beer and give it to enlisted men, like Robin Hood on a battleship.
As a kid, I viewed PawPaw as Popeye the Sailor, a popular cartoon character who was a small man with big forearms and squinted with one eye and smoked a pipe and protected Olive Oil’s infant son from the big Brutus, possible because he ate his spinach and it made him strong. Like Popeye, PawPaw mumbled a bit. He pronounced his words with a southern accent that omitted sylables and blended ‘th’ sounds into d’s, like New Orleans Saints football fans that chant “Who d’at! Who d’at! Who d’at talkin’ ‘bout beatin’ d’em Saints? Who d’at!”
His son in law, Craig Black, didn’t watch football or cartoons but read a lot and had been in GlenOaks theater department, and he thought PawPaw was like Puck, the jestering hobgoblin ferry from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, a woodland ferry who adored trees and playing pranks on people. Puck’s pranks sparked the other characters into action; without him, there would be no Midsummer Nights Dream. That sentiment was echoed by anyone I spoke with who had met him.
Like Puck, PawPaw loved nature. As a side gig, he was a tree surgeon, and the most respected tree surgeon in all of Louisiana. His services were requested by families protecting the magnificent stately oak trees that had been planted by their great-great grandparents. He was called to be preventive in the spring, repairing damaged bark and limbs before insects or disease took root, and reactive in the winter, removing toppled trees after hurricane storms. There wasn’t a lot of work, so he had other entrepreneurial ventures, like running a franchise of the Kelley Girls, a national franchise designed to give young, uneducated women opportunities for employment with flexible schedules so they could attend school or attend school meetings for their children, and he had given Wendy her first job. Judge Lottingger mentioned Wendy’s job with Kelly’s Girls, but, like Life, didn’t mention Ed White. Considering that Lottingger knew PawPaw viewed me as a son and was hoping for custody, it’s remarkable that PawPaw had selflessly helped Wendy, and ironic that he couldn’t attend my custody hearing because he was working at GlenOaks during weekdays.
Craig would tell me that PawPaw never made money from his side gigs of Kelly’s Girls and as an arborist, which is what people call tree surgeons now, because instead of taking a percentage of pay for himself as an administrator he gave all of the money to the people he hired. For Wendy, that was $516 per month, a lot of money back then, especially considering that Mamma Jean was paid $300 per month only a decade before to care for her five children. And he used his tree surgery business to hire and train men recently released from jail when no one else would give ex-cons an opportunity, and those ex-cons became, in a way, his competition. Craig himself would work for 40 years as the landscaper for Houmas Plantation, a tourist destination among the many former slave plantations in and around Baton Rouge, where he also sold his paintings that were fanciful and centered around ferries and elves in Louisiana’s swamps and forests. After Wendy would pass, Craig pointed to a majestic stately oak tree that PawPaw had planted before I was born, and say that hundreds of thousands of people saw its beauty each year and received shade from it’s long undulating branches, and he’d humbly admit that even his best paintings only brought joy to a few people who purchased them and kept them in their homes.
All Judge Lottingger had to say about PawPaw was that, “The Whites came to regard Jason as their own,” and though I appreciate his phrasing, it’s an understatement. I know that PawPaw loved me as a son. He passed away before I could thank him or tell him how I felt or ask his version of this story, and whenever I struggled with how to honor my mother and father, I also struggled with what defines a mother or a father. But now I can’t imagine sharing my family history without beginning PawPaw. Just like there would be no midsummer night’s dream without Puck, I wouldn’t be who I am without the seed planted when he saved me, and I hope whatever I write about him brings as much joy or hope to people who read it as the trees he planted have given to people who rest in their shade or climb in their branches.
“What’s pawsterity?” she asked later that evening, clarifying that she understood what I had said. I never did that at her age. I think I learn more from her than she from me, and that awareness is probably why I mention her passim, scattered here and there, throughout this book; she’s important, and shouldn’t be overlooked.
“Posterity,” I said, emphasizing the ‘oh’ sound, “means it’s for someone’s children, and those children’s children, and their children’s children’s children. It means someone’s family.”
“So you’re Big Daddy’s pawsterity?”
I chose my words carefully.
“No, sweetheart, posterity means people born from one person. In my case, I’m Big Daddy’s posterity, and so are all the children of his children.” I dind’t tell her how many children he had from the several wives he had kept, or that he had been an adulterer, too, and that he had a lot of posterity. “But I think all kids are just as important as my own.”
But I had lied to her; if you consider speaking ignorantly lying. I asked Siri what posterity meant, and checked Wikipedia and the two dictionaries on my shelf, and all of them slightly contradicted each other. Words mean different things to different people, and therefore different things to different editors, bloggers, or whomever chooses to edit Wikipedia. Words mean what we want them to mean, and I made a mental note to discuss that with Hope and to tell her that, to me, she is just as much Big Daddy’s family as I am; and, as far as I’m concerned, all kids born since him are his pawsterity, too.