“Partin was a big tough-looking man with an extensive criminal record as a youth. Hoffa misjudged the man and thought that because he was big and tough and had a criminal record and was out on bail and was from Louisiana, the home states of Carlos Marcello, the man must have been a guy who paints houses.”Charles Brant and Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran in Frank’s 2014 memoir,“I Heard You Paint Houses,” a reference to mafia lingo for a hitman who paints the walls of a house red with splattered blood.
My first vivid memories of Wendy are with her best friend at the time, Debbie LeBoux, some time in the spring of 1976, when azaleas were in full blossom and their scent waifed into every breath. PawPaw, who Judge Lottingger called James “Ed” White, had just given Wendy the used car that I’d later recognize as a Datsun, a small hatchback with lots of easily accessed storage that could haul telephone books, like the ubiquitous Yellow Pages that were delivered every spring, listing all the new businesses in town. PawPaw was the custodian at Glen Oaks High School, where Wendy and my dad had gone before dropping out to get married and have me, and he also had several side gigs, including running the local chapter of Kelly’s Girls, a national program designed to give young, uneducated women jobs doing temporary office work to learn new skills, or simply to provide a bit of income on a flexible schedule with seasonal work, like retail around Christmas or delivering the Yellow Pages ever spring. I don’t know if Judge Lottingger knew that PawPaw had given Wendy her job at Kelly’s Girls, or if that knowlege would have changed his verdict to remove me from PawPaw and return custody to Wendy.
PawPaw helped Wendy and Debbie load yellow books into the Datsun, leaving enough room on top of the back passenger swat for me to squeeze in against the roof. They stood back and smoked cigarettes and admired their work and joked that I’d barely fit. They were right. Debbie helped cram me into the small space and Wendy slid into the driver’s seat and laughed and tried to operate the manual transmission and we lurched a few times before finally driving down PawPaw’s gravel driveway. She didn’t fully stop at the blacktop, and I slid against the window when she lurched left and changed gears and we accelerated down the small two lane road towards more densely packed subdivisions in desperate need of the Yellow Pages. We went up the interstate ramp and were flying down I-10 when they rolled up their windows and Debbie took out her dainty little bag with hand-sewn flowers and began rolling a joint and chatting with me. She was even smaller than Wendy, and had delicate deft hands that quickly rolled a perfectly formed joint.
I was fascinated by Debbie’s little bag, and she handed it to me while she lit the joint and cracked her windshield to exhale up and out. The bag was beautiful, and the raised textures of the flowers was unlike my brightly colored but smooth Crayon bag. And it smelled nice, and I wanted it. Debbie laughed and handed the joint to Wendy, who had a hand free now that we were on the interstate and not changing gears. Wendy inhaled and coughed out her cracked window, and Debbie pointed out the stitching on her bag and told me that it was hers, but that she’d show me how to make one and help me make my own later. That sounded like fun – I already did a lot of arts and crafts projects with Linda and Craig, her husband, who lived with PawPaw and me. I was sure I could make a little weed bag just as nice as Debbie’s, especially with her help.
She was fun. Wendy was focused on driving to the subdivision and smoking the joint, but Debbie could multitask, and she could somehow chat with me without exhaling. There was a slight haze in the air, but she did her best to look up and out the window to exhale without breaking eye contact with me. I was perched high on the Yellow Pages, in a slight haze of smoke, and though I can’t recall what she and I talked about, I remember laughing more with Debbie than anyone else before.
She could do magic. She could remove her thump and blow at its stump and it would magically pop back into existence. She removed my nose and held it in her closed fist, barely poking out between her fingers, and when I giggled and grasped my face she blew towards me and my nose magically reappeared, just like her thumb had; I never noticed that my nose looked just like her thumb. I liked Debbie.
Wendy turned on the radio, and we all sang together. It was a popular song released in 1971, Janis Joplin’s cover of “Me and Janis had already passed away of a drug overdose by then, one of the many musicians of the 60’s and 70’s who coincidentally died at age 26 or 27, like Jimmie Hendrix and Jim Morrison, and, to this day, is an urban legend nicknamed The 27 Club that includes musicians from my era like Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. Janis held a special place in Wendy and her girlfriend’s heart, because she was young and vivacious and free and they dressed like her and sang lyrics in their best immitation of her raspy, southern bluesy voice, especially because they were all from Baton Rouge, and they sang as if no one were listening who would judge them and this was the most wonderful moment of their lives.
Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train
When I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans
Bobby thumbed a diesel down, just before it rained
And rode us all the way into New OrleansI pulled my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana
I’s playin’ soft while Bobby sang the blues
Windshield wipers slappin’ time, I’s holdin’ Bobby’s hand in mine
We sang every song that driver knew
The song ended and they laughed and talked about things I don’t recall and finished the joint and rolled the windows back down. The air rushed at me and I watched us descend from I-10 and go into a subdivision. I sat perched on the stack of Yellow Pages and Wendy would lurch house to house, and Debbie would hop out and run a phone book up to each doorstep. Soon I had more space, and it was easy for me to hop in and out, and I began helping and they told me how good I was; a year later, in Kindergarten, I’d brag that I had my first job at age four, and that I worked for Kelly and her girls, Wendy and Debbie, and I was really good at it. I also knew the lyrics to a lot of Janis Joplin songs, which, though not on the official learning objective in kindergarden, would impress my teacher, Miss Founteneux, probably because she also sang every song that driver knew.
After emptying the Datsun, we stopped at a 7-11 and got Coke Slushies and took them to a public park in Zachary with a playground, and Wendy pushed me on a swing and Debbie road down a slide with me, and they tried to teach me to throw a Frisbee but I wasn’t good at it. Debbie showed me how to pretend to remove someone’s nose and clench my thumb to look not unlike a nose in my hand. We sipped Slushies and seemed to have no worries in the world. I’d later say that working was fun, and wouldn’t understand why my dad was so opposed to it.
Wendy took Debbie home to her mother’s small appartment, a remarkable experience because her mom spoke by shrieking without inflection. It was terrifying, but Debbie and Wendy didn’t seem to mind and I became used to it and the thick cigarette smoke that hung in the apartment like a morning fog over PawPaw’s pond. They had lots of snacks, sugary sweet things like Raisenettes – chocolate covered raisins – and fortune cookies from the small Chinese restaurant on the busy road by their apartment. I’d learn over time that Debbie’s mom and sisters were on state disability for scizophrenia, and that Debbie was good at crafts because she spent a lot of time in juvenille art therapy classes. But, at the time, I simply liked Debbie and was happy to have so many snacks, because for some reason I was hungrier than I had ever been after delivering Yellow Pages and listening to Janis Joplin’s sultry voice.
Wendy said we were running late, so we left Debbie’s and lurched past the Chinese restaurant onto the busy road and were soon flying along I-10. I had eaten an entire bag of Raisenettes and several fortune cookies and was sleepy, and I stretched out in the relatively luxurious space of the front seat and dozed off.
I woke up some time later when I heard Wendy talking with someone. We were stopped on the side of the interstate, and a big man in a uniform was standing outside Wendy’s window. I was groggy, and she nervously shook me and looked at the policeman and said something about me, and fumbled in her big purse and handed him her driver’s license.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” she told him. “My brother’s sick, and I was in a hurry to get us home.”
He bent down and peered through the window and looked at me. I was awake by then.
“Howdy, son,” he said, smiling. I didn’t smile back – I had never seen someone in uniform before, and I wasn’t sure what to think. “What’s your name?”
“Jason Partin, s’uh,” I replied, speaking politely, like I had heard PawPaw speak with the men who worked for him, calling them sir and the young ladies ma’am, like a fine southern gentlemen should, but I pronounced my name like Debbie had, the Cajun way, Pa’tan, not like most people pronounced my family name using the generalized southern accent of Baton Rouge that prounced Paring like Dolly Parton, the popular country singer.
The police officer may have been impressed by my manners, and Pa’tan was a respectable, Cajun name that meant we were locals, so he looked at Wendy’s license, confirmed our names matched, smiled and thanked her kindly, and said we could go but to drive more slowly so that we got home safely. Wendy agreed, and we lurched back into traffic and she clutched her steering wheel with shaking hands and asked me to not tell Mr. White.
Wendy pulled into PawPaw’s gravel driveway and I saw MawMaw waiting for us in the carport beside PawPaw’s cricket cage. She was a classic southern belle of a woman, middle aged yet energetic, with bright red lipstick and grey hair that she tended immacuately and arranged in a seemingly impossible beehive on top of her head, held in place by copious amounts of hairspray. Her maiden name has been Dorris Shakelton, from the wealthy Baton Rouge Lamar family; they owned 85% of roadside billboards in America, and today they lead a publicly traded advertising company. If you drive along any road in America and see a billboard, likely at the bottom is small, green logo that says, ”Lamar,” and that’s a sign that you are, in some small way, connected to MawMaw and this story; every time I see a sign wiht a little green Lamar logo, it’s a pun that still makes me smile. In my mind, I don’t see an heiress, I see MawMaw, who married PawPaw and took care of me when no one else would. Before I hopped out of Wendy’s Datsun, I could almost smell the things I loved most about MawMaw, hairspray and chocolate chip cookies, and I was so excited that I almost jumped out before Wendy had come to a complete stop.
I was famished again, unsurprisingly – people call hunger after riding high atop the Yellow Pages “the munchies” – and MawMaw always had lots of chocolate chip cookies and shugga’ for me, and I couldn’t wait to get inside. We finally stopped, but Wendy had to help me open the Datsun’s old rusty door before I could hop out. It took forever, and as soon as my big feet hit the gravel with a satisfying crunch and I ran towards MawMaw without saying goodbye to Wendy. She squatted down and rested her hands on her knees and smiled a big, huge, red-lipstick covered smile and waited for me to reach her before opening her arms and receiving my hug. She held me tightly and gave me shugga’ all over my cheeks, and I giggled and pretended to hate it and kept wiping off the red lipstick marks I knew would be there. Wendy drove away – I wasn’t allowed to spend the night with her yet – and I had fallen into a ritual of transitioning from Wendy to MawMaw centered around cookies and shugga’.
“Gimme some shugga’!” she’d say, every time, and I’d giggle and hide my face with my hands and she’d peck around looking for an opening to place one more red lipstick smack of shugga’. She almost always found at least one spot, and sometimes I lowered my guard intentionally and allowed one more smack! before wiping it off. Once inside, she’d help me wash the red off my hands and cheeks and give me cookies and ask me what happened with Wendy. I always felt bad lying to MawMaw, so I usually just went silent and looked at my big feet, and she would sigh and rest her hands on her hips and look down at me and, always, squat back down and smile that big red smile and give me another hug. She soon stopped asking, thankfully, and we just enjoyed our cookies and waited for PawPaw to come home after cleaning up Glenoaks High School and taking care of its trees.
Usually, he’d come home and grab a beer and light a Camel and fill a mesh cricket tube full of crickets from their cage in the carport, and we’d carry a couple of cane poles to the small pond beyond the big gate. He’d teach me to tie fishhook knots and use his cigarette to burn off the loose ends, and how to hook a cricket so it lived and moved under water and attracted fish, and how to watch the red bobber float on the dark water and not react when it danced, only when it went under and the fish had committed.
Every time I caught a little pond brim, he’d tell me what a good job I did and that we should toss him back in so that it could get bigger for next time. It never did. I only caught tiny brim in PawPaw’s pond, but I never blamed him for that, and never got tired of hoping to one day catch a big one. And, every time we finished fishing, I was always happy to walk back to the dinner MawMaw would have waiting, and, of course, milk and cookies for dessert.
The day after I delivered Yellow Pages with Wendy and Debbie, PawPaw took me for a walk to buy cigarettes and the nearby convenience store. Like with MawMaw, I had rituals with PawPaw, and walking to the store was one of my favorites because it was beside a giant stately oak tree, like the one Wendy and her friends climbing in Granny’s yard, and PawPaw would always stop and play with me and that tree. He seemed to know every tree in Baton Rouge as if they had names and personalities, and that may have been true. One of PawPaw’s side gigs was as a tree surgeon, patching broken limbs with tar after hurricane season to prevent termites and insects from killing the tree, trimming or bracing long undulating branches that may break in a storm, and caring for the long term health of fields of staely oaks planted two hundred years ago by families that had inherited plantations with names like “The Oaks,” and “Oakly Plantation.” On his own, he took care of the trees that gave Glen Oaks High School it’s name, and people always spoke of how PawPaw had a personal connection with his work. He was the most respected tree surgeon in all of southern Louisiana, often called upon by wealthy families to save their trees, and though he was often occupied as the custodian of Glen Oaks he had a small army of helpers he had trained on his own initiative, hiring men released from prison or jail and without anyone willing to take a risk on them, paying them while he trained them and giving them work whenever he could. But of all trees, the one by the convenience store was his favorite because it was my favorite, a massive and ancient stately oak draped in Spanish moss and with one of its long, undulating branches making a perfect seat for me about four feet off the ground, forming a perfect swing and appearing like a giant’s arm cradling something gently.
Every time we walked to the convenienc store I’d try to climb into the swing. I’d get a little better every time, and he was always nearby in case I slipped or needed a nudge. I almost made it that day, and at the last moment, just before I would have slipped and fallen, I heard his voice.
“D’er ya go, Lil’ Buddy,” he said, giving me a gentle nudge so that my fingers could grasp the bark enough to pull myself up and into a dip formed by the undulating branch. I sat in the tree and looked PawPaw in the eyes, and he nudged the branch and it swayed up and down and I giggled and clutched the bark and felt like I could keep climbing all the way to the big bright blue sky barely visible through the oak tree’s green and brown canopy. PawPaw snatched a piece of grey Spanish moss and made it look like his beard and I laughed and let go of the bark and picked a piece of moss for myself. He stayed beside me in case I fell, and we sat there as two old, bearded men, laughing at nothing in particular.
“Aw’ right, Lil’ Buddy, time t’ go,” he said, and replaced his beard on the branch and put his hands under my arms and lifted me up. I kept my beard, knowing my clever disguise would fool the store workers. It had worked every time so far.
We walked in and the man behind the counter smiled and said, “Hi, Ed! Who you got here today?”
I whipped off my Spanish moss and showed him it was me, and he looked surprised and said he hand’t recognized me. We chatted, and PawPaw picked up a carton of milk and a roll of chocolate chip cookie dough, pre-made and shaped into a cookie-diameter tube, and set them on the counter between us. The man reached up and grabbed a pack of Camels and put them beside the milk and cookies.
“Thank you, s’uh,” PawPaw said, cheerful as always. He paused, went back to the walled refrigerator, and came back with a six pack of Miller pony bottles, the shorter, round bottles. The man behind the counter put our milks in one bag for PawPaw to carry, and, as usual, gave me my own bag to carry the cookie dough.
Back home, I gave MawMaw the tube of dough and she off a piece for me – I may have liked raw dough as much as baked cookies – and PawPaw and I both drank our milk and waited for that day’s employee to show up. This time, it was my Uncle Kieth, Ed Partin Jr’s little brother, not his friend the car dealer. Kieth Partin takes after his father, physically. He’s a a remarkably huge man that radiates strength and formidability, with his father’s sky blue eyes and light blonde hair. Yet he’s a gentle giant, and a hard worker who came around often.
As with all his employees, PawPaw called Kieth s’uh and offered him a pony bottle of milk before going to work in the back field, beside the small fishing pond and barn. I usually came along, though I just watched or fished while they cut the big branches PawPaw had trimmed from plantation homes because of his side gig, and burned them on top of fire ant nests that plagued most farms in southern Louisiana, killing two birds with one stone, as the saying goes.
But, that time, instead of fishing I set my sites on climbing the 8 foot tall rusted metal gate that separated the house from the field and fishing pond. Unfortunately, the gate was unhinged – PawPaw had a lot of partially finished projects around the farm – and when I reached the top it tilted backward and I began to fall with it. I clutched the rusted metal bars with both hands, but no one was there to give me a boost or catch me, and when I finally couldn’t hold on any more I let go and hit the ground and the gate fell on top of me and its sharp edge sliced the back of my scalp open. I screamed.
“Ed! Ed!” I heard. “It’s Jason! Come quick!”
I can still see Kieth running towards me in my mind’s eye, though my memory is skewed, literally, because I was on my left side and the world seemed rotated 90 degrees; later in life, I’d read research studies that showed our minds eventually right the wrongs and reconstruct our mind’s eye to “see” things differently than they are for the sake of our mental well being. But, in 1975, I saw Kieth running towards me sideways and in huge leaps and bounds, propelled by legs taller than I was, and I didn’t understand how he was running sideways but didn’t stop screaming or take time to ponder it, but that’s how I still see it. I remember the vision clearly, and can hear my own screams as if I were not the one screaming but an observer recording the situation, and I can still see a sideways Kieth reach me much faster than PawPaw and his little legs could have. Beyond Kieth I saw smoke and burning piles of fire ants, also rotated 90 degrees and obscuring my view of PawPaw, but I knew he was there. He was always there when I needed him. I felt that, and didn’t need to see it. Some things are so right in our mind’s eye that our brains don’t alter our perspectives to satisfy our desire for normalization.
Kieth grabbed the massive gate and heaved it away effortlessly and reached down and picked me up and cradled me, and despite my pain and terror, a tiny part of me felt as safe and secure as I had felt cradled by the oak tree’s branch, and somehow, miraculously, that’s what I felt as my body bled profusely and I screamed incessantly.
“Hurry Ed! He’s hurt bad!” Kieth shouted.
“Get in d’ truck!” PawPaw shouted back between breaths. “Get in d’ passenger side!” I saw him, framed in smoke that was now behind him, and he waved towards the truck and called out, “Go on, now! Go on!”
Kieth cradled me and rushed through the open gate and wrenched open PawPaw’s truck door, an old Ford with metal doors that would stick and creak and groan and resist opening, but they were no match for Keith’s brute strength. The door yielded and we slid in and he slammed it shut with a loud and satisfying crunch, and PawPaw somehow found the same strength and ripped his door open and hopped into the driver’s side of his Ford’s bucket seat. I was bleeding dangerously. Scalp wounds are dangerous because all arteries and veins are exposed against your skull and will not close themselves, especially if you’ve been scalped, and I had a large flap of scalp dangling precariously from my skull, attached only by a small slice of skin and hair. The Ford’s vinyl seat was covered in blood that slid across the slippery plastic in and pooled in depressions and along creases, like dark red rivers flowing from small lakes of blood on the bucket seat. PawPaw didn’t hesitate. He cranked the ignition and peeled out and accelerated towards the blacktop and turned left onto it so quickly that pools of blood splashed across the seat and spilled into Kieth’s passenger side floorboard.
“Oh God, Ed! Oh God! He’s bleedin’ bad! Hurry!”
No one had to tell PawPaw to hurry, he was a force of nature and intensely focused on nothing but saving me. Gravel bounced into the air behind us as his truck tires gained traction on the pavement and we accelerated forward faster than I had ever felt his Ford go.
I was no longer surprised that the world was sideways. I accepted that things weren’t as they seemed, and as I screamed I saw the big stately oak tree by the convenience store. I felt my body wanting to slide against Kieth’s door as PawPaw accelerated through the red traffic light and turned sharply, and I felt Kieth’s strong arm cradle me and keep my head from flopping around as we sped through the intersection with tires screeching against the blacktop and PawPaw pulling the old trucks manual steering with all his might.
PawPaw had never had fixed his truck’s turn signal, but he didn’t need one because he had poked half his small body out the window and was waving his white handkerchief with his left hand and pulling the big steering wheel with his right and shouting at cars coming towards us, “Get out d’ way! Get out d’ way!” and, magically, they all did. His right arm was straining with the force of turning, and his left hand was frantically waving his white hanky and his humble accent was loud and clear, and, miraculously, everyone got out of our way. That’s the last thing I remember before passing out.
I woke up a few days later in Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, where I had been born four years before, and the first thing I saw was PawPaw, exhausted. His wrinkled face was aged by grey beard stubble, the real kind, not Spanish moss. His non glass eye was bloodshot; I never knew he had been a sailor in WWII and lost an eye in combat, because he never discussed himself, and he so rarely cried that I never noticed only one eye shed teers or got bloodshot until that moment, in my hospital room, when I woke up and stared at him without speaking, just coming to my senses and perhaps seeing everything for the first time. Both of his cheeks were puffy. His hair was disheveled. He smelled like cigarettes and chainsaw oil, as usual, but he also smelled like he hadn’t bathed in a few days. He was sideways.
I sat up and he righted along with me, and his eyebrows perked up and he looked at me and smiled and his exhaustion faded away, and he said, cheerfully as ever, “Hey, d’er, Lil’ Buddy. ‘Bout time you woke up.”
I had to stay a few more days and get a more tests for head injuries, but I had fun because the recovery room had a big color television and I could watch Popeye and Friends and the SuperFriends on Saturday morning – we only had a small black and white television at home – and play with the tons of toys stocked in the common room. I wore a bandage around my head that had to be changed daily, and when they changed it on my final day one of the nurses brought in two mirrors so I could see the back of my head. I was bald now, but they said my hair would grow back soon. I strained to see the back of my head, only just realizing how two mirrors worked like magic so that I could see behind myself, but even then I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. PawPaw exclaimed that I had 82 stitches! I must be the bravest lil’ fisherman alive!
I know now that he exaggerated, most doctors put about 3-4 stitches per inch of cut, so I probably only had 20 to 30 stitches, about the number of raised bumps I can still count, from where the skin had been pulled tightly and had healed thickly, but for some reason PawPaw said 82 and that’s the number I’d use when we finally returned home and I talked about my adventure. And, he had to explain to me that Our Lady of the Lake didn’t really have a lake, so we couldn’t go fishing there, but he’d take me when we got home. MawMaw was waiting when we arrived, and she had cookies and milk waiting for both of us, of course. She was much more gentle with her shugga’ for a few weeks, until my hair started to grow back, and then we went back to life as usual, and I felt like the bravest lil’ fisherman alive, happy, still climbing trees, and knowing PawPaw would always be there to catch me or help with a gentle nudge.
Some time later, when I had most of my hair back, probably just before the September 1976 custody trial, I was sittting in the living room, where I slept at night after everyone went to bed. PawPaw’s tiny, two bedroom home with broken window screens and big metal gates that needed repairing and tools lying all around had become crowded. Linda White, Wendy’s best friend at Glen Oaks before Wendy dropped out to have me, had gotten pregnant and had a baby girl and moved back in with PawPaw along with her husband, landscaper and artist Craig Black. Craig, Linda, PawPaw, and MawMaw were watching TV with me, the baby was asleep in Linda and Craig’s room, and PawPaw was either in the single bathroom, smoking a cigarette or two and reading while ostensibly sitting on the toliet to poo, but mostly finding a place of peace for a few moments; or, he was in the kitchen smoking and sipping a Miller Lite or two for the same reason.
It’s an unmistakable voice, deep and resonating and authoritative, the bass tones reverberating through walls that blocked lesser voices. I couldn’t hear PawPaw, but I had no doubt who was visiting and got up and walked into the kitchen with a partially eaten cookie.
PawPaw was standing in the doorway and my dad was in the carport, holding a large brown paper bag with fancy rope handles, the kind you may get when you buy something from an expensive store. He held the bag nonchalantly, but his eyes were intense and focused and his jaw was held tightly, and he towered over PawPaw. Now in the kitchen, I could hear both of them.
“No, Ed,” PawPaw said. “Not t’day. Next week.”
My dad bellowed something about fuck the rules, he’s Jason’s father and he wanted to give him something. He poked his finger down at PawPaw’s chest to emphasize what he said.
“No, Ed,” PawPaw replied. “Please go. Come back next week.”
My dad saw me and said, “Hey, Justin! I mean Jason, godamnit! I brought you something!”
I was excited! My dad had picked me up before, and always had gifts for me. Sometimes, he took me and Kieth to see Big Daddy, and Big Daddy had given me things like a new, fancy fishing rod with reals and gears and convoluted things that didn’t really work in PawPaw’s tiny pond, but was fun to play with and expensive enough that Craig and his friends would inspect it and admire the quality and tell me how lucky I was, and I was anxious to see what was in the paper bag.
He held up the bag and tried to step through the doorway, but PawPaw moved sideways and blocked him.
“Please, Ed, not today.”
My dad’s voice rose and he looked down at PawPaw angrily and thumped his finger against PawPaw’s chest and reiterated that he was my father and I was his son and he was going to give me something and no one would stop him. Craig, Linda, and MawMaw must have heard, and they came into the kitchen and stood beside PawPaw, between my dad and me. Voices raised, and everyone was speaking loudly and I can’t recall what was said, but I can remember the scene. It was somewhat comical, a huge loud man towering over a room full of tiny people.
My dad’s not that big, only 6’1,” and at the time he was thinner than I’d know him later, perhaps only 190 pounds, but the Whites and Blacks were small and thin, and from my perspective my dad towered over them.
Linda was barely taller than Wendy or Debbie, and though Craig was almost as tall as my dad, he was skinny, like a twig, and calm and mellow. He was an artist with big, bushy hair and a scruffy beard, exactly like a popular painter on public television, Bob Ross. PawPaw was Popeye, and Craig was Bob Ross. PawPaw had welcomed him into our household when their baby was born. He wasn’t saying much and was probably high, self admittedly, and he was standing beside Linda as she looked up at my dad and told him in no uncertain terms to leave; I remember that vividly, and 40 years later Craig and I would agree about that evening. Linda was unabashed in her words and actions ever since having a baby, and wanted a calm household. Even my dad was shocked by her ferocity, and he responded by thumping his finger into her chest, and that’s when PawPaw had had enough and stepped forward and shouted for the first and only time I ever heard him shout in anger, and he told my dad to leave.
My dad bellowed an obscenity and shoved PawPaw, and Linda pounced on my dad and began clawing at him. He shoved her away, and PawPaw stepped in again and my dad flung him aside. Craig silently moved in front of my dad and stood there, and MawMaw stood by his side, and not even my dad would shove her. Instead, he plowed between them and grabbed my arm so hard I yelled in surprise, and then PawPaw really stepped into action and hurled himself forward and everyone piled on top of my dad and tried yanking his arm off of me. He knocked them aside with his other hand and its brown paper bag. MawMaw and Linda grabbed my free arm and tried to pull me away from my dad, and he pulled back, and I stretched out like Stretch Armstrong. Everyone was shouting, including me, and through the din we heard Craig and Linda’s baby cry from the back bedroom crib. That sobered everyone, and Linda rushed back and Craig followed, my dad collected his senses and stood silently, and MawMaw bent down and inspected a scratch on my arm that was bleeding. PawPaw stood straight, breathing heavily, and waited patiently to act again.
My dad looked at me and said, “Jason. Son. I brought you something. Do you want it?”
Of course I said yes. I forgot about my bleeding cut and looked at the bag. PawPaw looked at me and then at my dad, and told my dad he could speak with me for five minutes in the carport, and then he had to go and could see me next week. That seemed fair, and my dad held my hand and walked me out the doorway and into the carport. MawMaw came out with a bandaid and put it on my scratch, and said she’d be back with cookies. My dad and I stood beside PawPaw’s Ford and I pointed out the blood stains on the floorboard we couldn’t get out, and at my arm’s bandaide, and said I was the bravest fisherman on Earth. My dad agreed, and we chatted and listened to the crickets chirp and my dad rubbed my stubbly head and told me he loved me and had something for me in the bag. In all the excitement about impending cookies, I had almost forgotten about the bag.
“I think this is what you wanted,” he said, sheepishly. He reached in the fancy bag and pulled out a new Stretch Armstrong, still in its box.
Well, technically, it was Evil Stretch. The black guy on PawPaw’s TV. But, in person, Evil Stretch was green, like I had seen at Our Lady of the Lake, and he had pointy ears and fangs and was even better than the white stretch with blonde hair. I was happy, and opened the box and tried to stretch Evil Stretch but couldn’t. My dad laughed and said I wasn’t big enough, but I would be, and one day I’d be as big and strong as him and maybe even Big Daddy. I was fascinated by that idea, to be so big that everyone talked about you like you were a superhero, and for the next five minutes I rambled on about intergalactic battles between Stretch and Evil Stretch and how I’d practice stretching so I could grow big and strong, too.
The carport door opened and MawMaw stepped outside with cookies. She gave me one and handed a few to my dad, to go. She stood there, waiting, and PawPaw stood in the doorway. My dad told me he loved me, and I said I loved him, too, and he said he’d see me next week and we’d go see Big Daddy and Mamma Jean, and I thought that sounded fun. He left, and I went back inside and showed off my band aide and practiced stretching Evil Stretch. Cartoons were over, and everyone was watching something on the small black and white TV that I can’t recall.
Late that night, after everyone had gone to bed and PawPaw was preparing the living room sofa for me to sleep, I sat on the kitchen table and played with Stretch. I wasn’t strong enough to stretch him, no matter how much I had practiced that day, and I had grown bored with my new toy; the thirty second commercial for Stretch Armstrong accurately showed kids having fun for 30 seconds, about as long as you can have fun with a soft rubber toy that you can’t budge. I told him so. “You’re useless!” I said. “I wish I didn’t have you!” I bellowed. On a whim, I picked up one of PawPaw’s flathead screwdrivers from the kitchen table – he always had tools lying around – and held it like a knife and pointed it at Stretch. I told him to be quiet. In my mind, he wasn’t, so I told him again and held the knife like I had seen Big Daddy hold knives, rotated sideways to penetrate between ribs, lacerating lungs or piercing a heart and causing someone to bleed to death rapidly, not straight up and down and bounching off the rib cage and causing a meer flesh wound. Stretch ignored me and said something, and I shoved the knife into his ribs and quickly removed it, satisfied that I had pierced his heart, as evidenced by him bleeding a clear, viscous goo through the small hole.
He began to deflate, and I came to my senses and realized I had broken Stretch and regretted what I had done. I tried shoving the goo back inside, like the doctors had done to me, and even took off my band aide and tried to patch the hole in his ribs, but every time I tried to move him more goo oozed out his wound.
I began crying, and PawPaw came into the kitchen and saw what had happened. He told me not to worry, I could never do anything wrong, and we’d try to fix Stretch Armstrong like the doctors had fixed me. I didn’t correct him that it was Evil Stretch. Perhaps I was embarassed that I had broken my new toy, or perhaps I was somehow realizing that good and evil aren’t black and white, even then grasping for a metaphor to use years later when writing a book. Or maybe I just trusted PawPaw to make things right. That’s not probably not exactly what I felt or thought, but it’s part of the image I’ve created for myself, and likely a close approximation of the emotions I felt, my first feelings of shame and being forgiven because I was unable to do wrong, and I was being guided away from ignorance by being shown a path towards better feelings. Puck put my story into action.
We tried using super glue to patch the hole, but it didn’t stick. We put him in the freezer because of something about viscoelastic goo slowing down and thickening when cold, and that worked until he warmed up again, and then the goo oozed and he became more and more deflated. Finally, after two days, PawPaw and I agreed that we had done all we could, and that was good enough, and we decided to give Stretch a proper funeral. We said a few words on his behalf, saying what a good Stretch he had been and not Evil at all, wrapped him in the fancy paper bag, and dropped him into the trash can beside the cricket cage, and then went fishing with the cane poles, not Big Daddy’s fancy rod and reel that was gathering dust in a pile of tools beside the cricket cage.
According to Wikipedia, Stretch Armstrong was released in a massive marketing campaign in the summer of 1976, a Japanese toy origninally intended to be a Sumo wrestler but redesigned for the American market as a blonde haired action figure with an “all American” physique, not a Sumo body. That means I probably saw it the summer that Judge Lottingger was preparing his September 1976 court report for Partin vs Partin. Of course, he never mentioned stretch, and I don’t recall ever having met him or offered my opion on things, and I’ve since learns that few judges have access to all information before rendering verdicts, probably not even Chief Justice Earl Warren. Almost two decades after Lottinggers ruling on me, I’d serve for fourteen years a CASA, a Court Appointed Special Advocate for kids in the foster system, which was coincidentally formed in 1976 by a judge and attorney who realized that court decisions are usually made with only partial information, and they created a nonprofit with the legal support to allow volunteers to shadow kids for as long as it takes, getting to know the kids and meeting parents and guardians and foster parents and writing a report that becomes part of the judge’s legal justification for decisions, and in most instances overrding predicate bromides, such as Lottigger’s statement that mother’s often win custody cases, because “This preference is very simply explained, the mother is normally better able to care for the child and look after the education, rearing, and training necessary.“
I can’t see the past and how situations change based on simple court decisions, but I had always wondered how my life would have been different if PawPaw had raised me. He was, after all, a force of nature and possibly one of the most altruistic human beings I’ve ever known. Whenever close friends learn more about my history and ask the inevitable question of how I turned out differently than my biologic family, I always think of PawPaw, Uncle Bob, and a long line of people who stepped forward and answered the call when no legal system would.
I involuntarily reached up and felt the scar across the back of my head. PawPaw had exaggerated, it hand’t needed 82 stitches. Most doctors place a stitch or two every quarter of an inch or so, and my scar is only about eight or nine inches long in a curved, backwards letter C across my scalp. There are eight bumps from bunched up skin being sutured together, but some may not have healed as bumps, and I probably had somewhere between 16 and 30 stitches. Wendy had spent many years and money she didn’t have to spare paying for good barbers to cut my hair in a way that hid the scar and probably helped her forget my time with PawPaw, but when I joined the army it became a part of my identity. One of my early nicknames had been ScarHead, a play on the 80’s film ScarFace. After I was honorably discharged, I could grow out my hair again but I soon aged adn my hair thined and the scar stood out again, though the older we get the fewer nicknames people give us. Some people asked about it, usually when we’re on a topic about sports accidents, and I never have told the whole story because there were so many details about my life that the story exposes and I don’t want to feed a conversation I would rather not have. I usually say I fell off a fence as a kid. Sometimes, I may joke that I was always climbing things, even as a kid, but I’ve never been very good and fall a lot, which makes my rock climbing buddies chuckle because it’s true.
I realized I was mindlessly feeling my scar, rubbing my fingers across the bumps, and returned my hand to my book and pretended to read by staring at it and smiling subtly. An astute passenger may have noticed I was weeping a bit, and may have imagined I was engrossed in my book in one of those sad yet happy moments. In a way that was true, it’s often how I feel when I recall my childhood with Wendy. I heard Wendy’s voice in her quote that she was scared and alone, and I heard her intentions when she told Lottingger about PawPaw. “Defendant testified in the instant proceedings that the reason she did not contest custody in the separation proceeding was that she was not financially or emotionally capable of caring for the minor, and that knowing the Whites were going to be caring for him, she knew he would be in good hands.” That was true. He also said, “The Whites came to regard Jason as their own,” if I had been my CASA, I would have said “Mr. White loved Jason like a son,” and I would have mentioned Jason’s affinity for knives and knowledge of how to use them and mentioned his biologic family’s criminal history and hoped the judge could have read between the lines. I’ve always wondered, fruitlessly and mindlessly, like rubbing my scar, what life would have been like if PawPaw had raised me.
That was all water under the Comite River bridge. For almost half a century, Wendy and I had carved out our own relationship, a hybrid version of mother and son and friends who shared a complex history that couldn’t be simplified by a court report, and why something as common as alcoholism has deeper stories for us. I was unsure what I’d learn at when we finally spoke, but I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.
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