“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 2014’s“I Heard You Paint Houses,” a reference to a hitman who paints the walls of a house red with splattered blood.
The closest thing to unsolicited life advice Coach Ketelsen ever gave me, besides to not curse so much, was to focus on doing ten perfect pushups. He said that was better than managing 100 unfocused. His unsolicited wrestling advice was similar: just wrestle. For each two minute round, just wrestle. Do nothing else. Just wrestle. The only solicited life advice he offered me over the course of 25 years was: “Pig farming. You can’t go wrong earning a livelihood by pig farming. If you treat the pigs well, you’ll be happy.” The only solicited wrestling advice he gave me led to me having the most respectable cradle in all of Louisiana my senior year: he taught me how to use my disproportionately large hands and feet to my advantage using a calm mind and biomechanics, not brute force, and I pinned 36 opponents with it in the 1989-1990 season, winning a silver medal at 145 pounds in the Baton Rouge city finals on March 4th, 2011, two weeks before Big Daddy’s Baton Rouge funeral.
I missed Coach’s 2014 funeral when I was on a sabbatical. If I have a regret about traveling, it was being unable to hug Mrs. K, his wife of 52 years, or visit with his children, whom I hadn’t seen in almost ten years by then, and tell them how much he helped me. I’d tell them when I got home, but it didn’t feel the same as being at someone’s funeral, seeing who showed up, and sharing what you learned from them and would like to carry on. Doing 10 perfect pushups was a tribute to Coach, my Mr. Miyagi. To me, it’s a way to honor a father using the definition of father I’ve adhered to most of my adult life.
I can still do around 50 to 60 passable pushups- not too bad for an old machine with a young mind – but I’ve always struggle to do 10 perfectly. My record for passable pushups in the military was 506, in a competition after I finished the 82nd’s pre-Ranger course in the summer of 1992, the year the JFK Assassination report was released. We began with 263 seasoned paratroopers, most of whom were combat veterans and sported a chest full of badges (I had Air Assault, Combat Infantry Badge, and an Expert Infantry Badge by then, and a manilla folder full of other recognitions), and over the course of two weeks, the 263 decorated men dwindled down to nine. We lost a major chunk on the first day of walking off a high-diving board blindfolded and in full combat gear, having to resurface with an M16 ready for combat. Another chunk failed some of the written tests, memorizing the sequence and details of each paragraph of a five-paragraph operations orders (Situation, Mission, Comunicaion, and two others I never recall, something about command structure and logistics support, should you need either), helicopter medevac sequences (simple: assume communications will be cut off, and prioritize your words), and the Ranger’s creed (leave no man behind, among other things we recited before every rare meal, a way to enforce a type of religion across diverse Americans, a way to feel that you can trust people whether you like them or not, and help them whether you like them or not, just like the Good Samaratan.) We spent two weeks under forced sleep and food deprivation – where all types of personal grievances come to light – while conducting simulated missions with lots of explosions, fake bullets, enemy troops attacking us at randomized times 24 hours a day (the 82nd battallion on #9 of nine “defense ready force” units trains by rotating sleep cycles and fucking with people in one of many Fort Bragg schools as freshly rested, fully armed, well trained “enemies.”) We lost good men to fatigue, men who passed out from exhaustion, or pretended to pass out to stop the pain. Of the nine who completed the course, six of us had wrestled in high school.
All nine agreed with Coach about perfect pushups, even the three who hadn’t wrestled. That fall, a few of us trained together on the post wrestling team, and we were invited to compete in the national Ranger challenge; hence, pushing to 506 once in my life. I didn’t compete, I only trained, because the 504th deployed to circle Haiti around the time of the competition, and I was hurt badly on the jump back into the states. It was my first leadership role, the air force mistakenly dropped the six man team I led into a dense forest from only 450 feet at around 3 am, just before a rainstorm, as if to prove God had a sense of humor. While crashing through branches, I broke a few things other than branches, just hairline fractures on my fingers as I fumbled to release my 85 pound rucksack and padded M16 while crashing through branches and uttering, in my mind: “oh shit! oh shit! oh shit!” When I hit the fallen tree with my head, my left ear was forced to my left shoulder and the nerves on my right side were yanked so hard that I lost movement in my right arm for about a week; the bone spurs jutting into the C5/6 space either began then, or from one of hundreds of wrestling matches over the years. I never did 506 pushups in a row again, but I did compete on the following year’s wrestling team at 191 pounds, and my craddle was as good as ever.
As for cursing, blame my dad: we’re creatures of habit, cursing was my first language, and habits are hard to break.
A year before Havana, I learned that I knew yoga because of Coach, like Neo in the Matrix realizing he knew Kung-Fu. I flew into Kathmandu, humming the eponymous Bob Seager song all the way, and spent three months hiking across the Himalayas to Delhi. It hurt, but it was worth temporary discomfort. I was invited to the Tibetan University’s 50th anniversary, hosted by His Holiness The Dali Lama, and I stayed for the world’s first international conference on modern science and philosophy of the mind. (For years, I’ve had a manilla folder with a few certificates tucked inside, and one says I’m a physics expert.) I stayed in a guest house – a concept similar to Cuba’s casa particulares – that had a small little free library, and I read their books and stretched while waited two weeks for my security clearance to process. While I waited, I had access to the Tibetan University’s library; could walk to religious sites of a dozen sects; and had the luxury to linger in tea houses, reading books sold by Deepak, a 4’11” entrepreneur who smiled peacefully and chewed minute amounts of betel nut to ward off hunger.
Deepak had fed his family of four for 35 years by selling books from a push cart parked between the university and deer park, where The Buddha first spoke of enlightenment 2,600 years ago. I’d stretch between books (he had poems by Rami and Layla, select collections from Hinduism and what The Buddha taught, The Prophet, and about 30 more; he added or swapped a book every decade or so) and a few gurus, pilgrims, and vagabond hipsters with Instagram accounts saw me stretching and asked if I were doing this move or that, words I couldn’t pronounce, saying I had a remarkable Hunanmansana and Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana. I was just stretching, using the same moves Coach had shown, but with a few modifications to slowly elongate the scar tissue connecting my skull to my hips. What the gawkers were noticing, but not realizing, was that I was stretching and not doing anything else. Now I say I know yoga, like Neo knew Kung-Fu.
Coincidentally, I learned from my host’s little free library that “Hunanmansana” is named for Hunan, the monkey god of wrestling in The Ramayana. It’s a Hindu epic, like Beuwolf and The Odysey, and Hunan – which sounds deliciously like human – demonstrates what friendship and honor look like rather than preach it with superlative and subjective adjectives. Maybe Coach was a guru and didn’t know it. Deepak, too. I skipped the conference to spend more time with him, but I saw Instagram posts and a Youtube or two about the conference and it looked informative. I did, however, pop in and hear His Holliness’s wish that anyone listening leads the world in acknowledging climate change and working to improve it. He said The Buddha taught wisdom and compassion, and the evidence of global warming was too strong to ignore wisely, regardless of the cause, and with almost 8 Billion people on Earth it was hard to ignore the effects compassionately. He sounded like some sort of guru.
As for meditation, I had begun practicing a form of vipassana about two or three years earlier after a monthly VA magazine highlighted ongoing Desert Storm Syndrome research and advocated meditation as a drug-free alternative to chronic pain. Ironically, I was trying to clear my mind and stop taking opioids for pain, which had become a habit for too many years after the VA began prescribing them to me beginning in 2014. I was focused on Lotus Medical, LLC, a startup company developing bone healing implants; ironically improving on what holds my ankle together, which has an 18% long-term failure rate, leading to fusion or a total ankle replacement. I was focused and juggling a lot of things necessary for a startup, and lost track of time. I woke up a few years later, addicted to pain pills, surprised at myself, and embarassed that Coach would have seen me addicted to drugs. Over that time, the VA had increased my 15% disability for hearing loss and asthma to 75% for headaches, joint and muscle deterioration, ambiguously identified symptoms grouped into what they called “Desert Storm Syndrome,” and, though I fought the diagnosis and won, PTSD.
The Veterans Administration PTSD test was an unscientific questionnaire developed by one person with a goal to get people back to work without being pissed off at bad bosses. If almost anyone who felt irked at work completed the same questionairre, many if not all would register as having PTSD. I answered the questions truthfully, but denied having PTSD from anything I experienced in the army. After the VA claimed victory at treating my PTSD, they lowered my disability to 65%. Despite the VA’s diligence, my bone spurs continued to grow. In 2010, two independent civilian surgery centers recommended that I receive, as soon as possible, four surgeries: a relatively benign hernia patch, C5/6 fusion, and bilateral hip replacements. I wanted to clear my mind before chosing, and, for me, clearing my mind from drugs took vipisanna meditation and hiking across the Himalayas.
I was ashamed to become addicted to anything, but took solace that Audie Murphy had become addicted to sleeping pills at night, amphetamines in the morning, and opioids whenever he felt like it. He was one of my childhood heroes, and is, to this day, America’s most decorated war hero. In the 1940’s, he was a 17 year old, handsome and charismatic soldier who lied about his age to fight Germans in WWII, but was too small to become a marine or paratrooper; they carry a lot of weight for months at a time, surrounded by people who may want to kill a team of them, and the weight they carry isn’t scaled. A 130 pound person with a strong heart carries the same load as a 250 pound person who may not care about you, and both need to survive and fight and return home. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link; despite the high school joke, when it comes to foot soldiers, size does matter.
Instead of the heavy-lifting troops, Audie became an infantryman and won every medal America has to give, saving the lives of anyone in a American uniform by straddling a .50 cal machine gun and standing between Germans and his outnumbered, wounded, and out of ammunition friends. He was given a field commission, and became an officer without even a high school diploma. Everyone wanted him to lead the charge. The motto of the U.S. infantry, despite some veterans’s actions, is engraved on Fort Benning’s statue of Iron Mike, holding a WWI rifle in one hand, looking over his shoulder, waving his other hand, and shouting, “Follow Me!” The Airborne motto, on display across a physical fitness field at Ft. Benning’s jump school, is “All The Way..” Combined, the Airborne and infantry mottos are a powerful way to lead by example. I would have voted Audie Murphy president, had he lived.
Despite Audie’s fame and success – and eventual bankruptcy from poor business decisions and horse racing – he began taking pills because he suffered from PTSD and couldn’t sleep; it’s hard to kill 278 men and not loose sleep over it. In the late 1960’s, he woke up and realized he was better than that. He evoked the memory of his deceased single mother, a saint in his mind, and locked himself in a hotel room to sweat it out. He emerged a week later, more like his former self.
Audie was too old to be the Hollywood action hero of his youth, but he tried to become entrepreneurial and invested in race horses, a restaurant, and other poor business decisions. He filled bankruptcy in 1968. He was still an alcoholic in 1970, and he was arrested for allegedly trying to kill his wife’s dog trainer. He was on his last legs, but he refused lucrative offers from alcohol and tobacco companies to endorse their fancy brands; he said he knew he was a role model for kids, and he wanted to earn his livelihood honorably by not encouraging anyone to do what he did. At the same time, while broke and desperate and aging (he was 46, the same age I was in Cuba), he used his All American hero status and transparent PTSD suffering to promote peace. He wanted a world where no other kids would suffer.
After he died in 1971, the Texas VA Hospital was renamed the Audie Murphy Memorial Hospital. All army medics rotate through his namesake in their advance training, learning to save lives rather than take them. I can’t imagine a finer epitaph. He was, by every definition, an All American hero.
Audie was so popular when he died that he was buried in Arlington Cemetery, and to this day his tomb is the second only to John F. Kennedy for number of visitors paying respect; they’re followed closely by visitors to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I’ve always wondered what Audie would have to say about the 2010’s prescription opioid epidemic and the VA’s role in it, or to learn what happened to Kennedy’s 1963 Community Mental Healthcare Act, signed only three weeks before he was allegedly shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, a veteran with mental illness, who was in turn shot on live television 48 hours later by Jack Ruby, another veteran with mental illness. I’m confident I know what he’d think about veterans fibbing on the VA’s PTSD questionnaire, or about anyone slimy enough to lie about their service and display stolen valor
Jimmy Hoffa knew Audie – I heard Hoffa financed some of his early Hollywood films using the Teamster pension fund – and had New Orleans mafia boss Carlos Marcello send his man, D’Alton Smith, to introduce Audie to Big Daddy and negotiate a deal between Big Daddy and President Nixon. The deal would free Hoffa from prison and provide Big Daddy a presidential pardon if he admitted to perjury; or, alternatively, financial rewards if he signed an affidavit swearing that Bobby Kennedy’s prosecution perjured when they said they hadn’t used illegal wiretapping to monitor Hoffa’s defense strategies. Audie was in and out of the Baton Rouge airport for a month around the time Wendy was flirting with my father, and Big Daddy flew to Los Angeles to meet with Nixon’s men. (Richard Nixon lived on the cliffs of San Clemente, half way between Los Angeles and San Diego, above a surf break now available publicly and nicknamed Slippery Dick; in a northern swell, it’s a fun ride, and a never ending source of mostly teenager jokes.) Hoffa had put Nixon into power from prison, using the Teamster pension fund and the world’s first endorsement of a republican candidate by a Teamster leader, encouraging 2.7 million voting American Teamsters to say: “Sure. Why not?”
Big Daddy refused, and on 28 May 1971, two weeks after flying from the Baton Rouge airport in one of D’Alton Smith’s aging aircrafts, Audie and all four passengers died when that plane crashed in Virginia. Big Daddy was a leading suspect in newspapers, which he never denied. Doug swore until his dying day in 2020 that his big brother had, in fact, orchestrated the crash, despite official reports, and self published a book about it in 2012: “From My Brother’s Shadow,” available on Amazon. I grew up believing Big Daddy killed Audie Murphy, but I never told any of the guys at Fort Bragg that part of my family history, and they were too young to remember the 1971 newspaper articles.
Audie was America’s El Che, a hero’s hero, and the result of his death making national headlines was a decline in mafia hits on Big Daddy and my family. Most low level hitmen and Teamster thugs were unemployable vets with skills from war. In The Irishman, Frank Sheenan spoke frequently about his modest 35 combat days spread over two years, and compared his excessive drinking to Audie’s. No matter who you were, you looked up to the 5’6″ Audie Murphy and how he tried to lead his life after the war; even Frank lauds him. If Big Daddy would kill a plane full of people just to get a national hero with 287 confirmed kills to stop pestering him about freeing Jimmy Hoffa, then Big Daddy wasn’t a man to cross. It wouldn’t be until the mid-1990’s that I wouldn’t confirm, or at least verify the authenticity of, the FAA reports that concluded Audie’s crash was pilot error. Regardless of the report, I would have been surprised to learn Big Daddy had killed Audie. He liked him. Everyone who met Audie liked him, and Audie didn’t seem to mind that Big Daddy was a dishonorably discharged marine who never drank; he said it clouded your mind and loosed your lips. Audie didn’t judge a man for not wanting to go to war, and he strove for world peace. He was maintained his youthful and handsome appearance, which added to an impression mostly based on his actions: polite, humble, and trying to make the world a better place. Whether Big Daddy killed Audie and an airplane full of people or not, he was wise enough to never say he didn’t, especially to Doug, because Doug had a childlike grin and loose lips that rarely stopped moving. Big Daddy smiled every time someone nudged him to tell more, and I believe he enjoyed having a ruthless reputation among the mafia underworld; I would have, especially when they were trying to kill or kidnap my family so that Jimmy Hoffa could get out of jail and give their bosses a $121 Million bonus.
All of those things were what I was pondering on my sabbatical, so it’s no wonder I was worried about Wendy, and what she must have experienced as a 16 year old hopeful girl with the last name Partin, when the nation’s mafia was kidnapping or killing anyone in Baton Rouge named Partin that wasn’t my grandfather. She probably developed PTSD from all of it; I know she hated her job and bosses, so I’m sure she would have registered on the VA PTSD exam, and scored an extra $120 a month to play with. I could understand why, in 1973, she would flee Baton Rouge and the Partin family. Knowing that she was a flawed person doing her best, understanding her situation, and empathizing with her feelings, I still couldn’t muster enough compassion to forget that I, too, had experienced the same things. A lot of my scars came, not from the military, but from what most people assumed was bad luck around hunting sites, car wrecks, and house fires when I was a Partin in Baton Rouge; as I mentioned, our home address in the phone book was listed under “Edward Partin.” I try not to dwell on those days. I did, however, quip with the VA pshycologist that the war was nothing like growing up in the Partin family, and I said that my mother and I shared that sentiment; the VA said my humor was evidence of successful treatment for any PTSD obtained from the first Gulf war, and reduced my disability check by $120.
I went to bed after doing yoga, mediating, and cursing my crepitus. As I laid my head down to sleep, I thought of Coach never complaining about anything, always smiling, and consistently being Coach. I aknowledged my frustration about rickety shoulders and fighting the inevitable, called out to my old self, the one who never complained, and drifted to sleep.
I slept peacefully that night, without a pistol under my pillow like Audie and Big Daddy had, and without opioids for the first year in too many years with them. I attributed my luck to vispissana meditation, Audie Murphy, and Coach Dale Ketelsen.
Eight hours later, I woke to the smell and crackle of bacon frying, no one shooting at me, and a head that didn’t hurt as much as yesterday. It was already the best day ever.
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