Late Night With David Letterman
I left MawMaw’s house and didn’t know where to go. I was upset and overreacting, like many 17 year olds do, but I was calm enough to know I would have to sleep somewhere that night, and eventually I’d return to school; I didn’t have to now that I was legally able to drop out, but I didn’t dislike it enough to put on my walking shoes and leave, especially with only two months left. I would finish school, but that meant finding a place to sleep for two months. I didn’t want to see Wendy, because every time I considered it I felt overwhelmingly emotional, upset and angry and confused. When I considered Leah’s family, I felt that I had outstayed my welcome; they never said so, but I felt it. I didn’t know where to go, but I was going somewhere, and I flew along I-10 and automatically exited by the new state capital and rode pass the Centroplex and arrived at the downtown wrestling club where I had trained for junior olympics the year before. I hid my motorcycle in the alleyway and let myself in with a key I had made at the same Vietnamese general store that I had copied Coach’s key.
I turned on the lights and dusted off a few of the wrestling dummies and drilled moves and lifted weights that strengthened my neck and ability to pick up and throw a 150 pound opponent, and practiced on the heaviest throw dummy I could. Two hours later, exhausted, I leaned against the dummy and fell asleep on the mat. My final thought was comical, to me, probably because of recent science fiction movies about dreams and consciousness and ideas, like do androids dream of mechanical sheep, and I fell asleep wondering if the dummy would dream of stuffed rubber sheep.
I awoke refreshed and without remembering if I had dreamed. In my mind’s radio I was humming the Dolly Parton song, “9 to 5! What a way to make a livin’!” and I tumbled off the mat and stumbled to the bathroom, and I looked to the mirror for a sense of ambition, and I yawned and stretched and tried to come to life. As I washed my face, I wished I had a toothbrush and some toothpaste and I pondered what to do about breakfast. I splashed water on my face and dried it with the cheap, brown, scratchy paper towels of old gymnasiums and stared into the mirror again. I scratched an itch on my scalp adjacent to my scar, and I felt a bump that shouldn’t have been there.
“Shit!” I exclaimed, suspecting ring worm because I had fallen asleep on a wrestling mat without having cleaned it with fungicide first.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” I said as I parted my hair and inspected the new bump and eventually saw a half dollar sized ring of pinkish red ring of ring worm, a fungus easily spread in warm and humid environments, which was Baton Rouge nine months a year. I sighed and resigned myself to the week it would take to go away. Before, that would have kept me from competing for a week, because part of registering for tournaments included a quick check for ringworm, because even with fungicide on the mat it can be contagious between people.
I found fungicide in the cleaning closet and rubbed it into my scalp and felt nauseous because of the putrid smell and my hunger. I finished and hoped I didn’t reek too badly and walked across the street and bought an ubiquitous, sugary pastry from a local bakery for 99 cents, and 20 minutes later I felt a sugar high that made my pulse quicken and mind race. I had already missed the first few classes, which happened often because of my various sports and activities and disdain of school, and sometimes I simply forged Wendy’s signature and skipped school; being a legal adult didn’t seem to exclude you from sitting in boring classes and taking tests. I decided to skip school that day and probably longer, and I’d handle the ramifications if and when they arose. I returned to the gym, ensured I had a deck of cards and a marker, straddled my motorcycle, and headed to New Orleans.
I parked in a familiar spot near Bourbon Street and locked my helmet to the bike, ensured my decks were stacked, and went for a walk without worrying wear I’d end up. About an hour later, I saw someone I knew performing three card monte on a street near the St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. I inspected the crowd and didn’t seen any of his accomplices, and I walked into the crowd and watched people wager $20 bills that they could keep track of the red card among the two black cards that the grifter tossed around to the rhythm of his banter.
He won around $80 in ten minutes and ended the session and signaled his team to disperse, and when the crowd left he walked over to me. He was a young guy, probably 22 or 23, but wise beyond his years. He had grown up in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, the district that would become famous when Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans and desimated the poor, predominantly African American Ninth Ward. He had learned magic from the local magic club and people who worshiped John Rochenbaumer and wrestled in high school, but he dropped out when his father went to jail and began earning his living as a street con artist. When we met, I had just decided to not be like my family, and, because of Mr. Samuel’s suggestion, begun telling spectators exactly what I was doing – fooling them – and hoping for tips rather than hustling for wins. The grifter changed his nickname every few months, but it usually sounded like what you’d expect from a New Orleans street performer, like Downtown Jimmy Brown or Bourbon Street Johnny. His name was Walter, and we were something not unlike friends, and perhaps I had looked up to him like a mentor. He was really good with a deck of cards.
“Hey, Magic Man! Long time, my brotha from anotha motha!” Walter smiled and patted my shoulder and I smiled back and told him he flashed his move a few times. He laughed and we took out a deck of cards and I showed him my awkwardly healed finger and we brainstormed new moves.
“Man,” he said. “You could make serious money here. You a trustworthy lookin’ dude!” He smiled at that; he had always said my smile made people trust me, and he was probably right. The few times I had worked with him we had the biggest crowds ever and split a lot of tips, and the last time I had worked New Orleans I used the money to pay court fees for my emancipation. We had earned almost $300 each that weekend, and it had only cost us a few decks of cards.
Walter smiled at a group of tourists and they gathered around us and soon we were performing as a team, bantering back and forth and having fun. They tipped us generously and the crowd that had gathered began to disperse, but one of them stayed and chatted with us, a merchant marine passing through New Orleans. He said he had noticed us performing and thought we were talented, and he asked me about it being a school day and I said, not completely untruthfully, that my grandfather had just died and I was upset and enjoying myself on a day off, like Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. He chuckled at that, probably because the 1986 film about Ferris taking a day off of high school was a popular reference, and he said goodbye. He left without tipping, so perhaps merchant marines don’t make much money. After everyone was gone, Walter and I sat and appreciated the St. Louis Cathedral and listened to a few Dixieland jazz bands vying for tips. I told him about wrestling Hillary Clinton and that I was surprised no one seemed to care about the 82nd in Panama as much as I did; I didn’t mention my dad’s passion about fucking US actions in Panama.
“What you gonna do now?” he asked. I said I dind’t know. Interestingly, I had asked him the same question when we first met, soon after he had dropped out of school and was hoping to earn his livelihood as a street magician. He enthusiastically suggested magic, probably because we earned more money performing simultaneously, and we showed each other a few more things and brainstormed how to earn more money without having producers like David Copperfield. We didn’t figure it out, and I left New Orleans and rode home along I-12, a much faster route than the River Road that coach took. It bridges the Achafalaya for about 20 miles, and I loved the feeling of flying above the swamp that separates New Orleans from Baton Rouge and almost wished it hadn’t ended when I arrived downtown 45 minutes later.
I slept in the wrestling club again, and skipped school the next day and drove to Grandma Foster’s. I pulled into her driveway and into the carport; she hadn’t been able to drive in years, and had sold her car and an empty carport didn’t mean she wasn’t home. I turned off the engine and took off my helmet and the door opened and Grandma’s tiny body stood there. She smiled broadly as soon as my helmet was off and she saw my face.
“Oh! Jason! I’m so glad you’re here!” I walked over and hugged her and she invited me in, but her voice sounded reticent, and her tone was embarassed. She said her house was a mess.
I walked inside and was shocked by the destruction. Framed pictured littered the floor and holes had been punched into the walls. Papers were littered here and there, cluttering the floor so much that I had to step over some and onto others to follow Grandma. Her kitchen table was somewhat organized, and a football sat on its edge. Grandma was talking but I didn’t hear her with her soft voice and back turned, and I picked up the football and inspected the handwriting covering it.
“That was Ed’s,” Grandma said. “Billy had the boys sign it for him.” Billy’s signature was sprawled with at least a dozen others, and it said “To Ed, from the 1954 LSU National Champions. Beside it was a stack of Life magazines from their weekly 1964 specials about the new concept of organized crime in America and the Teamsters, including the May issue highlighting Big Daddy and our family and the newly appointed president’s family, the Johnsons. A pile of other books and magazines had been organized beside the copies of Life. It was obvious that Grandma Foster had been picking things off the floor and placing some on the table.
She saw me looking at everything, and said, “They broke in here while I was gone to Ed’s funeral.” Her eyes squinted and her skin crinkled, and she seemed about to cry, but then she said, “They was lookin’ for money, but there weren’t none here.” I stepped over the cluttered floor and looked at everything she had gathered on the table. It was mostly books and magazines and paperwork, but there was a shattered frame that I recognized and, selfishly, felt saddened to see it empty. It had been a framed display of silver Kennedy half dollars, the ones released after he was assassinated and dated between 1963 and 1968, when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and the commemorative coins contained almost pure silver instead of the common metal mixture that was bronze and slippery. Silver stuck your your sweaty palms better, and was preferred for coin tricks, especially in the hot and humid south, and I had coveted the silver halves for years. But, until then, I had never given much thought to the handwriting within the frame, written before it was framed. This wasn’t a store bought collection, and the cursive script handwriting in a medium black ink, like a small marker rather than a ball point pen, said, “Thanks for all your help, Bobby Kennedy.”
I picked it up and inspected the signature, only just then realizing the difference in names; I had always been confused by my family alternating Kennedy and Bobby or Teddy, and had always been confused about if they were discussing the president or his brothers.
“Bobby gave me that just before he died,” Grandma said. She reached for it and I extended my hands and offered it to her, and she stared as if recalling a distant memory.
“I called Bobby when they was gonna take my house,” she said, still staring at his signature. She looked up at me and said, with surprising conviction and intensity, “I told him he promised me a house, and they was gonna take it.” I didn’t ask who “they” was, but I assumed it was a bank or someone in presumed authority.
“I didn’t threaten him or tell him I’d say anything. I just told him the truth. He promised me a house and they was gonna take it and I told him to do the right thing, and he did.” She held the frame with his signature, avoiding the broken glass and not seeing the empty slots where Kennedy silver halves had been. They were worth several dollars each, and I only had the post-1968 ones and had always wanted silver ones that wouldn’t slip out of my hands when I was practicing sleights in class. Grandma and I stared at the empty broken frame lost in thought for different reasons.
She looked at me and said, “But he did the right thing. And then they shot him, too.” Her eyes closed and her head lowered and she sobbed and I put my arm around her and she set the empty broken frame down and hugged me and sobbed for a few minutes.
She looked up at me with her blue eyes covered in cataracts without wiping them, and sniffed and said, “Ed was a good boy. His daddy weren’t no good and drank and left us. When Grady left, Ed quit school and took over the sawmill and supported his family.” She paused and sniffed and said, “He was just doin’ what he needed to do to take care of me and his brothers when no one else would!”
Grady Partin left his family in the 1930’s, during the depression and just as WWII was beginning. Grandma had tried to work and support her three sons, but she didn’t have many skills. She was a talented seamstress, but no one was buying quilts much back then, especially in the hot and humid south. I can’t imagine someone paying her to cook more than once, and she was never quite organized enough to be a receptionist. Big Daddy had supported her for years until she met and married our Step-Grandfather Foster, a kind and mild mannered man who died long before I was born, and he took Grandma and his little brothers with him when he moved from Woodville to Baton Rouge.
She began sobbing again and buried her face into the big blue B on my letterman jacket, and I held her and was confused at how she seemed so distracted and lost in thought. She looked up and said, “But he was a good boy.” I assumed she meant Big Daddy. “He always found a way for me to have a home and his brothers to have a job. You a good boy, too. I’m sorry about your daddy.” She stood back and smiled at me and transitioned back into the Grandma Foster I remembered, the one who talked to me about our family and how special I was.
“Ed was rough on Edward. He wanted Edward to do more than he had done, and pushed him too hard. Kieth, too. But Edward was the oldest, and he fought Ed the most, and Ed was rough on him.”
I’m unsure what it would look like to have Big Daddy be rough on someone, but considering that he was a dishonorably discharged marine who punched out a commanding officer and became Jimmy Hoffa’s bodyguard against mafia hitmen and the best agents the FBI could produce, and because every witness against him had been found bloody and beaten or bloody and dead, and because I had seen him slowly and silently quiet my dad simply by pulling a knife, I believed that Big Daddy being rough on anyone couldn’t have been a good thing.
Grandma continued, “I don’t know why fathers and sons fight. Ed fought Grady, too. Told him to stop drinking and take care of his family, and when he run off Ed did what he had to do to take care of us. Of course he did some bad things, but he was just a boy. 17.”
Big Daddy had stolen all of the guns in Woodville when he was 17 by breaking open a hole in the roof of the the Sears and Robuck departments store and lowering Doug inside, tied to a rope, and heaving him back up with armfuls of guns. They did that until they had emptied the store and they took them to New Orleans and sold them and bought motorcycles and rode them all over the south until the sheriff found a few remaining guns in their aptly named shotgun shack home. Doug was only 12 and was released, but the judge had given Big Daddy a choice to go to jail or join the marines; it was WWII, and Big Daddy didn’t want to go to war, but agreed to join the marines and two weeks later he punched a captain and was dishonorably discharged and not in jail.
“He didn’t mean no harm. We was hungry. It was the depression, Jason. No one had money. I did what I could sewing, but we was hungry most nights. Doug and Joe was little and in school and couldn’t do nothin’ ’bout it, but Ed could and he did.”
She smiled at me, remembering her son fondly and happy with how I remained silent and let her neurons reconnect with positive memories. She always avoided talking about the next time Big Daddy was arrested in Woodville, when he raped a girl in one of the shotgun shacks near the sawmill; he got away with that because one of the jurors wouldn’t convict him, saying that no white man deserved to go to jail for anything he did to a black girl. After getting away with that by a jury of his peers, it seemed he could do no wrong in Woodville, and men seemed to follow him blindly. He took over the sawmill union and the local trucker union by age 26 using whatever methods he felt were necessary, married Mamma Jean, and moved to Baton Rouge and took over the trucking union there, and then Hoffa recruited him to be one of his senior leaders in the international Teamsters, because Big Daddy was the type of person that the relatively diminutive Jimmy Hoffa surrounded himself with and used in labor negotiations. Big Daddy had a lifetime of violent crimes, and all of them seemed to go away after he was put in jail for kidnapping, and that’s when the FBI and Bobby Kennedy got him out of jail and began showcasing him in national media as a strong willed hero.
“When Bobby asked him to testify against Hoffa, he made sure I was ok first.” Grandma smiled, and tears pooled in the wrinkles around her eyes.
“Norma Jean, too. He always loved her, and he wasn’t mad she left. But he wanted to see his chil’ren, so he asked for a house for her, too.”
She paused, lost in thought.
“Ed was always good to his chil’ren. He was good to all chil’ren, just like you.”
Grandma was talking about how my cousins seemed to think I was nice to them and enjoyed my magic tricks; I never saw it, but she said that’s how they felt. As for Big Daddy, kids enjoyed being around him and he was always gentle around me – except for the few times he pulled a knife on my dad – and he was quoted in national media and films as having told Hoffa no, he would not blow up Kenedy’s house with plastic explosives, because Bobby’s kids could be home and he didn’t want to hurt anyone’s kids. Grandma interpreted that as Big Daddy protecting kids, just like she believed Bobby and the media who said Big Daddy was not kidnapping children, he was returning Billy’s kids home safely. Grandma had seen, from her perspective, Mamma Jean take her grandchildren and Bobby get them back for her. And, she knew Big Daddy always looked after his momma and little brothers, so she never listened to anyone who said anything else about her oldest son.
“And Bobby got me and Jean houses, and he saved my house when they was gonna take it. He was a good boy” I think she was talking about Bobby, but I didn’t clarify because she broke into tears and fell against my chest and I held her while she sobbed.
She had a good cry and sniffed and blew her nose and looked around her vandalized home. That was the only word that came to mind: vandalized. Perhaps ransacked. Perhaps searched. I looked at the things on Grandma’s table, and for the first time began wondering who had broken into Grandma’s home during or immediately after Big Daddy’s funeral, when most people knew the house would be empty.
“You a good boy,” she said. “You was always comin’ over to visit your old Grandma Foster.” She smiled a broad and thankful smile. After Big Daddy had gone to prison, Doug and Kieth became busy running Local #5 and didn’t see Grandma as often as they had before, and she had always been grateful when I walked over from Granny’s to see her, and she didn’t mind that I avoided eating her cooking by claiming I was always cutting weight for wrestling; it was true, frequently.
I helped Grandma clean up a bit and listened to her talk and looked for silver half dollars that may have been accidentally dropped on the floor. I didn’t find any; whomever had broken in had wanted them, and I assumed it had been one of my many cousins from one of Big Daddy’s affairs that always seemed to want money for drugs or alcohol or bail. But, something about the house seeming searched made me wonder if there were more to the ransacking. I recalled the FBI, but then thought that they wouldn’t have need for a few silver half dollars that were hard to find but were only worth about $5 each; unless, of course, the agents were magicians practicing coin tricks.
I told Grandma I’d be back soon and left and drove back onto I-10 and headed south for no reason other than I was still feeling overwhelmed about everything happening and wanted to be in motion. I passed downtown and rode to near Wendy’s home, but turned and ended up at the Abrams home. It was after school, and the boys would be there.
Mrs. Abrams answered the door and hugged me and told me she was happy to see me. She said she had seen the newspaper and was sorry my grandfather died. I realized that that’s what I was avoiding; ever since 1983, I held a deep seeded reluctance to be near people when Big Daddy was in the front page news. They always asked questions and I always felt like a little boy unsure of what he could and couldn’t say. But, I forgot all of that and leaned into Mrs. Abrams’s hug and I felt good and she didn’t ask questions and I stood still, grateful to have someone to lean against. She must have sensed that, and we began talking. Soon, I was mesmerized and told her more than I had told anyone about Uncle Bob and Big Daddy and MawMaw and Wendy. She listened, and then said she could use my help.
I was surprised to be asked for help, but it felt wonderful and other thoughts slipped away from my mind. She sighed and stepped outside and said she had to explain something to me first. She said that Mr. Abrams didn’t have cancer, he had AIDS. I didn’t know what that was; most people didn’t by 1990, especially because since it was first identified in 1985 the Reagan administration wouldn’t use the word and religious and right wing groups called it a gay disease sent by God to kill homosexuals. In other words, I may have heard the word and associated it with bad things, but I didn’t understand it. What I understood was the Mrs. Abrams asked for my help and pointed to what I had learned caring for Uncle Bob, and she said she was still teaching and couldn’t be there for Mr. Abrams and could use my help. I agreed, and over the next few weeks she arranged extra training for me from nurses who knew that AIDS was spread from body fluids only, not air or toilet seats or any of the other false theories circulating then, and I began staying with the Abrams and coming home after school to help change Mr. Abrams’s bedsheets and clean the house and do my homework and help the Abrams boys with theirs. Instantly, I felt I had become part in a family again.
I was so used to family secrets that I didn’t question what I learned about Mr. Abrams. I assumed everyone had their unique, complex family histories; and that no one wanted to talk about it. Mrs. Abrams and the boys felt the same, and we bonded while focusing on the tasks at hand. Mr. Abrams had become bedridden and required assistance and cleanup for even the most basic body functions, like cleaning is bed sores and wiping his bottom after he defficated, just like Uncle Bob. During the day, we attended school and answered questions like “What’s up!” and “What did you do this weekend?” as politely as possible.
Leah and Steve Long soon learned of Mr. Abrams real diagnosis, and they visited us. It was like a secret club of people who knew all there was to know about each other: Mr. Abrams, Mrs. Abrams, Ben, Todd, Erik, Leah, Steve, and me. Of course, Mr. Abrams was dying and the family was shamed by the stigma of his disease in 1990 and there were many somber moments; but, for me, I was happy because I had never been in one location where so many people visited and so much love was shared. As an added bonus, my closest friends visited and we played in the back yard and experimented with Mr. Abrams HAM radio setup and practiced throwing knives with Todd in the back yard and played music with Ben in the music room, and watched movies late at night on their elaborate large television and surround sound setup.
Life progressed and the Abrams boys and went to school and everyone’s home lives were mostly private, and the end of school approached. I double dated with Steve and two junior girls we had been flirting with for a while, and we rented a limosene and took photos in our tuxedos and formal dresses and met our friends at a hotel party and we graduated and celebrated graduation with parties and a trip to the beaches of Panama City Florida and left with tears and promises to keep in touch, but I immediately began the junior olympic camp and didn’t cling to the nostalgia of high school like many of my friends did. We wouldn’t keep in touch.
I got sick during the wrestling camp, and my weakened immune system amplified the weakness my body felt from cutting weight, and I fell asleep on the mat the night before we were supposed to meet and share a bus to nationals, and I woke up 2-3 days later with my scalp and back covered in almost a dozen large ringworm circles, dizzy and hungry and thirsty and delirious. My mind’s radio was silent, and my hands shook from muscle spasms probably caused by dehydration, and I felt frightened that I was too weak to sip water or feed myself, and I thought I may die leaning against a dummy, and I laughed a bit to dispel my fear and talked with the dummy and asked if he dreamed of stuffed rubber sheep. He never answered.
I crawled forward and pulled myself up along a wall and stumbled to the water fountain and slurped water. I sat for a while and drank some more, then walked slowly across the street to the convenience store and devoured a sugary snack and collapsed against a wrestling dummy, fatigued. I wasn’t upset at having missed junior olympics, but concerned for my health and, remarkably, at peace. I had listened to Coach explain his not regretting anything, and how he quickly adapted to loss or disappointment by doing his best at the next stage, and I felt that I understood him more now. He was a good man doing the best he could in any situation he was in.
I had built junior olympics up in my mind, but that was over now and I had done my best and now I would do my best at the next stage. But I didn’t know what that would be. Like before, I wanted to move and let outside events set my next stage in motion, and I was feeling less weak now that the sugary snack was flowing through my veins, and I stumbled to the back door to reach my motorcycle. I felt I could ride to Mrs. Abrams without passing out, and then I could eat and sleep and figure out what to do next.
It was gone. My motorcycle was gone. I instantly realized someone had stolen it – the downtown wrestling club was in a cheap, old, industrial wharehouse among other cheap downtown buildings, and the neighborhood was known as a haven for homeless and transient people busted flat in Baton Rouge. I shut the door and collapsed against a wrestling dummy. I was loosing my ability to remain positive, and I didn’t joke with the dummy.
I only had a quarter and a handful of half dollars left. Phone calls had recently increased from ten cents to a quarter, and I held up my coin and rolled it across my fingers and walked across the street and called Mrs. Abrams and asked her for help by asking if she needed more help with Mr. Abrams. She listened and asked if I would stay with them and help her. Thirty minutes later I was back home.
Mr. Abrams died that week, and I was a pallbearer with Ben, Todd, Erik, Steve, and Mad Dog. We were the ones who knew the Abrams’s family history and had been trained to handle AIDS patients safely. Most of his friends had been coworkers and homosexual lovers Mrs. Abrams did not know, and over the past year Ben’s friends had become like his extended family, and we lifted his casket and lowered it into the ground and listened to the minister talk about heaven and watched the audience who thought he had died from cancer, and I wondered if Mr. Abrams and Big Daddy could both be in heaven, and whether or not heaven were real or a fictitious but easily believed distraction from things on earth more relevant to our happiness. I still don’t know for sure. But, I knew Mr. Abrams had committed adultury and lied, and, though debatable, killed. Mrs. Abrams had tested positive for HIV, the precursor to AIDES, and would inevitably die. But, Mr. Abrams had continued attending church on Sundays, unlike Big Daddy, and I thought that was a ridiculously trivial point given the other aspects of both of their lives. I kept all of these thoughts to myself, and watched the Abrams’s family funeral unfold differently than the Partins. I saw love and gratitude, and no one fought and the FBI wasn’t interrogating anyone, and more people spoke with me and new my preferred name and shared positive words than in any Partin ever had. I was surprisingly content, and happy to have helped and grateful that everyone called me Magik and that no one asked me about my Partin family.
Steve Long was feeling sick, too, and learned he had caught mono, the kissing disease. He would have to remain in bed for at least a month, despite he and Ben having had saved money and planned a cross-country road trip over the summer. Ben was facing the loss of his father and an abandoned dream; he had planned on attending baseball games at famous stadiums across America, and was crestfallen at the accumulation of bad luck.
Simultaneously, he was having as much fun as I was visiting Steve and joking about him catching mono. We all appreciated the irony of mono being so well known compared to AIDS, and like many good friends in dire straits we laughed at irony and made jokes about each other sarcastically. It was a way to push back sadness and frustration.
Steve remained in good spirits, like his family always to do, and suggested that I join Ben on the trip. I hadn’t considered that becasue I had been locked onto attending junior olympics and had no money, but Ben seemed excited by the idea and mentioned it to Mrs. Abrams and she subtly said she’d pay for my way. She said that Ben would benefit from the trip and that would make her happy, and she’d gladly pay my half of gas and hotels.
We quickly formed a plan that would meet Todd in his summer drum and buggle corps national competition and Erik’s boy scout conference, and Mrs. Abrams printed a proposed itenerary on Mr. Abrams computer, an archaic Mac by todays standards and a matrix printer that took minutes per page, and Ben and I had a detailed plan covering five weeks of seeing the eastern half of America, our first times leaving the south and our first times with that much freedom. Ben was already 18, a legal adult, and I was a 17 year old with a piece of paper saying I was equal. We shoved Mrs. Abrams detailed plan into the glove compartment and told them we’d see them in Chicago in a month, and we hopped in Ben’s car and began the next stage of our lives.
We had the type of trip coming of age memoirs detail and Hollywood films celebrate, and a few stops on our journey added to this story in ways that seem prophetic in hindsight.
One of our first stops was Washington DC, where we stayed with friends of Mrs. Abrams and their daughters, and over a few days we enjoyed summer vacation parties with the daughters toured the downtown monuments Smithsonian museums and, on our final day there, Arlington Cemetery.
We went to Arlington Cemetery because that’s what tourists do, and Ben babbled about baseball and I walked beside him without being interested in anything until we saw a large crowd and both wondered what was going on. We approached and heard a tour guide explaining that was where President Kennedy was buried. The crowd seemed emotional, like Grandma Foster whenever she talked about Bobby, and we stayed and listened with different life experiences influencing what we heard. I’m unsure what I heard, but I know that I walked away somber, silent, and wondering if the Kennedys were more to America than I had perceived from Louisiana.
We followed the tour group without realizing it, mindlessly following a crowd, and ended up at Audie Murphy’s tomb. I stood, transfixed. Ben seemed indifferent. I had never told him about Big Daddy killing Audie Murphy.
The tour guide spoke, and I listened. Audie had been America’s most beloved hero, and he had died in an airplane crash on May 28th, 1971, shortly before Wendy’s boyfriend deployed to Vietnam and a few months before she met my dad. The tour guide continued sharing Audie’s legacy, and my mind wandered.
They were national heroes. They were the two most visited tombs in our national cemetery, and Big Daddy may have killed both of them.
I must have pondered silently long enough that Ben became bored and wanted to leave, and I followed without expressing the confusion in my mind.
A week later, I was asleep in the passenger seat when Ben woke me up and pointed forward. We were watching the sun rise over the New York City skyline, a beautiful city unfathomable to us before, when the tallest building we had seen was the new state capital. Both of us had heard of New York City, of course. Governor Earl Long had spoken there and expounded on Baton Rouge’s tall capital without seeing the massive skyscrapers of Manhattan, and Steve’s dad, named Earl after their uncle, had spoken of working in Manhattan several times. He was a trucker who never joined the Teamsters and had to travel for work, and had gone to New York during the oil crisis of the 1970’s. But nothing prepared us for seeing the city. It was huge and beautiful and humbling. I had heard that if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere, and I was determined to immerse in New York and experience everything it had to offer.
A few days later, on August 3rd, Ben and I separated for the day so that he could visit Yankee stadium and I could visit Tannen’s magic shop. We had agreed to meet near the NBC building with hopes of getting tickets to filming Late Night With David Letterman, the most popular nightly comedy and interview show of the 90’s. I arrived early and performed street magic, hoping I would be discovered by NBC and asked to perform on live television. It had happened before, and magicians like Harry Anderson became famous simply by being prepared when an opportunity arose. In my mind, it was like Coach had said: someone will win, and it might as well be you. And, I wasn’t a fool: if the world wanted me to be a magician, I could still cancel my army contract all the way up until my scheduled departure date on September 13th. I felt I should at least try my best, to do what Ben called “swinging for the fences,” trying to hit a baseball off the field and vying for a home run rather than just a base hit. I was ready to perform the best I ever had.
I was performing three card monte and The Immaculate Connection to a handful of people when a familar voice said he was surprised to see me. It was the merchant marine from New Orleans. He said he was in New York, another major international port, and was surprised to see me. I was shocked to see him, and happy to chat about magic. I had gotten better, and had adapted to my broken finger by paying attention to the audience more, and I was wondering if other people noticed. But, he seemed more interested in asking about me and what I was doing in New York, and we chatted about the Big Apple compared to the Big Easy, and somehow we transitioned to the Panama invasion and he mentioned remembering that I had mentioned it before. I didn’t recall that, but we transitioned into discussing if it was a good thing and soon he said he had to catch his boat and he left. Almost immediately after, Ben approached and we barely had time to talk about Yankee stadium and Tannen’s magic when someone walked out of the NBC building and offered us tickets to David Letterman. Filming began at 11:30 and it would be broadcast that evening. We accepted the passes exotically, and a few minutes later we were seated twenty feet apart among a crowded audience in David Letterman’s NBC studio.
People kept walking onstage and telling jokes and trying to get us excited. It worked. We were excited, and by the time cameras began rolling we knew what was planned. Filming began, and a mountain biker biked down the steps and did some bike acrobatics and Dave made a few jokes. Cindi Crawford, possibly the most famous super model of that time, came on stage next and talked about her Superbowl commercial with Pepsi, and Ben and I exchanged glances and raised eyebrows and communicated, “Damn! She’s fine!” Robert Downey Junior came on, and though he’s now famous as Tony Stark and Iron Man in Marvel Comic’s Avenger movie series that’s been popular for the decade leading to when I’m writing this. But, at the time, he was infamous for being a young actor who did too many drugs and was involved in drunk driving and drug arrests, and he was defensive at any questions about his rehab and reintroduction into Hollywood. I briefly snickered sarcastically, thinking that my dad went to prison and was deemed a detriment to society, yet David Letterman and the live studio audience was celebrating Robert Downey Junior as if he were as much of a national hero as Audie Murphy. Though I snickered, I wasn’t opposed to being a celebrity, and I clasped the four half dollars classic palmed in my right hand and hoped for the opportunity to perform for all of America. At that time, Late Night With David Letterman was the most watched nighttime show in America, and perhaps 20 million people would see that day’s episode by 11pm, almost 1 out of 10 Americans, and I was ready for my moment of fame. It never happened, and by the end of the show my hand was sweaty and fatigued and I couldn’t hold the half dollars in classic palm, especially because they were all post 1968 and were mixed with metals more slippery than the pure silver Kennedy halves issued between 1963 and 1968. But, no one ever asked me to perform, and I clapped my hands during the prompts to clap and laugh and kept the four half dollars hidden, and Dave said farewell and Ben and I returned to his friend’s house on Long Island.
We were staying with a girl’s family that Ben and Steve had known from the previous spring break in Florida, and she and her friends had shown us around New York but had let us take the day to ourselves so that they could work and go to school. When we arrived, we said she could call her friends and we could all gather and watch Late Night With David Letterman with us so that we could see ourselves in the audience. We then called our friends in Baton Rouge and told them that we had gotten tickets and were in the audience for that night’s show, and asked them to record it on their VCR’s. We called a few friends to ensure at least one of them figured out how to do that, and then we ordered New York style pizzas and Ben’s friend and her friends brought beers and we gathered around their television at 11pm and rewatched what Ben and I had seen live.
About half way through, after Richard Downey Junior had come on, the camera panned across the audience and we saw Ben’s big head and then my anxious countenance, clutching a handful of half dollars in what then seemed an embarrassingly awkward and obvious palm, and wearing an equally awkward and embarrassing hat given to me by the wrestling team. They had bought it at the Vietnamese stores near Belaire that sold cheap and sometimes vulgar clothing to students sneaking away from school for a cigarette or to have keys reproduced without questions. My had was a cartoon of a creepy smiling magician holding a large magic wand, and it said, “It’s not the size of the wand, it’s the magic in it!” If I had had my 15 minutes of fame, America would have seen me wearing a hat I’d regret soon after. But, instead, America saw me in a brief swing of the camera, and then the television cut off and switched to real-time news. Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and the 82nd Airborne had just deployed to stop them. President Bush said we were drawing a line in the sand to stop Saddam Hussein, and he had sent the 82nd to do it.
Ben threw up his hands and was frustrated that his recorded moment of glory had been tainted with news, and I watched him and wondered how he wasn’t empathizing with me, because he knew I had joined the 82nd. I glanced around the party and felt a similar disconnect with everyone; they were laughing about life and temperarily upset that Late Night With David Letterman had been interrupted with news, and I saw myself before the news and at that moment and felt something had changed, but I didn’t say anything and became quiet.
Ben and I left New York and went through Boston, where he was so excited about seeing Red Sox stadium and a celebrity hitter named Cecil Fields that he bought my ticket and we saw Cecil and the Sox score a record breaking season against the Detroit Lions. We then drove to Canada and were stopped at the border because we had Louisiana license plates, and the border guards said they stopped all Louisiana and Texas plates and searched our cars because we had America’s most lax gun laws, which was saying a lot for Canadians. They searched our car and I watched and remembered the sheriff’s posse searching my bags only a few years before; not with insight, but simply recognizing the similar feeling. A few hours later, Ben and I pulled into my Aunt Mary’s house Toronto, where Wendy had been born 30 years before, because I had written them that we were traveling, and they had offered to host us. For the next few days, Ben and I learned about my Rothdram family.
Mary had married John soon after Granny followed Auntie Lo to Baton Rouge, and they had, by most people’s definition, a pleasant and moderate home life with one daughter and a house in Richmond Hill, a suburb of Toronto. Their home was nonremarkable, except for one of Grandpa Hicks’s framed hockey jerseys hanging in the hallway. I don’t recall which team, but Mary knew all of them and told me how much fun it had been growing up with a celebrity father. Like Grandpa Hicks later in life, John was a middle manager in a large organization, and a dedicated family man.
Though he didn’t know magic, he said he kept a little mouse in his shirt pocket and pulled out his white handkerchief and deftly fold it into something that looked just like a mouse, and that mouse jumped from his hands and ran up his shirt and lunged off his chest and onto me, and for the next hour he and I practiced folding a mouse and wrapping my hands around it in a way that looked natural but allowed me to secretly animate it with one of my fingers; I was unable to with my hobbled left ring finger, so I took time to learn to do it with my middle finger and believe I was able to launch my mice much farther because of the extra leverage of my middle finger.
Mary and I spoke about Granny, and of course Mary was sad to hear how her little sister would probably not live to the next year. She planned to visit, but, like many parents with a young child at home, they were busy with her summer sports and winter school activities, and it was challenging to coordinate John’s vacation schedule with school events. They asked if Granny and Auntie Lo were still drinking, and I said yes and they both sighed and looked at each other, and politely communicated that they felt sad visiting Mary’s sisters in Baton Rouge because they didn’t like seeing them drunk every day, especially Lo, who would become belligerent and make improbably loud clicking noises by snapping her tongue across the roof of her mouth like she had learned when they were children and, for some unknown reason, had reverted to doing almost after day a few glasses of Scotch, which was usually by 4 or 5pm every day.
I realized it was almost 4pm and I hadn’t seen Aunt Mary and Uncle John drinking. I said so, not realizing that I assumed Auntie Lo and Granny’s sister would have had a similar lifestyle. Mary said no, that of course she had drank but that she didn’t like doing it mindlessly and by no means every day, especially because she had seen her sisters revert to bad habits when drunk. I took that to mean Lo clicking their tongue annoyingly and Joy getting pregnant with a man who didn’t love her, a trait I also thought ran in our family. John said he liked a glass of wine with dinner, though, and he laughed and said that was a hint to enjoy ourselves for dinner, and he reminded Mary that Aunt Edith was coming over.
Edith Lang was Mary’s mother’s sister: my great-great aunt. She was somewhat famous in Canada after having been a spinster until she was 85 and then marrying her former boss of 40 years, one of Canada’s wealthiest men and a well known philanthropist. He owned Canada’s largest private art collection, and was known for donating works to museums and charity auctions. Aunt Edith had been his personal assistant for almost half a century, married him many years after she had retired, and he had died only a few years before.
Aunt Edit was filthy rich. She had dilegently mailed Wendy and me Christmas checks for years, always $500 to Wendy and $100 to me, and I would write her letters back, thanking her and telling her what I had spent the money on. For the past few years, I had always bought magic books and a cassette or two. I had never met her, and when she showed up I wasn’t surprised to see a little old lady who looked a lot like Granny. But, she didn’t drink and she exercised, and she seemed much more vibrant in her 90’s than Granny had ever been. Like Uncle Bob, Edith golfed, and in her retirement she wrote letters to nieces and nephews and traveled to the world’s most remarkable golf courses; in her letters, she expounded on Saint Andrews in Scotland, and had sent me a postcard from there a few times.
Edith and Mary said a few pleasantries and caught up on their extended Canadian family, and Edith pulled out a scrapbook with newsclippings of me. I was shocked, and earned that Granny had sent them. I realized that Edith was to Granny what Granny was to me, and I felt happy that Granny had shared the news. I still looked like the big color photo in the article about my magic in the children’s hospital, while I was with Uncle Bob, and we told stories about him and Auntie Lo and laughed and I thanked Aunt Edith for the many magic books and Van Halen tapes I had because of her Christmas cards. We became more somber when Aunt Edith flipped to the articles about Big Daddy, and the conversation dropped off. The last time I had seen them was in 1977, just after Wendy regained custody but lost her apartment, when Uncle Bob took me there to meet Wendy’s dad and asked for help supporting me.
Ben was silent most of the time, a remarkable thing for him because he always seemed to chatter. We’d discuss it later, and he was having fun watching me have fun. When he spoke, it was to talk about baseball, and he and Uncle John bonded and planned to go to the Toronto Sky Dome later that week, home of the Toronto Blue Jays, a new stadium that opened up like a giant convertible on rare warm days. John and Ben chatted about baseball while Edith, Mary, and I told stories about Auntie Lo and Granny; apparently, both had been quite the partiers when they were my age, hence Wendy and therefore hence me.
Mary had baked a shepards pie and I had made a salad with their daughter and granddaughter, getting to known them and saying I had learned to enjoy cooking from Granny. The salad wasn’t fancy, but it was tasty and used Frito corn chips instead of taco shells, and bbq beans instead of black or pinto beans, and was covered in sugary sweet and tangy salad dressing, but I made it with care and laughed with my aunt and cousin and listened to them chat politely about my cousin’s elementary school, and I wondered what Granny’s life would have been like if she had been more moderate in her drinking, like Mary. I saw that I wouldn’t exist, and I pondered that as I engaged in small talk with the Hicks family.
They all ate with their forks upside down, holding the fork effortlessly in their left hand and gently pushing food onto the back of it with a knife held in their right hands. Ben and I held forks in our right hand when eating and in our left hand when using a knife in our right, transferring back and forth between big bites held in the front of the fork, like everyone we knew. We asked them about it, and they said it was intentional, something John’s family had learned in Europe and shared with her, a way to eat more delicately and enjoy a meal more. Mary demonstrated cutting a portion of carrots and keeping a bit on the tip of her fork, and without transferring hands deftly pushed some shepard’s pie and a nibble of salad onto the back of the tines, and she commented on that different colors and textures she had created and then popped the bite into her mouth. John did the same, and finished quickly, and said taking smaller bites also allowed people more time to chat and allow the meal to evolve. He sipped his wine, smiled with satisfaction, and delicately prepared his next bite. Ben and I stopped shoveling food into our months and practiced dining like sophisticated people in Europe would – we imagined everyone from Europe was sophisticated – and I remembered Mamma Jean’s harsh judgement for my eating habits only a few years before, and I appreciated everything Aunt Mary and Uncle John did that was more delicate and therefore a more pleasant learning lesson. I was seeing nature and nurture overlap like a Venn diagram of experiences, and wondered how much more I could begin improving now that I saw that all experiences either change or contribute to our natural selves, even the experiences that weren’t welcomed at first.
Ben and I left Richmond Hill and continued our journey to Detroit, where The Detroit Tigers were back in town and Ben could see Cecil Fields again. On a whim, we drove to Bloomfield Township, a suburb of Detroit, where Jimmy Hoffa had last been seen alive on July 30th, 1975, just before my custody trials began. Ben had known that history and because of his mom being a Teacher in the union, he knew a lot about Big Daddy and Hoffa. But, I didn’t feel an epiphany, and we lost interest in Detroit and decided to leave for Chicago. We put on the cheap sunglasses we had bought that looked just like the ones Jake and Elwood Blues wore in The Blues Brothers, and in unison we said the magic words they said before beginning the funniest and most exciting police car chase we had ever seen:
“It’s 105 miles to Chicago. We’ve got a full tank of gas and a half pack of cigarettes. It’s dark, and we’re wearing sun glasses. Hit it!”
According to Mrs. Abrams printout from MapQuest.com, it was 281 miles to Chicago, but we loved the Blues Brothers quote and insisted on saying 105 miles. On the drive, we sipped Pepsis – an oddity, because Coke was invented in the south and we only drank Coke until seeing Cindi Crawford on David Letterman – and we talked about the Blues Brothers and how fine Cindi Crawford was and what we’d do in Chicago and how quickly four weeks had passed, and how in two weeks Ben would soon be in college to become a math teacher, like his mom, and I’d be in the army a few weeks after that. Of course, we also talked about the impending war against Iraq.
The United States had sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to Saudi Arabia after the 82nd, and President Bush said our line in the sand had become Desert Shield. A coalition of dozens of allied forces were sending troops to form the largest allied collaboration since WWII, and it was daily news and discussed by everyone we overheard. Of course, many people still recalled the oil crises of 1979 and knew that a major reason America was leading Desert Shield was to protect our access to Saudi Arabia’s oil fields and regain our access Kuwait’s. But, most people saw a second part, the part about a big country overtaking a small country, Iraq overtaking Kuwait. Iraq had the world’s largest fleet of tanks, a surplus provided by the Soviet Union during the time when they supported Iraq against their mutual enemy, Afghanistan, and tiny Kuwait was no match for Iraq’s 400,000 soldiers and thousands of Soviet tanks. People felt patriotic seeing our military being used for what was perceived as, regardless of other motives, a good thing. We were protecting other countries from being bullied, like we’d hope any school teacher or coach would protect smaller kids from bigger bullies.
I listened to people pass judgement and offer opinions and was amazed at how no one seemed to remember the United States overtaking the small country of Panama only six months before, and I began to see how short term society’s memory could be. It’s no wonder no one seemed to recognize my name any more, even in Baton Rouge, and I felt that was a good thing because I could become anyone I wanted to be and have my name known for what I did, not what my family had done.
The news was also educating America about chemical weapons, and the fear of death by chemical warefare was palpable. Television and magazines showed WWII images of people with blistered bodies suffering from mustard gas exposure and of piles of dead bodies killed by nerve agent, and they expounded on Iraqi president Saddam Huesein’s use of chemical weapons against dissident sects within Iraq, the Chaldian Christians and the Kurdish, and of his stockpiles of weapons ready to use against Americans and the allied forces. Saddam had been working with Russian scientists and developing their own rocket technology, and SCUD missels could now carry and disperse chemical weapons from hundreds of miles away, threatening all countries in the Middle East. Israel was now threatened by Iraq and was preparing for war, and Americans felt this could be the beginning of WWIII and that many of the 500,000 Americans now in Saudie Arabia would perish from SCUD launched chemical weapons.
Ben spoke briefly about the war but babbled incessantly about baseball and Cecil Fields, and though he would give a perfunctory statement about the news it was like he was saying words we say in society to sound like we care but without a deeper feeling behind the words. I only saw that because I had a choice on whether or not I’d become involved. I had three weeks left until I was supposed to leave for the army, but as my contract clearly said and the recruiter repeated many times, I could change my mind all the way up until I was in the New Orleans inprocessing center and swore to defend the constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. I had a choice, and I think I understood the situation in Saudi Arabia, and I listened to people talk about todays news without remembering yesterday’s, and I watched Ben hear the same people and see the same news and yet not hear and not see the same things. I didn’t judge him for being uncaring because I wouldn’t have cared, either, had I not been involved. Ben would say it’s horrible to die from nerve agent, and then expound on Cecil Field’s batting record and how fun it was to see all the major baseball stadiums, and his words came from what was important to him. I realized how wars propagate despite a lot of people saying the words that make it sound as if we cared more than we truly, deeply do, and I stopped trying to talk to Ben about Desert Shield and practiced magic tricks and animating the mouse I folded from a spare white handkerchief Uncle John had given me.
We arrived in Baton Rouge and Ben departed for college and I stayed in his room and used Mr. Abrams family van to drive Erik around for his Boy Scout and music activities. It wasn’t like Leah’s piecemealed van, it was a classic suburban style that Mr. Abrams had called their urban assault vehicle, but it had a cassette player and I’d drive around Erik and his friends and play The Blues Brother’s soundtrack with them, and when they were gone I’d slip in Van Halen’s 1984 an imagine jumping into Panama. I had no doubt I’d continue my plan and enter the army in two weeks.
Mrs. Abrams was preparing for her fall semester from home, because it had been a sad summer for her and the small talk of catching up with coworkers probably seemed draining, especially when you didn’t want to lie and yet didn’t want to tell everyone your husband died from AIDS and then dealing with the judgement and gossip that would inevitably ensue in small minded people. Her oldest boys were in college, and her youngest was gone all day, and I didn’t feel the need to see Wendy or Granny or Auntie Lo, so I had a lot of time around Mrs. Abrams. But, Mrs. Abrams asked me about it, and I tried my best to answer her but couldn’t find the words because I was still just a 17 year old kid and unaware of why I did most things. I told her that I had said my goodbyes at the beginning of the summer, and I had grown up disappearing all summer every summer, and not seeing them felt natural. And, I was beginning to realize that seeing family wasn’t something I wanted to do mindlessly, I wanted to deeply feel that I loved someone and they loved me, and I felt better around the Abrams than I ever had around my biologic family. They were becoming my family of choice, but I didn’t know how to say those words. She didn’t pry and I appreciated that and we spent more time talking about her and Mr. Abrams, and my surprise at her faith in God.
Like many teachers, Mrs. Abrams didn’t advertise her faith beyond a small gold cross on her necklace. And like a lot of southern families she occasionally went to church, especially around Christmas and Easter and Mardi Gras, but I always assumed she was like most adults I heard talk about religion and how I felt most people talked about war and peace; an abundance of words without the deeper feelings. But, when I was living with her while her older boys were away and Erik was gone every day, I saw her take small moments throughout the day to clasp her hands and lower her head in prayer, and I saw her reading a bible almost every day.
I had begun pondering religion and what’s real and what’s just words written down of someone’s opinion, like a judge’s missive at the end of a court document. If I were facing probable death in war soon, I wondered what would happen if I died just as I killed someone. According to most people I had heard trumpet their beliefs, killing someone was a sin and if you die without asking foregiveness for your sins then you went to hell. I would like to joke and say that I dismissed that as hubris, but it bothered me badly. I was still trying to become the best person I could be, and I was open minded to learning more of what I didn’t know, and because no one in my family had been religious and Mrs. Abrams and Coach were, I wanted to understand what the words people said meant to me. I told Mrs. Abrams that when we were sitting on her couch chatting one afternoon, and I asked her what would happen to me if I died immediately after killing someone.
“Magik,” she said, clasping her hands as if praying. Her countenance was neither happy nor sad, and she looked me in the eyes and said, “I don’t know.”
She paused, and as Mark Twain said about telling stories, sometimes a well timed pause tells more than a lot of words. He was right, and I felt that Mrs. Abrams and I were speaking truthfully as peers rather than how most adults spoke to younger people and rattled off opinions. I clasped my hands and we sat in silence for a few moments.
“I don’t know anything except what I believe, and I believe that Jesus was helping us when he spoke of praying for forgiveness…”
She may have continued, but I interrupted and reemphasized my dilema of dying before being able to ask for forgiveness for killing someone. I was in control of my actions and could see myself not drinking and doing all the things I thought were what bad people did, but I had seen enough war movies to know that in combat things happen quickly and I was going to be infantry and deploying to the front line of Desert Shield and I’d probably kill people. I felt I was a good person, and wanted to know that I wouldn’t go to hell just because I died in the middle of a wartime battle.
Mrs. Abrams reached for her bible and opened it to one of the sections she had underlined and said she believed this:
….. work in progress ……
On September 13th, 1990, The Abrams drove me to New Orleans. The boys had taken off a day of classes, which was what we called skipping school only a few months before, and they brought gifts for my journey. Todd gave me his used copy of a Spiderman comic, the one where he meets a new Marvel character called Wolverine, and Todd told me that Wolverine was like me: a short Canadian who was gruff with words. I looked up into his eyes and told him to go fuck himself, eh! Ben said it was the thought that counts for a gift, and he was thinking of something wonderful for me; it was an old joke of Uncle Bob’s, and I appreciated Ben telling me that. He then gave me a leather coin purse he and his grandfather had made, and it had four Kennedy half dollars to replace the ones I had lost somewhere on our road trip. Erik gave me a copy of his favorite book then, The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so that I’d have something to read on the long bus ride to Fort Benning, Georgia, if I didn’t change my mind later that day. Mrs. Abrams gave me a pocket sized New Testament with a leather cover and eloquently enbroidered with my name, Jason Ian Partin.
“One day, Magik, you’re going to appreciate your name and everything you’ve seen and done,” she said. And then her eyes narrowed and tears pooled and she reached out and hugged me and thanked God for bringing me into their lives, and for some reason how she said it felt similar to being told someone was happy to see you, but I felt something from her on a deep and true level that lingered with me after I said goodbye.
My recruiter was mistaken or I had heard him incorrectly, and I’d have a final chance to change my mind in Georgia, not new Orleans. In New Orleans, they checked my paperwork and verified my high school diploma – I had gotten it reprinted because the office staff mistakenly wrote my name as Magik – and directed me to the line for people going to Fort Benning. Once there, we waited in line for dinner and then for sleeping. The next morning we waited in lines for many things, and at the last stage we were told that this was our last chance to change our minds. Probably 50 people were in the room, and they were directed to another room where army lawyers would read them their contract and then they’d have the chance to change their minds or move forward and, in an appropriate symbol of their commitment, have their heads shaven and begin basic training the next morning.
I was the only one remaining behind, because when they asked if anyone was from Louisiana I was the only one who raised my hand and they said they needed to get a specialized lawyer familiar with the Napoleonic Code. Two came out, a young lady and an older officer, and they were surprised that I had joined at 16 and had emancipation paperwork attached to my contract; she had never heard of that, and he had heard of it a few times and said it was allowed. They reviewed my contract and I signed it and joined the other people in line to have my head shaved.
My basic training was not unlike many other infantry basic trainings in films and memoirs, and after eight weeks I was selected as 11H, anti-armor and 13 of us began Advanced Infantry Training and the 11B foot infantry and 11C morter infantry began there’s, and we met in mornings and evenings for physical training and the daily details of mopping floors and cleaning latrines that, surprisingly, dominates most people’s time in the army. In 11H training, we were told that we were selected because of our higher ASVAB scores, the army’s equivalent of an academic aptitude test, because we used more expensive equipment and had to learn more about other country’s weapons, and for five weeks we focused on the TOW II anti armor missile. TOW stood for the Tube Launched Optically Tracked Missile System, and the TOW II was an improvement from the TOW 1 because it had a small, secondary missile on the tip that would blow through the outer, explosive layer on Soviet and Iraqi tanks that had learned to counter the TOW 1 by strapping explosives to critical parts of their tanks, directed outward to explode the missile before it hit the tank. With the TOW II, the small explosive on the tip cleared a hole for the main missile to punch through the tank, and a TOW could punch through 38 inches of armored steel. We struggled to hold up a small piece of 38 inch armored steel, and were more impressed than words could say. But, the downside of such a strong missille was that it was slow and took 17 seconds to travel 3,850 meters, and that time an Iraqi T-45 or T-54 could fire six to eight rounds at your location, and though TOW’s would be mounted on a Humvee that could move quickly, while the missile was in air the Humvee had to remain stationary and the gunner had to guide the missile using two two mile long wires that conducted signals and steered the missille. The gunner would remain behind the sites, either a super powerful daytime optic telescope synced with the missille’s electronics, or a less powerfully magnified but impressive infrared site that was like seeing through the eyes of a rattlesnake, seeing heat rather than light visible to humans, and we could site in on hot engines from miles away, and hope that they weren’t paying attention or didn’t know that they could fire six to eight rounds at us before moving out of the way. I finished AIT with less conviction in my safety than I would have liked.
At the end of AIT we were given another choice, a rare opportunity to delay Airborne school, if we wanted. A special Airborne class was beginning Monday and would be the first class to train over Christmas, and it would be shortened to two weeks instead of three, and that was because Desert Shield was about to become Desert Storm, and General Swartzcoff, the commander of all allied forces, had requested more anti-armor paratroopers. We were about to begin war against the world’s largest fleet of tanks, and everyone expected to need replacement soldiers soon. I felt even less confidence in my safety, but I volunteered to proceed to Airborne.
That weekend, I took a shuttle to the small town outside of Fort Benning. The shuttle dropped a few of us off at The Infantry Museum near a row of bars and strip clubs and tattoo parlors, and most guys walked there. I went inside the museum and perused, surprised at how much I was learning.
I learned that M&M chocolate candies came from the army, and a display had the original contract proposal from Uncle Sam to MARS candy company, explaining that chocolate in WWII soldiers’s meal rations melted when they handled it, and that the army wanted a chocolate desert that “melted in your mouth, not in your hands,” which was the famous logo of M&M’s that I already knew. And I learned that many video games came from the army, and a museum display showed a flight simulator that translated your motions to images on a screen, and briefly described the math behind that transformation, and that math was used to program video games that moved like real life scenarios. Similarly, a display on making 3D maps of Europe during WWII showed how two cameras can make a 3D image using a bit of math, and that math was behind animation in 3D movies and video games.
I was surprised to see a display on President Kennedy and the U.S. Special Forces, the green berets, like Rambo had been. Apparently, Kennedy had reinvigorated the special forces to be small teams of highly trained soldiers who could immerse in a country and train other soldiers to better defend themselves. He had used them early in the Vietnam conflict, when we had relatively few soldiers in Vietnam, fewer than 55,000; but, after Kennedy’s death, vice president Johnson became president and led the build up in Vietnam to 500,000 troops in Vietnam, but that the mission of special forces hasn’t changed. Of course, the display mentioned Kennedy’s assassination and that he was buried in Arlington Cemetery, the nation’s most revered cemetery, and I reflected on how I had felt after visiting it with Ben earlier that year and realizing that Kennedy had been important to many people, just like Audie Murphy had been.
I turned away from the Kennedy display and saw a small display on Audie Murphy. My mind was shocked at the coincidence of having just thought of him, though that shouldn’t be surprising given that he was America’s most decorated infantryman and I was in the Infantry Museum outside of the base where every infantryman in America passes, including Audie. I read his display and flipped through “To Hell and Back” and read dozens of statements from celebrities I recognized who said Audie had been their inspiration growing up. I read more about Audie’s history, and saw many things in common with my own. He was born in rural Texas and his father had left him and his mother and he grew up learning to hunt and became an expert shot at rabbits and other small game. He joined the army at 17 after being turned down by the marines because of his dimunitive size, and then he was turned down by Airborne for the same reason. He was an 11B and had only a small machine gun and repeatedly demonstrated valor and integrity and rose through the ranks of real world command. He left the army and began a career in Hollywood, but grew to have fewer and fewer opportunities in films as he aged. Despite needing an income, he refused to endorse alcohol and cigarette products, and shortly before he died in a 1971 airplane crash he had been, apparently, negotiating business ventures with unnamed people. The display emphasized that Audie had advocated for PTSD awareness and treatment, highlighting his own struggles with sleeplessness and an urge to keep a loaded gun nearby, and that he had become addicted to prescription pills to go to sleep and pills to stay alert, the same pills Big Daddy had been addicted to in prison, and he had to lock himself in a hotel room to overcome his addictions. He hoped his reputation and transparency would help future generations not have to suffer.
I replaced the copy of To Hell and Back and left the museum, lost in thoughts. I took the next shuttle back to Fort Benning and walked to my new quarters next to where I had lived for 13 weeks and would now spend two weeks. I stood by the infantry’s most famous statue of Iron Mike, a WWII soldier stepping forward with his rifle in one hand and his other hand beconing people behind him, and his mouth open and presumably shouting the words that are engraved on Iron Mike and represent the infantry: Follow Me! Nearby, the Airborne logo was visible, almost as a continuation of Iron Mike’s thought, and it said: All The Way. I smiled subtly as I realized that I was about to go a step farther than Audie Murphy had, and I’d be Airborne and go all the way, whatever that meant.
Two weeks later, I was randomly assigned the first one in my squad to jump our first jump. We jogged to the C-130 in formation, chanting a song that kept everyone in step.
C-130 rolling down the strip
64 ‘troopers on a one way trip
Stand up, hook up, shuffle to the door
Jump right out and count to four
If, after counting one, one-thousand, two, one-thousand… to four, you didn’t slow down, that meant your main parachute had failed and you should activate your tiny, emergency, reserve parachute as quickly as possible. The chant was to keep us focused on what we had learned.
Thirty minutes later and on board the C-130, both rear doors opened, one on either side, and the jump master began the routine we had practiced daily for two weeks. he shouted, “Stand! Up!” and gestured with his hands, and we looked towards the front of the plane and shouted, “Stand! Up!” to wake up anyone lost in thought. “Hook! Up!” he shouted, making a hooking motion in the air, and we repeated his shout and hooked our parachute guide lines to the cable that would pull them open after we jumped. “Stand, in the door!” he shouted, and I almost looked over my shoulder to the front of the plane and repeated him, but he was staring into my eyes and I realized that was just for me. I shuffled to the door, a motion used on the older C-130’s to avoid tripping in the narrow and cramped path to the door, and placed both hands outside the plane and one foot dangling over the edge, and I waited. In my periphery, I saw the jump master listening to an earpiece and watching a green and red light by the door, waiting for the pilots to verify that we were over the drop zone and no planes or helicopters were below us. Five planes followed, and I would be the first of about two hundred people jumping. I stood, in the door, and felt the 110 mile per hour wind whip at my face and saw miles and miles of trees in the evergreen forests surrounding Fort Benning. It was December, still moderate in the south, yet the morning wind was cool and crisp and I felt alert. Calm, but alert. I noticed the curvature of the earth for the first time, and I noticed that I was aware of being aware of the red and green light and jump master’s breathing, similar to how I had been aware of the referee yet focused on wrestling Hillary Clinton. And, similar to wrestling, I sensed time in slow motion. I was aware of my breath and the air passing in and out of my nostrils, and I was aware of the slight effort in my left leg to stay bent and protruding in the door, and I felt my hands were clutching the door frame and not relaxed; and then I felt them relax. i could smell the jet engine fuel burning and hear the hum of engines mixed with the sounds of propellers tunneling through air, and I seemed to be aware of countless sounds, sights, smells, and sensations, and I became aware of a feeling that felt empowering. I had no doubt I would jump.
Not having doubt liberated my mind more than having faith. To me, I never quite felt the faith that Mrs. Abrams had professed. We had discussed that word, faith, and the difference to us between faith, hope, and belief. Mrs. Abrams had shown me passages in the bible expounding on hope, and I had pointed to differing Greek philosophies on Hope and Pandora’s Box. To the Greeks, Hope was a diety who gave humans hope, and she was the last thing in a box given to humankind by cruel and malicious gods. A woman named Pandora opened that box and unleashed all the diseases and negative emotions that plague humans, but Hope remained. One half of Greek literature said, like the bible, that our feeling of hope gets us through rough times, which is why the gods gave us Hope; the other half said that cruel and malicious gods gave us Hope as the most evil thing in Pandora’s box, because Hope was cruel and kept humans fighting when they would be wiser to back down. Hope keeps a boxer in a ring being beaten by a stronger opponent and prolonging their suffering to the bemusement of the gods, who, without Hope, would watch humans learn more quickly.
Faith, to Mrs. Abrams, was hope without being blind and without being attached to a result. She had faith in what she read that Jesus said, and faith was more than just believing, faith was feeling something on a deep level that influenced your choices in ways you may not realize. And faith did not test one’s beliefs, because faith was not attached to an outcome, like believing in heaven or hell. Faith was surrendering to what couldn’t be known, and following the deeper feelings that guided your life. With faith, one does not hope for this or that or believe in things, but one begins to live without worry, just as Matthew and Luke and Mark wrote about not worrying and putting trust in Jesus.
Standing in the door that crisp December morning, I didn’t think about what would happen outside of the door, or worry about my parachute collapsing or the dozens of other things from our training. I didn’t hope things would turn out okay, and I didn’t believe anyone or anything was with me at that moment. But, I had no doubt I would jump out that door when the light turned green and the jumpmaster shouted. If I had faith, it was faith that once outside of the plane, I’d do the best I could, no matter what happened.
The light turned green and the jumpmaster pointed outside and shouted, “Green Light, Go!” and I went and tumbled through the 110 mile an hour airstream and I began counting, “One! one thousand, Too! one thousand, Three…” and I was yanked by the now open parachute and I began slowing down and peddling back and forth. As I stabilized, I looked up and saw people falling from the planes above and behind me and a few parachutes opening around me, and I looked forward and watched the curve of the earth become less obvious and the tree line get closer, and I drifted down peacefully. In my mind’s eye, all that comes to mind is the horizon, similar to only recalling Big Daddy’s face when I met him and where the bullet hole should have been when wrestling Hillary.
But, if I look closely, I see every detail, though like before those details may be contrived because everything’s in focus and the laws of physics aren’t obvious. But no matter the nuances of memory, I know my mind was calm and clear. I was at peace. I could have plummeted to earth, been shot, or mutilated by helicoper blades, but I was at peace with all above and all below, and I drifted down in less than ten seconds and landed safely and completed an acceptable parachute landing fall, and my life has never been the same since.
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