James ”Ed” White was my PawPaw, a short, wiry man, clean shaven and with slicked back black hair peppered with gray, and he was a cheerful force of nature. He had lost an eye as a sailor in WWII, and though his glass eye matched his other one perfectly, he never saw the world the same again. He chain smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes, sipped bottles of Miller beer, and never quite figured out why other people weren’t as happy as he was.
He laughed often and spoke with a thick accent, rural and rustic and cheerful, pronouncing this and that as d’is and d’at, but without the French Influence of Baton Rouge Louisiana, an old city named for a red stick – rouge baton – in the new area of King Louis and Queen Anna, and gave us the Cajun accent, like you may hear in one of the New Orleans mottos, “Laissez le bon temps roller!” PawPaw’s accent was more like a traditional southern accent changed by fans at New Orleans Saints football games, “Who d’at talkin’ ’bout beatin’ d’em Saints? Who D’at! Who D’at!”
He didn’t pronounce my name like the Cajuns near his farm did, Pa’tan, he pronounced it like people pronounced my grandfather’s name on TV, Part’n, as if saying it one syllable and possibly sounding like “Parton” because everyone already knew the country singer and actress Dolly Parton. A few people pronounced my name in two syllables, especially the people not from Louisiana who were learning English or had northern accents, and they said Part-in, like a part in history. The different pronunciations may have why I never associated myself with any family other than PawPaw, especially because he usually just called me his Lil’ Buddy and everyone called him Mr. White.
PawPaw was the custodian at Glen Oaks High School, where his daughter went to school with Wendy and my dad. He would show early and stay late, cleaning up with his mop bucket, and, on his own initiative, caring for the many majestic stately oak trees and their long swooping branches that made the campus so beautiful. Glen Oaks may have been in a low income school district at a time when school funding came from local taxes, but most people felt the campus was one of the most well cared for they had ever seen.
He was even known to have organized a small union of custodians, and after Big Daddy’s teamsters famously backed a teacher’s union strike and led to all Louisiana teachers receiving a raise and improved benefits, PawPaw quietly spoke for what was right, and all state custodians were given a raise commensurate with the teachers. Though his work only received a brief mention in local news, many older custodians would recall Ed White dressed in his finest clothes and with his hair slicked back, handing out fliers to custodians at different schools telling them how valuable they were to the kid’s education, and that they deserved a better life, too.
I still view PawPaw in my mind’s eye as Popeye the Sailor, a popular cartoon character when I was a kid who mumbled and squinted through one eye and smoked a pipe and protected Olive Oil’s baby from bigger men. His son in law, Craig Black, didn’t watch cartoons but read a lot and had been in high school theater, and he saw PawPaw as Puck, the jestering hobgoblin from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, a woodland elf who was not quite like the other elves and laughed a lot and adored trees and played pranks on people. Puck’s pranks sparked the other characters into action; without him, there would be no Midsummer Nights Dream. Craig said PawPaw’s shipmates said similar things about him, that he was cheerful and mischievous and was unintimidated by authority. Old sailors would say he was known for sneaking into the officer’s supply room and stealing their beer and giving it to the enlisted men.
People said PawPaw laughed often and gave freely, and many would independently describe him as a force of nature and unencumbered by worries or self-imposed social constraints. He was happy. After he lost his eye, he was honorably discharged and returned to Baton Rouge and found ways to earn his livelihood doing what he loved.
Like Puck, PawPaw loved nature. As a side gig, partially because custodians weren’t paid much but mostly because he loved trees, PawPaw was a tree surgeon, and he was the most respected tree surgeon in all of Louisiana. His services were requested by wealthy families protecting the magnificent stately oak trees that had been planted on plantations like Oak Alley and The Oaks by their great-great grandparents. He was called to be preventive in the spring, repairing damaged bark and limbs before insects or disease took root, and reactive in the winter, removing toppled trees after hurricane storms. And he always gave a little extra, what the Cajuns near his farm called Lagniappe, a little bit of love given for free, like an extra donut in baker’s dozen, but the lagniappe PawPaw wasn’t a physical thing. People’s trees thrived as if PawPaw had a magic touch with them, and every one of PawPaws clients called him year after year to make their lawns as beautiful as Glenoaks and the trees near PawPaw’s farm.
There weren’t a lot of families still preserving their trees so there wasn’t a lot of work, and there was a lot of competition from landscapers who were ostensibly just as qualified. But he had other entrepreneurial ventures, like running the Baton Rouge franchise of Kelley Girls, and using that to hire Wendy for her first job, the one that Judge Lottinger mentioned in Partin vs. Partin that paid her $512/month. I don’t know if Lottingger knew that Wendy’s job was through PawPaw, which would have been surprising and remarkable because PawPaw was also trying to get custody of me, and it would seem unlikely that he would try to help Wendy, unless you knew him.
Craig, the landscaper for Houmas Plantation and an artist on the side, a painter of elves and woodland scenes more reminiscent of Louisiana’s swamps than Shakespeare’s forests, would later tell me that PawPaw never made money from his side gigs because he hired people and paid them more than he made. He hired former prisoners when no one else would and trained them to be tree surgeons and landscapers and gardeners; they would go on to earn an honorable livelihood because of him, even competing with him for local landscaping work, but he never seemed worried about that. He used his contract with Kelly Girls, a national organization that placed unskilled, young women in flexible jobs so they could attend school or care for their children to hire girls from Glenoaks who were in trouble, and when able, he received $512/month per girl he hired, and he paid them what he received instead of what another franchise owner may have done, hiring girls for less and keeping a portion as their overhead and how they earn money. But PawPaw was less like a business owner and more like conduit of opportunities and happiness, just like Puck the cheerful forest fairy, and he may not have thought it was relevant to my well being to tell everyone that he had given Wendy her first job.
My first memories are of PawPaw and the people who learned from him on his farm. I began to form and retain memories around four years old, 1975 to 1976, but they are less like memories and more like my mind’s reconstructions of moments centered around bursts of emotions and sensations. Of course, some childhood memories aren’t real, just images in my mind formed later in life from apocryphal stories about me or my family, and the images aren’t real memories and may not even have happened. But, when I do have memories that I recall in vivid detail with specific senses stimulated I cherish them and lean into them and recall the moment so precisely that I believe them to be true, and most of my memories from the 1970’s are full of love for PawPaw and a sense of wonder at everything he showed me and all of the interesting people that seemed to flow in and out of our home.
My first memory of Wendy Partin and Debbie LeBoux is from the late spring of 1975, when azaleas were in full blossom and their scent waifed into every breath. PawPaw had just given Wendy the used car that I’d later recognize as a Datsun, a small hatchback with lots of easily accessed storage that could haul telephone books, like the ubiquitous Yellow Pages that were delivered every spring, listing all the new businesses in town.
PawPaw helped Wendy and Debbie load yellow books into the Datsun, leaving enough room on top of the back passenger swat for me to squeeze in against the roof. They stood back and smoked cigarettes and admired their work and joked that I’d barely fit. They were right. Debbie helped cram me into the small space and Wendy slid into the driver’s seat and laughed and tried to operate the manual transmission and we lurched a few times before finally driving down PawPaw’s gravel driveway. She didn’t fully stop at the blacktop, and I slid against the window when she lurched left and changed gears and we accelerated down the small two lane road towards more densely packed subdivisions in desperate need of the Yellow Pages. We went up the interstate ramp and were flying down I-10 when they rolled up their windows and Debbie took out her dainty little bag with hand-sewn flowers and began rolling a joint and chatting with me. She was even smaller than Wendy, and had delicate deft hands that quickly rolled a perfectly formed joint.
I was fascinated by Debbie’s little bag, and she handed it to me while she lit the joint and cracked her windshield to exhale up and out. The bag was beautiful, and the raised textures of the flowers was unlike my brightly colored but smooth Crayon bag. And it smelled nice, and I wanted it. Debbie laughed and handed the joint to Wendy, who had a hand free now that we were on the interstate and not changing gears. Wendy inhaled and coughed out her cracked window, and Debbie pointed out the stitching on her bag and told me that it was hers, but that she’d show me how to make one and help me make my own later. That sounded like fun – I already did a lot of arts and crafts projects with Linda and Craig, her husband, who lived with PawPaw and me. I was sure I could make a little weed bag just as nice as Debbie’s, especially with her help.
She was fun. Wendy was focused on driving to the subdivision and smoking the joint, but Debbie could multitask, and she could somehow chat with me without exhaling. There was a slight haze in the air, but she did her best to look up and out the window to exhale without breaking eye contact with me. I was perched high on the Yellow Pages, in a slight haze of smoke, and though I can’t recall what she and I talked about, I remember laughing more with Debbie than anyone else before.
She could do magic. She could remove her thump and blow at its stump and it would magically pop back into existence. She removed my nose and held it in her closed fist, barely poking out between her fingers, and when I giggled and grasped my face she blew towards me and my nose magically reappeared, just like her thumb had; I never noticed that my nose looked just like her thumb. I liked Debbie.
Wendy turned on the radio, and we all sang together. It was a popular song released in 1971, Janis Joplin’s cover of “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Janis held a special place in Wendy and her girlfriend’s heart, because she was young and vivacious and free and they dressed like her and sang lyrics in their best immitation of her raspy, southern bluesy voice, especially because they were all from Baton Rouge, and they sang as if no one were listening who would judge them and this was the most wonderful moment of their lives.
Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train
When I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans
Bobby thumbed a diesel down, just before it rained
And rode us all the way into New Orleans
I pulled my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana
I’s playin’ soft while Bobby sang the blues
Windshield wipers slappin’ time, I’s holdin’ Bobby’s hand in mine
We sang every song that driver knew
The song ended and they laughed and Debbie pointed out Wendy’s clean red bandana and we talked about things I don’t recall. They finished the joint and rolled the windows back down, and air rushed at me and I watched us descend from I-10 and go into a subdivision. I was high, perched atop the stack of Yellow Pages, and Wendy lurched house to house, and Debbie would hop out and run a phone book up to each doorstep.
After emptying the Datsun, we stopped at a 7-11 and got Coke Slushies and took them to a public park in Zachary with a playground, and Wendy pushed me on a swing and Debbie road down a slide with me, and they tried to teach me to throw a Frisbee but I wasn’t good at it. Debbie showed me how to pretend to remove someone’s nose and clench my thumb to look not unlike a nose in my hand. We sipped Slushies and seemed to have no worries in the world.
Wendy took Debbie home to her mother’s small appartment, a remarkable experience because her mom spoke by shrieking without inflection; I’d later learn they were on state disability for sczipphrenia. It was terrifying to observe, but Debbie and Wendy didn’t seem to mind and I eventually became used to the screaching and the thick cigarette smoke that hung in the apartment like a morning fog over PawPaw’s pond.
They had lots of snacks, sugary sweet things like Raisenettes – chocolate covered raisins – and fortune cookies from the small Chinese restaurant on the busy road by their apartment, and I sat in front of the small black and white television, snacking on an endless supply of treats and watching PBS.
Wendy had saved enough for a deposit on a tiny apartment in the same complex and said we’d be moving there soon, and I liked Debbie and thought that sounded fun. She then said we were running late, so we left Debbie’s and lurched past the Chinese restaurant onto the busy road and were soon flying along I-10. I had eaten an entire bag of Raisenettes and several fortune cookies and was sleepy, and I stretched out in the relatively luxurious space of the front seat and dozed off.
I woke up some time later when I heard Wendy talking with someone. We were stopped on the side of the interstate, and a big man in a uniform was standing outside Wendy’s window. I was groggy, and she nervously shook me and looked at the policeman and said something about me, and fumbled in her big purse and handed him her driver’s license.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” she told him. “My brother’s sick, and I was in a hurry to get us home.”
He bent down and peered through the window and looked at me. I was awake by then.
“Howdy, son,” he said, smiling. I didn’t smile back – I had never seen someone in uniform before, and I wasn’t sure what to think. “What’s your name?”
“Jason Partin, s’uh,” I replied, speaking politely, like I had heard PawPaw speak with the men who worked for him, calling them sir and the young ladies ma’am, like a fine southern gentlemen should, but I pronounced my name like Debbie had, the Cajun way, Pa’tan, probably because like most kids I imitated people I enjoyed being around.
The police officer may have been impressed by my manners, and Pa’tan was a respectable, Cajun name that meant we were locals, so he looked at Wendy’s license, confirmed our names matched, smiled and thanked her kindly, and said we could go but to drive more slowly so that we got home safely. Wendy agreed, and we lurched back into traffic and she clutched her steering wheel with shaking hands and asked me to not tell Mr. White.
Wendy pulled into PawPaw’s gravel driveway and I saw MawMaw waiting for us in the carport beside PawPaw’s cricket cage. She was a classic southern belle of a woman, middle aged yet energetic, with bright red lipstick and grey hair that she tended immaculately and arranged in a seemingly impossible beehive on top of her head, held in place by copious amounts of hairspray. Her maiden name was Dorris Shakelton, and she was from the wealthy Baton Rouge Lamar family, of Lamar advertising, which owns and rents out most roadside billboards in America. If you’re driving and see a billboard with a small, green Lamar family logo on the bottom, you’ve seen a sign that connects you to this story. And if you see an 18 wheeler or other truck on any road, there’s probably a Teamster behind the wheel, and, in a way, that links all of us together.
When Wendy pulled into the driveway, I could almost smell the things I loved most about MawMaw, hairspray and chocolate chip cookies, and I was so excited that I almost jumped out of the Datsun before Wendy had lurched to a complete stop. I was famished again, unsurprisingly – people call hunger after riding high atop the Yellow Pages “the munchies” – and MawMaw always had lots of chocolate chip cookies and shugga’ for me, and I couldn’t wait to get inside. We finally stopped, but Wendy had to help me open the Datsun’s old rusty door before I could hop out. It took forever, and as soon as my big feet hit the gravel with a satisfying crunch and I ran towards MawMaw without saying goodbye to Wendy. She squatted down and rested her hands on her knees and smiled a big, huge, red-lipstick covered smile and waited for me to reach her before opening her arms and receiving my hug. She held me tightly and gave me shugga’ all over my cheeks, and I giggled and pretended to hate it and kept wiping off the red lipstick marks I knew would be there. Wendy drove away – I wasn’t allowed to spend the night with her yet – and I had fallen into a ritual of transitioning from Wendy to MawMaw centered around cookies and shugga’.
“Gimme some shugga’!” she’d say, every time, and I’d giggle and hide my face with my hands and she’d peck around looking for an opening to place one more red lipstick smack of shugga’. She almost always found at least one spot, and sometimes I lowered my guard intentionally and allowed one more smack! before wiping it off. Once inside, she’d help me wash the red off my hands and cheeks and give me cookies and ask me what happened with Wendy. I always felt bad lying to MawMaw, so I usually just went silent and looked at my big feet, and she would sigh and rest her hands on her hips and look down at me and, always, squat back down and smile that big red smile and give me another hug. She soon stopped asking, thankfully, and we just enjoyed our cookies and waited for PawPaw to come home after cleaning up Glenoaks High School and taking care of its trees.
Usually, he’d come home and grab a beer and light an unfiltered Camel and fill a mesh cricket tube full of crickets from their cage in the carport, and we’d carry a couple of cane poles to the small pond beyond the big gate. He’d teach me to tie fishhook knots and use his cigarette to burn off the loose ends, and how to hook a cricket so it lived and moved under water and attracted fish, and how to watch the red bobber float on the dark water and not react when it danced, only when it went under and the fish had committed.
Every time I caught a little pond brim, he’d tell me what a good job I did and that we should toss him back in so that it could get bigger for next time. It never did. I only caught tiny brim in PawPaw’s pond, but I never blamed him for that, and never got tired of hoping to one day catch a big one. And, every time we finished fishing, I was always happy to walk back to the dinner MawMaw would have waiting, and, of course, milk and cookies for dessert.
The day after I delivered Yellow Pages with Wendy and Debbie, PawPaw took me for a walk to buy cigarettes and the nearby convenience store. Like with MawMaw, I had rituals with PawPaw, and walking to the store was one of my favorites because it was beside a giant stately oak tree, like the one Wendy and her friends climbing in Granny’s yard, and PawPaw would always stop and play with me and that tree. Its branches were long and stretched out in undulating waves across the field and were draped in Spanish moss, and PawPaw had discovered one branch that formed a perfect swing, like a giant’s arm cradling something gently, and every time we arrived I’d try to climb into the swing. I’d get a little better every time, and he was always nearby in case I slipped or needed a nudge. I almost made it that day, and at the last moment, just before I would have slipped and fallen, I heard his voice.
“D’er ya go, Lil’ Buddy,” he said, giving me a gentle nudge so that my fingers could grasp the bark enough to pull myself up and into a dip formed by the undulating branch.
I sat in the tree and looked PawPaw in the eyes, and he nudged the branch and it swayed up and down and I giggled and clutched the bark and felt like I could keep climbing all the way to the big bright blue sky barely visible through the oak tree’s green and brown canopy. PawPaw snatched a piece of grey Spanish moss and made it look like his beard and I laughed and let go of the bark and picked a piece of moss for myself. He stayed beside me in case I fell, and we sat there as two old, bearded men, laughing at nothing in particular.
“Aw’ right, Lil’ Buddy, time t’ go,” he said, and replaced his beard on the branch and put his hands under my arms and lifted me up. I kept my beard, knowing my clever disguise would fool the store workers. It had worked every time so far.
We walked in and the man behind the counter smiled and said, “Hi, Ed! Who you got here today?”
The convenience store man was the only person I heard not call PawPaw Mr. White, and they seemed like great friends, just like almost everyone I saw around PawPaw.
I whipped off my Spanish moss and showed the man it was me, and he looked surprised and said he hand’t recognized me. We chatted, and PawPaw picked up a carton of milk and a roll of chocolate chip cookie dough, pre-made and shaped into a cookie-diameter tube, and set them on the counter between us. The man reached up and grabbed a pack of Camels and put them beside the milk and cookies.
“Thank you, s’uh,” PawPaw said, cheerful as always. He paused, went back to the walled refrigerator, and came back with a six pack of Miller pony bottles, the shorter, round bottles. The man behind the counter put our milks in one bag for PawPaw to carry, and, as usual, gave me my own bag to carry the cookie dough.
Back home, I gave MawMaw the tube of dough and she off a piece for me, and I realized I may like raw dough as much if not more than baked cookies; I still may. PawPaw and I both drank our milk, though mine was in a glass and his was in a pony bottle, and we waited for that day’s employee to show up. This time, it was my Uncle Kieth, Ed Partin Jr’s little brother, not his friend the car dealer. Kieth Partin takes after his father, physically. He’s a a remarkably huge man that radiates strength and formidability, with his father’s sky blue eyes and light blonde hair. Yet he’s a gentle giant, and a hard worker who came around often.
As with all his employees, PawPaw called Kieth s’uh and offered him a pony bottle of milk before going to work in the back field, beside the small fishing pond and barn. I usually came along, though I just watched or fished while they cut branches and burned them on top of fire ant nests, killing two birds with one stone, as the saying goes.
But, that time, instead of fishing I set my sites on climbing the 8 foot tall rusted metal gate that separated the house from the field and fishing pond. Unfortunately, the gate was unhinged – PawPaw had a lot of partially finished projects around the farm – and when I reached the top it tilted backward and I began to fall with it. I clutched the rusted metal bars with both hands, but no one was there to give me a boost or catch me, and when I finally couldn’t hold on any more I let go and hit the ground and the gate fell on top of me and its sharp edge sliced the back of my scalp open. I screamed.
“Ed! Ed!” I heard. “It’s Jason! Come quick!”
Kieth was the second person I heard call PawPaw Ed.
I can still see Kieth running towards me in my mind’s eye, though my memory is skewed, literally, because I was on my left side and the world seemed rotated 90 degrees; later in life, I’d read research studies that showed our minds eventually right the wrongs and reconstruct our mind’s eye to “see” things differently than they are for the sake of our mental well being. But, in 1975, I saw Kieth running towards me sideways and in huge leaps and bounds, propelled by legs taller than I was, and I didn’t understand how he was running sideways but didn’t stop screaming or take time to ponder it, but that’s how I still see it. I remember the vision clearly, and can hear my own screams as if I were not the one screaming but an observer recording the situation, and I can still see a sideways Kieth reach me much faster than PawPaw and his little legs could have. Beyond Kieth I saw smoke and burning piles of fire ants, also rotated 90 degrees and obscuring my view of PawPaw, but I knew he was there. He was always there when I needed him. I felt that, and didn’t need to see it. Some things are so right in our mind’s eye that our brains don’t alter our perspectives to satisfy our desire for normalization.
Kieth grabbed the massive gate and heaved it away effortlessly and reached down and picked me up and cradled me, and despite my pain and terror, a tiny part of me felt as safe and secure as I had felt cradled by the oak tree’s branch, and somehow, miraculously, that’s what I felt as my body bled profusely and I screamed incessantly.
“Hurry Ed! He’s hurt bad!” Kieth shouted.
“Get in d’ truck!” PawPaw shouted back between breaths. “Get in d’ passenger side!” I saw him, framed in smoke that was now behind him, and he waved towards the truck and called out, “Go on, now! Go on!”
Kieth cradled me and rushed through the open gate and wrenched open PawPaw’s truck door, an old Ford with metal doors that would stick and creak and groan and resist opening, but they were no match for Keith’s brute strength. The door yielded and we slid in and he slammed it shut with a loud and satisfying crunch, and PawPaw somehow found the same strength and ripped his door open and hopped into the driver’s side of his Ford’s bucket seat. I was bleeding dangerously. Scalp wounds are dangerous because all arteries and veins are exposed against your skull and will not close themselves, especially if you’ve been scalped, and I had a large flap of scalp dangling precariously from my skull, attached only by a small slice of skin and hair. The Ford’s vinyl seat was covered in blood that slid across the slippery plastic in and pooled in depressions and along creases, like dark red rivers flowing from small lakes of blood on the bucket seat. PawPaw didn’t hesitate. He cranked the ignition and peeled out and accelerated towards the blacktop and turned left onto it so quickly that pools of blood splashed across the seat and spilled into Kieth’s passenger side floorboard.
“Oh God, Ed! Oh God! He’s bleedin’ bad! Hurry!”
No one had to tell PawPaw to hurry, he was a force of nature and intensely focused on nothing but saving me. Gravel bounced into the air behind us as his truck tires gained traction on the pavement and we accelerated forward faster than I had ever felt his Ford go.
I was no longer surprised that the world was sideways. I accepted that things weren’t as they seemed, and as I screamed I saw the big stately oak tree by the convenience store. I felt my body wanting to slide against Kieth’s door as PawPaw accelerated through the red traffic light and turned sharply, and I felt Kieth’s strong arm cradle me and keep my head from flopping around as we sped through the intersection with tires screeching against the blacktop and PawPaw pulling the old trucks manual steering with all his might.
PawPaw had never had fixed his truck’s turn signal, but he didn’t need one because he had poked half his small body out the window and was waving his white bandana with his left hand and pulling the big steering wheel with his right and shouting at cars coming towards us, “Get out d’ way! Get out d’ way!” and, magically, they all did. His right arm was straining with the force of turning, and his left hand was frantically waving his white hanky and his humble accent was loud and clear, and, miraculously, everyone got out of our way. That’s the last thing I remember before passing out.
I woke up a few days later in Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, where I had been born four years before, and the first thing I saw was PawPaw, exhausted. His wrinkled face was aged by grey beard stubble, the real kind, not Spanish moss. His non glass eye was bloodshot. Both cheeks were puffy. His hair was disheveled. He smelled like cigarettes and chainsaw oil, as usual, but he also smelled like he hadn’t bathed in a few days. He was sideways.
I sat up and he righted along with me, and his eyebrows perked up and he looked at me and blew his nose into his bandana and smiled and said as cheerfully as ever, “Hey, d’er, Lil’ Buddy. ‘Bout time you woke up.”
I had to stay a few more days and get a more tests for head injuries, but I had fun because the recovery room had a big color television and I could watch Popeye and Friends and the SuperFriends on Saturday morning. We only had a small black and white television at home, and the Lady of the Lake’s common room had a large color television that mesmerized me. I saw PopEye pop open a can of spinach and gulp it down, and I listened to the music build tempo as PopEye’s arms grew more muscular and he grew stronger and could finally beat Brutus. And I saw Batman and Robin teach a magic trick that made you appear as strong as a super hero, and Aquaman teach how to magically push a glass through a table using misdirection; at that time, Super Friends broke the fourth wall of theater and spoke to kids and taught them magic tricks. But, my most interesting memory was playing with other kids in with the toys piled across from the giant TV, not just because it was the first time I had been around other kids, but also because many of the toys were advertised on the giant television and I blurred what was real and what wasn’t. I imagined I, too, could do whatever anyone on TV did. But, that feeling may have just been a head injury.
I stayed at the hospital a few days for tests that came back negative, and I wore a bandage around my head that had to be changed daily, and when they changed it on my final day one of the nurses brought in two mirrors so I could see the back of my head. I was bald now, but they said my hair would grow back soon. I strained to see the back of my head, only just realizing how two mirrors worked like magic so that I could see behind myself, but even then I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. PawPaw exclaimed that I had 82 stitches! I must be the bravest lil’ fisherman alive! I’m sure I agreed, especially because I was feeling like a superhero.
I know now that he exaggerated, most doctors put about 3-4 stitches per inch of cut, so I probably only had 20 to 30 stitches, about the number of raised bumps I can still count, from where the skin had been pulled tightly and had healed thickly, but for some reason PawPaw said 82 and that’s the number I’d use when we finally returned home and I talked about my adventure. And, he had to explain to me that Our Lady of the Lake didn’t really have a lake, so we couldn’t go fishing there, but he’d take me when we got home. MawMaw was waiting when we arrived, and she had cookies and milk waiting for both of us, of course. She was much more gentle with her shugga’ for a few weeks, until my hair started to grow back, and then we went back to life as usual, and I felt like the bravest lil’ fisherman alive, happy, still climbing trees, and knowing PawPaw would always be there to catch me or help with a gentle nudge.
Some time later, when I had most of my hair back, I was sittting in the living room, which was also where I slept at night, with Craig, Linda, PawPaw, and MawMaw. Craig and Linda Black had moved back in after Linda had a baby, and the baby was in PawPaw’s second bedroom. Our living room was small, but the doorway was open to the dining room and kitchen and felt larger. We sat around snacking on cookies and watching cartoons: I had become fascinated with Popeye looking so much like PawPaw. Our TV was a small black and white set with manual controls and bunny rabbit antenna; Craig and PawPaw always joked that we lived in a Black and White household, and though I never understood their joke I laughed along with them and munched my cookies. A commercial came on, and I saw Stretch Armstrong advertised again, just like I had on the big color television in the hospital, and I exclaimed that was it! That was what I wanted! Stretch Armstrong had just been released as a new toy and was advertised on Saturday morning cartoons as the next greatest thing on Earth, a rubber toy filled with viscoelastic goo that you could stretch and pull but would always return back to normal. Kids on the commercial stretched him across their chest, like an exercise band, and some of the kids also had Evil Stretch, a black guy on PawPaw’s TV but a green goblin on color TV. I had to have one. PawPaw, laughed and said “We’ll see, Lil’ Buddy,” and took advantage of the commercial to get up and get a bottle of milk from the kitchen, and soon I heard my dad’s voice booming.
It’s an unmistakable voice, deep and resonating and authoritative, the bass tones reverberating through walls that blocked lesser voices. I couldn’t hear PawPaw, but I had no doubt who was visiting and got up and walked into the kitchen with a partially eaten cookie.
PawPaw was standing in the doorway and my dad was in the carport, holding a large brown paper bag with fancy rope handles, the kind you may get when you buy something from an expensive store. He held the bag nonchalantly, but his eyes were intense and focused and his jaw was held tightly, and he towered over PawPaw. Now in the kitchen, I could hear both of them.
“No, Ed,” PawPaw said. “Not t’day. Next week.”
My dad bellowed something about fuck the rules, he’s Jason’s father and he wanted to give him something. He poked his finger down at PawPaw’s chest to emphasize what he said.
“No, Ed,” PawPaw replied. “Please go. Come back next week.”
My dad saw me and said, “Hey, Justin! I mean Jason, godamnit! I brought you something!”
I was excited! My dad had picked me up before, and always had gifts for me. Sometimes, he took me and Kieth to see Big Daddy, and Big Daddy had given me things like a new, fancy fishing rod with reals and gears and convoluted things that didn’t really work in PawPaw’s tiny pond, but was fun to play with and expensive enough that Craig and his friends would inspect it and admire the quality and tell me how lucky I was, and I was anxious to see what was in the paper bag.
He held up the bag and tried to step through the doorway, but PawPaw moved sideways and blocked him.
“Please, Ed, not today.”
My dad’s voice rose and he looked down at PawPaw angrily and thumped his finger against PawPaw’s chest and reiterated that he was my father and I was his son and he was going to give me something and no one would stop him. Craig, Linda, and MawMaw must have heard, and they came into the kitchen and stood beside PawPaw, between my dad and me. Voices raised, and everyone was speaking loudly and I can’t recall what was said, but I can remember the scene. It was somewhat comical, a huge loud man towering over a room full of tiny people.
My dad’s not that big, only 6’1,” and at the time he was thinner than I’d know him later, perhaps only 190 pounds, but the Whites and Blacks were small and thin, and from my perspective my dad towered over them.
Linda was barely taller than Wendy or Debbie, and though Craig was almost as tall as my dad, he was skinny, like a twig, and calm and mellow. He was an artist with big, bushy hair and a scruffy beard, exactly like a popular painter on public television, Bob Ross. PawPaw was Popeye, and Craig was Bob Ross. PawPaw had welcomed him into our household when their baby was born. He wasn’t saying much and was probably high, self admittedly, and he was standing beside Linda as she looked up at my dad and told him in no uncertain terms to leave; I remember that vividly, and 40 years later Craig and I would agree about that evening. Linda was unabashed in her words and actions ever since having a baby, and wanted a calm household. Even my dad was shocked by her ferocity, and he responded by thumping his finger into her chest, and that’s when PawPaw had had enough and stepped forward and shouted for the first and only time I ever heard him shout in anger, and he told my dad to leave.
My dad bellowed an obscenity and shoved PawPaw, and Linda pounced on my dad and began clawing at him. He shoved her away, and PawPaw stepped in again and my dad flung him aside. Craig silently moved in front of my dad and stood there, and MawMaw stood by his side, and not even my dad would shove her. Instead, he plowed between them and grabbed my arm so hard I yelled in surprise, and then PawPaw really stepped into action and hurled himself forward and everyone piled on top of my dad and tried yanking his arm off of me. He knocked them aside with his other hand and its brown paper bag. MawMaw and Linda grabbed my free arm and tried to pull me away from my dad, and he pulled back, and I stretched out like Stretch Armstrong. Everyone was shouting, including me, and through the din we heard Craig and Linda’s baby cry from the back bedroom crib. That sobered everyone, and Linda rushed back and Craig followed, my dad collected his senses and stood silently, and MawMaw bent down and inspected a scratch on my arm that was bleeding. PawPaw stood straight, breathing heavily, and waited patiently to act again.
My dad looked at me and said, “Jason. Son. I brought you something. Do you want it?”
Of course I said yes. I forgot about my bleeding cut and looked at the bag. PawPaw looked at me and then at my dad, and told my dad he could speak with me for five minutes in the carport, and then he had to go and could see me next week. That seemed fair, and my dad held my hand and walked me out the doorway and into the carport. MawMaw came out with a bandaid and put it on my scratch, and said she’d be back with cookies. My dad and I stood beside PawPaw’s Ford and I pointed out the blood stains on the floorboard we couldn’t get out, and at my arm’s bandaide, and said I was the bravest fisherman on Earth. My dad agreed, and we chatted and listened to the crickets chirp and my dad rubbed my stubbly head and told me he loved me and had something for me in the bag. In all the excitement about impending cookies, I had almost forgotten about the bag.
“I think this is what you wanted,” he said, sheepishly. He reached in the fancy bag and pulled out a new Stretch Armstrong, still in its box.
Well, technically, it was Evil Stretch. The black guy on PawPaw’s TV. But, in person, Evil Stretch was green, like I had seen at Our Lady of the Lake, and he had pointy ears and fangs and was even better than the white stretch with blonde hair. I was happy, and opened the box and tried to stretch Evil Stretch but couldn’t. My dad laughed and said I wasn’t big enough, but I would be, and one day I’d be as big and strong as him and maybe even Big Daddy. I was fascinated by that idea, to be so big that everyone talked about you like you were a superhero, and for the next five minutes I rambled on about intergalactic battles between Stretch and Evil Stretch and how I’d practice stretching so I could grow big and strong, too.
The carport door opened and MawMaw stepped outside with cookies. She gave me one and handed a few to my dad, to go. She stood there, waiting, and PawPaw stood in the doorway. My dad told me he loved me, and I said I loved him, too, and he said he’d see me next week and we’d go see Big Daddy and Mamma Jean, and I thought that sounded fun. He left, and I went back inside and showed off my band aide and practiced stretching Evil Stretch. Cartoons were over, and everyone was watching something on the small black and white TV that I can’t recall.
Late that night, after everyone had gone to bed and PawPaw was preparing the living room sofa for me to sleep, I sat on the kitchen table and played with Stretch. I wasn’t strong enough to stretch him, no matter how much I had practiced that day, and I had grown bored with my new toy; the thirty second commercial for Stretch Armstrong accurately showed kids having fun for 30 seconds, about as long as you can have fun with a soft rubber toy that you can’t budge. I told him so. “You’re useless!” I said. “I wish I didn’t have you!” I bellowed. On a whim, I picked up one of PawPaw’s flathead screwdrivers from the kitchen table – he always had tools lying around – and held it like a knife and pointed it at Stretch. I told him to be quiet. In my mind, he wasn’t, so I told him again and held the knife like I had seen Big Daddy hold knives, rotated sideways to penetrate between ribs, lacerating lungs or piercing a heart and causing someone to bleed to death rapidly, not straight up and down and bounching off the rib cage and causing a meer flesh wound. Stretch ignored me and said something, and I shoved the knife into his ribs and quickly removed it, satisfied that I had pierced his heart, as evidenced by him bleeding a clear, viscous goo through the small hole.
He began to deflate, and I came to my senses and realized I had broken Stretch and regretted what I had done. I tried shoving the goo back inside, like the doctors had done to me, and even took off my band aide and tried to patch the hole in his ribs, but every time I tried to move him more goo oozed out his wound.
I began crying, and PawPaw came into the kitchen and saw what had happened. He told me not to worry, I could never do anything wrong, and we’d try to fix Stretch Armstrong like the doctors had fixed me. I didn’t correct him that it was Evil Stretch. Perhaps I was embarassed that I had broken my new toy, or perhaps I was somehow realizing that good and evil aren’t black and white, even then grasping for a metaphor to use years later when writing a book. Or maybe I just trusted PawPaw to make things right. That’s not probably not exactly what I felt or thought, but it’s part of the image I’ve created for myself, and likely a close approximation of the emotions I felt, my first feelings of shame and being forgiven because I was unable to do wrong, and I was being guided away from ignorance by being shown a path towards better feelings. Puck put my story into action.
We tried using super glue to patch the hole, but it didn’t stick. We put him in the freezer because of something about viscoelastic goo slowing down and thickening when cold, and that worked until he warmed up again, and then the goo oozed and he became more and more deflated. Finally, after two days, PawPaw and I agreed that we had done all we could, and that was good enough, and we decided to give Stretch a proper funeral. We said a few words on his behalf, saying what a good Stretch he had been and not Evil at all, wrapped him in the fancy paper bag, and dropped him into the trash can beside the cricket cage, and then went fishing with the cane poles, not Big Daddy’s fancy rod and reel that was gathering dust in a pile of tools beside the cricket cage.
A year later, as the court records show, Judge Lottingger reversed the deceased judge’s opinion and transferred physical custody of me to Wendy. During the time I lived with MawMaw and PawPaw, no one seemed concerned what I thought, which seems odd if the point of custody trials is to act in the child’s best interest.
Coincidentally, that same year, Seattle juvenile court judge David Soukup felt he had insufficient information to make a life-changing decision for a 3-year-old girl who had suffered from child abuse. He realized that children needed unbiased people who knew them and their unique situations to speak up for their best interests in court. In 1977, he founded the national Court Approved Special Advocate program that trained and oversaw volunteer CASA’s who could dedicate time with kids in the foster system, their parents, and their caregivers. Because they are volunteers, they can remain unbiased and uninfluenced by external pressures. A CASA’s report becomes a permanent part of court records and is used to support a judge’s decision, similar to predicate court cases but more personalized to the child’s welfare. Few judges or juries know all the facts, and my experience with Judge Lottingger and in reviewing Chief Justice Warren’s decisions, that’s true at all levels of government. Sometimes, it take digging through many court records to piece together all the facts, and by then it’s usually too late to do anything about it. Decades later, when I’d serve fourteen years as a CASA, I’d ensure I met all of the adults and would spend years getting to know each child and try to write my court reports from the child’s perspective.
Had I had a CASA in the 70’s and they had visited me at PawPaw’s, I’m sure I would have taken them fishing and taught them how to hook a cricket, or walked them to the convenience store to climb a tree and buy milk and cookies from an attendant who always recognized me when I wasn’t disguised as an old man, and the CASA would have added that to my court records. They may have mentioned me using a screwdriver as a knife and looking away silently when asked what I did with my parents each month. I may have even told them what I knew about Hoffa and Kennedy; I was a talkative kid. But, CASA’s didn’t exist yet, and no one asked me what I thought. And though PawPaw probably knew me better than anyone else, he wasn’t able to speak on my behalf because of his bias. But, Judge Lottingger did include PawPaw’s opinion in a way that summarized the first few years of my life concisely and accurately: Ed White loved me as a son.
Today, in 2022, anything I write about my Partin family is my perspective and limited by human memory, and influenced by how I learned to see the world through the lens of PawPaw’s good eye.
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