“Your story isn’t over.”Project Semicolon
Janice called me on mother’s day 2018 and left a voice mail that said, “Hey, Jason. It’s your Aunty Janice. I know today will be hard for you, and I wanted to tell you that I loved you and was thinking of you. Call me back if you have time.”
I’d call her after I played with Hope for a while, I thought. Or maybe not; it had been five weeks since my mother died, and I didn’t want to talk about it yet. I’ve always processed traumatic events things slowly, and I wanted more time to grieve privately and to organize my thoughts before speaking.
Hope and I were going on an adventure! We were going to try climbing the Mississippi Magnolia across the street in Balboa Park, the one with the big branches swooping down just high enough for her to reach now. In my mind, she’d probably climb them one day with our without me, and if we did it together first, at least I could show her a few safety moves. I even brought a small rope and harness, just like my PawPaw had used to trim trees and I used to scale cliffs. The rope was short, and I could toss it up and over a mid-level branch, like Spider Man casting a web to swing from.
I mentioned that Spider Man had been my favorite super hero when I was her age.
“She had been talking about her favorite heroes in Marvel’s The Avengers on the walk over which is probably why Spider Man had been on my mind. She liked Black Widow more than Spider Man, and I didn’t think she saw the connection yet. Black Widow by Marvel and Spidy by DC, but their crossover in Marvel’s The Avengers was a loophole in an old contract between whomever bought the rights back then. I didn’t want to tell her all of that, but I had, truthfully, felt that Spider Man was, to me, at least, the most relatable of all the super heroes, and he had been my favorite super hero since I was Hope’s age.
Why?” she asked, genuinely interested.
I told her that he was funny, good at math and science, tried his best even though he kept failing at first, invented his own gadgets and made them himself and improved them after every fight with a villain; and he had been raised by his Uncle Ben, who didn’t have children of his own, and Peter had held his uncle’s hand as he died, knowing that Spider Man could have saved him.
She thought my answer was good enough to satisfy her curiosity. But, she still preferred Black Widow; and I smiled, imagining Scarlet Johansen. She did a fine job as the Black Widow. Hope must have thought I was the happiest person on Earth with a smile like I had. “Yeah,” I said. “I can see that. She’s pretty good. Did I ever tell you what you can do with spider webs? No? Well, let’s go look for one in the tree, and if we find one I’ll tell you.” She thought that sounded fun, and I warned her that black widows like to lurk under the fallen Magnolia leaves and sometimes sit in the branches, and we should check carefully before placing our hands anywhere.”
It was a small lie, and better than telling her about the time I got bit by a black widow climbing an old tree in someone’s back yard, around when I was her age.
We arrived at the tree and had a good day.
Later that day, read Wikipedia, this is what Uncle Ben’s final words were to his nephew, Peter Parker, as Peter held his uncle’s hand:
“With great power comes great responsibility” is an adage popularized by Spider-Man in Marvel comics, films, and related media. Introduced by Stan Lee, it originally appeared as a closing narration in the 1962 Amazing Fantasy #15, and was later attributed to Uncle Ben as advice to the young Peter Parker.
II remembered seeing a copy of that issue, and I had no reason to doubt Wikipedia.
I called Janice back a few weeks later and told her I was grateful for her.
Janice was Big Daddy and Mamma Jean’s oldest child, followed by Cynthia, my dad, Theresa, and Kieth. You can see her in the 1964 Life magazine feature on my family; all of my family is shown in passim throughout the issue, sharing spotlight with the new first family, the Johnsons. But, there’s a photo that’s so sweet and loving of Janice and Big Daddy that the editors of LIfe chose to make it the biggest and most close-up photo of Big Daddy, emphasizing that he was a good family man and had refused to blow up Bobby Kennedy’s home because he would never hurt kids. All of America saw his charming smile and Janice’s beaming, loving ten year old face looking up at him, and no one doubted that Edward Grady Partin loved his children and was an All American Hero for helping Bobby stop Hoffa, and being brave enough to go public despite the death threats from Hoffa, Teamsters, and the many mafia bosses out to free Hoffa.
I told her I was writing a book, and that I’d like to start by describing her as I saw her in my mind that day, and she laughed and said, “Sure, Jason. You can write your version of reality. It’s all there in Hoffa and Walter’s book, but no one knows him like I did. You can tell them anything you want.”
Aunt Janice is a smokin’ hot, gorgeous, fun woman who sky dives with her son on mother’s day. She had just completed her first tandem jump with her youngest son, a disabled vet from the recent Gulf wars, and my Spidy Sense led me to imagine that they were connecting later in life, like Wendy and I had. And Janice was a Christian woman, just like Mamma Jean had been, and she knew the power of foregiveness. I told her I was happy for her, and that I wished my little cousin, which is how I still envision him, happiness; I reminded her that even Audie Murphy and I had suffered PTSD, and that all suffering is temporary and time can heal wounds. Like foregiveness, overcoming PTSD is hard work, and it takes daily effort, but it’s worth it and someone can even become stronger after they heal.
We talked about young boys fighting old men’s wars for a while, and the conversation slipped into her oldest daughter’s suicide many years ago; my cousin would have only a year older than I was, and she had been a good friend while I was growing up, but I can’t imagine what that must have been like for Janice. I leaned in and tried to listen without interrupting, as best I could.
Janice finished crying and forced a cheerful voice, and asked if there were anything she could do to help with my book project. I thought about it, and I asked if she had a photo of Kieith and Richard Pryor, the one where Richard’s wearing a Spider Man suit. She said she was pretty sure she did, and she’d take a photo of it with her phone and email it to me. We chatted about a few things for about an hour and a half. I asked if she knew what a semicolon stood for, and she said, someone irritated, that of course she knew that – she wasn’t as stupid as I thought she was, and that I shouldn’t talk down to her – and I rephrased my question and asked if she knew about the nonprofit organization that used a semicolon to represent suicide prevention. She hadn’t heard about that.
“A semicolon is like a period, and it ends a thought; but, it allows a continuation related to that thought, and hopefully more positive,” I said. “Or something like that. I’m working on it; it’s my effort to honor our family history.”
“Writing is challenging for me,” I said. “I’m an engineer, not a writer, and it’s hard to keep trying. But, I learned about Project Semicolon recently, a nonprofit organization focused on suicide prevention and mental well being, and it inspired me to keep practicing using a semicolon; it’s a way to honor our family, and a way to share our history in a way that helps posterity.”
I told her that thier logo is a play on the semicolon, and it said, “Project; your story isn’t over.” I had had to think about that for a bit when I first saw it, too. Project semicolon stemmed from a meme that had gone viral, and I described it to Janice as best I could from memory. The photo from a few years before showed a teenage girl with a semicolon tatto’ed on her wrist or finger, I can’t recall which, and she had posted the photo on her social media account and dedicated her new tattoo too her father; the meam said, “A semicolon is used when an author could’ve chosen to end their sentence; but chose not to. The author is you, and the sentence is your life. PS: Your Story Isn’t Over.”
I tried my best to recall what I had read, and I continued, trying to find my own words, and I said, “A semicolon is a metaphor for stopping before you go to far; and then continuing your story, hopefully with a positive thought. The future is whatever you want it to be. I think it would be wonderful way to share an important message with everyone who reads the book, and maybe it’ll one day become a part in every little kids writing class. Maybe it’ll help someone one day. Everyone talks about gun control and the 19,000 deaths from that, but not as many people realize that there are 39,000 suicides each year. Maybe Project Semicolon could help someone one day; we’ll never know, but the least I can do is work at using a semicolon when writing a book. In a way, it makes the hard work seem worthwhile, like I’m working towards a greater good, and that thought helps me whenever I feel discouraged and consider quitting. Ironic, I know…”
I paused, realizing I was ranting like Cranky Ken, and I was unsure exactly what I had said or why I reopened an old wound with Janice, and I hoped she wouldn’t react harshly to being reminded of her scars, which hadn’t fully healed. I can’t imagine what she must have gone through, and I felt it was best to stop talking and listen.
She was quiet for a while, which is rare for her, in my version of reality. We hadn’t seen each other in almost fifteen years, but we spoke on the phone about once a year or two, and every time we spoke she mentioned how rough Big Daddy had been on my dad, and how no one knew her father like she had, and that she missed her daughter and prayed for my dad and me. She was quick to speak about whatever thought came to her mind, and I knew that if she were quiet for a while then she was really listening. I waited patiently.
“I’m proud of you, Jason,” she said after a few moments, just a minute and not so long that it felt awkward to sit silently on the phone.
“Your dad’s proud of you, too,” she continued. “We all are. I’ll pray for you, and that you get what you’re seeking form your work.”
To me, praying for someone was the similar to saying I wished someone happiness, and I took her words as a kind thought. I knew her intentions, and Janice had a good heart.
I changed the subject a bit, more like a tangent than an abrupt change, and asked if she remembered the final bill President Kennedy signed into law. She didn’t. I told her that three weeks before he died, he signed the American Mental Health Act, intended to make mental well being an intergral part of American education and outreach and healthcare. Ironically, he was shot and killed three weeks later, presumably by Lee Harvey Oswald at the time, veteran with a long history of mental illness; and he was shot two days later by Jack Ruby, another veteran with a long history of mental illness.
“How do you know all these things?” Janice asked, sincerely. “I mean, you’ve always been smart, just like your dad, but how do you know about things that happened so long ago? That was before your time.”
I said I thought about things a lot whenever I flew home to visit my mom, who suffered from depression and PTSD, and I had read an article on Wikipedia about mental healthcare funding in America and it mentioned Kennedy’s 1963 bill, and what had happened to the funding that was supposed to help all Americans yet somehow has been forgotten, and we chatted about that a bit.
“I’ll pray for you,” Jancie said again at the end of our conversation.
“I love you, and I wish you happiness,” I said. I had been pondering my final words to people ever since Wendy had died unexpectedly; we never know when our words will be our last.
We hung up, and I sat in silence and pondered Spider Man and our family history for a while.
I called Kieth.
“Hey, Jason. How you doin?” Kieth answered.
I have many quirks, and one of them is not answering phatic questions; often, my back and neck and knee and head hurt, badly. As Mamma Jean said, if you don’t have anything nice, don’t say anything at all.
“I’m glad to hear your voice,” I said. “Janice and I were talking about you, and I thought I’d call and wish you well.”
“Well, hell, Jason. It’s good to hear from you,” Kieth said, and then went on a small rant about how badly his body feels. I looked at my watch, and quickly calculated the time zone difference between San Diego and Baton Rouge, and realized that Kieth was probably a few beers into the afternoon. His tongue was loose. He talked about Big Daddy and Mamma Jean a bit. Most of my family does, no matter how I begin the conversation.
I hadn’t considered that mother’s day would be hard for him, too. I chastized myself a bit while Kieth talked, and I made a mental note to wish someone well before I call them, and try to see the day from their perspective, too. Like everything Mamma Jean and Mrs. Abrams mentioned to me, my mental note would probably take a long, long time to sink in deeply enough to form a habit.
I interupted: “Kieth…. Kieth…”
“Yeah, Jason. Sorry. I’ve had a few beers. They got me on this dang ankle bracelet again, and I’m stuck at home on weekends. Ain’t nothing much to do on my property except hunt, and it ain’t deer season yet, so I pick up a few cases of beer and a little bag of… peanuts…”
Kieth meant a little bag of weed, probably from Brian, who still sold his homegrown in Baton Rouge. Our family had long ago stopped saying anything incriminating on the phone, since even before I was born, and it’s an old habit I maintain in phone calls and emails; I don’t think that’s a bad thing, to only say and write what you’re happy to have exposed to the world.
I interupted Kieth again, and laughed about how in California I could have weed delivered to my door by a cute young lady who earned her livlihood driving bags of weed around for delivery from a phone app. She made more than many Teamsters and teachers, worked flexible hours, took care of her young child, and could attend school meetings. I said it sucked that Louisiana still put you in jail for a little bag of weed, and reminded him how badly my dad’s life went for a few years aftrer he was locked in a federal cage for having two pounds of shitty shag mixed with rat turds in the cracks between floorboards of his barn on his own big patch of land.
“And the funniest part, Kieth, is that I get a 25% discount for being a disabled veteran. Ha!” I told him how I didn’t even have to use money or touch my phone, that I just spoke softly and said the magic words, and the voice recognition software I had set up set a series of events in motion, like a digital Rube Goldberg machine, and less than nine minutes later, a bag of weed was delivered and discounts were applied and digital currency – which I view as sharing a blessed lifestyle – was exchanged seamlessly. I was laughing, and trying to let Kieth know that being 75% disabled did, indeed, suck ass, but that small things and ironies and coincidences seemed funny to me, and laughing and having fun with something as trivial as a bag of weed helped keep things in perspective.
I laughed and said, “At least no one’s shooting at me, no bombs are going off, and I have a full belly and a refrigerator full of food and pizza delivery and lots of tacos, and people I love all around, and no posses of armed yahoos draggin’ me out of my home for a tiny little bag of weed that’s legal in half the country and that even the VA says is better for you than opiods. Life’s good, Kieth, and I try to focus on that. I earned some time off, and I love having noting to do every now and then except sit on my balcony and get high with some friends and eat too many tacos. It’s a gift.”
“Yeah, Jason. You right. At least they didn’t put me in jail this time. And the ankle lock is a lot smaller than before, so it ain’t that bad. And you right. What happened to your dad was fucked up. I’m proud of him, though. He’s in the news all the time for helpin’ them Niggers. A lot of people talked shit about him, saying those five Niggers needed to be hung, like we was back in the old days, or somethin’. Yeah, they probably raped that girl, but no one knows the stories behind everyone. They just know what the news tells them or their shit talkin’ friends say. We of all people know that. But, your dad spoke calm-like to the reporters, if you can believe that, and he said they deserved a fair trial, just like anyone else, that this was America and that was in our constitution. Hell, he sounded all calm and shit, not like the Edward we know. I tell you! That mother fucker ever puts his finger in my face again and shouts at me on how to run the Local again, I’ll break it off and shove it up his scrawny little ass!”
I had no doubt in that. I didn’t interrupt, because I liked hearing Kieth get worked up about things he believed in, especially when his tongue was loose. And I liked hearing what people really thought of my dad, when he wasn’t around.
“But I tell you, he’s right. Them Niggers deserved a fair trial. And if I was locked up and away from my momma and daddy, like those five boys was, I’d wish I had your dad as my lawyer! But, man! He’s a hard person to love. He’s an opinionated asshole, and he won’t lower his voice or stop pointin’ that finger of his. That’s why I don’t call him no more, or invite him huntin’ no more. If I did and he pointed again, I’d likely rip that goddamn thing off. Janice, too. I can’t call her without her talkin’ about Daddy and Jesus and sayin’ she’d pray for my soul. She is just like Mamma was. Mamma had a hard time with your dad, too, and it broke her heart. But none of us knew what to do. He was so angry all the time, and we all know Daddy was rough on him. But hell, Jason! We all had a rough childhood. You too. But there’s no reason to raise your voice or push people around, and Ed scared Mamma some times. He’s a hard man to love.”
I couldn’t agree more, I said.
I heard the unmistakable sound of a twist-top Miller Lite being opened, and Kieth taking a big swig.
“I mean, I got this bracelet because I was trying to help a Nigger, and the FBI said that was “extortion.” Hell! If I wanted to threaten the guy, I would have just walked in there and whupped his ass! That scrawny little white bread fucker behind the desk was cheatin’ that Nigger out of his pension, and he had paid his union dues for 29 goddamn years, and they was “layin’ him off,” because of their own shitty, lazy book keepin’, and were tryin’ to say they wouldn’t have to pay him his pension. Hell, Jason, I had negotiated that contract for their truck drivers before that scrawny little pencil pusher was born, and I knew what they was owed, all of ’em, black, white, that Chinese guy, and anyone else. They worked hard, and without a pension they would be old men without health insurance and only a few hundred dollars a month in social security. Hell, that’s not supposed to last, either. Most truck drivers don’t know how social security works, and they think it’s like a pension. And they trusted in a pension, and they hoped for an easier life after thirty goddamn years! Of course I get a little worked up talkin’ to that scrawny little shit. But that ain’t extortion. What Daddy did was extorsion. I was just tellin’ it like it is, and tryin’ to get that Nigger his pension, and the F.B. fuckin’ Eye gets involved. I miss the days when Daddy was around, and we could just ignore all them mother fuckers.”
Kieth was president of Teamsters Local #5, just like his uncle, Doug Partin, had been for 30 years after his brother, Big Daddy, had been for thirty years. Kieth, like Doug and Big Daddy, was a big dude, and even though he and Doug were as soft on the inside as Teddy bears, they came across as intimidating to managers of local businesses. And, because of our family history, and Doug in his younger days following Big Daddy around, a lot of local businesses recall Partins busting down their doors with groups of armed Teamsters and negotiating contracts. As Walter Sheridan put it, Big Daddy “forcibly” installed Hoffa’s men into power throughout the south, and he had his own, unique way of negotiating with companies.
First, Big Daddy and Doug would come knockin’ on their door, smiling and polite. Back then, managers began hiring African Americans and paying them practically nothing, and not providing any benefits or long term hope, and the chemical plants Big Daddy had helped bring into Baton Rouge, and all the movies being filmed there and needing truck crews and trailers for actors, and of course the oil and aggriculture industries that depended on shipping products by truck. Big Daddy wanted more than the companies to get the wealth, and he negotiated for union contracts that benefited everyone equally. In one case that Doug spoke of frequently and Big Daddy never denied, after their first negotation with a sawmill and lumber hauling business, the managers said they had a bunch of Niggers who would work for practically nothing, so they didn’t see why they should spread the wealth. They were happy with the status quo. The next day, Big Daddy and Doug took a group of Local #5 and cut down trees across a long dirt road leading to the pine forests around Saint Francisville and Angola Penitentary, and when the Niggers stopped their lumber trucks to move the trees, they vanished like Jimmy Hoffa from a Detroit parking lot. The next day, Big Daddy and Doug returned, and said they had heard the sawmill was out of drivers, and Big Daddy smiled and said he happened to have a Teamsters contract ready to sign.
Few companies refused Big Daddy. One noteworthy exception was the Plaquimine Cement Company around the time I was born. It made national news, and highlighted how protected Big Daddy had become. Instead of hiring Teamsters, the cement company hired armed guards. The situation escalated rapidly, and about thirty armed Teamsters riding in pickup trucks stormed across the bridge and into Plaquime and that tiny town was overwhelmed by gunfire, almost like they were in a war zone, and the company lost some good men for no good reason. Governor McKiethen tried to intervien, but was stymied by Walter Sheridan and a team of federal influencers who had taken over after Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated a few years before. The Governor was on TV and the news daily, telling the people how much the federal government was interferring, and that he wanted nothing more than to stop “Edward Grady Partin and his ganstar Teamsters from running this state!”
Those were the good old days, I agreed with Kieth, sort of. I tried to steer the conversation back to a point.
“Hey, man,” I said. “I’m hoping you have that photograph of you and Richard Pryor still. I’m working on a book, and I’d like to see if my memory of how y’all looked is accurate. I was only seven or eight, but I can still see that photo in my mind’s eye, even though I lost my copy back in the fifth grade. Do you still have a copy?
“Ha! I was thinkin’ about that the other day, when we was watchin’ Superman Three. He was good with a computer in that one, just like you was. I’ll look for that picture. I’m sure I got it lyin’ around here, somewhere. What you doin’ these days, anyway?”
I told him it was a long story, but that I had sold our company and was teaching engineering at USD, but had taken a sabattical to work on a book, which is what got me thinking of him and Richard Pryor; but, that was a bit of a lie. I was teaching entrepreneurship, but that’s a difficult topic to summarize and leads to lots of questions. But, I was teaching it in the Marcos-Shiley School of Engineering, and using engineering rapid prototype facilities to lead the classes in four month projects, so saying I was in engineering was okay, I thought. And, I never use the word “teacher” unless speaking with someone old school, much preferring the concepts behind facilitator, coach, co-learner, lead-learner, and project manager. But I didn’t want to get going about it over the phone, because I tend to rant and go on and on about the differences. As soon as I answered Kieth’s question, my mind began looking at the differnces, and I realized that writing a book was probably like inventing something or being an entrepreneur: brainstorm-prototype-test-improve-repeat. Keep doing that, and you could solve almost any problem with patience and persistence; and, if you’re lucky, a small team.
“Hey, Kieth, one last thing,” I said. “I was thinking about writing a book about the Teamsters. Do you have any ideas?
“Hell, I have a bunch of them,” Kieth said. “I told that actor guy, Craig Vincent, a bunch of them when he called us up, researchin’ The Irishman. But no one wants to hear the truth, they want to see those fuys in the movies do what they expect already. I told Craig a lot of stories about Big Daddy that ain’t a secret. You just got to open a book and look at the chapters about him that didn’t make it into movies, and that would be a good movie. But, Craig said he just wanted to get the accent down. He played a few Youtube videos for me, and I said that was about it. He tried, but he sounded like some Italian mafia guy, not Big Daddy. And he tried to sound tough, and I told him Daddy never raised his voice. Except for at your dad, but I didn’t tell Craig that. I told him that Big Daddy didn’t have to raise his voice. He’d fuck your ass up and everyone knew it, so there was no reason to raise your voice or stop smilin’. Hell, that’s probably why I get so worked up at those scrawny little shits behind their desks, fuckin’ them Niggers left and right. It’s like Huey Long said, either they is skinnin’ you from the bottom up, or they is skinnin’ you from the top down, but they is always skinnin’ ya; and I can’t do nothin’ about it but keep throwing pension money away at the fuckin’ lawyers. Your dad’s still pissed at me and Doug for not hirin’ him for the Local, but goddamn, Jason, could you imagine him cuttin’ loose in front of those scrawny little shits? He don’t get that times have changed. But, people need people like Big Daddy some times, still, if only to help them ignorant Niggers out when scrawny little shits are fuckin’ them out of their hard earned pension. That’s what I think.”
We chatted some more – we rarely have just one last thing – and Kieth said he and Craig had talked about cancer; Craig was less concerned about telling Scorcese about Kieth’s suggestion to focus on the book chapter omitted from the screenplay, the parts about Hoffa, President Nixon, Audie Murphy, and Big Daddy, because Craig felt this may be his final role, and he wanted to do his small part in the film the best he could. He had just been diagnosed with leukimia, and didn’t know how much longer he’d have the same quality of life, and sometimes pushing big men like Scorcese wasn’t in the best interest of enjoying your time making a big time Hollywood film again. Kieth got that; he had gone through testicular cancer and chemotherapy and radiation and suffered immensely for three years while the FBI tried recorded him and assumed his tone of voice was extortion and not exacerbation at trying to help a fellow Teamster under his charge, all while battling cancer and just wanting to rest and do his best, just like he wanted his daughter and grandson to do.
I heard another Miller Lite open and Kieth take a couple of big gulps, and he said, “Hell, Jason. I don’t know. I’m tired of hearin’ about it, to tell you the truth. I just want to get this bracelet off and go fishin’ and huntin’ and visit you in California and order a bag of weed from a gorgeous girl and not worry about the FBI bustin’ in or a possee of deputized little shits with shotguns draggin’ us off, like they did to you and your dad. I know I shout and curse too much, but, hell, it’s like Grandma Foster said, we all is just fucked up people, doing our best.”
I took that opportunity to tell Kieth how much he had meant to me. Telling him “I love you” wouldn’t be appropriate for him, in his state, I felt, so I just thanked him and told him how grateful I was that when my dad went to prison he kept visiting me and taking me hunting and fishing and onto movie sets with famous actors. And he had always said he could get me a job, if I wanted it, but had told me again and again that I could do anything I wanted, and that there was plenty of time to get a family job, and that I should go to college. He, and everyone in the family, often quoted public opionin and political pundits that Edward Grady Partin Senior would have easily been governor, if only he had a college degree. He had dropped out of high school after his dad, Grady Partin, left them and he took care of Grandma Foster and his little brothers; just like my dad had dropped out to care for me. I wanted Kieth to know that every word and action forty years ago helped me, as he put it, take a year off at a time and sit around with gorgeous women and smokin’ weed and not worried about the FBI or deputized little shits with shotguns. I didn’t argue, and I thanked him and reminded him that he had a place to stay in San Diego, after the FBI removed his ankle bracelet.
After a few more tangents, we ended the phone call, and I mulled over all that my Uncle Kieth and Aunt Janice has said.