Saint Francisville

“Edward Grady Partin was a big, rugged guy who could charm a snake off a rock.”

Jimmy Hoffa in his authorized biography, Hoffa: The Real Story, 1975

I partially filled my deflated backpack with Cristi’s copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls and my copy of The Old Man and The Sea, and a small, wooden, handmade music knocker, a simple hollow tube with a stick that I had seen people jamming with in the streets and sold here and there. And, I couldn’t resist: I had stumbled upon someone selling used vinyl albums off a small side street near a quiet plaza, and I bought a used copy of a Buena Vista Soical Club album that was older than I was but had sounded acceptable on the vendor’s small record player. I strapped it to the back of my pack, where I usually carry a Frisbee, and that made a few airport security guards chuckle and probably remember me, or at least that version of me; I’d look much older in a few weeks, when my beard regrew and the tighter skin from too much sun loosened and my wrinkles sagged back down, a slave to gravity. At the airport, I was a boisterous young man who dug Cuban music. I took my seat, smiling, and the airplane soon took off without incident. I settled in for a short flight to Fort Lauderdale.

I opened my JipBook folder and found the 1979 JFK Assassination Report and what I had compiled after it was released to the public in 1992. It was an overwhelming collection of documents and analysis, and when it was release people compared it to the final scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the ark is hidden in plain sight but in a cavernous warehouse of government records. They said no one would ever read it all, and they could be right. I had tried, and it was like trying to make sense of the bible, complete with contradictions. They reversed the Warren report and said Kennedy was likely killed by a conspiracy, and the three suspects with the motivation and means to orchetrate it all were Hoffa, Marcello, and Trafficante.

Modern software on almost any app or word processor can search for words within a sentence or two of each other, and I before my trip to Cuba I searched for Partin, Hoffa, Marcello, and Kennedy and deleted the rest. My short version still took up several pages, and was different than the thousands of books printed and countless blogs theorizing the story, probably because I narrowed my search to include Big Daddy and ignored the rest when I wanted to focus. One passage of my distilled version stood out, and like most things in JipBook I was rereading it with a fresh perspective, looking for anything that may jump out now that I had more experiences and a few Hemmingway daiquiris under my belt. Here’s what I reread:

“While the committee did not uncover evidence that the proposed Hoffa assassination plan ever went beyond its discussion, the committee noted the similarities between the plan discussed by Hoffa in 1962 and the actual events of November 22, 1963. While the committee was aware of the apparent absence of any finalized method or plan during the course of Hoffa’s discussion about assassinating Attorney General Kennedy, he did discuss the possible use of a lone gunman equipped with a rifle with a telescopic sight, the advisability of having the assassination committed somewhere in the South, as well as the potential desirability of having Robert Kennedy shot while riding in a convertible. While the similarities are present, the committee also noted that they were not so unusual as to point ineluctably in a particular direction. President Kennedy himself, in fact, noted that he was vulnerable to rifle fire before his Dallas trip. Nevertheless, references to Hoffa’s discussion about having Kennedy assassinated while riding in a convertible were contained in several Justice Department memoranda received by the Attorney General and FBI Director Hoover in the fall of 1962. Edward Partin told the committee that Hoffa believed that by having Kennedy shot as he rode in a convertible, the origin of the fatal shot or shots would be obscured. The context of Hoffa’s discussion with Partin about an assassination conspiracy further seemed to have been predicated upon the recruitment of an assassin without any identifiable connection to the Teamsters organization or Hoffa himself.”The U.S. congressional committe on assassinations official JFK Assassination report

When I first read the report in the 1992, Bill Clinton was a new president and I was on the American quick reaction force, under direct orders of Clinton once or twice, and with a national security clearance. But that’s not how I found a copy of report. I had stumbled upon it in a small used book store in an indoor flea market in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the town next to Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne and Delta Force and about 42,000 or so soldiers, though most of us were too busy to read a lot. The shop was catty corner to The Dragon’s Lair, North Carolina’s oldest comic book shop with a small magic display case the owner, retired first sergeant Frank Crawford ran and allowed me to demo to customers now and then. He had a thump tip and knew how to use it, and I learned a lot from him. Frank saved comics for deployed soldiers, and was so busy with kids returning from war and immersing in the new Infinity War series that I’d take my comics across the isle and read them there; Dr. Strange had just entered the mix, and the concept of crossover comics was taking the world by storm. I just happened to notice the books that appeared one day, books I recognized from bookshelves of relatives when I was a kid, like Jimmy Hoffa’s Hoffa: The Real Story and Walter Sheridan’s The Fall and Fall of Jimmy Hoffa, next to a stacks of stapled printouts on what was then remarkable quality; the army still used dot matrix, and I had never seen a laser printed Zerox before. Of course, I leaned in. But, I omitted the entire part about Martin Luther King Jr; I was biased towards my family, didn’t yet empathize with the civil rights movement, and hadn’t seen the links yet. The bit I paid attention to was more than enough for me. I had just turned 20 years old.

In the summer 1992, when I was still 19, the film Hoffa had been released staring Jack Nickolson, but Big Daddy’s role was combined with Fitzgerald, the guy who took over after Hoffa went to prison, to add drama to Fitzgerald’s role and simplify the story for a two and a half hour film. The other film that made news that year was Oliver Stone’s JFK, based on New Orleans’s district attorney Jim Garrison’s memoir about the only trial against someone for Kennedy’s murder, exposing possible CIA involvement. What started me thinking about that was Big Daddy missing from both the film and the book, despite his role being known in Baton Rouge. Apparently, the witnesses who claimed seeing him in a car with Oswald and that they had photos of him with Ruby had vanished, and no one has seen the photo since. I don’t know why Garrison omitted that from the book. I also began to realize that I knew a lot of history, though I couldn’t tell you how. I assumed osmosis, and I wondered what my dad had learned when he was a kid without realizing it. we’re like sponges, and that may explain patterns of poverty and violence.

My first suspicion was that Hoover had slipped the 1962 report in to steer people, swapping it for the original surveillance of Big Daddy and Hoffa he had mentioned in 1964, but I soon found statements in Kennedy’s biographers and friends saying that Hoover had, in fact, warned him of the threat of a sniper targeting him in his convertible in September of 1963, saying they thought the threat was imminent, but Kennedy decided to precede. Everything’s a choice, and I believe Kennedy had been warned, and, though I have no evidence, I believe the 1962 report that Big Daddy and Hoffa discussed a series of events so coincidental that I’ve never let it go in my mind. They chose Dallas because of warm weather prone to convertibles, lots of people sympatheticly or sycophantly aligned with Hoffa and Big Daddy, and with a political culture prone to intense beliefs, overt opinions, and easy access to sniper rifles and shops with scopes in a culture that celebrates wild west shootouts. I never came to a conclusion, but I became determined to maintain an open mind and never trust the first thing I read or hear, no matter how many decades and thousands of so-called experts were involved in writing it. Everyone but buddhas are biased, and some things don’t change, which is why I had locked on to the old man’s belief that change began with values, not blind allegiance to any person, flag, or religion. Everyone has an opinion of how to drive a car filled with people, but few begin by discussing where we hope to go and focusing on the goal, not the details. What is the goal of government? Education? Life? I still don’t know. After only 30 years, I’ve only just begun to understand what I read a long time ago. All joking aside, it will probably be many years before I process all that I learned in Cuba, much less all the things that happen every day that we don’t let sink in deeply enough to learn from when we’re on our way to the next event.

I sighed on the plane just as we passed over Florida. JoJo said I had been sighing more and more over the years. I’d laugh and say it was a consequence of getting older, and tried to divert the conversation. I sighed every time I heard people judge adults like JoJo, or kids like I had been. I signed almost every time I saw the persistent patterns on the news, from wars to storming the capital riots to lynching to whatever was the violence of the day. People kill people over which religion is right about not killing people, we put people in Guantanamo to preserve freedom and the right to a fair trial, and we put kids in prisons or send them to the army instead of helping the poor. If we wanted to change the world, I can’t imagine laws changing human nature. In our culture, we must, like the old man said, focus on values. I voted for not killing, and never hitting kids other than a smart tap to prove a point in the moment. Punishment only leads to smarter crooks and imprisoned JoJo’s. To clear my mind, I peered down and remembered seeing Hemmingway’s Key West house and petting a few of the five toed cats that slinked around the Spanish tiled urinal he had drug there as a cat watering pond. I had hoped it would spark my mind to envision a book about Hemmingway writing books, a memoir of following the path, one bar at a time, and ending with how he died and hoping people see something inspirational from his tale. It didn’t work, and I felt myself tensing from forced thought.

Deflated at the thought of returning to reality, I put away my phone and tried to resist the tension I felt creeping back into my mind. I’d be home that evening, and would begin listening to all the messages I had ignored for a month, and I still had to figure out if there was anything I could do for JoJo that wouldn’t require me adopting a 28 year old, physically intimidating, HIV positive ex-con whose final words to me were always I love you.

I transferred planes in Fort Lauderdale and scored another window seat and began a leg home that would stop in Houston. I wouldn’t recognize the guy who plopped down next to me in a police lineup, but he had raccoon eyes from sun and close cropped hair and a plump body in a too tight polo shirt that had probably either fit them a year or two before, or was a size they kept buying out of habit, and he embraced small talk. I was as polite as possible without answering questions about where I had been or what I did for a living, which seemed to irk him, as if we were all machines programed for phatic chitchat; or, he was a secret agent trying to extract information form me. In my line of work, you never know. When he persisted, put my earbuds in but kept my phone off, opened the copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls midway, as if I was in the middle of reading, and stared out the window most of the time, lost in thoughts that had no words, just a flow of feelings and emotions and patterns as my mind digested the past month of freedom and reading and relaxing.

A few hours into the flight, I looked out the window and saw the Mississippi River flowing past New Orleans and spreading a massive, brown fan into the Gulf of Mexico. I was surprised to realize that in all the flying I’ve done, this was the first time I had flown over southern Louisiana in the daytime and had been able to look down on where I grew up. I practically smushed my face against the window, trying to take it all in at once.

The Crescent City of New Orleans was obvious, and so was the rembrents of the old Mississippi River that had whipped 18 miles across the delta in the 1916 Missouri earthquake; living among California’s plentiful earthquakes, it always stuck in my mind that one of the biggest faults in America is the Mississippi valey, another fact that sinks deeper when you’ve been there. I learned that at LSU, studying civil and environmental engineering on the G.I. Bill, from a structural engineering professor who sounded crazy, telling us the Mississippi was an earthquake fault line, Yellowstone was a giant volcano about to blow the pacific northwest off the map and send Earth into another ice age, and that the Mississippi River levee was a half-assed structure compacted down by sheep feet, and only designed for a category 4 hurricane, and not one that passed directly over New Orleans; Katrina was category 5, and passed right over the Super Dome, which is still standing and was designed by talented structural engineers and without needing sheep feet.

Less obvious than New Orleans, the small port of Baton Rouge stood out to me about hour upriver of its more well known big cousin, the Cresent City, and I sighed peacfully, not with worry. Satchamo sang “Do you know what it means, to miss New Orleans,” but my heart lives in Baton Rouge. I could almost imagine seeing Death Valley, LSU’s Tiger Stadium, the fifth largest in America and the third most populous place in Louisiana on game days, a sea of purple and gold filled with 95,000 fans and another 30,000 or so tailgaters flooding the parking lots. I imagined being able to see smoke rising from Tiger Stadium, from the thousands of BBQ’s and smokers roasting whatever the opposing teams animal mascot was, like pigs when the Arkansas Razorbacks were in town, beef for the University of Texas Longhorns, and alligator for Florida; no one ever figured out what an Aggie was, so we usually just made jambalaya when Texas A&M was in town. Other teams played the game, too and some brave souls once stole Mike the Tiger from his cage, though they fed him well and returned him safely. I saw the BBQ’s in my mind’s eye; in my real eyes, I saw the steam from chemical processing plants along Baton Rouge’s chemical alley, north of LSU and the airport, and visible from 30,000 feet. There was no way I’d see the Pete Maravich basketball stadium, much less the rec center where a few friends and I reformed LSU wrestling and Coach attended the first match there in almost twenty years, chatting with Mike, Wendy, and Cristi about how I made a good co-captain of LSU, and shaking my hand as I walked off the match – I won that one – with the exact same consistency as when I had lost to Hillary Clinton. Over the years, he had shaken my hand after a match 134 times. He never varied. I had seen him shake people’s hand the same way at his church, where he has served as deacon for almost forty years. He was the most consistent man I’ve ever known. Win or lose, I had given it my best, thanks to Coach.

I couldn’t see Death Valley, and my gaze wandered a finger width upriver, to the even less noticeable, tiny bend in the Mississippi near Saint Francisville, a town of only 1,300 people, most of whom work for or are tied to the three prisons there, including the infamous Angola. St. Francisville’s the site of a famous civil war steamship battle with an iron clad ship that survived defenses in New Orleans and Baton Rouge and reached the plantation country where Wendy now lived, only a few miles from the longest battle of the entire civil war, Fort Pickens, between Saint Francisville and Baton Rouge, just beyond chemical alley where Wendy had worked, just Granny before her.

Soon, we passed the Mississippi River and approached wide open, flat sugarcane and farm land. I squinted again, looking for signs of the world’s first LIGO station. I had gone to school when it was just a theory, shortly after the famous 1988 football game against Auburn, where a 50 yard touchdown pass in overtime sent a sold out stadium of Tiger fans into a foot stomping fury, setting off the world’s first and only human-only generated earthquake, a 3.8 on the richter scale; it was monitored because Professor Hamilton, a coincidental name and unrelated to Hamiltonian physics that keep our GPS satelites on track and help adjust for space-time, had been trying to isolate local vibrations from LIGO sensors, and part of the reason Louisiana was selected is that the soft, squishy mud that makes foundations a pain in the ass and contributes to New Orleans sinking defies vibrations from things like trucks barreling down I-10 and earthquakes cracking the Mississippi like a whip, though not overtime touchdown passes by Tiger fans. Two years before I landed in Havana, LSU and another LIGO station detected the first gravity wave rippling through Earth. For a brief moment, everything and everyone on earth rode the wave, getting a tiny bit smaller and then a tiny bit bigger, and time wobbled back and forth and no one seemed to care. In fairness, the two-mile long triangles formed by LIGO’s lasers only reported a half-photon length change in dimensions – that’s photon, not proton – and no one I knew noticed. Some of the people involved in LIGO won the Nobel prize that year, and my time at LSU had been on my mind. Professor Hamilton had been my physics 101 instructor, and I again wondered how I got so lucky.

We passed LIGO, and then Lafayette, and a plethora of smoke stacks and humongous ocean liners carrying Texas Gold from Louisiana offshore rigs, and I squished my face against the glass and searched for the rigs where the Deepwater Horizon spill had leaked for a year, but couldn’t distinguish where it must have been, though another rig was obviously leaking something into the surrounding waters. I tried to not think about it.

The ocean faded away under the plane and the oil spills vanished from my mind, and in less than ten minutes we were passing over the sprawling metropolis of Houston, where Mamma Jean ran her suburban hair saloon from her garage for thirty years. Luck. And sadness. I shuddered, and had that same, sudden, terrifying feeling that Wendy could commit suicide.

One of the bits of trivia I know by heart is that the final bill President Kennedy signed into law was the 1963 Community Healthcare Act, signed three weeks before Kennedy was, allegedly and ironically, shot and killed by a veteran with a lifetime history of mental illness, who was then shot and killed by another veteran with a lifetime history of mental illness. Kennedy’s speech about the bill is often overlooked, probably because his death a couple of weeks later dominated the news, and most people focused on things like his speeches to put men on the moon or explain the Bay of Pigs, or his alleged affair with Marylin Monroe, but he said that mental illness was a root cause of all of our country’s problems, not unlike what pshycologits and spiritual leaders have been saying for generations, and the bill had a plan that would begin by building 1,500 outpatient mental health clinics in communities across America. But, like many hyped acts and laws, the intentions are rarely followed through, and over time politicians shifted budgets away from mental healthcare and towards military, police and prisons, and since Kennedy’s time there has been decrease in mental illness patients that is occassionally celebrated as a success, but not if you consider that it came with a 1:1 correlation to an increase in prisoners with mental illness, and funding continues to seep from mental health to military grade weapons for police to deal with mentally ill people. Today’s estimates are that more than 80% of prisoners exhibit mental illness, and just as many return to prison because of a lack of healthcare outside, and the cycle continues. Healthcare leaders continously raise alarms that we are paying for mental illness, though not mental healthcare, and that prisons have replaced hospitals as our mental institutions. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true. It makes the news about as often as the ubiquitous gravity waves do now, especially with so many detecting stations spread across Earth now; but, like with LIGO, few people seem to notice a half a photon, much less what’s happening to the 2.7 million Americans in jail today who could use mental healthcare and an education.

I missed my family, though I didn’t appreciate them as much as I could have when I was younger. Wendy’s joke about being warped by my dad rang with enough truth that I felt worried about her, especially drinking so much and aggravating her depression. I spent almost half of the flight to San Diego with my earbuds in and an open book on my tray table, ignoring both and lost in thoughts of the past. A seed began sprouting, and I began imaging a trip to Baton Rouge and New Orleans next sabatical instead of a developing country. Coach was right, I could learn to relax, then maybe I wouldn’t need to travel as much. Maybe Mr. Morgan had been on to something. Jesus never traveled more than 100 miles, yet look what he did. Neither did Muhammed. The Buddha took off for three months a year and wandered everywhere, so maybe there’s not just one way. As for the Tao, I’m lousy at remembering who wrote it, but I’m sure they would say neither way mattered if you were centered.

The idea of returning to my home town began to take hold, and I steered my thoughts towards the upcoming spring festival season and the New Orleans Jazz Festival, Fest for All in Baton Rouge, and Festival International in Lafayette. I turned to my phone and made a quick playlist of bands like Galactic, Trombone Shorty, Dr. John, The Meters, and a few lesser known bands I enjoy, like Baton Rouge’s Chris LeBlanc Band, and leaned into the idea of enjoying Louisiana like I had enjoyed Cuba, with an ulterior motive of seeing Wendy in person again and immersing back into the land I love for next year’s sabatical. I closed my eyes, leaned into the music, and filled my brain with thoughts of the sounds and foods and memories I loved in Louisiana. I could almost taste the po’boy, and I may have drooled a little bit. Anyone noticing may have assumed I was napping, and left me to rest in peace.

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