The Blood Feud

Six months after Wendy died, I was on the phone with Craig Vincent, the big actor who had portrayed Big Daddy in the 2019 big box blockbuster, the Scorcese film The Irishman, about Hoffa’s disappearance at the hands of mafia hitman Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheenan, according to his testimony in his 2005 book. Cristi and I had seen it in a theater recently, and I had been waiting to see Craig perform the role and was happy to finally see it after gradually feeling more and more social again. He had never mastered my grandfather’s accent despite talking with us over the phone to research the role, he told me, laughing and saying it great that Scorcese changed the role to an Irish guy named Big Eddie Partin.

Craig had portrayed big, rough men in other Scorcese ganster films centered around Irish mafia, and was a perfect fit for the role they wanted, but with an Irish accent. Otherwise, he spot on as a rough, sinister, deceiving, self serving, senior Teamster leader, murderer, thief, rapist, adulterer, lier, killer, and, of course, bearer of false witness. The more I thought about it, the more I recalled Wendy’s words in Partin vs Partin that she was scared, and realizing she was alone and living in one of Big Daddy’s houses, I can’t imagine what she must have experienced; it must have been traumatic. Craig was a dedicated actor, I said, and I couldn’t imagine anyone playing the role better.

While we were talking, for fun, I copied this about The Irishman from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

Please don’t skip this 1 minute read.

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Craig Vincent was a big man with a few small parts in the film, where he’s guarding Hoffa’s door, being his confidant, and, of course, being the surprise witness whose testimony convinced the jury to convict Hoffa of jury tampering and sentence him to eight years in prison. But, in Charles Brant’s book, I heard you paint houses, a title based on mafia lingo to paint a wall red with blood splatters, the co-author goes into much more detail about Big Daddy’s role than I will now; it’s a remarkable read, and I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.

I said my favorite descriptions of a “tough guy” meeting Big Daddy for the first time in former FBI agent Walter Sheridan’s 1972 book, published after he left the FBI’s Get Hoffa Task force and was a news correspondent running Bobby Kennedy’s bid for president, until Bobby was assassinated in 1968. He said:

<insert quote from Sheridan’s book>

Of course he had seen Oliver Stone’s 1992 Hoffa and JFK and remembers all the buzz. Craig noticed that Stone had combined Big Daddy with Fitzgerald, probably because the opening line of Hoffa’s autobiography, says this:

<insert first line from Hoffa’s book>

And that the chapter about Big Daddy, written immediately after Hoffa had spent years in prison because of Big Daddy, curiously sounds like he admired my grandfather:

<insert quote from Hoffa’s book>

And we both agreed that Brian Dennehey did a great job in 1983’s The Blood Feud, about Hoffa and Kenndedy, where Big Daddy was 1/3 billing. Brian had been carefully selected to match his blonde hair and blue eyes and charming southern accent, especially because he was alive and watching from his Texas prison cell with a big color television, and many people knew what he looked and sounded like from television and around town. We both agreed that Brian Dennehy had been the perfect choice, and that he had done a wonderful job with Big Daddy’s accent, though not the persistent subtle smile; it was hard to replicate. And we both agreed that it had been shitty for Dennehy to lie about having served in Vietnam; that was shitty of him to do, I said. I don’t remember if Craig agreed with me or said anything else about Brian Dennehy.

The big and handsome actor Brian Dennehy portrayed my grandfather in the 1983 film about the vicious public battle between Jimmy Hoffa and Bobby Kennedy, “The Blood Feud,” Robert Blake won an academy award for “channeling Hoffa’s rage,” accurately portraying the relatively diminutive Teamster president with slicked back black hair and a loud voice and surrounded by his trusted circle of physically large and intimidating Teamster leaders. Most of the actors seemed to look and act like the real people involved, and Brian Dennehy looked a lot like Big Daddy and had even practiced Big Daddy’s subtle smile and classic southern drawl that made him seem so charming and trustworthy. Earnest Borgnine, famous for always being an international evil villan, portrayed J. Edgar Hoover, amusingly, because Hoover was beginning to be viewed more as a villan than the hero we’d suspect as director of the FBI. Cotter Smith was Bobby Kennedy, accurately portraying the handsome and ambitious young Attorney General. Sam Groom, the handsome soap opera star, portrayed President John F. Kennedy.

Most of the actors were already famous, and Brian Dennehy was a trusted household name back then; we all thought he was a Korean war hero and an honest representative for a retirement savings something or another on national television commercials. They advertised The Blood Feud as a movie about Bobby Kennedy’s campaign to bring Jimmy Hoffa to justice, and they titled the movie from the phrase “Blood Feud” that most people alive in the 50’s and 60’s would recall from daily news about the vicious feud between the two most famous names in America. But, the director intentionally changed a detail from reality to create a memorable moment for the film, and he had asked Brian Dennehy to be nervous and afraid before entering Hoffa’s hotel room to record what he saw. The made a mistake with the actor portraying FBI agent Walter Sheridan, who only had a small role in a situation probably similar to how Craig Vincent’s role was edited down. In Blood Feud, “Walter” slapped Big Daddy to get him to focus on the task at hand. First of all, everyone in the family joked that anyone unwise enough to slap Big Daddy wouldn’t live long enough to tell anyone about it, and the real Walter Sheridan agreed. He had lived a few years longer than Big Daddy and had published his book, coincidentally, the week of my birth, and I can remember meeting him and laughing with him about that at Big Daddy’s 1990 funeral.

“In all my years of working with high profile witnesses,”

Walter said in a 1964 Time magazine interview about the mafia and spy tapping, wire recording, and paid informants; a hotly debated topic in the Supreme Court and national news because it impacted whether Hoffa would go to prison based on Big Daddy’s unrecorded word.

“…all of them [insider witnesses and informants against mafia bosses] insisted on protecting their identy, but not Partin. He wanted the spotlight. He didn’t seem to be afraid of anything.”

That’s why I felt “Walter” slapping Big Daddy in The Blood Feud was unlikely, and why my family wasn’t in the federal witness protection program with hidden identities Everyone knew Wendy and my business; we both grew up learning to avoid questions and keep secrets. Besides, with Big Daddy being so big and handsome and chatty, and Mamma Jean being so attractive and social in her church, it’s unlikely the FBI could have hid them anywhere safe, and Big Daddy taught me to lean into trouble and smile. To be safe, he said he spent a lot of time in his cabins in the Coconino national forest, near Flagstaff, elk hunting with that big folding hunting knife he always carried. Had he not been elk hunting so often, I probably would have told him about what was happening at school He was that the of grandfather who would have known how to handle things.

Big Daddy was in Flagstaff 1970’s, but he finally went to prison in 1981, a surprisingly posh federal prison near Austin, where he had a big color television. The Blood Feud was one of the first major films made for television and split into two full-length films broadcast a week apart to entice more viewers. Hoffa was still considered the most famous man in America, and Big Daddy was still somewhat nationally known. It was remarkable that the Teamsters of Local #5 unanimously voted to keep paying him in prison, and not even Hoffa’s Teamsters had been able to do that. And, similar to how Hoffa had wielded national power from prison, Big Daddy was infamous for directing affairs in Louisiana, even when Edwards was being impeached again. He was still being interviewed from his cell and watched himself on television, and I’m sure Brian Dennehy did his best; and I think it’s funny that Big Daddy had lied about his military service, just like Brian, and I think you know what I think about that.

All of this news coverage led to me being somewhat famous in my elementary school, White Oaks Elementary, where I was in the 5th grade when The Blood Feud debuted after considerable marketing and advertisements by the network and producers. My teacher, a cheerful African American lady coincidentally named Mrs. White, adored Big Daddy. Her husband was one of the Teamsters who had voted to keep paying him a union salary in prison and she said her teaching job was thanks to his support of the teacher’s union. The principal, whose name I don’t recall, spoke of the famous strikes when he had been a teacher in the picket line, and recalled Big Daddy walking among them and handing them bundles of cash from his pocket, perhaps money from Local #5’s safe used to pay picketing teamsters during long strikes, and ensuring that teachers could pay rent and bills while waiting out the strike. Every Monday, Mrs. White posted news clippings about Big Daddy from the Sunday paper, and all kids in class were encouraged to watch The Blood Feud. The principal even spoke to the school over the intercom system and reminded them to tune in to the film each day it was played.

Everyone in school knew me, and I was an unpopular kid. I was friendless and bullied, partially because living with my dad during summers and winter breaks from school had left me underdeveloped academically and emotionally, and I mimicked his unsanitary hygiene habits and parroted things he had said. I stank, and I was isolated from my classmates and known by their parents as the kid who brought lice into school and caused hundreds of kids to undergo scalp inspections, and they probably spoke harshly of me and therefore validated their children’s’ dislike of me. At lunch, I wore a badge around my neck like other kids on free and reduced lunch, part of a new federal policy to shame parents into working harder rather than suckling the government’s tit for discounted school lunches, and I was labeled as a burden on society. My vocabulary was limited, but it was rich with curse words and statements about news and politics that seemed above my age and uncouth and harshly directed at anyone who accepted the status quo, like teachers and students and parents who believed what they saw on the news.

To make matters worse, I was the smallest kid in 5th grade because of a quirk about my October 5th birthday. If had I been born a few days later, Louisiana law would have said I was too young to begin kindergarten, and I would have had to wait another year to begin school and would have began as the oldest and biggest kid in class. Though laws would change, by 1983 I was in 5th grade and always the youngest and smallest kid in school, a fact that would frustrate me in college, when I was researching statistics and read a Canadian research study and learned that almost all of the best performing hockey players shared the same birthday month, and that some university team realized that those adults had began life as the oldest and biggest kids in school, giving them a physical advantage. A year from four to five is a huge difference at that age, it’s probably 20 or 30% more. That’s an advantage that persists and paves ways for physical advancement, or to allways be the biggest bullies, or other things that we don’t understand. And mentally and academicly, too. We never know the cause and effect of being the youngest kid in class. Nature and nurture. In 1983 I had both working against me.

My situation was compounded because I was considered odd, strange, or weird by most kids, not unlike kids a decade or two later could be labeled as disruptive or ADHD or autistic; but I don’t think I was any of those things. I was just weird and smelly and had atypical bathroom habits, like peeing in the bushes instead of the bathroom and getting up and leaving class when I had to poop, just like my dad told me I should. And because of my family name and how famous Big Daddy was, I was unfortunately unable to hide from being in the spotlight of teachers and kids, and I wasn’t clever enough to avoid questions like Wendy had in school and I’d become awkwardly quiet when questioned about even the smallest of details about my home life; Monday writing assignments about what we did with our families over the weekend became an act of creative writing for me, and I never volunteered for weekly the show and tell that most kids seemed to enjoy. I grew to loathe fifth grade and everything associated with school and I acted out a lot, which led to deepening everyone’s perception that I was a weird kid.

The day after Walter slapped Big Daddy on television, a group of larger boys cornered me in the gymnasium during physical education class and held me by my outstretched arms behind the bleachers where the Coach Simpson couldn’t see us. They alternated between calling me “Feet” due to my disproportionately large feet and “Dolly,” because it was a girl’s name and Dolly Parton was famous by then; in the Baton Rouge accent, Partin is pronounced with a drawl and syllables blend together and sound like Dolly Parton. A few joked with each other and remembered my old nickname, given earlier that year after an embarrassing flatulance incident in class, when I farted three times loudly and malodorously, and, sensing the laughter, exaggerated my facial expressions and squeezed out another, and they called me Fartin’ Partin for a while. After much debate, they settled on Dolly, which had been the first the choice of the biggest of them.

The biggest bully and I had already fought after my dad had given me the advice to act like a man and stand up for myself, so he had already beaten me badly and now just toyed with me. His minions held me and he climbed onto the fourth bleacher and made a gesture like the World Wide Wrestling heroes most of us watched on television Saturday afternoons, wrestlers with names like Hulk Hogan and The Junkyard Dog and Andre the Giant who knew how to put on a show for crowds of people paying to see men fight or at least pretend to fight. The big bully who was a year older than I was stood atop the fourth bleacher and pounded his chest like the wrestlers on television and said he’d defeat Dolly Partin, and he beckoned the few onlookers to cheer him on and by reaching towards them with outstretched hands and pumping his hands up to raise the roof, and when they cheered for him he jumped off the bleacher and brought his elbow down onto my chest, stomping the ground with his foot as he landed and grunting loudly to imply he had brought the full force into my chest. I cried out loud in shame and frustration and buckled so hard that the other boys released my arms and allowed me to collapse onto the floor, and cradled my stomach and gasped and claimed my crying was because he had hit me so hard in the stomach. To me, that somehow felt more brave than crying simply because I was the smallest weirdest kid in school. I was letting everyone know I had been hurt badly, and perhaps they’d be impressed that I would be able to stand up and stop crying eventually. I must have been a good actor, because my tears were so convincing that even the bullies stood back, temporarily embarrassed that their game of wrestling had to a serious injury. Sensing a moment of pity, I cried louder and hoped for more sympathy, and I must have cried so loudly that Simpson heard and walked over, perhaps because he couldn’t ignore what was happening now that a crowd had gathered.

Simpson was a young coach, about the age of my dad but somehow still soft and not intimidating, even to kids. He was of average height and had a paunch belly packed into a tight physical education teachers shirt that fit his shoulders perfectly, the type of tight fight that implied it fit him when first issued a few years before. I was scared of him, because he had pushed me against a wall twice before and seemed to dislike me.

“Hmph,” he said, watching me cry. “Not as tough as your dad, are you, you little punk.” He turned around and walked away and left us there. After that, the group of aspiring professional wrestlers felt validation in what they were doing and would become my daily tormenters in the 5th grade.

Simpson never said anything, and all that week he even made more derogatory comments about my dad, though I believe he mistook Big Daddy as my father. Both were named Edward Grady Partin, and Simpson could have been one of the boys my dad had intimidated in high school. Or, he could have been one of the two kids Big Daddy and Sydney Simpson kidnapped in 1962, when they were locked up for 48 hours until the charges were dropped, and he could have harbored resentment . That part in the story is also illuminated by Chief Justice Warren in Hoffa vs. The United States, expounding on how Big Daddy had been facing federal prison helping a fellow Teamster, Sydney Simpson, kidnap his children after loosing custody of them in the same East Baton Rouge Parish courthouse that has my custody records. They had been arrested together, and were in the same cell in 1962, but only Big Daddy was released. Warren had this to say about that:

One Sydney Simpson, who was Partin’s cellmate at the time the latter first contacted federal agents to discuss Hoffa, has testified by affidavit as follows:

“Sometime in September, 1962, I was transferred from the Donaldsonville Parish Jail to the Baton Rouge Parish Jail. I was placed in a cell with Partin. For the first few days, Partin acted sort of brave. Then, when it was clear that he was not going to get out in a hurry, he became more excited and nervous. After I had been in the same cell with Partin for about three days, Partin said, ‘I know a way to get out of here. They want Hoffa more than they want me.’ Partin told me that he was going to get one of the deputies to get Bill Daniels. Bill Daniels is an officer in the State of Louisiana. Partin said he wanted to talk to Daniels about Hoffa. Partin said that he was going to talk to Captain Edwards and ask him to get Daniels. A deputy, whose name is not known to me, came and took Partin from the cell. Partin remained away for several hours.”

“A few days later, Partin was released from the jail. From the day when I first saw the deputy until the date when Partin was released, Partin was out of the cell most of the day and sometimes part of the night. On one occasion, Partin returned to the cell and said, ‘It will take a few more days and we will have things straightened out, but don’t worry.’ Partin was taken in and out of the cell frequently each day. Partin told me during this time that he was working with Daniels and the FBI to frame Hoffa. On one occasion, I asked Partin if he knew enough about Hoffa to be of any help to Daniels and the FBI, and Partin said, ‘It doesn’t make any difference. If I don’t know it, I can fix it up.'”

“While we were in the cell, I asked Partin why he was doing this to Hoffa. Partin replied: ‘What difference does it make? I ‘m thinking about myself. Aren’t you thinking about yourself? I don’t give a damn about Hoffa. . . .'”

None of that was in Blood Feud, which emphasized the charm of the Bobby and the steadfast determination of Walter, and helped propogate the myth that my grandfather was a patriotic hero who risked his life to help the FBI and Kennedy’s stop Hoffa’s corruption. For a while, his moniker nationally was All American Hero.

Fifteen years later, I think Sydney Simpson’s two young children could have been about the age as Coach Simpson, whom I recall being called Sid by another teacher, so there’s a chance he was one of them; at least either of the males, Sydney and his son. Or, he was simply a horrible adult and unfit to be responsible for a gym class of 5th graders in public school, perhaps holding his job only because of the favorable contract teachers had with Baton Rouge schools thanks in part, ironically, to Big Daddy’s Teamsters supporting the state teacher’s union so that administrators could buy more steak dinners. But I’m unsure, because he was so much older than I was at ten years old, just before I turned 11 and most kids were 12, and most people over 20 looked like old people to me.

After Simpson practically provided bullies with unrestricted permission to punish all Partins, I had a brief repose from gym class after the second half of The Blood Feud aired that weekend. On Monday’s show-and-tell, several kids spoke about what their parents thought of the film. White Oaks was public high school in Baton Rouge that catered to lower middle class white suburbs, and a surprisingly large percentage of parents attributed their climb out of poverty and into the middle class to Big Daddy and the jobs he and his “gangster Teamsters” brought to town. Many were truck drivers, but others worked on the newly formed filming industry that Hoffa and Big Daddy had brought in from Hollywood, and others were in small unions that Big Daddy supported with the might of Teamsters Local #5. Some parents recalled me as the kid who gave their children lice, but more recalled my grandfather giving them work and helping increase their benefits and standing up for their livelihoods when politicians wouldn’t. Many quoted a few governors who said Ed Partin would become governor if he only had a college degree. But, instead of increasing my status in 5th grade, their praise did nothing but shine a spotlight on me in class and renew interest in my oddities, and when the bell rang for physical education class after show-and-tell I stood up and the kids next to me laughed and pointed to the blood in my seat and a few older boys joked that I had had my period. Mrs. White looked at the seat and the blood soaking through my jeans and took me to the principal’s office instead of gym class, and they debated what to do about Edward Partin’s grandson. I heard them say that they couldn’t report anything because “his grandfather would find out,” so the principal decided to allow me to skip gym class, where I’d have to wear shorts that would show all the welts and cuts on my legs, and I’d spend every gym class in the waiting room outside of his office instead of going to gym class where Simpson and his gang of hoodlum fifth graders waited for me. I was saved from practice wrestling matches behind the bleachers, which, in a way, made the beatings at home worth while.

Wendy had never stopped being reticent in public, though instead of fearing school desks she feared her office cubicle and the questions from coworkers. Like Granny, she was uneducated single mother and found the highest paying possible for her at Exxon plastics, a chemical plant up the road from CoPolymer, where Granny still worked. For the two weeks The Blood Feud was broadcast, she attracted as much attention at Exxon Plastics as I did at White Oaks Elementary, not because she was weird, but because she had kept the Partin name and probably because she was an attractive young lady and an office assistant who was surrounded by mostly college educated and prideful male engineers who had grown up fascinated by Hoffa and Kennedy and Big Daddy. They questioned her daily and made jokes they may have thought were benign or inoculant, ranging from her getting her job because of Big Daddy and she was unable to be fired to she looked like Dolly Parton; she was a beautiful young woman, and though not as voluptuous as Dolly she was what most people considered curvy and athletic. Mostly though, whether male or female, her coworkers simply asked questions and assumed, like most of America, that Big Daddy was really a hero for risking his life to help the Kennedys and they wanted to know more about him from her.

For them, it was fascinating to have someone so close to the truth sitting at a desk and easy to approach. For her, their questions felt similar to when she was in high school and was asked who’s your daddy and where do y’all go to church. And because I was a weird kid, she was frequently called at work to handle my problems at school, and she would loose her hourly pay when she had to take off and drive all the way from Exxon Plastics to pick me up and buy head lice shampoo and watch me for a few days of mandatory quarantine before I could return to school; and, of course she worked with one of my classmate’s parents, and the gossip at Exxon was that she was an unfit mother who let her son go to school with lice and infect everyone else’s kid. I’m sure she heard some of the gossip. And, like my court paperwork implied, she was intemperate, unable to act with moderation or restraint, and she still had nervous breakdowns when she felt overwhelmed at work and at home.

The night of the second half of Blood Feud, I had been playing with the gears and pulleys on her new 10 speed bicycle. They looked like the ones Brian the one armed drug dealer, but the pulleys on Wendy’s bicycle must have been more delicate than the prototypes on Brian’s motorcycle, and I accidentally derailed the chain. I was trying to fix it when she came in and thought it was broken instead of merely derailed, and she screamed that she had been saving money for a year to buy it and I ruined it just like I ruined her life. She began to slap me and I had cried as loudly as I had when the boys jumped on me behind the bleachers, but that seemed to make her angrier. She screamed at me to stop crying and slapped me, and I began crying louder and more earnestly, and for some reason I cried out for PawPaw. She screamed so loudly that my voice was dwarfed, and she began shouting that he didn’t want me, that no one wanted me, that I ruined everyone’s life; and, still screaming, she ran to her bedroom and came out with her fathers thick leather belt folded in half and grabbed my left arm with her left hand and began hitting my buttocks and thighs with the belt in her right hand, screaming that she’d get me to stop crying just like her father taught her to be silent. I collapsed like I had behind the bleachers and cried loudly, hoping she would stop like the bullies had stopped, but she clung to my arm and held my tiny body up and hit me until she tired, and during that lapse I crawled into my closet and tucked my head down and tried to hide with my butt in the air, but she followed me and held the belt with both hands and hit my butt and thighs again and again until I cried so hard and for so long that I passed out.

I woke up some time later, after dark, and the light was on in my bedroom and the door was shut and Wendy’s father’s belt was draped over the doorknob. Beside it, on the wall, were momentos of other people in my life. There was a framed painting by Debbie of two deer walking in the woods that said, “Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow. Don’t walk beside me, I may not lead. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” Below it was a photograph of the stately oak tree outside of the convenience store by PawPaw’s house, blown up to fit inside an 8X10 frame. Below that was Aunt Janice’s shadow art that she had framed for me a few Christmas’s before, the one before I learned Santa Claus and Jesus weren’t real; it was comprised of my name written in tiny letters again and again to form the image of a boy flying a kite, and she had told me again and again to always remember my name, that I was a Partin and an important part in her family; I’ll never forget those words, because they sounded she kept reinforcing that I was named Jason Ian Partin and a part in this and a part in that. Those three framed pieces of art made me smile, and had been on my wall as long as I could remember. But, that evening, I didn’t see them and could only see he belt beside them.

I changed my pants because they were bloodied and I laid on my side and wished I were in Arkansas with Anne, and that made me sad. I eventually cried myself to sleep.

The next morning I put on clean clothes and Wendy acted as if nothing happened and I walked outside and caught the school bus and made it to school in time for Monday’s show-and-tell. When I got home that afternoon, the belt was gone and my bloody clothes had been washed and folded and placed back in my dresser. Later that week, Wendy took me to get my favorite snow ball at the neighborhood snowball stand. A few days later, after her new boyfriend, an cheerful but quiet engineer from Exxon named Mike, fixed her 10 speed bicycle and she was happy again and she bought me a bicycle so that I could ride with her to the 7-11 near Zachary’s public park and we could buy Coke slushies. I stood on the playground by the swing, near where she and Debbie and I used to throw a Frisbee after delivering the Yellow Pages, and she told me how hard it had been for her at work lately, and how my “asshole father” wasn’t paying alimony, whatever that was.

We got another slushie and picked up a bag of Raisnetttes and took them to Parkland Mental Hospital and Debbie asked how I was doing and I answered fine, like you’re supposed to, and life continued as usual.

Like most kids, my innate nature is to be happy, and I began to look forward to biking with Wendy to get and slushies and, after I got better biking, snowballs at the snowball stand farther away. But my favorite thing in the world was visiting Debbie and practicing magic tricks and eating Raisnettes with her and imagining myself as the special kid I knew I must be because I was a Partin, related to national heroes who were unafraid of even the most powerful men in America, a fierce fisherman and remarkable bike rider. And, I was the only kid I knew who had fake thumbs in their pocket and could make tiny handkerchiefs disappear in them; though I never showed it to anyone, because I didn’t want disclose the secret and I knew that if the big kids at school suspected I knew magic they would beat me until I told them; I’d find another way to make friends, I was sure.

A few months after the Blood Feud won an academy award, I showed up for show-and-tell with a photograph and what I thought was a great story to share, one so wonderful that even the kids in Mrs. White’s class would be impressed and begin to see what a special kid I was and how much I knew about how the world worked. I stood up and walked to the little stage Mrs. White used for show-and-tell to get us used to public speaking, and I proudly told everyone that I knew SpiderMan’s secret identity: he was a nigger named Richard.

At the time, most of my classmates would have watched public television after school, and The Electric Company had a daily skit with an actor in a Spiderman suit solving neighborhood crimes, like the episode where someone was steeling all the snowball cups, and Spiderman trapped him by placing ice cream cones in a line leading up to his web. Of course none of us knew that was an actor and we assumed it was real, just like wrestling. All of us could sing the SpiderMan theme song that concluded each episode of The Electric Company’s daily skit.

Spiderman! Spiderman!

Where are you comin’ from?

Spiderman! Spiderman!

No one knows who you are…

I thought they’d be happy to learn who Spiderman was, but I never go to show them the photograph because everyone started laughing and Mrs. White grunted with exasperation and grabbed me be the arm and drug me to the principals office, and I was banned from show-and-tell for the rest of the 5th grade, just like I had been banned from gym class, I felt.

No one asked about the photo. It had taken a while for me to get a copy from Uncle Kieth, and I had almost forgotten about him taking me to meet Spiderman at a Hollywood film set organized and staffed by Teamsters Local #5. Big Daddy’s brother, Doug Partin, was my and Kieth’s uncle and had taken over running #5 while Big Daddy was in prison, and we had access to famous actors staying in Baton Rouge and using Teamster trailers during filming. Jimmy Hoffa had began funding Hollywood films decades before, and Big Daddy had used those connections to help bring more films to Louisiana and Mississippi and hired Local #5 drivers to transport film sets and equipment and to house actors and filming crews. In 1983, a famous comedy was filmed in Baton Rouge, The Toy, starring Jackie Gleason as a rich southern man living in a Baton Rouge plantation home and paying a poor black man to be his son’s toy – given Jackie’s fame and other roles, that was a good choice by the producers. They made another great choice by having the famous comedian Richard Pryor portray The Toy, especially because Richard was well known for racially charged comedy that brought words like “nigger” into mainstream discussions. When Kieth took me to the set and knocked on Richard’s trailer, he had been preparing for the scene in which the rich man’s son makes him dress up as Spiderman and be a life-sized superhero toy for him. Richard took off his mask for the photo with Kieth, and I was in awe as I took the picture, pleased that I saw Spiderman without his mask and that my family was so famous that even superheroes fear them; Kieth was as big as Big Daddy, and poor Richard was looking up at him in fear as Kieth’s massive arm draped over his shoulders and partially hid his Spiderman costume. On the drive home, Kieth chuckled and said, “Man, that Richard’s a funny nigger!” A few months later, he had gotten around to printing the photo and showed it to me, and I took it to school hoping to redeem myself. I was unsuccessful, and even lost the photo evidence that Spiderman was, in fact, a funny African American named Richard Pryor. By the time The Toy was released that summer and everyone saw Richard Prior dressed as Spiderman, I was free from the fifth grade and had returned the photograph to Kieth and never mentioned that I had known about Richard all along.

The next few years proceeded similarly, though I stopped sharing what I learned from going to Teamster work with Uncle Keith, and I never said the word nigger again, even though most adults I knew did; I never understood that hypocrisy, but I was too young to question them about it.

In 1985, my dad picked me up from Wendy’s house and drove us to Clinton, Arkansas. The trip took three or four joints, about eight hours, and we’d pick up groceries in Clinton before driving the final 30 miles down the winding State Route #1 to his cabin. Sometimes we’d watch movies in downtown Clinton’s two-screen theater that played mainstream movies a year or two after they were released in national theater chains. My dad’s cabin was without electricity, so he probably didn’t see Brian Dennehy portray Big Daddy in Blood Feud in the 1983 two part movie, but in 1985 he took me to the Clinton theater to see Big Daddy in Rambo: First Blood, which had also been released in 1983.

Of course Big Daddy wasn’t in Rambo, but Brian Dennehy was, but I hadn’t seen Big Daddy since 1980 and everyone had told me that Brian Dennehy was Big Daddy, and all the actors in Blood Feud called him Edward Partin, so I naturally assumed Big Daddy was also an actor portraying the sherif who locked up Rambo, a physically intimidating former Special Forces solder and Vietnam vet with PTSD portrayed by Sylvester Stalone, the famous actor who also portrayed Rocky and other fighters and gangsters, and course Big Daddy was big and rough enough to lock up Rambo. As a kid, I thought Brian Dennehy was my grandfather; but, like I mentioned, I was considered a weird kid.

“Did you see the way he shot up that town?” my dad asked cheerfully and rhetorically, not waiting for me to answer. He imitated Stalone’s famous scene of grabbing an M60 machine gun with one hand and wrapping a long chain of bullets around his other arm and single-handedly taking out the small town’s sheriff department, jerking his hand with every imagined M60 bullet ripping through the small town where Big Daddy was the sheriff.

“It served those assholes right!” he said. Then, as he always did when he wanted to impart a lesson, he knelt beside me and looked me in the eyes and lowered his voice and pointed to me to emphasize what he was about to say, and he reminded me that killing humans was wrong. Fight them, beat them, and teach them to never bother you again, but never kill them. And, if you ever do have to kill someone, don’t do it from afar with a rifle. Look them in the eyes. Let them know you’re not afraid, and give them a chance to back down. I listened intently, learning how to be like my dad and his father, superheroes unafraid of anyone no matter how big and rough they were or how many guns they pointed at you. My dad and aunts had told me about the times Big Daddy had come home with bullet and knife wounds, and yet he still came home and the other people were never heard from again. As Big Daddy said, just remain calm and look them in the eye and smile.

My dad stood up, satisfied by the lesson he imparted, and we walked to the Clinton grocery store and bought some groceries for the first time in a couple of years. Usually, we stopped by the welfare office in Clinton to pick up five pound blocks of cheese and butter and a bag of potatoes – he got extra when I was with him – but that year the office had closed because of “that asshole Reagan” stopping welfare programs to encourage parents to work harder. My dad said that was why he had returned to growing marijuana, and why we now had enough money to buy groceries and see an ocassional movie. As we packed the truck, he kept talking about “that asshole Reagan” and reminded me that even assholes don’t deserve to die at the hands of a coward, especially one so stupid they used a .22 pistol around federal agents.

We drove down State Route #1 until the turnoff to his cabin and drove three more miles to the steep dropoff. We were in his new Ford truck that transformed to four wheel drive with the push of a button instead of us getting out and locking the front wheel hubs, and my dad showed off all the new buttons and said we were in a futuristic vehicle not unlike Batman’s batmobile. He even pulled me onto his lap and allowed me to drive across some of the streams on the final two miles to our cabin.

The cabin looked different, because my dad had spent some of his money from last summer’s crop to buy new cedar precut boards to replace to handcut logs that had been our cabin for five years. He said he had bought the Ford in cash, paying $14,100 instead of the $17,000 cost of a new truck. He was in an exceptionally good mood, and pulled out Big Daddy’s knife and showed it to me and said it would be mine one day. It was the one I remembered, the one Big Daddy pulled on my dad, and it was as big as Rambo’s and also a Bowie-style knife, but without the hollow handle where Rambo kept his fishing line and fire starter and needle to sew up big cuts on his arm. He also showed me a secret compartment he had built into the floor where he kept seeds of the strain of marijuana he had developed over the years.

“If anything ever happens to me,” he said, “this house and everything in it will be yours, and you can use these seeds to take care of yourself without needing to go to school or work for assholes.” I held the oversized Mason jar with both hands and inspected the tightly packed seeds as my dad explained that it was covered in wax to keep out air and kept in a cool, dark hole in the floor so that the seeds should last for many years. He took it back and carefully placed it down in the hole and replaced the floorboards. He was a talented carpenter, and he had made the trap door barely noticeable.

The next day I was helping him rip boards on a new tablesaw powered by a generator that was powered by gas he had brought down the mountain in his truck. Combined, they were deafening, and we didn’t hear the trucks bouncing down the road and crossing our stream and surrounding our cabin, nor did we hear the first few shouts to come out. But when my dad turned off the table saw and we only had the generator running from a small shed outside of the house, we heard a voice shouting at us and my dad told me to wait. He brushed sawdust and wood chips out of his long and scraggly beard and hair that had grown past his shoulders. He brushed a few from the hair on his chest and grabbed a shirt and walked onto the front porch to see who was shouting. He paused, looked back at me and held out his hand and told me to come with him. I walked onto the porch, and as I reached for his hand I saw my first real-life sheriff’s posse.

Five 4X4 trucks were in a semi circle around our cabin, and one had the sirens of a police vehicle. There were three men in uniform, a sheriff and two deputies, and approximately 20 armed locals who had been deputized under an obscure law in Reagan’s War on Drugs. All had shotguns or deer hunting rifles, and a few had side arms. All were larger calibers than a .22, and you wouldn’t have to be an expert to kill someone with any of those pistols, especially from the mere 30 feet away that they had parked their trucks.

The sheriff was standing in front and had been cupping his hands to amplify his shouts at us, but because no one answered, the posse of untrained and undisciplined men had all pointed their guns at our cabin, therefore when we walked out there were almost 20 guns pointed at us. None of the rifles had safeties, and several of the men had their fingers in the trigger and looked nervous, as if they were afraid of the drug dealer they had been recruited to apprehend. My dad walked up to him with my hand in his and the sheriff told the men to lower their guns and he showed my dad a search warrant signed by a Clinton judge, and the posse split into three groups and two searched our property with the deputies while one stayed with the sheriff and guarded us as if we were a threat.

The group that searched our cabin came back first and carried my two backpacks that I still hadn’t unpacked yet. The deputy said they may have found something, and they emptied my backpack onto the hood of the truck with police lights. The two groups of posse gathered around to see what they had risked their lives to obtain, and all were too surprised to say anything. The sheriff slowly held up the contents of my backpack one by one, and I began to explain what he was holding.

The most obvious novelty was the pile of fake fingers, thumb tips and hollow sixth fingers made from plastic and rubber that looked real and could hide small handkerchiefs or fist fulls of sand and make things disappear or appear. I showed them a few small red silk handkerchiefs and held up the magic book I brought that year, Henning Nelm’s “Magic and Showmanship,” and offered to demonstrate, but the sheriff declined and held up the clear plastic baggie of white powder and a similar baggie rolled around a dried green herb that looked identical to the 1/8th bags of marijuana my dad and I used to pack.

I got excited and said the powder was a part of my detective kit, and pointed to the 3×5 index cards and clear scotch tape and small camel hair brush that had been Uncle Bob’s camera lens cleaning brush, and held up my library book on how to be a kid detective. I said that the book taught me to scrape chalk from a teachers chalk board into a bag and brush it on doornobs or anywhere someone would touch, and to use the tape to life the dusted fingerprint and fix it to an index card. Some of the cards had tape and my handwritten notes with the day before’s date and where I found the fingerprint. I reached for the baggie to demonstrate, but the sheriff pulled it away and said they’d have to keep it and have it analyzed. I said ok, someone disappointed that I couldn’t show the posse how to do real police work.

I pointed to the baggie of herbs, and said that was oregeno but that I didn’t have room in my backpack for Granny’s new cookbook, Paul Prudhome’s Louisiana Kitchen, which had just been published the year before and where he talked about the joy of traveling with herbs and spices and learning to cook by trial and error. But, I offered them trivia Granny had told me, that Chef Prudhome was the most famous chef of all time even though he never went to school, and that he had even won France’s chef of the year and cooked dinner for Ronald Reagan and the Russian president, and that I could be anything I wanted to be with practice. They were unimpressed by Chef Paul’s inspiration in me, and the sheriff said he’d have to get the herbs analyzed, too. He kept the two baggies and carefully replaced my books and fake fingers into my backpack with my summer worth of clothes. Fortunately, they didn’t find the small .22 pistol I had stolen in Baton Rouge and snuck into Arkansas and hidden in my own secret floor spot until I could show my dad, and in all of the excitement of being surrounded by an armed posse I had forgotten about it.

The sheriff handed me my backpacks just as the other deputy and group of armed locals came out of the barn, shouting they had found something. The deputy carried over a small bag full of marijuana shake scraped from gaps between floorboards in the barn, where my dad had dried and stored the year before’s crop. It was trash, not worth scraping up, mixed with dead insects and rat turds, and not even my dad would have probably not smoked it except in the most dire of circumstances. He certainly would never have sold it to anyone. But, it was unquestionably marijuana, and the sheriff told my dad he was under arrest and read his Miranda Rights and handcuffed him and put him in the front seat of the truck with police lights, and then picked me up and set me on his lap with my two backpacks and we began the slow two mile trek up the mountain. The sheriff was a much worse driver than my dad, and we bounced over every boulder and my dad asked him to stop and rearrange me in his lap, and I rode between his legs with his handcuffed hands wrapped around me and protecting me from the rough jolts from sudden stops and poor choices in rolling over boulders. We reached the top, and my dad instructed them to a neighbors home a few miles away and the posse dropped me off with barely any explanation and rode off with my dad to the Clinton jail.

I stood beside our neighbor, Bill, and briefly wondered if my dad would be like Rambo and free himself and come back and get me. Bill looked down and asked if he could help me with my backpacks and I handed him the one with clothes and kept the one with my books and fake fingers and rembrants of a detective kit and followed him inside.

Bill was a calm, cheerful man with curly black hair and thick black glasses and Boston accent. He was married to Jean, a delightfully mellow woman with a slow accent I associated with hippies, similar to a popular Muppet character, Janice, the perpetually stoned tamberine player in the Muppet band. They had three children and lived on a 20 acre farm with a well and running water and electricity; rarities in the remote and rural area surrounding Little Archie Creek off State Route #1. I had known them for five years, but saw them rarely, usually only when our five pound blocks of government cheese and butter ran out or when Bill hosted a community party, like his celebrated 4th of July party that would be happening in a week. Sometimes my dad played music with them, but mostly he drank and smoked pot while Bill and the other band members played music and everyone danced and Jean baked pies berries they grew and honey they harvested from their bee hives, or baked muffins using eggs their chickens laid and flavored with legal herbs they grew that tasted like lemon and mint and licorice. Everyone liked them, and though I didn’t understand what they meant I always sensed their awe and reverence that Bill was a “computer scientist” and that he “graduated from MIT” and made money planing trees to replenish what was cut by lumber companies.

“You can stay as long as you like,” Bill told me, discretely empowering me by giving me a choice. Jean chimed in that she had some of the blackberry pie I liked so much, if I wanted some, also giving me freedom to choose. I told them no, thank you – I still spoke like PawPaw to people who weren’t authoritative like teachers and gym coaches – and said I wanted to go home. I had remembered the pistol, and I wanted to find it and I wanted to retrieve Big Daddy’s knife in case my dad and I had to hide from the sheriff in the woods, like Rambo. True to his sentiment, Bill didn’t deny my choice and said they’d prepare a bed for me and I could come back whenever I wanted. Their kids would share one of their mattresses, and I’d have an entire bed to myself, if I wanted it. I repacked my bags and left most of the books and fake fingers with them, 

… to be continued

“So ‘intemp…pret’ is to not stay calm,” she asked.

“Yes, sort of,” I said. “But more than that.” I paused and looked at her and pondered what she already knew for a moment or two.

“Well,” I said, smiling as I recognized Coach’s midwestern accent in my voice; he was Coach Dale Ketelsen, my wrestling coach, and I’ll introduce him in the next chapter. I paused, smiling subtly for several moments, just like Coach would when collecting his thoughts before speaking.

“It’s doing something when you’re not calm. Do you remember when you broke your guitar?”

She nodded, and said, “The Marlin? The one you fixed?”

“Yes, that one,” I lied. A Marlin was a big fish she had seen from a boat not too far off the coast. She had broken a Martin guitar that my dad had left me, a rare home kit version he had assembled and wasn’t confiscated by the fearless Clinton County shefiff’s department. I didn’t think then was the time to correct her, and I continued, “Do you remember how it broke?”

I was proud when she said, without shame or hesitation, not yes or no, but confirming that she did. She simply said,”I got mad and broke it.”

I smiled and a swell of pride and happiness; I think she understood the sequence, and was ok with what happened. No regrets.

It had been out of tune, that’s all, but she was too inexperienced to know that, and at the time had blamed the guitar and hit it against the sofa, breaking the neck from the body. I had glued it back on, just like my dad had once done for me when I broke the neck on my mandolin; he was a good man, and I smiled recalling that the Arkansas sherif was only one of two men I ever saw get him to stop talking, the other was Big Daddy, and both knew their Miranda rights by heart. He could tune by ear, and I used to get frustrated when I tried to be like him and kept failing, to myself, but never to him.

She and I chatted a bit more, and I think she began to understand that even the sweetest little girls can sometimes become intemperate, if only for a brief moment, and break something. We weren’t sure if that was always ok or not, and would talk about it another day.

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