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.
The director made a mistake when he asked Brian Dennehy to be nervous and afraid before entering Hoffa’s hotel room to record what he saw, and when the actor portraying FBI agent Walter Sheridan slapped Big Daddy to get him to focus on the task at hand. First of all, I can’t imagine Walter slapping anyone. In Bobby Kennedy’s memoirs, he said that Walter was a mild mannered and calm agent with an unblemished history, and in Walter’s memoir, “The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa” he describes meeting Big Daddy in detail after they spoke on the phone for the first time, before Walter had even seen a photograph of Big Daddy.
“I’m kinda a big guy, and I’m wearing a suit,” Big Daddy told Walter from inside a Chatanooga hotel phone booth. After assuring they could meet secretly, Walter met him in the lobby and summarized him just like everyone else did: big and charming, with a southern drawl that drew you and lent you to trust him. His suits were tailored to fit him and emphasize his broad shoulders and tapered waist. The suit was so well filled by Big Daddy’s body that Walter and the team of FBI agents couldn’t find a place to hide the microphone and transmitter; which, though it was the best that the FBI could afford or design in 1962, was bulky and squared off with protruding corners that would have been difficult to hide unless a thin person were wearing baggy clothes. Putting XXL baggy clothes on Big Daddy would have attracted Hoffa’s attention, so, at the last minute, Walter sent Big Daddy to Hoffa’s room without a mircrophone and would rely only on what Big Daddy told them.
“In 20 years of covering high profile informants,” said Walter, “all of them wanted to keep their identity public. Partin was the first to want the publicity. He wasn’t afraid of anything.”
In Hoffa’s room, the Teamster president spoke freely and told everyone that Big Daddy could be trusted, and even asked him to guard the door against FBI agents and mafia hitmen. Big Daddy was the seargent at arms among other big, rough men armed with guns and intent on killing, if necessary.
The FBI sent Big Daddy into Hoffa’s hotel room knowing that up until that moment, every single person who threatened Big Daddy or somehow got in his way had been beaten badly, killed, or disappeared. I’ve always felt it’s unlikely that Big Daddy lost his nerve or that Walter slapped him was still been able to write a memoir about it, and, of course, Walter’s memoir doesn’t say anything about slapping Big Daddy. Perhaps the director wanted to modify the facts to add depth to Walter’s unflappable and temperate character, or maybe Walter admitted to them things not in his book, but I still believe it’s unlikely anyone slapped Big Daddy and lived long after.
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 not a Kennedy, and Big Daddy had become somewhat of a national celebrity after going to prison in 1980 but still running Teamsters Local #5; the union members even voted unanimously to keep paying him a full salary while he was in Texas federal prison, and news reporters continued to write what he said from his cell. In one humorous article, a notorious Louisiana governor running for reelection, Edwin Edwards, rejected Big Daddy’s endorsement of him because, “Ed Partin’s too controversial,” and the newsmen loved to point out that Edwards, who would be impeached twice and go to prison for multiple crimes between his four times being elected governor of Louisiana – not violating the two term law because his impeachments and imprisonment prevented him from completing two of his terms – and who claimed that he was so sure to win in 1980 that he could only loose if he were caught in bed with a live boy or a dead hooker; if that sounds shocking for an elected official now, it was vulgar and scandalous and newsworthy back then, yet Edwin Edwards said Big Daddy was too controversial to accept his endorsement.
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. 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 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. Coincidentally, a Canadian research study identified the reason that most professional hockey players had been born in the same month but under different cutoff dates, and they grew up being the oldest and biggest kids beginning in kindergarden, when a year is a massive difference among four and five year old kids. Over time, the advantages of being older accumulated, and they trained with bigger and better hockey players and associated with kids more academically mature and amplified their natural born advantages. Conversely, kids like me would be on the opposite end of the spectrum, always grouped with smaller kids who were less academically mature, and over time we meet expectations that had been placed upon us since we were four years old. My situation was compounded because I was considered odd, strange, or weird by most kids, and labeled as disruptive or ADHD or autistic by parents who had read books about the new mental diseases that scared parents hoping to send their kids to good schools. And because of my family name and how famous Big Daddy was, I was unfortunately unable to hide from questions like Wendy had in school, and I grew to loathe fifth grade and everything associated with school, which led to deepening everyone’s perception that I was a weird kid.
The day after Walter slapped Big Daddy, 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. They pronounced my name like I did then called me “Fartin’ Partin.” After considerable laugher and 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.
“Hmph,” he said. “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 Billy Simpson kidnapped in 1962, when they were locked up for 48 hours until the charges were dropped. 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 to Big Daddy’s help, ironically.
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 of her new 10 speed bicycle and accidentally derailed the chain. She had 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. She screamed so loudly that my voice was dwarfed, and 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 colapsed 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. Those three frames had been on my wall as long as I could remember, but I didn’t see them as I stared at the belt beside them. I changed my pants because they were bloodied, and I laid on my side and wished I were in Arkansas. 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 engineer from Exxon named Mike, fixed her 10 speed bicycle, she bought me a bicycle, too, and we biked to the 7-11 for Coke slushies and to play in the small park with slides and a kid’s climbing cage. 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. Like most kids, my innate nature is to be happy, and I began to look forward to biking to snowballs and slushies 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, and soon I was even able to bike all the way to 7-11 and the climbing cage by myself. Only big kids did that.
A few months later, in the spring of 1984, 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.
Where are you comin’ from?
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 two years of school continued more or less like that, except that I entered sixth grade and changed classes every hour and therefore didn’t have to see the same group of bullies all day every day. Instead, I saw seven different groups of bullies six times a day, because of our alternating schedule, conveniently giving each group one day of rest per week to recharge and plot new torments for me. I was able to remain silent and become a bit more invisible, not unlike a superhero with a secret identity so uninteresting that no one paid attention to them, like Clark Kent really being Superman simply by removing his glasses, or Wonder Woman’s alias leaving work and loosening her hair bun and becoming an Amazon warrior. I viewed school as my secret identity and my time with my dad as my real life as a super hero. I was so confident in my secret identity that I never used my Old Henry knife to defend myself; I had seen what stabbing someone as strong as Evil Stretch had done, and I wouldn’t do that to anyone, no matter how scared I felt going to school.
I remember those years fondly because I was simply living a life incognito, immune to whatever was happening because I knew deeper, more important things that no one else did, like Spiderman’s secret identity and that Big Daddy wasn’t the All American hero that so many people imagined. All I had to do was remain calm and not talk about things at school, just like Clark Kent must have felt working in his cubicle or Peter Parker, Spiderman’s real identity, felt in high school.
I had learned to be an actor, just like Brian Dennehy and Big Daddy and Rambo.
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