The Magic of David Copperfield
But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” – Revelations 21:8
I held a small Statue of Liberty in my left hand, covered both with a white handkerchief, and slowly moved my right hand away. I pointed with my right forefinger, and said, “Watch!”
I pointed again, a bit closer this time, and repeated, more slowly and with more intentionality this time, and without smiling too much, “Watch.”
I reached under the white hankerchief and made it bounce around a bit, as if I were doing something to the statue, and removed my hand, holding Uncle Bob’s watch by my fingers and watcher her reaction so that I perfectly timed saying, “Watch!” and smiling widely at just the right time to send her bursting into laughter and look away for a moment. When she looked back and slowed down her laughing, I held her the Rolex and pointed to the handkerchief and my upraised finger mimicking the statue, which was now tucked into in my back rear pants pocket, and I said, cheerfully, “Now watch,” and I made the statue disappear. She was less impressed than with the watch, probably because she had learned that every time she laughed something seemed to disappear or appear. I knew she would one day stop laughing at my jokes, and I made a mental note to learn more tricks.
The summer of 1985, Wendy suddenly had a kid during summers and school holidays and she didn’t know what to do. I was getting too big to keep riding in the window nook of Mike’s old two-seater Corvette sports car, and she had bought a new Pontiac Firebird, the fancy new sports car from television’s Knight Rider, and she wanted to keep it clean and said that I always smelled to badly, yet not as badly as the three Irish Setters she had rescued from an animal shelter and carried around in the back.
I began spending summers and holidays with Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo, and sometimes Granny. Coincidentally, though I didn’t realize it yet, Big Daddy was about to be released from prison early for declining health – he had diabetes and a heart condition and had become deeply addicted to amphetamines in prison – and he only had a few years to live. But, because my dad wasn’t around to take me over there and I hadn’t seen Uncle Kieth in more than a year, I wasn’t aware that I’d soon see my grandfather again that would change my life in ways I still don’t understand.
“So he was like Darth Vader,” she asked.
“Yes, sort of,” I said.
Ever since I met with Big Daddy and the family after his release from prison the summer of 1985, the year after David Copperfield had famously vanished the Statue of Liberty on his annual television special, “The Magic of David Copperfield,” I’ve been unable to explain the experience with words and I’ve had to rely on pop culture references to describe the feeling. What I did about it comes after, and is this chapter, but the meeting was significant and remarkable and I can recall every feeling, but, in a way I can’t describe in original words or images, I clearly recall something not unlike the scene in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke enters the big mangled swamp tree cave.
“What will I find inside?” He asked Yoda.
“Only what you bring with you,” the wrinkled little green master said, looking away and allowing Luke to choose for himself.
Luke took his weapons into the cave, and you heard deep breathing, as if being pumped by a respirator, and time slowed down. The breathing got louder. Vader appeard through a mist of smoke, in slow motion, an image many of us carried in our minds, frozen in time. Luke withdrew his weapon, and the rest is history.
“Time did seem slow,” I said. “So slow that I couldn’t tell it was moving. It was frozen.” I froze for a moment, then relaxed and asked, “Can you imagine that?” I paused and she thought a moment and then nodded. “Well,” I said, pausing like Coach, a tiny little wrinkled man and a humble but renowned former Olympic wrestler and decorated Marine. I asked what that would look and like to her, and if she had ever experienced it – she hadn’t – and we chatted a while.
Over the decades, I’ve used the scene where Luke confronts his father in the cave after chooseing to bring weapons in, both for explaining my relationship with my dad and for explaining Big Daddy’s energy, aura, control and influence (Jedi conditioning and mind tricks); but, mostly to try to explain what I can’t put into words.
I had walked from Granny’s house to Grandma Foster’s one afternoon, not knowing Big Daddy was home, but knowing a lot of people were there because of all the cars parked along the street and into the driveway and carport. I walked past them and to the carport door and knocked and opened without waiting, as usual, and was greated by Big Daddy’s momma, a tiny little woman who did, actually, look and almost sound just like Yoda. And she cooked about as good as him, too, and like the line Yoda tells Luke, I always wondered how they got so big eating food like that. I always ate at Granny’s before walking over.
Time did seem to slow down, almost to halt. But that’s not the feeling. The first time I tried to explain it to a friend, Leah, as in Princess Lea, which was her nickname in school, of course. She was my best friend and the only one who had met Big Daddy, and she agreed that we couldn’t describe it in words. She had first said hypnotized, and I had said terrified; but, we later clarified, it was not afraid or scared or panicing, but terrified as if you were caught underwater by big tumbling waves or the rapid waters in a river flood tumbling over rocks, things we had both experienced, like a lot of kids in the frequently flooding flood plains of Baton Rouge and the hurricanes from the Gulf of Mexico. I don’t know if you’ve been caught in either, but, to us, terrified meant knowing resistance was futile and therefore not fighting so you can calm down, but also somewhat believing that you’d drown to death before you saw light. Big Daddy had terrified me. I left later that day and returned often that summer, and the feeling slowly dissipated, but the effects were somewhat perment, or at least the consequences are. For reasons I don’t understand but had told Princess Leah the evening after I walked in on Big Daddy and felt terrified, I decided I didn’t want to be anything like my Partin family; except for Uncle Kieth and Grandma, of course. I’ll try to explain more later, when we have a bigger shared vocabulary; but, for now, time was slow and I was terrified, and I chose to change and not be like my Grandfather. He was, to me, as evil as Darth Vader; and, unlike Luke, I never would see good in him, and I was perplexed why everyone else seemed hypnotized. Every time. Though I don’t know what Chief Justice Earl Warren or coach Sid Simpson felt, I’m sure it was close to the dark side of the force.
As for the visual image, not the feeling, that, too is difficult to explain. Fortunately, several films had good examples that, when combined with chatting back and forth, left me assured that we saw the same thing, briefly for her and almost frozen in time for me. He really was handsome and charming, and his smile really drew you in. Literally, in my mind. It was as if I kept getting closer to him, pulled in by some force, not unlike gravity, but not of my body; of my focus and attention. Leah said is was like she imagined love at first sight, and could see why so many women swooned for him; yet not, which is why you respected him, or at least respected that he could, at any moment, kill you without stopping smiling. The moment was brief for her, and his head never changed sizes, but for me it seemed to be almost frozen in time and myu focus narrowed to where all I could see was him, dominating my field of view, with only Grandma Foster visible in my periphery, smiling and clasping her hands, and, confusingly, looking back and forth despite time slowing down and saying something about being so happy to have Edward’s son meet his daddy. At the time, I compared it to the scene in Time Bandits where God’s head swoops towards the pirates who stole his time map and they were running forward yet somehow moving backwards, and God’s head grew larger and larger, just like Big Daddy’s vision grew in my mind’s eye. There’s a similar example in the Wizard of Oz, an old but still popular film because it was good and the first color film and we had both seen it a few times, too. I would only see that image until I would eventually peer into his casket, wondering; and now his image in the casket is what I see, unless I try to remember that day. Or, every time Leah and I get together, especially when our families have watched Star Wars together. I see him as Darth Vader then.
<work in progress>
About a week after I was terrified by Big Daddy, NASA strapped the space shuttle to a Boeing 747 and flew it close to the ground from Houston to Florida as part of a publicity campaign, and it was scheduled to pass over Baton Rouge and I’d get to see it.
Uncle Bob set up his Minolta SLR camera on a tripod and rigged up a trigger to take photos without shaking the camera, and he looked at his watch and told me the space shuttle would fly overhead within an hour. He had been teaching me to use the camera all week, which was challenging for a 12 year old kid because there’s no immediate feedback with a film camera, and I’d have to wait for photos from the nearby pharmacy to see what I had done. But I wanted a photo of the space ship to enlarge and frame and hang on the wall the the photo of my stately oak tree. Uncle Bob had set up his camera an hour early and we were practicing quickly adjusting the settings for a range of scenarios.
Uncle Bob had Archie Bunker’s receeding hairline and penchant for reposing in a recliner with a cocktail and carton of Kents, the same brand as Granny and reputed to be more classy than what poor people smoked. Jackie Gleason and Ronald Reagan even advertised fancy cigarettes like that, and Time magazine on Uncle Bob’s desk showed an advertisement that 8 out of 10 scientists and teachers preferred Kent to other brands of cigarettes. Uncle Bob was classy. He always spent money on the best he could afford and only after researching the quality and reliability, like his Scotch and Kents and Minolta camera equipment.
But, he never did bought expensive things to show off or brag, only to have something reliable, and his watch is still an excellent example. It’s a Rolex, but the most affordable Rolex and practically unrecognizable as a luxury watch. But it was reliable, and every New Years Eve, he’d stay up with Auntie Lo and watch the New York big apple drop and reset his watch, and it was never off more than three seconds in a year. Auntie Lo was usually snoring by that time, and he’d kiss her gently and I’d help him take her to bed and he’d tuck me in and wish me a happy new year. He was unlike Archie Bunker and Jackie Gleason, and would never tolerate anyone raising their voice to Auntie Lo or any lady when he was around. When ladies fought each other, he simply stayed out of their way and focused on making a cocktail or two. He wasn’t perfect, but he was an honorable man.
Uncle Bob had a wide brimmed paper Panama hat on his balding head and a cocktail in his hand, and I had an iced tea and we stood in his driveway and looked up into the clear blue sky, searching for the space shuttle. Neither of us knew how easy it would be to see, and neither had seen one in real life before so we weren’t sure how big it was.
He looked at his watch again, and said the space shuttle was coming soon. I asked why he kept that watch when there were so many new digital ones, like the Pac Man watch I wore that had a tiny joystick and could play video games during class, after I had learned to silence the beeping.
“I like quality and reliability,” he said.
I said my watch always worked. It was quality!
“How many have you had?” he asked, not sarcasticlly. I thought about that for a bit, and said three. Or four. I had lost one when the strap broke, and two others had stopped working after I had forgotten to take them off and jumped in Little Archie Creek in Arkansas. I had lost another one swimming in either the Amite or Comite river in Baton Rouge, where Big Daddy had dumped the safe, but the water was too murky to find it and I don’t know how it came off my wrist. I had another at Wendy’s that wasn’t working, probably because of a dead battery. So five. I told him so, but said that my Pac Man watch kept perfect time and didn’t need to be reset every New Years.
“I’ve had this since before you were born,” he said, “and I’ve take in snow skiing and on deep sea fishing trips, and it’s never needed a battery. One day, you’ll be as old as I am and appreciate things like that.” I laughed and asked if I’d go bald, too, like he was. He laughed with me and rubbed his balding forehead and said, “Probably! You know what they say, hair today, gone tomorrow!”
Auntie Lo brought us out a small Charcuterie platter of julianned carrots and fancy olives and meats from a nearby delicatessen. She kissed both of us on the cheek and said she was going inside to make another drink and watch her soaps on television and for us to have fun. We munched on carrots and fancy little things and stared at the sky and chatted about things I don’t recall.
The space shuttle soon flew overhead, right on time. I was surprised that it was so small. I had imagined a giant ship like television’s Star Trek, but it was a tiny blip on the back of an enormous Boeing 747. And because of an optical illusion of large objects flying nearby, the Boeing seeming stationary in mid air just above their upper middle class house in Sherwood Forest subdivision. Other kids and their dads were outside, pointing at the sky, but only Uncle Bob and I were prepared with a camera system, and I snapped a perfect picture, I hoped. To be sure, Uncle Bob adjusted the settings and took a few shots, too. It was a beautiful, sunny day during spring break, when I would usually be in Arkansas, but I was happy at Uncle Bob’s and surprised that so many other kids lived near him. I had never been around other kids before, and I noticed how many came over and chatted with him as if they knew him better than I did. He even let a few take photos, though they didn’t understand F stop and shutter speed and light metering, like I did, and for the first time in my life I felt that I could share things I knew, and I helped them understand what they were doing, and bragged that I had ‘developed’ delayed gratification, a pun Uncle Bob had used when teaching me to take notes and wait for the film to be developed to see my work.
Auntie Lo was stumbling by 3 or 4pm, and Uncle Bob soon joined her, and I stayed up late and watched television and quietly opened their cubbard and put packs of Kent and a bottle of Canadian rye whiskey in my backpack. They had so many that they never noticed, and I was always picked on less when I shared classy shit with the big bullies. It actually worked, and, as they say, birds of a feather flock together.
After my dad and I were arrested – that’s how I remembered that day in Arkansas surrounded by armed deputies – I had begun making friends in Wendy’s neighborhood, which was adjacent to a relatively poor neighborhood with kids that stayed out all hours of the night. They didn’t make fun of me, probably because I always had cigarettes and whiskey to share. Someone would buy a big bottle of Coke from the neighborhood convenience store and we’d chug whiskey and cokes and smoke Kents, like classy kids. I was still young and small, only 11 years old in eigth grade and would begin ninth grade before I turned 12, but I looked, in my mind, cool and intimidating. I had a spiked mullet haircut that hid my scar in back, and a bluejean jacket Granny had bought me that I sewed Heavy Metal patches all over. I usually wore an Iron Maiden t-shirt with their zombie-looking mascot, Edie the Zombie, and I almost always carried a knife and my .22 magnum derringer and a deck of cards, ready for anything.
I was a good kid, but doing a lot of foolish things to stop being bullied and to believe I had friends. I taught them to shoot and build fires and always seemed to have access to booze and cigarettes, and had even taken advantage of my dad’s cache of seeds and grown a few plants in the woods near Wendy’s house, for fun. I had learned one thing: you can get caught growing marijuana and go to jail. But I enjoyed the process, especially keeping an eye out for males and females and trimming the males to get sansemillia, without seeds. And I liked keeping secrets; my dad had gotten caught because he talked too much, and because he had trusted his “friends” and neighbors and the constitution about due process and bail. I knew better than that.
And I still smiled and did magic shows for relatives and even had a girlfriend, Princess Leah, and I was into photography and theater and of course The International Brotherhood of Magicians Local Ring #178, The Pike Burden Honorary Ring. And I spent a lot of time with Uncle Bob, who didn’t seem to notice or bother with the frequent smell of cigarettes on my blue jean jacket and Iron Maiden shirts. He would teach me without teaching me, what some people now call ‘coaching’ or ‘facilitating,’ but it was more like what I imagine ‘project based learning’ to be, with a lead-learner. Uncle Bob like learning things, and as he taught me about his camera he was learning aglebra, asking me how to explain variables to him as I practiced taking and developing photographs with his fancy camera, preparing to capture the Space Shuttle on film. I had the framed print to prove I had learned to be a photographer, and, surprisingly, I had begun doing really well on math tests, especially the new national standardized tests that decided if you went to a good, magnet school or not.
But, things quickly went downhill for me. friendship circle until 1986, when the space shuttle challenger would famously explode in a seminal moment that everyone of a generation recalls where they were, not unlike President Kennedy’s assassination or the 9/11 World Trade Center bombing. The launch was broadcast internationally, and had the first civilian who would go to space, a middle school science teacher, Christa McAuliffe, to inspire more kids to study science and engineering. I had been anxious to watch her on television, and even the schools that weren’t magnet schools seemed to have parents bring in enough televisions to where every classroom could watch the shuttle launch life that afternoon.
I was in eighth grade then, in Westdale middle school’s program for kids with aptitude in math and science based that was more hands-on, less sitting down in class, which was useful for when Wendy had small nervous breakdowns and became intemperate. The program was in part due to the space shuttle and NASA efforts to get more kids into Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics, now called STEM, because after World War II, engineering had become so theoretical that classes catered to people good at sitting down and taking tests that didn’t ensure understanding, but hands-on programs were hoped to facilitate more innovation from a wider class of kids. Wonderfully, those classes included more art classes that used welding and shop tools to prototype ideas, and I was building a mold to make clay tiles of the story book I enjoyed, The Country Mouse and the City Mouse. I had made the city mouse riding a motorcycle and with a spiked hairdo and a jacket with Heavy Metal patches, though I could only fit “Ratt” on the tiny tile, and I was trying to iterate and put at least the VH symbol for Van Halen on his jacket or as an arm tattoo, and I would become so focused that I’d loose track of time and miss other classes. One teacher must have called my name a few times without me noticing and startled me by grabbing my arm and shouting my name, and I reacted by pushing them away and cursing loudly, and the vice principal called Wendy and said I’d either be suspended from school or paddled, and that she’d have to pick me up that day and he’d send home a note for her to sign with whatever she choose.
She was furious, and had been having a rough week because Mike had left, saying he never wanted children and their lives were different now that I was home so often. She began shouting unkind things and went to grab my arm, but I had gone through a growth spurt that year and was now almost tall as she was, 5’1″, and growing stonger now that I had begun puberty. I shook off her arm and she went to slap me and I deflected her arm, surprisingly, with the “wax on / wax off” motion every kid I knew had practiced ever since the film “Karate Kid” showed that was the secret to martial arts. It works surprisingly well.
Wendy grew infuriated, and began wildly slapping at me with both hands and I screamed back and shoved her and she stumbled backwards and tripped over a chair, just as Mike had returned home to pick up some of this things. He stepped forward, still calm, and Wendy calmed down but I was so infuriated that I couldn’t speak. I stood there, panting, with clenched fists. Wendy began sobbing softly and said, “See? He’s just like his dad.” Mike nodded in agreement and wrapped his arms around her and looked at me disapprovingly.
Wendy signed the permission slip for me to get paddled, and the next morning, on January 28th, 1986, I stood in the vice principal’s office, bent over a small wooden bench big enough for two kids who had been fighting – I had sat there before – and he paddled me three times with what looked like a small wooden pirogue paddle. I seethed. I hated him, school, Wendy, and Mike. I missed Arkansas. I ignored the knife in my pocket and almost took the .22 magnum derringer out of my backpack and stopped him. I don’t know why I didn’t; it surely wasn’t fear of getting spanked, because I was sure that even though a .22 wasn’t the best choice for stopping someone, it was more powerful than a pirogue paddle and I was sure I’d come out ahead.
Later that morning, just before lunch, I stood in class as everyone else sat around the television and watched the space shuttle challenger explode less than two minutes after takeoff. The explosion and talks about whether or not going to space was a good idea dominated the rest of our school year, though we did make local news with Westdale’s giant art project facing the wealthy neighborhood around it, with clay tiles made by students using hands-on techniques. I had never gotten to iterate my clay tile – I learned my lesson – so the city mouse only had a Ratt patch and no VH; but, at eighth grade graduation several teachers said it was imaginative and funny and I was happy with my work, in hindsight.
I decided that that would never happen again, and I would drop out of school and become a famous magician, like David Copperfield. I had heard that he earned $33 Million Dollars a year, flew through the air, married a super model, walked through the Great Wall of China, and owned an island. I thought all of that sounded fun, and one Tuesday after school, a man named Mr. Martin Samuel’s picked me up at Granny’s, where I had been staying, because she lived closer to the magnet school in Scotlandville, near her work along Chemical Alley. He was president of Ring #178, and was taking me to our monthly magic club meeting. Usually, it was at the Public Library near Granny’s, another reason Wendy left me with her a lot, but that night it would be at Dr. Zuckermans in the wealthiest neighborhood of Baton Rouge, and I was excited because that meant there would be a lecture by someone famous in Dr. Z’s magic theater. On the drive to Dr. Z’s, I told Mr. Samuels that I had seen Big Daddy; for some reason, I had always felt comfortable around him, and spoke more freely.
“Oh, really?” he said in his deep, resonating, and remarkably articulate voice. He had been a performer for almost fifty years without ever needing a microphone. He had managed an engineering department at CoPolymer for 35 years and had carpooled to and from work with Granny and a few others during the 1970’s oil crunch. For a while, he had taken Wendy to her sporting events around town, when Granny had begun drinking too early in the day to drive Wendy anywhere, and he had taught her and her friends magic tricks when they were my age, though Wendy recalled many fewer than Debbie had. When he learned I was interested in magic, he surprised all of us by pulling three thin pieces of rope from his pocket and performing The Professors Nightmare and inviting me to the monthly IBM meeting. I couldn’t become a member until I was 14, still a year away, but Mr. Samuel’s had picked me up and driven me to meetings as a “junior member” for more than a year.
“Do you know what a ‘seargent at arms’ does for an organization?” he asked. I said no. He said, clearly and methodically, “Well, your grandfather was once Jimmy Hoffa’a seargent at arms. Hoffa asked him to guard the door for him.” I knew the story, and so did everyone in America who had seen The Blood Feud. Big Daddy’s role with Hoffa had been a big part in Hoffa vs The United States and therefore in The Blood Feud film, and Judge Warren emphasized that “Partin was in [Hoffa’s] suite “virtually every day,” as well as the “nightly meetings,” had “ready access” to the files and offices, and acted as “sergeant-at-arms” just outside the door of the suite.
I said a seargent at arms was a bodyguard.
“Yes, I can see how you’d see it that way,” he replied. “And that was part of what he did. I met your grandfather once. Did I tell you that?” I said no and asked what it was like. I was still confused by how I felt after having met him. It had been so long since I saw him that I considered that day as having met Big Daddy.
“Well, he was charming. Everyone in the room seemed calm. He was facilitating talks between salaried managers,” he paused and continued with an extended pause between each contingent, “non-unionized hourly workers, unionized hourly workers, lawyers…” He paused to collect his thoughts. “And he kept everyone calm and focused on following the rules of a meeting. You know he was responsible for a lot of our companies coming here”
“Oh yes!” he said. “He promised that his Teamsters could ship more chemicals and plastic and oil than ports or railroads, after Eisenhower built I-10.”
He paused for a few moments to collect his thoughts, and said, “Without him, Joyce and I wouldn’t have had jobs,” he said. He was a chemical engineer from Israel who had retired as a senior manager with some fancy title at CoPolymer, and had carpooled with Granny in the late 1970’s, during the oil crisis when almost everyone carpooled.
Mr. Samuels never had anything unkind to say about anyone, and was always willing to help people. He and his wife’s children had left home for college around the time I was born, and they had always offered to help Wendy whenever she asked, and they had been taking me to magic meetings and had even invited me over for lunch once or twice. At IBM meetings and when he picked me up, he was always teaching me magic tricks that involved math or science but weren’t very interesting. For example, one time before we got in his car he pretended to roll two imaginary dice onto Granny’s dining table, and he ask me to imagine the number showing on each die.
“There’s no equivoque,” he’d said, referencing a concept he had taught me earlier, equivoque. He had taught me that recently before, when he had asked me to pick one of two real decks of cards. I picked one, and he said that was the one we would use, and he showed the other one was shuffled and discarded it, but the one I had chosen had been stacked for a magic trick that fooled me. If I had picked the shuffled deck, he would have shown it was shuffled and said that was the one we’d throw away so that we could use the I had chosen to remain. An equivoque was ambiguous and a magician could steer people to do whatever by allowing the spectator to perceive they had a free choice. To ensure there was no equivoque with his imaginary dice, he reemphasized that I could choose any number I wanted for each die. He asked what they were, and I told him. He rolled them again, and asked again, and I told him two different numbers.
“See?” he said with a mischievous grin. “The dice aren’t faked to roll the same numbers!” I groaned and he rolled the invisible dice and told me to keep my numbers secret this time. I imagined a 4 and a 3, a lucky #7 combination.
“Take one of the numbers and double it, but keep the answer to yourself,” he said. I doubled 4 and kept the number 8 in my mind.
“Now add 5 to the new number,” and I did and kept the number 13 in mind.
“And multiply that by 5.” I had to look up towards the ceiling and think for a moment with my lips mouthing “carry the one,” but I did it and kept 65 mind.
He pointed to the table and the other invisible die on it and said, “Add the number on the other die to it.”
I thought again, and quickly redid my math because I had made mistakes before and didn’t want to again, and ended up with 68 both times.
“Now tell me that number.”
I said, “68,” and he pointed to the table and said he could now see the dice in my mind, and I had rolled a 4 and a 3.
I was unimpressed. But, I redid the math a few times with different numbers and couldn’t see a pattern, and finally asked how he did it, and Mr. Samuels said he subtracted 25 my number and, if I did the math correctly, the answer would always be two numbers that were my dice. In this case, it was 43. I repeated the math as if I had chosen 5 and 5, and ended up with 80, subtracted 25, and had 55. It worked every time. I was more interested and asked a few questions, and Mr. Samuels explained it in therms of the rules of mathematics. He had been happy to hear I had gotten into Scotlandville Magnet High School for the Engineering Professions near where he had worked and sometimes still visited to do magic shows for big meetings.
We arrived at Dr. Zuckerman’s house, a mansion in the wealthiest part of Baton Rouge that had a magic meeting room custom built inside and stocked with surplus stadium seats from when LSU remodeled the baseball stadium. He had had the architect who built his home add a room hidden behind the entrance hall’s bookshelf, just like in Hollywood’s Magic Castle on the television specials popular thooughout the 80’s. The president of the Magic Castle was Orsen Wells, the huge and famous actor who looked not unlike Big Daddy but had my dad’s deep booming voice, but Orsen Wells spoke more articulately and sounded like a spokesman for fine wines, more like how Mr. Samuel sounded. I had watched him and his specials every year, and had recorded them on Mike’s VCR and learned every trick by rewinding and rewatching them in slow motion. I always figured them out and wasn’t impressed with the magic, but like everyone I was mesmerized by the best part of the Magic Castle, the magic bookcase, which Dr. Z had taught me wasn’t a trick at all, it was a miracle of engineering and he had asked my help in building his own, so I always felt like I was a part of Dr. Z’s home.
Dr. Z’s wife, Mary, opened the front door and welcomed us and extended her hand towards the bookshelf and I said, “Open, seasame!” just like they did to open the bookshelf at The Magic Castle and Dr. Z’s bookshelf clicked and gently swung open a foot or so. He hadn’t wired a voice triggered lock yet, and this was years before he’d have a smart pone app that only responded to his family’s voice, and I knew Mary kept a remote control in her hand and pushed it whenever someone said open seasame. But, it was still a lot of fun to watch and Dr. Z had even had me help make the cutout book that hid the locking mechanism. I pulled the door wide open and Mr. Samuels and I stepped inside to our monthly magic club meeting, and was given my first job.
Mr. Samuels was big on rules, and ran Ring #178 according to strict Parlimentary Procedure. Everyone loathed it, because it took so long we couldn’t play around and teach each other magic tricks. That evening, he nominated me to be the Ring’s Seargent at Arms, and I agreed. To keep things calm, I interjected his long winded explanations a few times and reminded him of time limits, and we finished the meeting early and gathered around John Rocherbaumer to watch him demonstrate the latest Paul Harris card effects from Paul’s book, “The Art of Astonishment.” Dr. Z pulled me aside and thanked me for cutting Mr. Samuel’s short. They attended synagague together, and Dr. Z said no one there could get him to stop, and he asked if I wanted to be seargent at arms there, too. We giggled and showed each other a few card moves and Dr. Z asked me to pick a card from the deck in his hands and not show him but to keep it in my mind.
“Watch!” he said, holding up his right forefinger as if showing one thing to watch for.
“Watch,” he repeated, and rotated his finger towards the watch on his left wrist and pointed at it and grinned ear-to-ear and waited for his joke to register with me. I had seen that gag before, probably at the same lecture Dr. Z had, but I smiled politely so that he would continue.
Watch…” he said as he rotated his left wrist to meet his right finger, and I watched the second hand on his watch tick around the face, and slowly, magically, the card in my mind began for materialize across his watch face, obscuring the hands and clearly and unambiguously showing my card. A few seconds later, it gradually faded away and the second hand ticked away as if nothing had happened.
I was unimpressed. Dr. Z had used a classic force so I knew he knew which card I took, and I had seen his watch advertised in the monthly Linking Ring magazine sent to members of the IBM. Even though I wasn’t a member, Mr. Samuels gave me his copy after he read it every month, and I had coveted the expensive gadgets advertised made by famous magicians, like Mike Bornstein’s card predicting watch. It probably had a polorized disc that rotated and obscured the watch face when the card shone through. It would only work with one card, and that card would have to be forced.
I wasn’t impressed, but I could see how someone else would be, and asked Dr. Z if he had shown it to any “real” people, a term we used for non-magicians. He off-handedly mentioned that he had performed it for the governor recently; Dr. Z was relatively famous magician, and performed for Louisiana governors and even once for a presidential inauguration. His side gig was a neurologist, and he also owned several medical clinics around town and known for his work ethic and generosity and, of course, his world famous trick, “signed card to inside a sealed jar with a preserved brain inside” that he presented at neurology conferences with his huge, fake stethoscope made from a toliet bowl plunger and stereo headphones draped around his neck.
“Here,” he said as he removed Mike Bornstein’s watch and handed it to me. “Have fun! Let me know what real people think about it.”
I had grown used to Dr. Z giving me things, yet still thanked him profusely. We kept talking until John coughed loudly and exaggerated scolding of us for being too loud. Dr. Z joked something back and everyone laughed and John returned to his lecture for the rest of the Ring.
Dr. Z lowered his voice and leaned down so I could hear and asked me, “Do you want to meet David Copperfield Sunday?” I looked confused, and he whispered that David wanted to meet John, who we all knew was a famous card expert and creator of close-up effects and an author magic history books, and David Copperfield was an avid collector of magic history and a pioneer of showcasing other people’s magic to a larger audience. Paul Harris produced the David Copperfield show, and David’s close-up magic came from The Art of Astonishment.
Of course I said yes.
That Sunday, Dr. Z picked me up at Wendy’s, because I was back at her house now that I would be going to Belaire High School only four miles away. I was wearing Mike Bornstein’s watch and had been practicing my classic force with the card that faded in every 45 seconds and faded out 15 seconds later, just in case someone asked me to perform. I sat in the passenger seat of Dr. Z’s BMW and manipulated my deck of cards with flourishes like perfectly formed fans and one-handed shuffles, the type of things that were more to show off than to fool people and what Dr. Z and I had fun practing during boring lectures or Mr. Samuel’s drawn out meeting procedures. He paid for valet parking and handed his tickets over at the door and we went inside.
We sat three rows back from stage center and saw David fly around the Centroplex’s big open space, tucking his legs like Peter Pan when he zoomed over our heads, and I was unimpressed by the show yet fascinated by the audience. They were mesmerized. For me, everything was obvious. I was more impressed with the engineering and the opulence and the concept that one could earn a living doing something as fun as performing magic than the actual magic, except for the close-up portions of the show.
I enjoyed the close-up like a juggler watching another juggler and respecting the practice but not necessarily in awe. After all, I had recently one the Louisiana magic championships, junior division, by performing the same thing the audience applauded David for, a routine from Paul Harris’ The Art of Astonishment. Dr. Z had lent me the book and the VCR tapes of Paul demonstrating The Immaculate Connection, which is what David had done on live television and for the big screen projected in his live show. He tore holes in three cards and linked them together like the famous Linking Rings tricks of ancient times. My version was better, I felt, because I started with three card monte and ended by restoring the torn cards. I felt that I could be a professional magician one day. I stopped paying attention to what David was doing and imagined how I’d act on a stage for an entire Centroplex full of people.
But then I was happily surprised and began to pay attention, because David introduced Chris Kenner, his other producer and also a close-up magic inventor and author. His book Out of Control had just been released and even Dr. Z hadn’t been able to get a copy yet. I leaned forward in my seat as if getting a few more inches closer would help me see Chris’s close-up magic. He was known for his coin work.
Chris thanked David and took a seat in front of the camera, and everyone stared at the projected screen that was the size of a movie theater screen, and we watched Chris make coins disappear and reappear from his fingertips. To be sure there wasn’t some trick photography, everyone would glance from the screen to the stage and see tiny pieces of silver disappearing and appearing on stage, and close-up views of his hands on the screen. Most people were speechless, knowing deeply that they had seen something close to real magic. He received a thunderous round of applause and bowed graciously and waved goodbye, and David returned to performing his stage magic.
After the show I met David briefly and was surprised to recognize two of his assistants, twins who coincidentally had graduated from a nearby high school a few years earlier and were somewhat like hometown heroes who occasionally were shown in the community section of the newspapers. That’s part of why David’s show lingered in Baton Rouge and why so many people were backstage meeting everyone. He spoke briefly about his community work, Project Magic, that put magicians into hospitals to teach magic and help with hand-eye coordination and mobility rehabilitation, and to give confidence to sick or injured people by teaching them to do what well abled people can’t. A few reporters snapped photos and jotted down what he said and asked a few questions of the twins about life on the road with the world’s most famous magician.
I had heard all of that before and I felt a bit crowded by the fans and reporters, and Dr. Z probably did also and suggested we go find Chris. We did, and for the next hour the three of us sat around and Chris taught us a few things not even in his book or shown to magicians except for people like Dr. Z. It was the cleanest, most deceptive vanish of a silver dollar I had ever seen, and was so perfect that I still recall it as pure magic. He tried to help me do it, but emphasized that it took him many years of diligent practice before he felt comfortable showing it to someone.
Dr. Z dropped me off. We couldn’t stop talking about the coin work, except to talk about David performing Paul Harris’s card effects on the big screen. Dr. Z agreed that my Immaculate Conception routine was better, and even Paul agreed that he liked starting with three-card monte and he was amazed by how I solved what to do with the torn pieces at the end, saying he had never solved how to do that, though I felt he was being nice. But, Dr. Z and I kept returning our conversation to Chris’s coin magic. We knew how it was done, but neither of us could do it. Something as simple as making a silver dollar vanish from your fingertips was difficult to do slowly, without a equivoque that placed people’s attention elsewhere or misdirection that his a move and compensated for slight inconsistencies in how you held a coin. The concept is simple, yet difficult to execute, especially when people are focused on your fingers. I kept practicing with one of my Kennedy half dollars and Dr. Z steered with his knees and practiced with his Morgan silver dollar, and we laughed at our inabilities all the way home.
I spent all Monday in school disrupting classes when I kept dropping my half dollar and it would bounce and clang across the floor. During lunch, I performed a quick show in the common area as part of the theater departments free speech and improv stage, and I did something a few people recognized from either David’s live show that weekend or his televised special earlier that year, and somehow that added even more mystique to my show. I alluded that I had met David over the weekend and he had taught me a few things, and a few people said of course and said they’d see me the next day. As everyone walked away, Big Ben walked up and asked if wanted to wrestle with him after school. It was the first day of practice, he said, and the mats had just been unrolled after having been stored all summer, and Big Ben and his brother Jack Daggar wanted to clean the mat and warm up early. I said yes and met him after school and changed into my physical education shirt and shorts, and within thirty seconds of being on the mat Big Ben’s big head hit me in the face and cut my eye deeply and I was soon sitting in Doc’s office as he applied butterfly bandages to my eye and told me I should consider getting stitches. That’s when Coach Ketelsen waddled in.
Coach was a squat man, shaped somewhat like a marshmellow, but he seemed solid, thick, and strong. His waddle was the walk of someone with a body that doesn’t yield when pressed against itself, not at all like a marshmellow and more like a block of uncarved oak, solid and rigid and unyielding. His strong calves were slightly spread apart and his thick forearms were like Popeye’s, overtly strong. His head was flat on top, as if you could rest a cup of coffee on it, and he radiated a personality that implied he could cheerfully remain motionless and never spill your coffee. His old grey eyes were alert, and his lips were in a perpetual range of calm to smirkingly mischievous.
He calmly asked what had happened. Doc told him, and Big Ben introduced me as Magik.
“Magic, huh?” Coach said, smirking.
Yes, with a k,” I said.
I was surprised he didn’t know me – I had become somewhat famous at Belaire for winning a school talent show and performing a show for the theater department’s fundraiser.
Coach reached down to his desk next to Doc’s table and picked up a business card and smirked as he tucked it behind the fingers of his outstretched right hand. He held his palm towards me; it was so small that the business card’s edges poked through his thick fingers and I could see the card bulging and building up spring tension, and I knew what he was about to do.
“Hey, Magik, watch this.” He smirked impishly and reached forward with his right hand and snapped his business card into the front of his hand. He did that part well, but there was no denying that his small hands prevented him from hiding anything.
He gave me the card and I read it. Dale Ketelsen, Driver’s Education Instructor, Belaire High School, and then it gave the shared phone of the office used by Doc and the football coaches.
“Ben,” Coach said in his steady but rhaspy voice, as if there were some gravel in his mouth whenever he spoke in his slow, methodical midwestern accent. He reached up and clasped Big Ben’s tricep. Ben wrestled at 194 pounds and was 6 feet tall.
“What did I tell you about bringing people to practice?” Ben looked down and apologized and said he forgot and had just gotten excited. Our wrestling program was new, and Ben had been recruiting.
Coach handed me a waiver to be signed by my parents and a form to be signed by a doctor after giving me a physical clearing me for practice. He told me which stores carried wrestling shoes, and the cost of a uniform, and for some reason I liked Coach and gravitated towards him and I said I’d take the forms home and ask my mom; I had learned to say “my mom” instead of “Wendy” to avoid questions.
Ben and I followed Coach back into the wrestling room that was shared with the weight room, and he spoke briefly to the small group that had gathered for 1987’s first practice. This wasn’t going to be a practice, Coach corrected, because he still had a few weeks with the football team. But, he said we could ask questions and then practice on their own with Ben and Jack leading. Someone raised their hand and asked about standing up when someone’s held you down, probably because Big Ben had been holding him down all afternoon before Coach showed up.
“Just stand up!” Coach said, raising his hands to the sky dramatically. “Stand up!” He repeated the motion and paused for what he said to sink in. It didn’t.
“Listen,” he began, and he told a quick story slowly about some of the famous olympians many wrestlers would have known, and about a Russian olympic coach’s strategy to focus on removing someone from their base, taking away their balance.
“If you take a man off his balance, you can do anything you want to him. Watch.”
He gestured for Ben to stand up, clasped his tricep, and swooped under his center of gravity and stood up with Big Ben flailing in the air. He placed Ben back on his feet and held up a finger and looked serious and asked, “How’d I do that?” and a few guys commented on how he stepped forward to get his weight over his quadracep, the strong muscle, and he stood up with Ben.
“Do the opposite when you’re down. Get your balance back, so he can’t control you. Do it just like picking someone up, and first get over your strongest part and then just stand up.”
He called a few football players over, and a few of the biggest seniors dropped their weights and came over, familiar with what was about to happen. Marcus Spears was there, a huge linebacker so big he had to have customized uniforms even in high school and who would go on to play professional football; Dana Miles was the wrestling team’s token 275 pound heavyweight, a reference not to him being a token African American, but to the common practice of filling a wrestling team’s heavyweight with the biggest football player willing to wrestle after football season ended; and Clint Osborne was a muscle bound brut with a loud voice and spiked mohawk who held the school’s bench-pressing record and was known to be feared by opposing team players. Big Ben joined them, knowing what would happen. I watched, curious, and Coach dropped face down onto the mat and everyone piled on top of him and tried to hold him down, but he bent his right leg up towards his hips and pushed his body to slide over hips and stood up onto his right leg, effortlessly sending four large teenagers flying off of him. They landed and gathered themselves and laughed about how they had never been able to hold Coach Ketelsen down and returned to lifting weights and Big Ben and I wrestled some more.
I went home determined to learn how to wrestle.
Wendy signed the parental consent form and took me to the doctor because I was covered under Exxon’s health insurance, but she said she wouldn’t buy me shoes or pay for the cost to drive to tournaments. She said that I could save my money like she had to do, or write to my dad and ask for it; even though he was in jail everyone knew the Partins kept cash hidden in walls all over Baton Rouge. She said that dismissively, as if common knowledge. And in a way it was. It had been part in The Blood Feud and disclosed in the national magazine, Life. Big Daddy kept rental houses all over town and filled the walls with cash and the plastic explosives that Hoffa had asked him to get from New Orleans. Several other Life articles focused on the mafia mentioned New Orleans boss Marcello offering Big Daddy a million dollars in cash, and it was well known that Hoffa lent the mafia and Hollywood film producers dozens of millions of dollars each, and that people in Hoffa’s inner circle like Big Daddy were frequently given between $25,000 and $100,000 bundles of cash by anonymous men who would allude that more would be given if Hoffa funded their casino or movie. And, like the International Teamsters bank accounts and pension fund, the Louisiana Teamsters were unregulated and unobservable by the government, and many Teamsters paid in cash that was unaccounted for by anyone other than Big Daddy; if Hoffa had access to millions in cash every month from the almost three million Teamsters paying monthly dues, Big Daddy probably had access to dozens or hundreds of thousands of dollars each month. These concerns had been showcased in state and national news for almost twenty years as politicians ostensibly tried to reign in the Teamsters, but all they did was tone down public resentment and allow it to continue, and more than a few of them would inevitably be charged with accepting bribes in cash. Despite all of that cash, I never saw any of it beyond my dad’s new cars and trucks in the 70’s, and he hadn’t paid alimony or child support since Big Daddy went to prison in 1980. And, as Wendy pointed out, the Partins hadn’t done anything for us since I was born.
I didn’t argue with Wendy, especially because she was right, and I waited for her to finish venting without interrupting so that we wouldn’t get into an argument about any of the mirad things a teenager and their mother argue about. I had heard Wendy vent about the Partins so often that I had gained the wisdom to avoid speaking while she did it, but had yet to develop the maturity to hide deeply seeded feelings, and I was tired of hearing how I was just like a bunch of people I was trying not to be like, and my face must have radiated my irritation. Wendy became angry and said I defied her just like my dad defied everyone, and I was just like him. At the mention of his name she forgot about me and vented about how hard it was to raise a kid without any child support and how many hours she would have to work to pay for my wrestling shoes that my big feet would probably outgrow that year, anyway. Finally, she finished expounding on the evils of all Partins, which I understood to include me, and I took the signed form and traced her signature onto a piece of paper that I planned to keep and use to forge her signature in the future so that I didn’t have to ask again.
I brought Coach the physical exam and signed parental consent form and told him that Wendy wouldn’t pay. Without realizing it at first, I used Wendy’s name, not “my mom,” but Coach didn’t say anything or react, he just listened and I kept talking. At some point I off-handedly mentioned that of course my dad couldn’t pay for my wrestling shoes from prison, and that I didn’t know when my next paid magic show would be, that kids birthday parties paid $25 per show but were rare, and I’d need approximately $75 for shoes and a uniform and that was at least three shows, no including expenses for things I’d tear up or give away. I didn’t see how I could wrestle.
I’m unsure why I felt comfortable enough around Coach to be truthful and concise, but it paid off because he produced a uniform and a set of headgear from under his desk and rummaged around a closet until he found a pair of wrestling shoes big enough for my still disproportionately large feet. He even joked that those shoes were for a former wrestler at 171 pounds but I may grow into them one day. I weighed 126 pounds and was as short as Coach. He said that school regulations required me to cut my hair to no longer than shoulder length, and I agreed without hesitation. For some reason I still don’t understand, I trusted Coach and couldn’t imagine arguing with him, no matter how much I had grown to adore my mullet.
I had failed out of Scotlandville and asked never to return. My GPA, a permanent part of my high school record and determinate of my future, regardless of the circumstances behind it, was 0 point something out of 4.0. But I fit right in to Belaire. It was considered a disadvantaged school, with statistics pointing to more than half of us on free and reduced lunch, meaning most of us came from households considered below the poverty line, which was approximately $15,000 per year back then. We had a population 68% African American and 14% Asian due to the nearby Vietnamese neighborhood formed by southern Vietnamese displaced after the war. We had two teachers from a national program that placed teachers in hard to fill schools, Teach for America, and they taught the most challenging classes to fill, math and science. Similar to Scotlandville, Belaire had a magnet program imbedded within the school that focused on medical careers, though I was no longer eligible because I had an abysmal GPA coming out of Scotlandville, and I was placed in woodshop and theater and other classes reserved for kids predicted to be bad at STEM.
Like Scotlandville, Belaire didn’t have much money, just an experimental magnet program trying to recruit more white kids – their words, frequently, and that of many parents disgruntled about their taxes going to schools in other neighborhoods. When they asked Coach to do accept the part time job he said yes, and he spent the mid 1980’s creating a driver’s education program and coaching a fledgling wrestling team that included his son, Craig Ketelsen, who would win the 1985 state tournament at 171 pounds. I was lucky. Even with that credential, funding was scarce and Coach paid for even basic supplies like fungicide cleaner for the mats, though few people knew that, and I’ve kept it a secret until now. I was always good at keeping secrets, at least the important ones.
Kris Kenner doesn’t remember meeting me back then; it was a year-long tour and he probably met plenty of kids. But in 2020 Paul Harris would say that my version of his Immaculate Connection was, indeed, an improvement on his routine, and he still hasn’t figured out how I did it; and I still haven’t told him the secret. But, we did chat about Big Daddy – Paul remembers him, too – and I did tell him everything I know about Hoffa vanishing and President Kennedy’s brain disappearing from the morgue, but that’s a long story and I won’t bore you with it.
“Really?” she said, incredulously. “Dr. Z’s bookshelf swung open, just like at the Magic Castle?”
I had taken her to the World Famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, California, for the kid-friendly Sunday Brunch recently, and she had said the magic words that made it swing open and expose the wonders inside.
I made the “I promise” gesture with my hand over my heart and nodded my head “yes.”
“Can we make one?” She asked, hopefully. I said of course, and that we’d start with a quick prototype, and she asked what that was and, I told her it was a long story and she made the most adorable face ever and I was very happy. As I mentioned, this story has a happy ending, and I’ll cut the story about a prototype short for this book, and write more about Coach and Wrestling Hillary Clinton in the next chapter.
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