My grandfather was released from prison early because his health was declining and he wasn’t expected to live much longer. He had developed diabetes and what was generalized as a heart condition, and, because he had remained addicted to amphetamines and a few depressants in prison, his overall health had deteriorated and he was thinner and hunched over and had to sit often when I saw him in 1987, almost a year after his release.
It had been seven years since I had seen him pull a knife on my dad, and I had seen him in the news weekly and had recognized my earlier mistakes of thinking Big Daddy was Brian Dennehy; and, it had been two years since my dad had gone to prison. I didn’t realize he had been released, but I had coincidentally walked from Granny’s small home to Grandma Foster’s small home a few blocks away – Grandma Foster was Big Daddy’s momma, and my dad had lived with her when he met Wendy – and she answered the door with the biggest smile I had ever seen on her and reached up and held my cheeks and said how happy she was to see me. She told me to come in that Edward was home; I thought she meant my dad, whom she also called Edward, but then I saw the room full with huge men that blocked my view, I knew something was different. Uncle Kieth was there, towering in front of me, and behind him were my great-uncles, Big Daddy’s little brothers, Doug and Joe Partin, both huge men who had always looked up to their older brother. Doug had taken over as president and business agent of Teamsters Local #5 after the national Teamsters finally stopped Local #5 from paying Big Daddy in prison, and Joe had become a football coach at Zacharay High School and then their principle, and remained uninvolved with the Teamsters. My cousin, coincidentally named Jason Partin, but much bigger and a football star for the Zachary High Broncos was there, and so were a splattering of other cousins and ex-wives that I knew of but rarely saw. All were a part of Big Daddy’s family after Mamma Jean had left him, and only Kieth took me around them, and that was because of Grandma Foster. Both Kieth and my dad had lived with her at some point in their childhood, after the FBI had found them hiding with Mamma Jean’s family, and Grandma Foster had always shown them unconditional love and acceptance, just like she had me.
She was a tiny woman, barely 4’10” tall and hunched over in her old age; she was in her 90’s by then, and her bright blue eyes had become covered in cataracts and were now a paler blue, but still vibrant and unquestionably Big Daddy’s eyes, the blue eyes that added to his charm. Kieth had them, too, and so did Doug, and though Joe looked a lot like his brothers, he had hazel eyes that were round and open, just like Grandma Fosters; my dad and I had Mamma Jeans narrow, dark brown eyes, and I had always noticed that I was the only one with brown eyes that visited Grandma Foster.
Grandma Foster said, “Look who’s here, Edward, Edward’s son!”
The people in the room seemed to part, and behind them, sitting on a stool on Grandma’s back porch, was Big Daddy, older and deflated yet still smiling and with his bright blue eyes open and alert.
My life changed at that moment. I’m still unable to describe why and how, but I will try throughout the next few chapters.
When I walked into Grandma Foster’s that day, everyone in the room had been focused on Big Daddy’s essence. Everyone was chatting and he barely spoke and I can recall every word I heard and every voice and tone and inflection, and I can smell every person and Grandma’s unpleasantly burnt smothered chicken, yet the only image I can recall is Big Daddy’s essence that my mind epitomized as his sky blue eyes and subtle smile and, somehow, the sound of his his charming southern drawl captured as a visual image associated with his essence. And I was terrified. I was aware that I was trapped by his essence, and that’s what terrified me. I wasn’t in control. He and I spoke briefly about boxing and how to pass a lie detector test and a bit about my dad being unable to remain calm, and for reasons I still don’t understand I developed a deep conviction that I wanted to be nothing like him or any of my Partin family.
The next few days were a blur of events, but my mind never let go of my desire to not be like the Partins, and that feeling influenced my decisions over the next few days.
I returned from Grandma Foster’s and a man named Mr. Martin Samuel’s picked me up at Granny’s. He was president of Baton Rouge Ring #178 of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, and was taking me to a monthly magic club meeting. On the drive over, I told him I had seen Big Daddy.
“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. 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.”
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.
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. His 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 recognition lock yet, 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. I pulled the door wide open and Mr. Samuels and I stepped inside to our monthly magic club meeting of the International Brotherhood of Magicians Local Ring #178, The Pike Burden Honorary Ring.
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. 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, and 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 coffee cup on it. 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 never be kept down.
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.
Coach Dale Ketelsen was 5’1″ and a former marine and nationally ranked collegiate wrestler who was an alternate for the 1968 Olympics at 152 pounds. The US Olympian who beat him beat him 3-2 and went on to pin every opponent in the olympics and earn a gold medal. Though Coach was an alternate, everyone respected that his weight class in the 1960’s was probably the toughest in the world, and after the Olympics he earned a place in the national Wrestling Hall of Fame and a job as assistant coach of one of the the country’s most respected teams, Iowa, where he was born and had been raised on a farm and in a wrestling family. He was recruited by LSU leaders in the 1970’s when they were seeking to become the best in all sports; at the time, they were consistently world baseball champions and frequently football stars in the Southeastern Conference, though they hadn’t won a national championship since 1954 and were trying to increase their football stars, too. They asked Coach to build LSU’s team and he said yes. Four years later, the LSU Wrestling Team was ranked fourth in the nation and had just defeated Iowa in a dual meet. Coach had brought up a local team in a state new to wrestling and toppled a university with a long history of community-supported wrestling programs done it by recruiting local middle and high schoolers to wrestling camps and building a local foundation that he augmented with several scholarships to out of state stars. He had founded the Louisiana Wrestling Association to host summer tournaments and find insurance programs that allowed kids from any socioeconomic group to participate, and he started a sports equipment company so that he could purchase equipment at wholesale and give it to schools with even fewer resources than Belaire.
LSU disbanded their wrestling program in 1979, just like dozens of other universities across the country after congress passed the 1979 Title IX act that required public institutions to provide equal access to sports between males and females. The word they used was “equal,” not “equitable,” and the act was interpreted and met by reducing the number of male participants until the number of male and female athletes were equal, and they added budget to female sports to provide equal funding. As a loophole, they kept the money-generating sports of football and baseball, therefore the money paid to programs that did not generate revenue became equal. Gymnastics and wrestling were the two most common male teams cut, and though LSU was on track to be national champions, the team was disbanded. By then, Coach’s three children were in middle and high school, and he and Mrs. Ketelsen were settled into their church and community where Coach was a respected deacon, and they decided to stay in Baton Rouge and find a new way to earn their livelihood. They cut their costs and focused on their home and Coach helped a few schools here and there until Belaire opened a job for a driver’s education instructor and he accepted a paid position to support his family.
At the time, Belaire 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. It had taken Belaire many years to obtain budget for a driver’s education instructor, and when they asked Coach to do it 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.
By 1987, Coach was attending school in the evening to obtain a master’s in education so that he could become a physical education teacher, and I didn’t see him much at first. I only wrestled 7 matches that year because in October, just after my 13th birthday, I was in a cheerful mood and talking with friends in math class who had wished me a happy birthday, and I mindlessly uttered a curse word that everyone in class heard and I was suspended from school, and according to school policy anyone suspended can’t compete in school sports. Coach allowed me to attend practice whenever I wanted, though, and I returned to the team in 1988 and wrestled 76 matches in the 1988-1989 season. That’s an extraordinarily high number of matches, almost twice more than what most kids wrestled, and it happened because I was ranked low at first but gradually increased my ranking. At weekday dual meets, you wrestle one match at your weight class, but at weekend tournaments you wrestle many times and begin by being seeded in a bracket according to a combination of your record and a pre-tournament coaches meeting trying to ensure the best wrestlers meet each other in finals, when the bleachers are full of spectators and the top wrestlers can compete at their best. The brackets begin by matching the first seed against the last seed, which was usually me at the beginning of 1988, and the second seed agains the second to last seed, which was often me. The first and second seed always win and move forward in a series of matches that get progressively more challenging, but they rarely wrestle than more than three or four matches on their journey to the finals bracket. The second seed usually wrestles the same number of matches, and they meet in the finals with their full energy and focus, and the crowd who pays to see the finals pays to see kids compete at their best.
The losers along their journey to finals drop down to the third place bracket, nicknamed the loser’s bracket, and fight for third the morning of the last day, before the finals matches begin, and by then they would have wrestled twice as many matches and, hopefully, improve and increase their ranking. By the spring of 1989, I was consistently ranked third or fourth at 140 pounds, and that meant I wrestled several times in the first bracket until being beaten, then I moved to the losers bracket and wrestled several more times until the third and fourth place loser’s finals.
When other coaches asked Coach how that was happening, he’d shrug and say I worked hard. When other wrestlers asked me why I was getting better at a noticeable pace – most got better, but their ranking remained teh same because competitors also improved – I pointed to something Coach had said that had led me to supporting my team by being at the edge of the mat and focused on what they were doing, looking for advice that could help them. I embelished what he said with more words than he used because I couldn’t convey the impact I felt with his few words. After I had been suspended, I was sitting in midway up the bleachers during a home dual meet and flirting with Leah, probably talking about how I had wrestled 7 matches and was so good that Coach let me attend practice, and I walked down to the snack stand to buy something and bumbped into Coach and he asked what I was doing at the dual meet. I said I was supporting my team, and he said, “No, you’re not. You’re talking with that young lady.” He pointed a stubby finger towards the bleachers. “If you want to support your team,” he pointed towards the mat and the row of seats for our sparse and scraggly team, “go down there and support your team.”
He spoke without judgment, and pointed to things I couldn’t deny. I walked up to the bleachers and told Leah what he said. She agreed, and we moved to the front row bleachers behind the fledgling Belaire Bengals team, and we leaned into what was happening and didn’t talk except to analyze the matches.
I was learning by observing and learning how to focus. I continued this approach in 1988, but could sit with the team because I was back on the team. Leah would join when she could, but I rarely spoke with her until after the dual meets ended and I had worked on a few moves with wrestlers who wanted to rehash something that had happened in the meet and we had cleaned the mats. I seemed to be getting better through osmosis, listening to teammates explain their frustrations at failed moves and celebrating their joy at successful ones. At the end of the 1988-1989 season I had lettered in wrestling with a record of 35 wins and 41 losses, and, to my surprise, the team voted me as co-captain for upcoming 1989-1990 season.
I was co-captain with Jeremy, a former midwest wrestler whose parents relocated to Baton Rouge for work at the oil refineries. He had won second place in 1989’s state championship, and though I had qualified I lost my first two matches and was out of competition by noon the first day. Jeremy was by far a better wrestler, and traditionally the best wrestler on a team was chosen as captain, but Coach used a ranked choice system that allowed us to rank our top five choices. His system was not unlike how Most Valuable Players are chosen in sports, when coaches and fans with obvious biases somehow still agree to a single MVP and somehow no one feels their choice wasn’t counted, similar to the state of Maine’s attempt to improve their electorial voting system by being the first state to replace a one-vote system with ranked choice. The only reason Jeremy and I were co-captains in Coach’s ranked choice system is that Jeremy listed himself as the only choice, essentially a one-vote, and I didn’t include myself in my list of five choices and had ranked Jeremy first. When tallied, everyone was surprised, but still happy because it turns out that more than half had ranked me first and Jeremy second, and the rest had ranked Jeremy first and me second. Everyone seemed happy with the result, and though Coach had never seen co-captains in his 45 years of wrestling he didn’t flinch when it happened and he documented both of us in the school’s paperwork as captains. We were the only co-captain team in the state of Louisiana, but it seemed to work for our team and the unique people on it.
I enjoyed being co-captain, and felt a sense of satisfaction from being elected by my peers. I was also still Sergeant at Arms at the magic club, and that was fun and everyone said I did a good job at it. Perhaps I was like Big Daddy, working my way up in life with elected positions. But I wouldn’t be like my family. My dad was a convicted drug dealer serving in prison, and Big Daddy had just been released from prison and was a rapist and murderer and thief and lier and adulterer; I looked to Coach and Dr. Z and other people in life to influence me, and I viewed my peers as the meter by which I would be measured.
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