A 1976 court record easily found online summarizes the first few years of my life concisely and accurately. The plaintiff was my biologic father, Edward Grady Partin Jr., and the defendant was my biologic mother, Wendy Anne Rothdram Partin. I was and still am Jason Ian Partin. Judge JJ Lottingger, the family court judge for the Louisiana 19th judicial district in East Baton Rouge Parish, had this to say about my family history in Partin vs Partin:
This is a suit by Edward Partin, Jr., plaintiff, seeking a divorce from his wife, Wendy Rothdram Partin, defendant, after having lived separate and apart for more than one year following a judgment of separation from bed and board. Plaintiff also seeks custody of the minor child, Jason Ian Partin, and the defendant reconvened asking that she be granted the permanent care, custody and control of the minor child.
The Trial Court had previously, by ex parte order, awarded the temporary care, custody and control of the minor to Mr. and Mrs. James Ed White. Following trial on the merits, plaintiff was awarded a divorce as well as the permanent care, custody and control of the minor child, with the temporary physical custody of the minor child to remain with Mr. and Mrs. James Ed White. The defendant has appealed this judgment as it regards the custody of the child.
This couple was married when plaintiff was 17 and the defendant was 16 years of age. Nine months following the marriage, they gave birth to young Jason. While we are not concerned with the facts surrounding the separation and divorce, it was apparently one of incompatibility as defendant testified that at the age of 17 she found herself married to a man who did not love her and so she left. Her testimony was as follows:
“As I say I was emotionally upset. I was receiving little support from Edward. I was scared, very confused. I didn’t know exactly which way to turn. I felt I had no one to listen and help with the situation at hand.”
Several weeks later she returned and lived with her husband again. She found that the situation hadn’t changed, and felt she had to get away again. She heard of a man who wanted someone to share expenses on a trip to California, so she quit her job and with her last wages left with him. She testified that she had no sexual relations with this man, and plaintiff does not accuse her of such. Following this trip she returned to Baton Rouge still emotionally upset. Her husband was suing her for separation and told her he was going to take custody of Jason. She went to live with her aunt and uncle, got a full time job with Kelly Girls paying $512.00 per month.
In February, 1975, the defendant’s mother was injured in an accident and she moved in with her to care for her. In September, 1975, following the recuperation of the mother she returned to live with her aunt and uncle.
During these above periods of time, the minor child lived with Mr. and Mrs. White. The Whites came to regard Jason as their own and, although the separation judgment awarded custody to the plaintiff with reasonable visitation privileges to the defendant, the Whites decided the defendant-mother could only see the child two days a month and that she could never keep the child over night. The reason the defendant did not contest custody at the separation trial was because at the time she felt unable emotionally and financially to care for her son.
[Judge Lottinger wrote a paragraph of legal jargon here, citing the “double burden” placed on Wendy to go above and beyond what was typically necessary to regain custody.]
We note that the petition for separation was grounded on habitual intemperance, as well as abandonment of the husband and the minor child. There are no other grounds listed for the separation nor for custody. The petition for the separation and custody of the minor child was not contested by the defendant, and a default judgment was granted. Defendant testified in the instant proceedings that the reason she did not contest custody in the separation proceeding was that she was not financially or emotionally capable of caring for the minor, and that knowing the Whites were going to be caring for him, she knew he would be in good hands.
Though the petition for separation had as one of its allegations “habitual intemperance”, the plaintiff in the instant proceeding testified that he had never accused his wife of drinking, nor had he ever seen her drink.
[Judge Lottinger goes on to cite a few precent cases, verdicts from previous judges in higher courts used to justify his opinions, though less necessary in Louisiana’s legal system that, unlike every other state, is based on the Napoleonic code from when Louisiana was a French colony named for King Louis and Queen Anna. The hybrid Louisiana legal system grants more leeway to judges and relies less on precedent cases, yet Judge Lottinger listed many precedents that supported his opinion, and by citing precedents he was also discretely questioning why the previous judge had awarded my dad custody with the odd stipulation that Mr. and Mrs. White be my legal guardians and able to dictate when and if my parents could see me; it’s such a rare arrangement that I’ve never seen it since, even when researching this book.]
The welfare of the child is the main issue that the Court is concerned with. This issue is more important than any wishes or wants the parents may have. Fulco v. Fulco, 259 La. 1122, 254 So.2d 603 (1971), rehearing denied (1971). As a general rule, and in particular where children of young age are involved, preference is given to the mother in custody cases. This preference is very simply explained, the mother is normally better able to care for the child and look after the education, rearing, and training necessary. Estes v. Estes, 261 La. 20, 258 So.2d 857 (1972), rehearing denied (1972).
No argument is made that the mother is not now morally or emotionally fit to care for the child, or that the house in which she lives is not a proper place to rear a child. In fact, the Trial Judge admitted that it was a fine home.
The Trial Judge has not favored us with written reasons for judgment, however, we must conclude from various statements by the Trial Judge that appear in the record that he could find no fault with the defendant, nor was there anything wrong with the house in which she lived. It thus becomes apparent to this Court that the Trial Judge applied the “double burden” rule to the defendant. We have already ruled that the “double burden” rule does not apply in this situation, and thus, under the established jurisprudential rules, we can see no reason why the defendant-mother should not be granted the permanent care, custody and control of the minor child with reasonable visitation privileges granted to the father.
In consideration of our above opinion, there is no need to discuss the specification of error as to the ex parte granting of custody to the Whites.
Therefore, for the above and foregoing reasons, the judgment of the Trial Court is reversed, and IT IS ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that the defendant-appellant, Wendy Rothdram Partin, be and she is hereby granted the permanent care, custody and control of the minor, Jason Ian Partin, and IT IS FURTHER ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED that this matter be and it is hereby remanded to the Trial Court for the purpose of fixing specific visitation privileges on behalf of plaintiff-appellee Edward Partin, Jr. All costs of the appeal are to be paid by plaintiff-appellee.
Like many “final” verdicts, Judge Lottinger’s decision was appealed, and I languished in foster care for a few more years and then in trial courts to determine visitation rights, but that’s an artifact of our legal system and not any one judge’s failure to uphold the law to the best of their ability based on the information available to them. I have no doubt that he had my best interest in mind, and I believe he was trying to separate me from my Partin family.
Judge JJ Lottinger was a respected judge with almost four decades of service before my custody hearing, including having served under the famous Louisiana governors Huey and Earl Long and having worked with several governors and district attorneys who for decades had unsuccessfully tried to prosecute my grandfather, Edward Grady Partin Senior, including when the New Orleans general attorney, Jim Garrison, who refuted the Warren Report’s claim that Lee Harvey Oswald, a New Orleans native, had acted alone and he shot and killed President Kennedy, and he had brought to trial the only other suspects in President Kennedy’s assassination; Garrison did that a few years before my parent’s custody trial, and later he would write a reputable book indicting the CIA and war-hungry politicians in Kennedy’s assassination; the second edition would be endorsed many respected people, including Governor Jesse “The Body” Ventura, a former Navy Seal and professional wrestler turned politician who was an outspoken critic of the Warren Report. Garrison had indicted my grandfather based on reports of him having driven Oswald to the airport and a reputed photo of him with Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner and associate of Hoffa who shot and killed Oswald on live television two days after Kennedy died, yet somehow avoided the grand jury, just like he had avoided all prosecution for more than three decades of running the Louisiana Teamster Union under Jimmy Hoffa.
At the time of my 1976 trial, Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance was daily national news; he had been released from prison in 1975 after serving six years of an eleven year sentence. It was said that in the 50’s to 70’s, Hoffa was the most famous man in America not a Kennedy, so many people had opinions of who killed him, and the theories ranged from mafia hitmen who owed Hoffa dozens of millions of dollars, CIA or FBI assassinations, retribution from the Kennedys, rival Teamster leaders, and even my grandfather. To this day, movies and books expound theories about what happened, but even after almost half a century and thousands of books and mainstream films no one knows for sure. In films, Ed Partin is accurately portrayed as a physically large and handsome and charming Teamster leader who infiltrated Hoffa’s inner circle and who sent Jimmy Hoffa to prison in 1964; though Hoffa wouldn’t go to prison until 1969 because of his army of attorneys appealing the verdict and fighting against my grandfather’s testimony all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court; that in itself a remarkable achievement, because only 60-80 cases are accepted out of dozens of thousands of applications every year. He lost his final appeal in Hoffa vs The United States, and was sentenced to 11 years in prison based solely on my grandfather’s surprise testimony. He was released early, in 1975, and quickly authorized his autobiography and then disappeared into folklore, last being seen in the parking lot of a Detroit diner, the Red Fox, on July 30th, 1975, and would be declared legally dead in 1982 and become immortalized as a part of America’s pop culture and the source of countless conspiracy theories.
During the time of my parent’s divorce and custody battles over me, my family was infamous as “America’s first family of paid informants,” showcased in national media as heroes helping the Kennedy’s clean up corrupt unions. US Attorney General Bobby Kennedy had pulled my grandfather out of jail and expunged his criminal records and gave him the phone number of the FBI’s lead on the Get Hoffa Task Force. Big Daddy, which is what most people called my grandfather, was one of Hoffa’s inner circle of big, rough, brutal men who could influence corporate managers in Teamster negotiations, fend off mafia hitmen, and do whatever needed to be done. Of Hoffa’s handful of lieutenants, Big Daddy’s role was somewhat unique in that he had grown the Louisiana Teamsters on his own, before they were part of Hoffa’s national union, and he oversaw Teamsters transporting trucks with goods to and from New Orleans, a notoriously corrupt city and the main port for shipping guns and drugs to and from the Carribbean and Latin America. Even before Hoffa, Big Daddy had worked with Cuban president Fidel Castro and New Orleans mafia leader Carlos Marcello, and though he had an uneasy alliance with Hoffa, he had no doubt he could do fine without the national president interfering with his business. Because of his role in Hoffa’s organization and steadfast independence, Ed Partin had been monitored by the FBI for many years before he became known as the surprise witness who sent Hoffa to prison.
Bobby Kennedy and the Get Hoffa Task Force had spent almost two decades and millions of dollars in surveillance trying to prosecute Hoffa; news reports covered the pursuit daily, almost commedicly at how one man could thwart the entire American judicial system and even the powerful Kennedy family. In the end, Hoffa went to prison not for his presumed numerous murders, racketeering, bribery, funding of Las Vegas mafia run hotels, and working with Fidel Castro after Kennedy’s embargo against Cuba; but for jury tampering in a relatively simple trial that, ironically, would have had a less severe sentence than the federal crime of influencing a jury that’s supposed to be a part of our blind system of justice, immune to influence.
The verdict surprised Hoffa, who knew Kennedy and Walter Sheridan, the FBI Get Hoffa Task Force leader, had something planned and recorded everything he said and did, but after decades of avoiding their prosecution attempts he assumed he’d prevail again. But, when the judge called for a surprise witness and Big Daddy stood up, Hoffa muttered, “Damn! It’s Partin,” and in a few short words my grandfather convinced a jury that Hoffa had mentioned paying a juror $20,000 to vote not guilty in a trial three yeas before. No money had exchanged hands, and the 1961 juror never heard about the alleged offer to bribe him, and the 1964 jury believed Big Daddy more than they believed Hoffa, even though he was the most famous man in America not a Kennedy. It helped that Big Daddy was handsome and charming; people immediately trusted him, especially when the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s infamous director, endorsed him.
Hoffa fought Big Daddy’s testimony all the way to the US Supreme Court, a collection of nine judges appointed for life who, theoretically, have access to all the facts and render impartial decisions that all other courts reference as predicates. Chief Justice Earl Warren, author of the Warren Report, was the only dissenting judge. He, too, was a household name back then, and had been for decades because, in addition to authoring the 888 page Warren Report ten months after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 – something the entire world had waited impatiently for – he had overseen landmark cases such as the 1973 Roe vs Wade that decriminalized certain abortions, the 1966 Miranda vs Arizona that led to police having to read Miranda Rights when arresting someone, and the 1954 Brown vs The Board of Eduction that ruled segregation in schools was unconstitutional. It’s remarkable that despite Warren’s reputation, he was unable to influence the other supreme court judges in Hoffa vs The United States; I can only assume that they, like most of America back then, were under the spell of my grandfather’s charm and influenced by the Kennedys. But Warren wasn’t easily influenced, and he wrote a lengthy and detailed missive permanently attached to Hoffa vs The United States so that posterity could know why he dissented and tell us what he thought of my grandfather and the risk he posed to the American justice system. His words never seemed to make as much media as the ones that showcased my family as heroes, perhaps because few investigative journalists read and contemplated all the comments in Judge Warren’s missive expounding on the type of person Big Daddy really was, despite the endorsement of Kennedy and even despite him passing lie detector tests about Hoffa’s plans to assassinate Bobby Kennedy that Hoover had shared with national media. Warren seemed to be one of the only people not charmed by my grandfather.
Here, Edward Partin, a jailbird languishing in a Louisiana jail under indictments for such state and federal crimes as embezzlement, kidnapping, and manslaughter (and soon to be charged with perjury and assault), contacted federal authorities and told them he was willing to become, and would be useful as, an informer against Hoffa, who was then about to be tried in the Test Fleet case. A motive for his doing this is immediately apparent — namely, his strong desire to work his way out of jail and out of his various legal entanglements with the State and Federal Governments. And it is interesting to note that, if this was his motive, he has been uniquely successful in satisfying it. In the four years since he first volunteered to be an informer against Hoffa he has not been prosecuted on any of the serious federal charges for which he was at that time jailed, and the state charges have apparently vanished into thin air. Shortly after Partin made contact with the federal authorities and told them of his position in the Baton Rouge Local of the Teamsters Union and of his acquaintance with Hoffa, his bail was suddenly reduced from $50,000 to $5,000 and he was released from jail.
This type of informer and the uses to which he was put in this case evidence a serious potential for undermining the integrity of the truthfinding process in the federal courts. Given the incentives and background of Partin, no conviction should be allowed to stand when based heavily on his testimony. And that is exactly the quicksand upon which these convictions rest, because, without Partin, who was the principal government witness, there would probably have been no convictions here.
Warren emphasized the dubious nature of Big Daddy’s testimony by quoting his cellmate, Sydney Simpson, a Baton Rouge Teamster whose children Big Daddy had helped kidnap after Billy disputed a custody settlement with his ex wife, and who was a witness to Big Daddy inexplicably being released from jail after only two days after being visited by Captain Daniels, head of the New Orleans FBI office:
On one occasion, I asked Partin if he knew enough about Hoffa to be of any help to Daniels and the FBI, and Partin said, ‘It doesn’t make any difference. If I don’t know it, I can fix it up.'”
Though I never met Warren or the other justices from the 1970’s, I read and reread Hoffa vs. The United States many times over the years, and I never could understand why they allowed Big Daddy’s testimony to stand, especially when, as Warren stated, for the rest of history lower courts, which is every other court in America, could use the verdict of Hoffa vs The United States as a precedent for allowing dubious witnesses to be paid or somehow influenced to testify, no matter how obvious their motivation to lie, and he had even emphasized that among Big Daddy’s many crimes and charges he was known for lying to juries. In every state except Louisiana, ironically, this meant that the judges in lower courts would have to override their opinions and defer to a 1966 case based on Edward Grady Partin’s testimony against Jimmy Hoffa. One verdict, right or wrong, has ripple effects that linger and influence us whether we realize it or not; hence, Warren’s warning documented in a court case that few people seemed to read as often as I had, including lawyers, reporters, and film producers.
In 1964, as soon as Big Daddy testified and before a long series of appeals, Hoffa’s loyal inner circle signaled a hit on Big Daddy that went out to Teamsters and mafia leaders indebted to Hoffa. Big Daddy shrugged off the threat on his life. In a 1964 edition of Life magazine focused on my family and the new presidential first family, the Johnsons, Big Daddy said that Hoffa’s lieutenants, which is what he called his inner circle that Big Daddy had been a part in, flicked their thumbs against their front teeth towards him, an old mafia signal that you would soon die; and, in a paradoxical sentiment intended to protect innocent women and children, tells you to prepare for your family’s future without you.
“And what did I do?” Big Daddy said to Life. “I just smiled.” He was unphased. Walter Sheridan would later say that in his 30 years of working with mafia witnesses, all of them except Big Daddy requested autonomy, and most of his work was changing their identity and hiding them and protecting them from retribution; without that safety net, the FBI couldn’t get witnesses to testify.
“Ed Partin was different,” Walter said. “He was the only witness who seemed to want the attention. He wasn’t afraid of anything.” Because of that unusual situation, Big Daddy wanting the spotlight, my family was not classified under the witness protection program; instead, we became what was then unheard of, “paid informants,” and were placed under federal protection while Hoffa and an army of attorneys fought Big Daddy’s testimony. Bobby Kennedy had a hand in that, and was able to obtain federal funding unheard of until then, and in exchange for Big Daddy’s testimony and my family’s silence and the risk to everyone, my grandmother, Mamma Jean, was given a house and paid a monthly stipend to support their five children, including my father, Edward Grady Partin Junior. We would be in this program for as long as Hoffa was in prison, and in 1976 our lives were changing quickly, presumably because Hoffa was assumed to be dead.
It’s fair to assume that Judge Lottinger knew my family well, especially in 1976 when Hoffa’s disappearance and presumed death was still national news and my grandfather’s role was openly questioned, not by mainstream media, but by almost every uninfluenced fringe investigator and by attentive and honorable people in the judicial system, like New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison. Lottinger had replaced the previous trial attorney after his presumed suicided, something Wendy would always reference, saying only someone crazy enough to kill themselves would have given my dad custody of me; or, that he had been influenced by my Partin family, which isn’t unreasonable to assume. Judge Lottinger was unlikely to be influenced by my grandfather, and he seemed genuinely sensitive to Wendy’s predicament. His words were kind, a rarity in disputed custody cases, especially when the mother had abandoned her baby. I’m unsure why he commented that she did not drink alcohol, perhaps he did it because “intemperance” is usually interpreted as an inability to act with moderation or restraint, especially with regard to alcohol consumption. Regardless of his intention, I’d reflect on that statement decades years later when Wendy would die from liver failure secondary to alcohol abuse at the young age of 63; perhaps Judge Lottinger was leaving notes for posterity, hints of things he saw and could not understand why other people didn’t see it just as clearly, just like Judge Warren had. Maybe he wanted me to hear her words and to know a bit more about my family history, and not just the Partins.
Wendy Anne Rothdram was born in Toronto, Canada in 1955. Her grandfather, my Great-Grandpa Hicks, was well known in Canada because he was a professional hockey player, and Canadians revere hockey to an almost religious level. He played for the Toronto Mapleleafs and a brief stent for the American Boston Bruins, and eventually settled into his other job with the Canadian railroad and retired as a respected manager after thirty years. His wife looked after their three daughters, Mary, Joyce, and Lois, and they would all tell me they had a stable, loving home. Joyce and Lois were partiers, young and vivacious and fond Scotch and Canadian rye whiskey and embracing the post WWII prosperity that swept the winning countries in the 1940’s and 50’s. Lois married Robert Desico, a manager of a Montreal company, Bulk Stevedoring, and they accepted a transfer to Baton Rouge, and Uncle Bob ran Louisiana office of Bulk Stevedoring, hiring the men who loaded and unloaded ships in New Orleans, America’s second largest port and the most important trading center for all of Latin America to interface with the United States. Joyce drank too much at a party and became pregnant to a man whose name I don’t recall, but his last name was Rothdram and Joyce – Granny – married him and soon realized her mistake and left Canada to live with Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo when Wendy was five years old.
Granny was a petite, feisty lady who wore glasses and laughed loudly and swore and cursed joyfully and never said anything rude about anyone, and she was a single mother with without a way to support Wendy. But, she was a hard worker who enjoyed reading and could learn almost anything with her library card, and in 1962, when Big Daddy and Sydney Simpson were kidnapping Sydney’s children, she was hired at Dupont Chemicals as a general secretary because she had taught herself to type, and she slowly progressed at Dupont with a reputation as a woman who was cheerful and reliable and self-educated and financially responsible. She saved her money and put a down payment on a small home near the Baton Rouge airport, closer to Dupont and the row of chemical plants and oil refineries 30 miles north of downtown. Though small, only 680 square feet, it had three bedrooms and two baths and a large yard with two stately oak trees with long branches undulating across the ground and several gumball trees and a small, natural drainage stream that curved around her home and provided privacy. Single mothers always face challenges, especially in the 1960’s, and Granny appreciated her lot in life so much that she never mentioned that her home was directly under the airport flight path and that the cabinets rattled every 20 minutes or so from the roar of jet engines taking off. Wendy grew up in that home, catching crawfish in the stream and climbing trees and waving at the faces of people she could see in the windows of airplanes flying remarkably close to Granny’s roof. Like Granny, Wendy loved to read, and she would read young adult books about travel and adventure, and imagine flying away on an adventure herself one day.
By 1971, Wendy was a hale and hearty 16 year old with long, straight strawberry blonde hair, light hazel colored eyes, and a sweet smile. She was petite, like Granny, and only 5’1″ tall, but athletic and active; she swam on Glenoaks High School swim team and played tennis with Uncle Bob at the Sherwood Forest Country Club, an affluent area where Uncle Bob and Auntie Lo lived without children of their own.
Most boys would say she was physically attractive and use uncouth words to say that she was voluptuous. She was compared to a popular and physically attractive blonde haired country music singer with remarkably large breasts named Dolly Parton, even before Wendy’s last name became Partin. Her smile was genuine, and when she smiled her bright white teeth shone and her cheeks crinkled and her eyes lit up. She smiled often when she was with her close group of girlfriends, Linda White, a girl laughed often and adored nature and relished in climbing trees like the ones in Granny’s yard; Cindi Philips, an athletic young lady who was taller than the other girls and shy in public but open and gregarious around Wendy and would join her and Linda in climbing Granny’s trees and years later would name her daughter Wendy as a testament to their friendship; and Debbie LeBoux, a cheerful girl who was short and somewhat stout and chain smoked and never joined the other girls climbing, but was almost always smiling and was unshakably supportive of Wendy. They took classes together in fall and spring, and after school would play in Granny’s spacious back yard, picking red azaleas in springtime and tucking them over their ears and playing music on the radio and dancing like no one was watching.
Wendy was open and gregarious with her girlfriends, but in school she was considered shy, reserved, and reticent. She never discussed her family, which was unusual in the deep south, where well intended mothers and young ladies begin conversations with questions like, “Who’s your mamma? What does your daddy do? Where do y’all go to church?”
Granny had never remarried, and had no use for church, and was a cheerful but blunt woman who kept to herself and came home from work and made dinner and let Wendy play and reposed with a bottle of Scotch and a pack of Kents and her monthly Reader’s Digest books. She was supportive of Wendy and her friends, but never imposing, trusting them to find their own way; the only advice she’d offer was to learn to take care of yourself so you didn’t feel you had to compromise your values to be supported by a man, to avoid sex or use protection, and to buy the best booze you could afford and enjoy it without guilt; sometimes, she quoted Uncle Bob and advised Wendy and me to live a life without regrets.
Wendy’s friends all had older boyfriends, and though Wendy didn’t discuss it much, so had she. But, he had graduated and was drafted and in the summer of 1971 and was shot and killed in Vietnam only a few weeks after arriving. She didn’t date much after, though boys pursued her.
In the fall semester of 1971 she met Edward Partin Junior, an angry and intense senior at Glenoaks who unequivocally was not going to Vietnam. He was a loud, fierce, physically large and intimidating 17 year old with a reputation for being the school’s drug dealer. He had long black hair and dark brown eyes so dark they seemed black and made his countenance look intense, even when he smiled.
He rarely smiled at school – he was unabashed in his hatred of authority, and was planning to drop out of school now that he was 17 and could do so legally – but outside of school he laughed with his friends and smoked a lot of marijuana and played the guitar and hunted and fished. He always seemed to have new cars and cash and marijuana to share, and most girls thought he was strikingly handsome. They even appreciated his ruggedness and defiant nature, the classic bad boy image that takes new forms ever year and seems especially attractive to young ladies who don’t have loving male role models, and to anyone impressed by new cars and cash and marijuana. His friends were similar. Sonny was a popular drug dealer, and Kieth sold used cars and loaned people money if they ran out of cash before their payday check arrived. All smiled and were cheerful when not confined in school and high.
Like Wendy, my dad never discussed his past or family, though his family – my family – was remarkable. A consequemce of being “paid informants” under FBI scrutiny was not chit chatting about what your parents did for a living, especially when not even your family knew the whole story about its patriarch. Also like Wendy, he knew someone from the army who had recently died. Earlier that year, his father, Ed Partin Senior, was suspected of killing a colleague of his, Audie Murphy, America’s most decorated war veteran.
Audie had 278 comfirmed German kills and was decorated many times for rushing into enemy territory to save dozens of American lives, and after the war he had become a famous movie star of more than 40 films; if you’ve seen a young, fearless WWII soldier with a short barreled machine gun rushing into a German bunker, it’s likely you’ve seen a version of a character that began as the real life of Audie Murphy.
By the 1970’s, Audie Murphy may not have been as well known as Jimmy Hoffa, but he was still a household name, and many celebrities, politicians, and soldiers cited him and his memoir, ”To Hell and Back,” as a positive role model that continues to shape what a hero looks like. Even today, his tomb is the second most visited site in Arlington Cemetery, second only to former president John F. Kennedy’s. Audie had been negotiating between my grandfather and two other of his associates, Jimmy Hoffa and President Richard Nixon, and was brokering a deal with my grandfather for perpetual legal immunity if he reversed his testimony against Jimmy. My grandfather refused, and at the last minute he canceled flying with Audie, and Audie died in an airplane crash later that day, on May 28th, 1971; coincidentally, my Aunt Theresa’s wedding day, and photos prove that my grandfather was there, a point he emphasized when questioned about Audie’s death.
Though few people today believe my grandfather orchestrated Audie’s death, in 1971 that was my family’s relative truth. Despite his anger and intensity, and for reasons I’ll never know, my dad, Edward Grady Partin Junior, was adamantly opposed to killing any human being, no matter the reason, and especially without being there and looking them in the eye. He didn’t understand why his father was spending so much time with Audie instead of his young teenage son – Ed Partin Sr. was secretive – and my dad was angry at everything.
Ed Partin Junior had a lot of reasons to be angry about a lot of things. He resented authority and despised war and, for many, many reasons was distrustful of the U.S. government, especially because after Kennedy died, former vice President Johnson escalated American presence in Vietnam by expanding the draft and forcing any 18 year old unable to qualify or pay for college to fight, which is why the average age for soldiers in Vietnam was 19, and most were relatively uneducated and poor working class people and the demographics associated with perpetually poor families. Ed Partin Jr. had influence to prevent himself from being drafted, but he chose to be angry and resist because of his values and disdain for violence, and would ironically fight the entire U.S. Army before capitulating to the draft. They’d have to drag his dead body to Vietnam, he said, and he saw people in government as, in his words, war mongering assholes. They were motivated by money or power and saying whatever their voters needed to hear to vote them into control, and they ruled people who either didn’t vote or, worse yet, listened to the war mongering assholes then voted. They were weak and unwilling to fight for their rights, yet acquiescing and agreeing to fight and die in Vietnam, or to kill people in their own land who had done you no harm, just because the war mongering assholes told you to. He’d fight them, too, if he had to.
He had had a rough childhood, bouncing between a few relatives while his father faced an array of legal battles and with a father spending more time with Audie Murphy than his sons. The FBI’s Get Hoffa task force had to locate my dad and my aunts and uncle because their mother, Norma Jean Partin, whom we called Mamma Jean, had been hiding from Big Daddy and Bobby Kennedy’s offer to pay my grandmother solved her need to provide for her children without compromising her values. And though Granny never met Mamma Jean, she’d tell me that she approved of her choices to do what was necessary to provide for her children. My dad rebelled, like teenagers often do, and lived with Big Daddy’s mother, my Grandma Foster, and spent his teenage years developing a deep seeded distrust for the government and a disdain for war and any form of killing a human being. He was planning on dropping out of high school in 1971 and earning his way in the world as a drug dealer and guitar player, and he dared the army and it’s draft or any judge to try and make him do anything other than what he wanted to do.
He met Wendy at Glenoaks High School, and told all his friends he thought she was “fine,” a term he used when he likes how a lady looked and acted. He liked that she didn’t speak much at school and listened to what he had to say instead, and he stayed in school a bit longer than planned. Coincidentally, Grandma Foster lived a few blocks away from Granny, and Ed and his friends and Wendy and her friends would frequently sneak out of their homes at night and have parties with my dad playing guitar and everyone smoking his weed and having a gloriously fun time, and in January 1972 Wendy lost her virginity to Edward and became pregnant despite Granny’s guidance, perhaps because by that time Wendy was acting like many 16 year old girls and rebelling at home and acting out in school; her emotions may have been compounded by her boyfriend’s death in Vietnam and her biologic father’s refusal to acknowledge her, something she had only recently learned after reaching out to him in response to well intended questions about what he did for a living.
Whatever her mental state may have been or the causes of it, what’s known is that she dropped out of school with my dad and they eloped to Woodville, Mississippi, two hours away. Mississippi didn’t require parental consent for a 16 year old girl to marry, and my grandfather had been born in Woodville and had organized the sawmill workers union there, and the Partin name was still respected in Woodville. My dad still had family there, so my parents would have had a place to stay, and they drove to Woodville in Ed’s new car and returned a few days later as Mr. and Mrs. Partin. Nine months later, on October 5th, 1972, I was born in Baton Rouge’s Our Lady of the Lake Hospital.
A few months later, my dad and a his friends left Louisiana on their motorcycles and drove to Miami and hired a boat to take them to a Caribbean island to buy a boat load of drugs at wholesale prices.
I’d hear different accounts of which island. Most of Ed and Wendy’s friends would say Jamaica. A few would say Puerto Rico, and occasionally I’d hear Cuba, though most people would argue and say that was impossible because of President Kennedy’s then ten year old embargo against the small communist country. But, Edward Partin Senior had been doing business with Cuba and Fidel Castro since at least the late 1950’s, using his connections with New Orleans mafia leader Carlos Marcello to secretly receive products in the port of New Orleans and Cuba and sending them across America via the newly built Interstate 10 that stretches from New Orleans across Texas and Las Vegas and terminates at the Santa Monica pier near Hollywood, California. It’s not unreasonable to believe that Ed Junior was able to visit whichever island he wanted when I was born in 1972.
Regardless of which island he visited to buy drugs, people in my life who knew him then universally agreed upon is that he was gone for a few weeks without anyone knowing where he was or when he would return, and Wendy felt frightened and alone, stranded near her husband’s home without a job or a car or anyone she felt she could call, realizing she had married into a notorious and violent and secretive family, and she was a 17 year old high school dropout without obvious ways to provode for herself and her baby boy. She had a nervous breakdown, a temporary burst of overwhelming emotion that affected her actions, and when she saw a handwritten note on a nearby coffee shop requesting to split gas on a drive to California she left with a man she just met and they drove onto I-10 where it passes through Baton Rouge and drove west for 3,300 miles and never picked me up from daycare.
Coincidentally, a new song that Wendy and her friends had been listening to just before she abandoned me was Led Zepplin’s “Going to California,” It had just played for the first time in Berkely, California, the epicenter of America’s anti-war protests and hippie movement. It’s still a hugely popular song, and today the album, Led Zepplin IV, is still one of the world’s best selling albums. The 1971 lyrics of Going to California tell her story:
Spend my days with a woman unkind
Smoked my stuff and drank all my wine
Made up my mind, make a new start,
Goin’ to California with an achin’ in my heart
Someone told me there’s a girl out there
With love in her eyes and flowers in her hair
Wendy had made up her mind and she was going to California, and the daycare center was closing and I was the last baby still there. They called the list of emergency contacts Wendy had given them, but our aunt and uncle were alcoholics and too drunk by 5 or 6pm every day to answer the phone, much less drive to get me, and Wendy was estranged from her mother, who was also an alcoholic; though she probably would have driven, regardless. The daycare finally reached Linda White – this was before cell phones, and someone had to be beside a house phone to answer. She told her father, Ed White, what she had learned, and he dropped what he was doing and rushed to the daycare and took me home.
A few weeks later, the judge who would eventually presumably commit suicide signed paperwork removing me from Wendy’s custody and giving it to my dad but assigning Ed White as my legal guardian, and for the next several years he was able to dictate if and when Ed and Wendy Partin could see me while they fought a bitter divorce and disputed custody rights. And, as Judge JJ implied, Ed White loved me as if I were his son.
James ”Ed” White was my PawPaw, a short, wiry man, clean shaven and with slicked back black hair peppered with gray, and he was a cheerful force of nature. He had lost an eye as a sailor in WWII, and though his glass eye matched his other one perfectly, he never saw the world the same again. He chain smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes, sipped bottles of Miller beer, and never quite figured out why other people weren’t as happy as he was.
PawPaw was the custodian at Glenoaks High School, where his daughter went to school with Wendy and my dad before they had me. He would show up a Glenoaks early and stay late, cleaning up with his mop bucket, and, on his own initiative, caring for the many oak trees that made Glenoaks so beautiful. It may have been in a poor school district, but most people felt the campus was one of the most well cared for they had ever seen, though few knew someone was behind the scenes and making things happen. He even organized a small union of custodians after a teacher’s strike led to higher salaries for teachers and district administrators but not for custodians, and all across Louisiana people behind the scenes of every public school were given a bit more because of him.
He spoke rapidly and with a thick accent, rural and rustic, pronouncing this and that as d’is and d’at, but without the French Influence of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that changed American i’s to sound like a’s and omitted r’s. He didn’t pronounce my name like the Cajuns near his farm did, Pa’tan, he pronounced it like I grew to hear often, like people pronounced my father and grandfather’s name on TV, Part’n, as if trying to say it in one syllabel; some people, if trying to force our name into two syllables, said Part-in. Coincidentally, PawPaw and Ed Partin Senior were both from Mississippi, and he had grown up in the forests surrounding the Woodville sawmill, and perhaps that’s why Ed White and Ed Partin pronounced my family name similarly and unlike many people in Baton Rouge, and perhaps why many people who heard us speaking assumed we were kin.
I still view PawPaw in my mind’s eye as Popeye the Sailor, a popular cartoon character when I was a kid who mumbled and squinted through one eye and smoked a pipe and protected Olive Oil’s baby from bigger men. His son in law, Craig Black, didn’t watch cartoons but read a lot and had been in high school theater, and he saw PawPaw as Puck, the jestering hobgoblin from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream, a woodland elf who was not quite like the other elves and laughed a lot and adored trees and played pranks on people. Puck’s pranks sparked the other characters into action; without him, there would be no Midsummer Nights Dream. Craig said PawPaw’s shipmates said similar things about him, that he was cheerful and mischievous and was unintimidated by authority; he was known for sneaking into the officer’s supply room and stealing their beer and giving it to the enlisted men.
Everyone said he laughed often and gave freely. Many people who had not known each other would independently describe him as a force of nature, unencumbered by worries from self-imposed social constraints. He was happy. After he lost his eye, he was honorably discharged and returned to Baton Rouge and found ways to earn his livelihood doing what he loved.
Like Puck, PawPaw loved nature. As a side gig, partially because custodians weren’t paid much, he was a tree surgeon, and he was the most respected tree surgeon in all of Louisiana. His services were requested by wealthy families protecting the magnificent stately oak trees that had been planted on plantations like Oak Alley and The Oaks by their great-great grandparents. He was called to be preventive in the spring, repairing damaged bark and limbs before insects or disease took root, and reactive in the winter, removing toppled trees after hurricane storms. Their trees thrived as if PawPaw had a magic touch with them, but there weren’t a lot of families still preserving their trees so there wasn’t a lot of work, and there was a lot of competition from landscapers who were ostensibly just as qualified. But he had other entrepreneurial ventures, like running the Baton Rouge franchise of Kelley Girls.
Craig, who was the landscaper for Houmas Plantation and an artist on the side, a painter of elves and woodland scenes more reminiscent of Louisiana’s swamps than Shakespeare’s forests, would later tell me that PawPaw never made money from his side gigs because he hired people and paid them more than he made. He hired former prisoners when no one else would and trained them to be tree surgeons and landscapers and gardeners; they would go on to earn an honorable livelihood because of him, even competing with him for local landscaping work, but he never seemed worried about that. He used his contract with Kelly Girls, a national organization that placed unskilled, young women in flexible jobs so they could attend school or care for their children to hire girls from Glenoaks who were in trouble, and when able, he paid them $512/month, the same another franchise owner may have been paid to subcontract the work.
Judge JJ didn’t know that part, that Wendy’s successes were facilitated by the man trying to get custody of me, hiring her for a job that $516 per month and not keeping any himself, and giving her a car to help her do her work. PawPaw never boasted or sought credit for what he was doing. All of his actions were altruistic, devoid of selfish thoughts. He wanted everyone to be happy.
In the case of Wendy, PawPaw even bought her an old car and repaired it as best he could and gave it to her while he was caring for me so that she could go to and from work. When he wouldn’t allow Wendy to keep me overnight, I can only assume that was in everyone’s best interest, but no one knows for sure, because he wasn’t at my court dates to explain his choices, maybe because it’s challenging to take a day off of a custodial job to attend court.
My first memories are of PawPaw and the people who worked for him. I began to form and retain memories around four years old, 1975 or 1976, but they were less like memories and more like bursts of emotions and sensations centered around extreme moments that I later recognized as moments that defined my definition of love, pain, joy, angst, and other extremes. Of course, some childhood memories aren’t real, just images in my mind formed later in life from apocryphal stories, often about me or my biologic family, and the images are not real memories. But, when I do have memories that I recall, specifically and in vivid detail, I cherish them, embrace them, and lean into them and try to understand what happened in my childhood, and most of my memories from the 1970’s are full of love for PawPaw and a sense of wonder at everything he showed me and all of the interesting people that seemed to flow in and out of our home.
My first vivid memory of Wendy Partin and Debbie LeBoux is from the late spring of 1975, when azaleas were in full blossom and their scent waifed into every breath. PawPaw had just given Wendy the used car that I’d later recognize as a Datsun, a small hatchback with lots of easily accessed storage that could haul telephone books, like the ubiquitous Yellow Pages that were delivered every spring, listing all the new businesses in town.
PawPaw helped Wendy and Debbie load yellow books into the Datsun, leaving enough room on top of the back passenger swat for me to squeeze in against the roof. They stood back and smoked cigarettes and admired their work and joked that I’d barely fit. They were right. Debbie helped cram me into the small space and Wendy slid into the driver’s seat and laughed and tried to operate the manual transmission and we lurched a few times before finally driving down PawPaw’s gravel driveway. She didn’t fully stop at the blacktop, and I slid against the window when she lurched left and changed gears and we accelerated down the small two lane road towards more densely packed subdivisions in desperate need of the Yellow Pages. We went up the interstate ramp and were flying down I-10 when they rolled up their windows and Debbie took out her dainty little bag with hand-sewn flowers and began rolling a joint and chatting with me. She was even smaller than Wendy, and had delicate deft hands that quickly rolled a perfectly formed joint.
I was fascinated by Debbie’s little bag, and she handed it to me while she lit the joint and cracked her windshield to exhale up and out. The bag was beautiful, and the raised textures of the flowers was unlike my brightly colored but smooth Crayon bag. And it smelled nice, and I wanted it. Debbie laughed and handed the joint to Wendy, who had a hand free now that we were on the interstate and not changing gears. Wendy inhaled and coughed out her cracked window, and Debbie pointed out the stitching on her bag and told me that it was hers, but that she’d show me how to make one and help me make my own later. That sounded like fun – I already did a lot of arts and crafts projects with Linda and Craig, her husband, who lived with PawPaw and me. I was sure I could make a little weed bag just as nice as Debbie’s, especially with her help.
She was fun. Wendy was focused on driving to the subdivision and smoking the joint, but Debbie could multitask, and she could somehow chat with me without exhaling. There was a slight haze in the air, but she did her best to look up and out the window to exhale without breaking eye contact with me. I was perched high on the Yellow Pages, in a slight haze of smoke, and though I can’t recall what she and I talked about, I remember laughing more with Debbie than anyone else before.
She could do magic. She could remove her thump and blow at its stump and it would magically pop back into existence. She removed my nose and held it in her closed fist, barely poking out between her fingers, and when I giggled and grasped my face she blew towards me and my nose magically reappeared, just like her thumb had; I never noticed that my nose looked just like her thumb. I liked Debbie.
Wendy turned on the radio, and we all sang together. It was a popular song released in 1971, Janis Joplin’s cover of “Me and Janis had already passed away of a drug overdose by then, one of the many musicians of the 60’s and 70’s who coincidentally died at age 26 or 27, like Jimmie Hendrix and Jim Morrison, and, to this day, is an urban legend nicknamed The 27 Club that includes musicians from my era like Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. Janis held a special place in Wendy and her girlfriend’s heart, because she was young and vivacious and free and they dressed like her and sang lyrics in their best immitation of her raspy, southern bluesy voice, especially because they were all from Baton Rouge, and they sang as if no one were listening who would judge them and this was the most wonderful moment of their lives.
Busted flat in Baton Rouge, waitin’ for a train
When I’s feelin’ near as faded as my jeans
Bobby thumbed a diesel down, just before it rained
And rode us all the way into New OrleansI pulled my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana
I’s playin’ soft while Bobby sang the blues
Windshield wipers slappin’ time, I’s holdin’ Bobby’s hand in mine
We sang every song that driver knew
The song ended and they laughed and talked about things I don’t recall and finished the joint and rolled the windows back down. The air rushed at me and I watched us descend from I-10 and go into a subdivision. I sat perched on the stack of Yellow Pages and Wendy would lurch house to house, and Debbie would hop out and run a phone book up to each doorstep. Soon I had more space, and it was easy for me to hop in and out, and I began helping and they told me how good I was; a year later, in Kindergarten, I’d brag that I had my first job at age four, and that I worked for Kelly and her girls, Wendy and Debbie, and I was really good at it. I also knew the lyrics to a lot of Janis Joplin songs, which, though not on the official learning objective in kindergarden, would impress my teacher, Miss Founteneux, probably because she also sang every song that driver knew.
After emptying the Datsun, we stopped at a 7-11 and got Coke Slushies and took them to a public park in Zachary with a playground, and Wendy pushed me on a swing and Debbie road down a slide with me, and they tried to teach me to throw a Frisbee but I wasn’t good at it. Debbie showed me how to pretend to remove someone’s nose and clench my thumb to look not unlike a nose in my hand. We sipped Slushies and seemed to have no worries in the world. I’d later say that working was fun, and wouldn’t understand why my dad was so opposed to it.
Wendy took Debbie home to her mother’s small appartment, a remarkable experience because her mom spoke by shrieking without inflection. It was terrifying, but Debbie and Wendy didn’t seem to mind and I became used to it and the thick cigarette smoke that hung in the apartment like a morning fog over PawPaw’s pond. They had lots of snacks, sugary sweet things like Raisenettes – chocolate covered raisins – and fortune cookies from the small Chinese restaurant on the busy road by their apartment. I’d learn over time that Debbie’s mom and sisters were on state disability for scizophrenia, and that Debbie was good at crafts because she spent a lot of time in juvenille art therapy classes. But, at the time, I simply liked Debbie and was happy to have so many snacks, because for some reason I was hungrier than I had ever been after delivering Yellow Pages and listening to Janis Joplin’s sultry voice.
Wendy said we were running late, so we left Debbie’s and lurched past the Chinese restaurant onto the busy road and were soon flying along I-10. I had eaten an entire bag of Raisenettes and several fortune cookies and was sleepy, and I stretched out in the relatively luxurious space of the front seat and dozed off.
I woke up some time later when I heard Wendy talking with someone. We were stopped on the side of the interstate, and a big man in a uniform was standing outside Wendy’s window. I was groggy, and she nervously shook me and looked at the policeman and said something about me, and fumbled in her big purse and handed him her driver’s license.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” she told him. “My brother’s sick, and I was in a hurry to get us home.”
He bent down and peered through the window and looked at me. I was awake by then.
“Howdy, son,” he said, smiling. I didn’t smile back – I had never seen someone in uniform before, and I wasn’t sure what to think. “What’s your name?”
“Jason Partin, s’uh,” I replied, speaking politely, like I had heard PawPaw speak with the men who worked for him, calling them sir and the young ladies ma’am, like a fine southern gentlemen should, but I pronounced my name like Debbie had, the Cajun way, Pa’tan. The police officer may have been impressed by my manners, and Pa’tan was a respectable, Cajun name that meant we were locals, so he looked at Wendy’s license, confirmed our names matched, smiled and thanked her kindly, and said we could go but to drive more slowly so that we got home safely. Wendy agreed, and we lurched back into traffic and she clutched her steering wheel with shaking hands and asked me to not tell Mr. White.
Wendy pulled into PawPaw’s gravel driveway and I saw MawMaw waiting for us in the carport beside PawPaw’s cricket cage. She was a classic southern belle of a woman, middle aged yet energetic, with bright red lipstick and grey hair that she tended immacuately and arranged in a seemingly impossible beehive on top of her head, held in place by copious amounts of hairspray. Her maiden name has been Dorris Shakelton, from the wealthy Baton Rouge Lamar family; they owned 85% of roadside billboards in America, and today they lead a publicly traded advertising company. If you drive along any road in America and see a billboard, likely at the bottom is small, green logo that says, ”Lamar,” and that’s a sign that you are, in some small way, connected to MawMaw and this story.
Before I hopped out of Wendy’s Datsun, I could almost smell the things I loved most about MawMaw, hairspray and chocolate chip cookies, and I was so excited that I almost jumped out before Wendy had come to a complete stop.
I was famished again, unsurprisingly – people call hunger after riding high atop the Yellow Pages “the munchies” – and MawMaw always had lots of chocolate chip cookies and shugga’ for me, and I couldn’t wait to get inside. We finally stopped, but Wendy had to help me open the Datsun’s old rusty door before I could hop out. It took forever, and as soon as my big feet hit the gravel with a satisfying crunch and I ran towards MawMaw without saying goodbye to Wendy. She squatted down and rested her hands on her knees and smiled a big, huge, red-lipstick covered smile and waited for me to reach her before opening her arms and receiving my hug. She held me tightly and gave me shugga’ all over my cheeks, and I giggled and pretended to hate it and kept wiping off the red lipstick marks I knew would be there. Wendy drove away – I wasn’t allowed to spend the night with her yet – and I had fallen into a ritual of transitioning from Wendy to MawMaw centered around cookies and shugga’.
“Gimme some shugga’!” she’d say, every time, and I’d giggle and hide my face with my hands and she’d peck around looking for an opening to place one more red lipstick smack of shugga’. She almost always found at least one spot, and sometimes I lowered my guard intentionally and allowed one more smack! before wiping it off. Once inside, she’d help me wash the red off my hands and cheeks and give me cookies and ask me what happened with Wendy. I always felt bad lying to MawMaw, so I usually just went silent and looked at my big feet, and she would sigh and rest her hands on her hips and look down at me and, always, squat back down and smile that big red smile and give me another hug. She soon stopped asking, thankfully, and we just enjoyed our cookies and waited for PawPaw to come home after cleaning up Glenoaks High School and taking care of its trees.
Usually, he’d come home and grab a beer and light a Camel and fill a mesh cricket tube full of crickets from their cage in the carport, and we’d carry a couple of cane poles to the small pond beyond the big gate. He’d teach me to tie fishhook knots and use his cigarette to burn off the loose ends, and how to hook a cricket so it lived and moved under water and attracted fish, and how to watch the red bobber float on the dark water and not react when it danced, only when it went under and the fish had committed.
Every time I caught a little pond brim, he’d tell me what a good job I did and that we should toss him back in so that it could get bigger for next time. It never did. I only caught tiny brim in PawPaw’s pond, but I never blamed him for that, and never got tired of hoping to one day catch a big one. And, every time we finished fishing, I was always happy to walk back to the dinner MawMaw would have waiting, and, of course, milk and cookies for dessert.
The day after I delivered Yellow Pages with Wendy and Debbie, PawPaw took me for a walk to buy cigarettes and the nearby convenience store. Like with MawMaw, I had rituals with PawPaw, and walking to the store was one of my favorites because it was beside a giant stately oak tree, like the one Wendy and her friends climbing in Granny’s yard, and PawPaw would always stop and play with me and that tree. Its branches were long and stretched out in undulating waves across the field and were draped in Spanish moss, and PawPaw had discovered one branch that formed a perfect swing, like a giant’s arm cradling something gently, and every time we arrived I’d try to climb into the swing. I’d get a little better every time, and he was always nearby in case I slipped or needed a nudge. I almost made it that day, and at the last moment, just before I would have slipped and fallen, I heard his voice.
“D’er ya go, Lil’ Buddy,” he said, giving me a gentle nudge so that my fingers could grasp the bark enough to pull myself up and into a dip formed by the undulating branch.
I sat in the tree and looked PawPaw in the eyes, and he nudged the branch and it swayed up and down and I giggled and clutched the bark and felt like I could keep climbing all the way to the big bright blue sky barely visible through the oak tree’s green and brown canopy. PawPaw snatched a piece of grey Spanish moss and made it look like his beard and I laughed and let go of the bark and picked a piece of moss for myself. He stayed beside me in case I fell, and we sat there as two old, bearded men, laughing at nothing in particular.
“Aw’ right, Lil’ Buddy, time t’ go,” he said, and replaced his beard on the branch and put his hands under my arms and lifted me up. I kept my beard, knowing my clever disguise would fool the store workers. It had worked every time so far.
We walked in and the man behind the counter smiled and said, “Hi, Ed! Who you got here today?”
I whipped off my Spanish moss and showed him it was me, and he looked surprised and said he hand’t recognized me. We chatted, and PawPaw picked up a carton of milk and a roll of chocolate chip cookie dough, pre-made and shaped into a cookie-diameter tube, and set them on the counter between us. The man reached up and grabbed a pack of Camels and put them beside the milk and cookies.
“Thank you, s’uh,” PawPaw said, cheerful as always. He paused, went back to the walled refrigerator, and came back with a six pack of Miller pony bottles, the shorter, round bottles. The man behind the counter put our milks in one bag for PawPaw to carry, and, as usual, gave me my own bag to carry the cookie dough.
Back home, I gave MawMaw the tube of dough and she off a piece for me – I may have liked raw dough as much as baked cookies – and PawPaw and I both drank our milk and waited for that day’s employee to show up. This time, it was my Uncle Kieth, Ed Partin Jr’s little brother, not his friend the car dealer. Kieth Partin takes after his father, physically. He’s a a remarkably huge man that radiates strength and formidability, with his father’s sky blue eyes and light blonde hair. Yet he’s a gentle giant, and a hard worker who came around often.
As with all his employees, PawPaw called Kieth s’uh and offered him a pony bottle of milk before going to work in the back field, beside the small fishing pond and barn. I usually came along, though I just watched or fished while they cut branches and burned them on top of fire ant nests, killing two birds with one stone, as the saying goes.
But, that time, instead of fishing I set my sites on climbing the 8 foot tall rusted metal gate that separated the house from the field and fishing pond. Unfortunately, the gate was unhinged – PawPaw had a lot of partially finished projects around the farm – and when I reached the top it tilted backward and I began to fall with it. I clutched the rusted metal bars with both hands, but no one was there to give me a boost or catch me, and when I finally couldn’t hold on any more I let go and hit the ground and the gate fell on top of me and its sharp edge sliced the back of my scalp open. I screamed.
“Ed! Ed!” I heard. “It’s Jason! Come quick!”
I can still see Kieth running towards me in my mind’s eye, though my memory is skewed, literally, because I was on my left side and the world seemed rotated 90 degrees; later in life, I’d read research studies that showed our minds eventually right the wrongs and reconstruct our mind’s eye to “see” things differently than they are for the sake of our mental well being. But, in 1975, I saw Kieth running towards me sideways and in huge leaps and bounds, propelled by legs taller than I was, and I didn’t understand how he was running sideways but didn’t stop screaming or take time to ponder it, but that’s how I still see it. I remember the vision clearly, and can hear my own screams as if I were not the one screaming but an observer recording the situation, and I can still see a sideways Kieth reach me much faster than PawPaw and his little legs could have. Beyond Kieth I saw smoke and burning piles of fire ants, also rotated 90 degrees and obscuring my view of PawPaw, but I knew he was there. He was always there when I needed him. I felt that, and didn’t need to see it. Some things are so right in our mind’s eye that our brains don’t alter our perspectives to satisfy our desire for normalization.
Kieth grabbed the massive gate and heaved it away effortlessly and reached down and picked me up and cradled me, and despite my pain and terror, a tiny part of me felt as safe and secure as I had felt cradled by the oak tree’s branch, and somehow, miraculously, that’s what I felt as my body bled profusely and I screamed incessantly.
“Hurry Ed! He’s hurt bad!” Kieth shouted.
“Get in d’ truck!” PawPaw shouted back between breaths. “Get in d’ passenger side!” I saw him, framed in smoke that was now behind him, and he waved towards the truck and called out, “Go on, now! Go on!”
Kieth cradled me and rushed through the open gate and wrenched open PawPaw’s truck door, an old Ford with metal doors that would stick and creak and groan and resist opening, but they were no match for Keith’s brute strength. The door yielded and we slid in and he slammed it shut with a loud and satisfying crunch, and PawPaw somehow found the same strength and ripped his door open and hopped into the driver’s side of his Ford’s bucket seat. I was bleeding dangerously. Scalp wounds are dangerous because all arteries and veins are exposed against your skull and will not close themselves, especially if you’ve been scalped, and I had a large flap of scalp dangling precariously from my skull, attached only by a small slice of skin and hair. The Ford’s vinyl seat was covered in blood that slid across the slippery plastic in and pooled in depressions and along creases, like dark red rivers flowing from small lakes of blood on the bucket seat. PawPaw didn’t hesitate. He cranked the ignition and peeled out and accelerated towards the blacktop and turned left onto it so quickly that pools of blood splashed across the seat and spilled into Kieth’s passenger side floorboard.
“Oh God, Ed! Oh God! He’s bleedin’ bad! Hurry!”
No one had to tell PawPaw to hurry, he was a force of nature and intensely focused on nothing but saving me. Gravel bounced into the air behind us as his truck tires gained traction on the pavement and we accelerated forward faster than I had ever felt his Ford go.
I was no longer surprised that the world was sideways. I accepted that things weren’t as they seemed, and as I screamed I saw the big stately oak tree by the convenience store. I felt my body wanting to slide against Kieth’s door as PawPaw accelerated through the red traffic light and turned sharply, and I felt Kieth’s strong arm cradle me and keep my head from flopping around as we sped through the intersection with tires screeching against the blacktop and PawPaw pulling the old trucks manual steering with all his might.
PawPaw had never had fixed his truck’s turn signal, but he didn’t need one because he had poked half his small body out the window and was waving his white handkerchief with his left hand and pulling the big steering wheel with his right and shouting at cars coming towards us, “Get out d’ way! Get out d’ way!” and, magically, they all did. His right arm was straining with the force of turning, and his left hand was frantically waving his white hanky and his humble accent was loud and clear, and, miraculously, everyone got out of our way. That’s the last thing I remember before passing out.
I woke up a few days later in Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, where I had been born four years before, and the first thing I saw was PawPaw, exhausted. His wrinkled face was aged by grey beard stubble, the real kind, not Spanish moss. His non glass eye was bloodshot. Both cheeks were puffy. His hair was disheveled. He smelled like cigarettes and chainsaw oil, as usual, but he also smelled like he hadn’t bathed in a few days. He was sideways.
I sat up and he righted along with me, and his eyebrows perked up and he looked at me and smiled and his exhaustion faded away, and he said, cheerfully as ever, “Hey, d’er, Lil’ Buddy. ‘Bout time you woke up.”
I had to stay a few more days and get a more tests for head injuries, but I had fun because the recovery room had a big color television and I could watch Popeye and Friends and the SuperFriends on Saturday morning – we only had a small black and white television at home – and play with the tons of toys stocked in the common room. I wore a bandage around my head that had to be changed daily, and when they changed it on my final day one of the nurses brought in two mirrors so I could see the back of my head. I was bald now, but they said my hair would grow back soon. I strained to see the back of my head, only just realizing how two mirrors worked like magic so that I could see behind myself, but even then I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. PawPaw exclaimed that I had 82 stitches! I must be the bravest lil’ fisherman alive!
I know now that he exaggerated, most doctors put about 3-4 stitches per inch of cut, so I probably only had 20 to 30 stitches, about the number of raised bumps I can still count, from where the skin had been pulled tightly and had healed thickly, but for some reason PawPaw said 82 and that’s the number I’d use when we finally returned home and I talked about my adventure. And, he had to explain to me that Our Lady of the Lake didn’t really have a lake, so we couldn’t go fishing there, but he’d take me when we got home. MawMaw was waiting when we arrived, and she had cookies and milk waiting for both of us, of course. She was much more gentle with her shugga’ for a few weeks, until my hair started to grow back, and then we went back to life as usual, and I felt like the bravest lil’ fisherman alive, happy, still climbing trees, and knowing PawPaw would always be there to catch me or help with a gentle nudge.
Some time later, when I had most of my hair back, I was sittting in the living room, which was also where I slept at night, with Craig, Linda, PawPaw, and MawMaw. Craig and Linda Black had moved back in after Linda had a baby, and the baby was in PawPaw’s second bedroom. Our living room was small, but the doorway was open to the dining room and kitchen and felt larger. We sat around snacking on cookies and watching cartoons: I had become fascinated with Popeye looking so much like PawPaw. Our TV was a small black and white set with manual controls and bunny rabbit antenea; Craig and PawPaw always joked that we lived in a Black and White household, and though I never understood their joke I laughed along with them and munched my cookies. A commercial came on, and I saw Stretch Armstrong advertised again, just like I had on the big color television in the hospital, and I exclaimed that was it! That was what I wanted! Stretch Armstrong had just been released as a new toy and was advertised on Saturday morning cartoons as the next greatest thing on Earth, a rubber toy filled with viscoelastic goo that you could stretch and pull but would always return back to normal. Kids on the commercial stretched him across their chest, like an exercise band, and some of the kids also had Evil Stretch, a black guy on PawPaw’s TV but a green goblin on color TV. I had to have one. PawPaw, laughed and said “We’ll see, Lil’ Buddy,” and took advantage of the commercial to get up and get a bottle of milk from the kitchen, and soon I heard my dad’s voice booming.
It’s an unmistakable voice, deep and resonating and authoritative, the bass tones reverberating through walls that blocked lesser voices. I couldn’t hear PawPaw, but I had no doubt who was visiting and got up and walked into the kitchen with a partially eaten cookie.
PawPaw was standing in the doorway and my dad was in the carport, holding a large brown paper bag with fancy rope handles, the kind you may get when you buy something from an expensive store. He held the bag nonchalantly, but his eyes were intense and focused and his jaw was held tightly, and he towered over PawPaw. Now in the kitchen, I could hear both of them.
“No, Ed,” PawPaw said. “Not t’day. Next week.”
My dad bellowed something about fuck the rules, he’s Jason’s father and he wanted to give him something. He poked his finger down at PawPaw’s chest to emphasize what he said.
“No, Ed,” PawPaw replied. “Please go. Come back next week.”
My dad saw me and said, “Hey, Justin! I mean Jason, godamnit! I brought you something!”
I was excited! My dad had picked me up before, and always had gifts for me. Sometimes, he took me and Kieth to see Big Daddy, and Big Daddy had given me things like a new, fancy fishing rod with reals and gears and convoluted things that didn’t really work in PawPaw’s tiny pond, but was fun to play with and expensive enough that Craig and his friends would inspect it and admire the quality and tell me how lucky I was, and I was anxious to see what was in the paper bag.
He held up the bag and tried to step through the doorway, but PawPaw moved sideways and blocked him.
“Please, Ed, not today.”
My dad’s voice rose and he looked down at PawPaw angrily and thumped his finger against PawPaw’s chest and reiterated that he was my father and I was his son and he was going to give me something and no one would stop him. Craig, Linda, and MawMaw must have heard, and they came into the kitchen and stood beside PawPaw, between my dad and me. Voices raised, and everyone was speaking loudly and I can’t recall what was said, but I can remember the scene. It was somewhat comical, a huge loud man towering over a room full of tiny people.
My dad’s not that big, only 6’1,” and at the time he was thinner than I’d know him later, perhaps only 190 pounds, but the Whites and Blacks were small and thin, and from my perspective my dad towered over them.
Linda was barely taller than Wendy or Debbie, and though Craig was almost as tall as my dad, he was skinny, like a twig, and calm and mellow. He was an artist with big, bushy hair and a scruffy beard, exactly like a popular painter on public television, Bob Ross. PawPaw was Popeye, and Craig was Bob Ross. PawPaw had welcomed him into our household when their baby was born. He wasn’t saying much and was probably high, self admittedly, and he was standing beside Linda as she looked up at my dad and told him in no uncertain terms to leave; I remember that vividly, and 40 years later Craig and I would agree about that evening. Linda was unabashed in her words and actions ever since having a baby, and wanted a calm household. Even my dad was shocked by her ferocity, and he responded by thumping his finger into her chest, and that’s when PawPaw had had enough and stepped forward and shouted for the first and only time I ever heard him shout in anger, and he told my dad to leave.
My dad bellowed an obscenity and shoved PawPaw, and Linda pounced on my dad and began clawing at him. He shoved her away, and PawPaw stepped in again and my dad flung him aside. Craig silently moved in front of my dad and stood there, and MawMaw stood by his side, and not even my dad would shove her. Instead, he plowed between them and grabbed my arm so hard I yelled in surprise, and then PawPaw really stepped into action and hurled himself forward and everyone piled on top of my dad and tried yanking his arm off of me. He knocked them aside with his other hand and its brown paper bag. MawMaw and Linda grabbed my free arm and tried to pull me away from my dad, and he pulled back, and I stretched out like Stretch Armstrong. Everyone was shouting, including me, and through the din we heard Craig and Linda’s baby cry from the back bedroom crib. That sobered everyone, and Linda rushed back and Craig followed, my dad collected his senses and stood silently, and MawMaw bent down and inspected a scratch on my arm that was bleeding. PawPaw stood straight, breathing heavily, and waited patiently to act again.
My dad looked at me and said, “Jason. Son. I brought you something. Do you want it?”
Of course I said yes. I forgot about my bleeding cut and looked at the bag. PawPaw looked at me and then at my dad, and told my dad he could speak with me for five minutes in the carport, and then he had to go and could see me next week. That seemed fair, and my dad held my hand and walked me out the doorway and into the carport. MawMaw came out with a bandaid and put it on my scratch, and said she’d be back with cookies. My dad and I stood beside PawPaw’s Ford and I pointed out the blood stains on the floorboard we couldn’t get out, and at my arm’s bandaide, and said I was the bravest fisherman on Earth. My dad agreed, and we chatted and listened to the crickets chirp and my dad rubbed my stubbly head and told me he loved me and had something for me in the bag. In all the excitement about impending cookies, I had almost forgotten about the bag.
“I think this is what you wanted,” he said, sheepishly. He reached in the fancy bag and pulled out a new Stretch Armstrong, still in its box.
Well, technically, it was Evil Stretch. The black guy on PawPaw’s TV. But, in person, Evil Stretch was green, like I had seen at Our Lady of the Lake, and he had pointy ears and fangs and was even better than the white stretch with blonde hair. I was happy, and opened the box and tried to stretch Evil Stretch but couldn’t. My dad laughed and said I wasn’t big enough, but I would be, and one day I’d be as big and strong as him and maybe even Big Daddy. I was fascinated by that idea, to be so big that everyone talked about you like you were a superhero, and for the next five minutes I rambled on about intergalactic battles between Stretch and Evil Stretch and how I’d practice stretching so I could grow big and strong, too.
The carport door opened and MawMaw stepped outside with cookies. She gave me one and handed a few to my dad, to go. She stood there, waiting, and PawPaw stood in the doorway. My dad told me he loved me, and I said I loved him, too, and he said he’d see me next week and we’d go see Big Daddy and Mamma Jean, and I thought that sounded fun. He left, and I went back inside and showed off my band aide and practiced stretching Evil Stretch. Cartoons were over, and everyone was watching something on the small black and white TV that I can’t recall.
Late that night, after everyone had gone to bed and PawPaw was preparing the living room sofa for me to sleep, I sat on the kitchen table and played with Stretch. I wasn’t strong enough to stretch him, no matter how much I had practiced that day, and I had grown bored with my new toy; the thirty second commercial for Stretch Armstrong accurately showed kids having fun for 30 seconds, about as long as you can have fun with a soft rubber toy that you can’t budge. I told him so. “You’re useless!” I said. “I wish I didn’t have you!” I bellowed. On a whim, I picked up one of PawPaw’s flathead screwdrivers from the kitchen table – he always had tools lying around – and held it like a knife and pointed it at Stretch. I told him to be quiet. In my mind, he wasn’t, so I told him again and held the knife like I had seen Big Daddy hold knives, rotated sideways to penetrate between ribs, lacerating lungs or piercing a heart and causing someone to bleed to death rapidly, not straight up and down and bounching off the rib cage and causing a meer flesh wound. Stretch ignored me and said something, and I shoved the knife into his ribs and quickly removed it, satisfied that I had pierced his heart, as evidenced by him bleeding a clear, viscous goo through the small hole.
He began to deflate, and I came to my senses and realized I had broken Stretch and regretted what I had done. I tried shoving the goo back inside, like the doctors had done to me, and even took off my band aide and tried to patch the hole in his ribs, but every time I tried to move him more goo oozed out his wound.
I began crying, and PawPaw came into the kitchen and saw what had happened. He told me not to worry, I could never do anything wrong, and we’d try to fix Stretch Armstrong like the doctors had fixed me. I didn’t correct him that it was Evil Stretch. Perhaps I was embarassed that I had broken my new toy, or perhaps I was somehow realizing that good and evil aren’t black and white, even then grasping for a metaphor to use years later when writing a book. Or maybe I just trusted PawPaw to make things right. That’s not probably not exactly what I felt or thought, but it’s part of the image I’ve created for myself, and likely a close approximation of the emotions I felt, my first feelings of shame and being forgiven because I was unable to do wrong, and I was being guided away from ignorance by being shown a path towards better feelings. Puck put my story into action.
We tried using super glue to patch the hole, but it didn’t stick. We put him in the freezer because of something about viscoelastic goo slowing down and thickening when cold, and that worked until he warmed up again, and then the goo oozed and he became more and more deflated. Finally, after two days, PawPaw and I agreed that we had done all we could, and that was good enough, and we decided to give Stretch a proper funeral. We said a few words on his behalf, saying what a good Stretch he had been and not Evil at all, wrapped him in the fancy paper bag, and dropped him into the trash can beside the cricket cage, and then went fishing with the cane poles, not Big Daddy’s fancy rod and reel that was gathering dust in a pile of tools beside the cricket cage.
A year later, as the court records show, Judge JJ reversed the deceased judge’s opinion and transferred physical custody of me to Wendy. But, despite the former Trial Judge saying she had a fine home and JJ saying she was now emotionally and morally fit to care for me, and despite several legal precedents implying a biologic mother is presumably a better caregiver than a biologic father or foster family, the legal system allows appeals that can drag on forever; from a kid’s perspective. Both Ed Partin and Ed White appealed and continued the legal battle for a few more years. Nothing seemed to change from my perspective, and I was fine with that. From an emotional standpoint, PawPaw was my father, MawMaw was my mother, Linda and Craig were my siblings, and I had a lot of fun adventures with interesting people called Wendy and my dad, Debbie and Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob and Granny and Kieth and an assortment of ex-cons and single mothers working for PawPaw; and, soon, the Partin family, including Big Daddy and Mamma Jean.
During this time, no one seemed concerned what I thought about all of this. Soon, nonprofit organizations would be formed to focus on foster kids on behalf of the kids themselves and their unique situations, like the Court Approved Special Advocates, CASA’s, or similar volunteers overseen by organizations that train volunteers and perform background checks and monitor their actions for safety, and allow the volunteers time to meet and learn about the kids, their parents, and their caregivers. This rarely takes leas than two years and often takes three to five, when a kid may cycle through dozens of paid social workers with overwhelming case loads and strict guidelines to be emotionally unattached and follow state guidelines blindly. A CASA can get to know the kid as an observer, emotionally involved but unbiased, an observer concerned with well being, not guidelines, who takes time to get to know the kids and everyone involved and speak in court on the kid’s behalf, adding their reports as a permanent record with as much influence as legal jargon and generalized precedent cases, and to hopefully able to arrange their schedule to attend court and answer a judge’s questions and speak for young children unable to speak for themselves.
Had I had a CASA in the 70’s, I’m sure I would have taken them fishing and taught them how to hook a cricket, or walked them to the convenience store to climb a tree and buy milk and cookies from an attendant who always recognized me when I wasn’t disguised as an old man, and the CASA would have added that to my court records and maybe mentioned me using a screwdriver as a knife and looking away silently when asked what I did with Wendy. Had I had a CASA to write a report for my record, perhaps Judge Lottinger would have let me stay with PawPaw; I’m sure he could have dug up a presedent case to support his opinion, and a CASA’s report is an official court record used to, as it’s name implies, advocate for the child’s welfare regardless of how charming or influential parents appear in court. But, like I said, no one asked me what I wanted, and no one knew what Ed and Wendy Partin were like when not in court other than me and PawPaw, and the court already has his opinion in the matter: he loved me as a son.
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