But then came the killing shot that was to nail me to the cross.
Edward Grady Partin.
And Life magazine once again was Robert Kenedy’s tool. He figured that, at long last, he was going to dust my ass and he wanted to set the public up to see what a great man he was in getting Hoffa.
Life quoted Walter Sheridan, head of the Get-Hoffa Squad, that Partin was virtually the all-American boy even though he had been in jail “because of a minor domestic problem.”Jimmy Hoffa in “Hoffa: The Real Story,” 1975
I landed in Havana on a 30 day entrepreneurship visa and was pondering my grandfather’s role in President Kennedy’s assassination when I first suspected Wendy would commit suicide; she wouldn’t, and I had no reason to suspect she would, but that was my first thought when I listened to her voice mail in the small Plaza de San Francisco de Asi, where I had been told was the only place a gringo could get public WiFi, even in 2019.
“Hey Jason, it’s Wendy,” she began, followed by a pause.
“I know you’re going to Cuba, but I was hoping to speak with you about my will.”
“It’s not a big deal,” she said quickly, and continued at a similar pace: “I’d just like to add Cindi as executor because you travel so much…”
“And I thought…” there was a whiff of a sound that sounded like she took a breath and began to say, “I…” The transcription software didn’t pick it up, so it may have been my imagination, but I believe I heard her inhale deeper than usual and begin to confess something; it was as if she changed her mind just as she began to exhale, but the momentum sent me a thought that transcription software wouldn’t feel.
“It’s not important. Call me back when you can.”
Another pause, and then a barely noticeable sigh; audible, unlike the whiff, but the transcription software missed it, too.
“Tell Cristi I said hello, and I hope y’all are enjoying San Diego,” she said quickly. Her tone was forced, but it felt as if she was trying to end on a happy note. “If I miss you, have fun in Cuba, and we’ll talk when you get back.”
She hung up.
Gut instincts can be wrong, so I put in my earbuds or i-Buds or whatever they’re called and listened again. I have a 15% hearing loss in both ears, but at different frequencies, so I often rotate my head back and forth when listening for nuances. Anyone watching may have thought I was grooving to music, badly. I rewound three times around where I had caught a whiff of a sound; the feeling Wendy would commit suicide diminished every time I listened, and I began to relax. I straightened my posture and listened again, without my head bobbing. The feeling of dread dampened away like a weight oscillating on a spring, and I could think more clearly.
Wendy was my mother, born Wendy Anne Rothdram in Richmond Hill, a suburb of Toronto, in 1955. In 1961, her mom, Joyce Hicks Rothdram, fled an abusive relationship with a man whose last name was Rothdram and whose first name I never learned, and moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to live with Auntie Lo and Uncle Bob while she looked for work. Granny taught herself to type using Uncle Bob’s electric typewriter a book from the public library, scored a job with DuPont Chemicals at the newly formed row of petrochemical plants twenty minutes north of the airport and bought a small, 680 square foot home with three bedrooms and two baths for $36,000. At 16 years old, Wendy was a sophomore at Glen Oaks High and her boyfriend graduated and was sent to Vietnam, where he was was shot and killed only two weeks after arriving. She had a mild nervous breakdown and returned to Toronto, where many young Americans had settled to avoid the draft, and stayed at our aunt’s house and arranged to meet her father. Two days later, he refused her and sent her back to Granny. Distraught, she began smoking pot, and midway through her junior year she lost her virginity to the Glen Oaks High drug dealer, Edward Grady Partin Junior. He was relatively famous in Baton Rouge, because his father, Edward Grady Partin Senior, was president of Teamsters Local #5 and drove most of Louisiana’s economy, including negotiating trucking deals for the burgeoning petrochemical industry and a slew of Hollywood films financed by the Teamster Pension funds, films like John Wayne’s Horse Soldiers and other civil-war era epics that utilized the backdrop of southern Louisiana’s plantation homes and wide open battle fields bordered by stately oak trees draped in Spanish moss. Like most of my Partin family, was a physically imposing yet handsome man with a perpetual smile and charming accent, and most people in Baton Rouge who knew him called him Big Daddy; his photo was on the front page of the newspaper weekly, and most people respected the work he brought to the state’s capital city and talked about the Partin family daily, especially because Big Daddy was celebrated as a national hero, an all-American who had risked his life infiltrating Hoffa’s inner circle; in 1964 became the surprise witness whose testimony convicted Hoffa of jury tampering and sent arguably the world’s most powerful labor leader to prison. By namesake, Ed Partin Junior was also well known.
A week after her night high on weed and LSD with my dad, Wendy realized she was pregnant and couldn’t afford an abortion. She accepted his marriage proposal, and they dropped out of school and eloped to Mississippi, which didn’t require parental consent for a 16 year old girl to marry a 17 year old boy. It was only an hour or so away, and Big Daddy had been born there and ran the sawmill union before taking over the trucking unions in Mississippi and Louisiana, and my dad had family in Woodville where they could stay overnight. Wendy returned to Baton Rouge as Wendy Anne Rothdram Partin and they moved into one of Big Daddy’s remote houses near the Atchafalaya Basin and a rural highway crossing the Comite River. I was born on 05 October 1972 at 9:38am weighing 9 pounds 8 ounces, a huge undertaking for Wendy’s petite 5’1″ frame, but unsurprising given that my grandfather’s nickname was Big Daddy. A year later, she had another small nervous breakdown and left us, but returned a week later; almost immediately, my dad left us and traveled to Miami on motorcycles with a gaggle of his friends, where they caught a boat and island hopped the Carribbean to buy drugs wholesale. She had another nervous breakdown, and abandoned me at a day care down the road from Glen Oaks High. I was placed in the foster system by Judge Pugh of the East Baton Rouge Parish 19th judicial court system, and he severed her from my custody and placed me in the care of legal guardians. They allowed Wendy to see me once a month while she looked for work and a place to live. My dad returned and she divorced him, but he sued for custody and a bitter battle ensued. Her name made her well known in Baton Rouge – there were only about 12 Partins in the phone book – and with all of the attention she felt either embarrassed or ashamed of being a single teenage mother and high school dropout who married a drug dealer. She taught me to call her by her first name so people would think I was her little brother. Despite her shame, she persevered and fought for seven years to regain custody of me. She won in 1976, but my dad and legal guardians both appealed until 1979. I began living with her the nine months of the year, when I was in public school, and three months in Arkansas with my dad, helping him grow weed near his cabin in the Ozark mountains. In 1990, when I was 17, I left Louisiana for the army and had lived most of my life in California. Old habits are hard to break, and I still call my mother Wendy.
Wendy had called about her will several times over the past ten or fifteen years, and every time she used the same brisk cadence. It was always after drinking a bottle or two of Chardonnay. She’s always been prone to bouts of depression that last weeks or months. Alcohol exacerbated her mood swings; she quipped that she had been born WAR, but marrying a Partin WARP’ed her, and that’s why she drank.
I sighed. My head hurt, my back ached, and I was wound up from sitting in confined spaces next to chatty people who seemed to thrive from small talk. It was the first day of what I planned to be a three month sabbatical, a month in Cuba thanks to President Obama’s new visa to promote entrepreneurship (whatever that means), and two months of hopping around Caribbean islands, climbing and diving and following any leads about my grandfather’s time there in the 1950’s and 60’s. Separately, I wanted to learn where my dad had visited in 1973; he and his friends were so high they don’t recall details, but I was pretty sure they used Teamster connections to stay wherever they ventured. A favorite example in my mind was the Puerto Rican Teamster president Frank Chavez, who, after Big Daddy sent Hoffa to prison, publicly said, “I’m gonna kill Edward Partin!” Chavez was assassinated by his bodyguard almost immediately after, and the new president never said anything negative about my family; I’m sure he would have welcomed Ed Junior and his friends. Similarly, before Kennedy’s Cuban embargo, Big Daddy had collaborated with Fidel Castro in shipping guns and money between the newly formed Communist state and Las Vegas, and I was curious if I could find evidence of his visits while on my entrepreneurship visa. Mostly, though, I was there to scuba dive and rock climb offline for a month, and to see if I could somehow learn more about family lore that connected my grandfather with Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy. On the airplane rides from California to Havana, I had been reading old court reports and memoirs of Teamsters and gangsters talking about Big Daddy during times that overlapped with Wendy and me living in one of his houses, so I had a lot of family history on my mind when I first listened to her voice mail. And I was fatigued, which meant I was probably not thinking rationally. Wendy probably wasn’t reaching out while on her last limb, she was probably just drunk. She had been opening her first bottle earlier and earlier each day over the past few years, especially when feeling down. Maybe she was calling because Liam, her big and goofy and grey haired golden retriever had passed away, leaving her reminiscing over a case of wine about him and all her other rescue dogs over the years. She probably wouldn’t remember having called me, and I suspected she was already passed out for the evening.
Despite the so-called smart phone in my hand, I rotated my left wrist and glanced at my 30+ year old solar powered Seiko dive watch. The technology was cutting edge back then; it hadn’t needed a battery changed or to be wound in three decades, and the charge from an average day lasted six months. But, the plastic parts oxidize and have been known to break unexpectedly, so I replace the thick black corrugated band before every sabbatical. I had replaced the band at San Diego’s Just-in-Time on Tuesday, and it was still on Pacific Standard Time. I could call Wendy back before she passed out that evening.
I sighed, and dropped gaze dropped from my phone to my two big feet. I craved a beer, and looking at my feet kept my mind from scoping out bars that lined the square. To delay making a decision, I popped out the watch dial and rotated it to Havana time. I hadn’t worn the watch in months, so I was unsure if the date were correct, so I looked at my phone and rotated the watch dial to the 4th.
I sighed again, took a few deep breaths, and tried calling Wendy. As usual, her cell phone wasn’t getting reception. She didn’t answer her land line. I sent a text and an email letting her know I had already arrived in Cuba. I chuckled to lighten the tone, and said that that the cell reception in Havana was worse than at her place, and that I’d only be able to check messages when I came back to Havana every week or two, but to text or email me if it were important. I said I’d stay in Havana longer, if necessary, so we could schedule a time to speak. If it were urgent, I said, tell Cristi and she would know how to reach me.
Coincidentally, I added, chuckling, I was calling from a public square named after Saint Francis, the patron saint of kindness to animals, and I hoped that put a smile on her face. She volunteered at the West Feliciana Parish humane society just outside of St. Francisville and had fostered dozens of dogs over the years, and the fastest way to cheer her up was to get her thinking about her dogs. I reiterated that I’d check messages when I could, and added a perfunctory “I love you.”
I left a voice with Cristi, saying I arrived safely and that the WiFi was less than I had expected, so I would be mostly offline. I slowed my speech and articulated more than my southern accent usually does, and told her I had received an ambiguous message from Wendy and asked if she could look into it; but, I avoided mentioning the coincidence about St. Francis, because Cristi would have focused on the coincidence and called it synconicity. She had coincidences from of our childhood tucked into her worn copy of The Artists Way, like matching fortune cookies from a Chinese buffet after I returned from the first Gulf war that said, “Friends long absent are coming home,” and practically everything we had stumbled upon since then with our names written together, which was rare because most people spelled her name Christy. I’d tell her about St. Francis in a month or two, when we could share her reaction in person. She and her daughter were staying at my condo in San Diego while I traveled.
After the army, I used the GI Bill to pay for college and earn a couple of degrees, one in civil and environmental engineering and one in biomedical engineering. In 1996, the government changed patent laws to allow $100 provisional patents by individual inventors, and I began patenting a few medical devices, like bone healing implants that adjusted in-situ to continuously apply compression and accelerate healing, and a few biomaterials that replaced worn out bones and soft tissue like the thumb’s basal joint and the spine’s nucleus pulpous. After raising capital and developing the ideas, the small startup companies were acquired by large corporations. I retired at age 32, and began alternating between leading classes and creating entrepreneurship programs at universities and urban schools, which is how I qualified for Obama’s entrepreneurship visa. Every year, I took off a few months for sabbatical, and Cuba seemed like an ideal choice that year.
In 2018, in a coincidence that made Cristi giddy, Martin Scorcese added Big Daddy to his epic film about Hoffa and the mafia, The Irishman. (Scorcese had briefly been married to the author of The Artists Way.) He had raised $257 Million to make the film with all of the actors Americans wanted to see in a Gangster film: Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Ray Latola, etc. He admitted he was making entertainment, not a documentary, and he reduced Frank “The Irishman” Sheenan’s 2014 memoir, I Heard You Paint Houses, into a still remarkably long 209 minute film that cumulated with Frank killing Hoffa; painting houses was mafia lingo for someone whose work included painting walls red with splattered blood. Frank was a former WWII infantryman turned mafia hitman and Teamster leader, and his co-writer had written almost a chapter’s about Big Daddy, Nixon, and Audie Murphy to paint the big picture of what had happened in the 60’s and 70’s. Like most books that try to tell the whole story, the parts about Big Daddy and Nixon were too complex for a film; as far back as 1971, even Hoffa admitted that in his first autobiography, when he was shooting for a film about his life that would help him regain control of the Teamsters. But, in The Irishman, even a gifted storyteller like Scorcese had to address how Hoffa went to prison, even if only briefly, so he recruited the burly actor Craig Vincent to portray “Big Eddie” Partin. Craig had starred in Scorcese’s Casino with Joe Pesci, and was a reliable actor to play a big brute who looked good in a suit. Scorcese changed Big Eddie’s character to match Craig’s New Jersey Italian accent, but Craig wanted to do his best and had reached out to my family researching his role. We were easy to find, because Uncle Keith Partin was currently president of Local #5, and his uncle, Uncle Doug Partin, had run the local for almost 30 years after Big Daddy finally went to prison in 1980, and Aunt Janice officiated a geneology website that tracked the Partins from Baton Rouge to Woodville Mississippi and beyond. After he spoke to them, Craig and I had chatted a few times, and I became reinvigorated in my family history. I hadn’t thought much about it ten or fifteen years, and I couldn’t recall the last time Wendy mentioned Big Daddy, but when publicity about The Irishman began she began drinking more and would call me to make puns like how she had been WARPed. After talking with Craig and her, I recalled remembered family lore about Big Daddy knowing Castro, and how Hoffa’s defense team had emphasized the rumors to try and discredit Bobby Kennedy’s star witness. Then a colleague sent me a link to Obama’s loophole for a Cuban visa, and Cristi said it was meant to be. Six months later, I touched down in Havana to see what I could uncover about Big Daddy’s time there and his involvement with President Kennedy’s murder.
I looked up, hung up the phone, and sighed again. I took out my earbuds and held them, inhaled deeply, and exhaled forcibly. I glanced at my watch; it had been less than a minute since I began pondering what to do. I could still beat the happy hour crowd. I had a few minutes left on the WiFi card.
I debated what to do while toeing my backpack mindlessly. It was a discrete, sun-faded black carryon backpack with two squat, black XXL Force Fins strapped to the outside. Inside, I had toiletries and a few nick-nacks, like sunglasses and a deck of cards, and a week’s worth of travel clothes designed to compress compactly and dry quickly. I had squeezed in a pair of 14W leather rock climbing shoes, stretched from use in the cracks of Joshua Tree and a perfect fit. I’m only 5’11”, the runt of the Partin family, so I can borrow or rent most gear, but I can never find fins or shoes that fit when traveling; most brands of climbing shoes stop at size 13. I carried a Lonely Planet travel guide book and a e-reader with copies of The Irishman, Hoffa on Hoffa, The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa, and mountains of dowloaded court records and scanned family letters that I had saved as .pdf’s so I could search for names or places using the reader, if I discovered anything worth digging deeper to understand.
I didn’t expect to discover anything, and I wasn’t very serious about looking. Investigating Kennedy’s murder was an old hobby I had dusted off for the trip. For 60 years, the FBI, the CIA, journalists, and conspiracy enthusiasts had scrubbed Cuba and Mexico city looking for links to Lee Harvey Oswald’s alleged trip there just before Kennedy was shot, and Big Daddy’s role had already been investigated by New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison; he led the only trial against someone for Kennedy’s murder, New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw, and it became the 1990 Oliver Stone film JFK fueled speculation about the FBI and CIA being involved that sparked President Bill Clinton to release the classified 1979 JFK Assassination Report that reversed the 1964 Warren Report that said Oswald acted alone when he shot and killed JFK, and Ruby acted alone two days later when he shot and killed Oswald; the official congressional verdict after fifteen more years of research was that Kennedy was likely killed by a conspiracy, and that the three main suspects were Jimmy Hoffa, New Orleans mafia boss Carlos Marcello, and Miami mafia boss Santos Trafficante Junior. The official report denied involvement by Castro, the Soviet Union, the FBI, or the CIA, but couldn’t tell how the three suspects could have orchestrated Oswald’s involvement or Ruby’s silencing him before a trial. Garrison couldn’t, either, but had trumpeted coincidences that Oswald had grown up in New Orleans and trained in the Baton Rouge civil air force under the alias Harvey Lee, and that Jack Ruby traveled from Dallas to New Orleans a few times in the months leading up to Kennedy’s death. For those of us who remember, the civil air force trained just down the street from where Granny had bought her house, and around the corner from where Big Daddy owned another home, and Garrison had publicly said he had photos of Oswald and Jack Ruby with Big Daddy and that he was indicting Ed Partin as a suspect. The photo and the witnesses who had seen it vanished just before Clay Shaw’s trial, and in the years since most people either forgot about Big Daddy’s role or investigated it and found nothing definite. I doubted I’d discover something 55 years later that they had missed, but I thought it would be fun to keep an open mind while walking around. Mostly, I wanted to enjoy my time in Cuba, scuba diving the warm waters, enjoying live Carribbean jazz, and rock climbing the limestone cliffs surrounding the tobacco farming valley of Vinales. This was a vacation. I was tired, and I resented my tense reaction to Wendy’s voice mail.
I overreacted, I said to myself. She’d be fine. I was tired and overreacted, probably aggravated by her increasingly frequent drunken calls.
Driven by fatigue and frustration, I made a decision and called a couple of casa particulars I had circled in my Lonely Planet before leaving San Diego. My visa required not using government owned businesses in the state-run Cuban economy, so I had rented a driver with a private car at the airport and would only stay in casa particulars. I had circled some that sounded relatively spacious, because I’m slightly claustrophobic and didn’t want a windowless room with only one door, which common in most big cities. I spent precious WiFi minutes calling and chatting in Spanglish until I confirmed which had a room with two doors; they said the room had a main door facing the kitchen and a glass door opening onto a center courtyard, and I told them I’d be there after dinner. I hung up and sent a burst to my circle saying I had landed and was going offline. I had a few unchecked messages, but I didn’t feel the need to check them until after a night’s sleep. I used the final minutes of my WiFi telling Wendy I was staying in Havana a few days, but would be offline for at least a day. I reiterated that I hoped to speak to her before I went deeper into the country and wouldn’t have cell coverage.
Out of minutes, I put my phone and earbuds into my backpack. I adjusted my old LSU baseball cap that Cristi graciously called “vintage,” stood upright, adjusted the hip strap on my backpack to take the load off my shoulders, and scanned the perimeter for a bar and grill with big open windows facing the plaza. I saw something promising venue, a shaded northern facing facade with double doors wide open and a six-man band standing between the doors and a stand-up bar. It had a chalkboard with handwritten words that I couldn’t make out. I pulled out my glasses and saw that the bar served mariscos del dia. I couldn’t read what the special was that day, but I had learned enough to know that’s where I wanted to go.
I strapped on my backpack, took a deep breath, straightened my posture, and walked towards the bar, anxious to try a Hemmingway dacquiri and begin vacation or sabbatical or whatever it’s called. I wanted a drink. I was Wendy’s son, after all, and habits are hard to break.
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