The Magic of David Copperfield
My grandfather was released from prison early because his health was declining and he wasn’t expected to live much longer. He had developed diabetes and what was generalized as a heart condition, and, because he had remained addicted to amphetamines and a few depressants in prison, his overall health had deteriorated and he was thinner and hunched over and had to sit often when I saw him in 1987, almost a year after his release. It had been seven years since I had seen him pull a knife on my dad, and I had seen him in the news weekly and had recognized my earlier mistakes of thinking Big Daddy was Brian Dennehy; and, it had been two years since my dad had gone to prison. I didn’t realize he had been released, but I had coincidentally walked from Granny’s small home to Grandma Foster’s small home a few blocks away – Grandma Foster was Big Daddy’s momma, and my dad had lived with her when he met Wendy – and she answered the door with the biggest smile I had ever seen on her and reached up and held my cheeks and said how happy she was to see me. She told me to come in that Edward was home; I thought she meant my dad, whom she also called Edward, but then I saw the room full with huge men that blocked my view, I knew something was different. Uncle Kieth was there, towering in front of me, and behind him were my great-uncles, Big Daddy’s little brothers, Doug and Joe Partin, both huge men who had always looked up to their older brother. Doug had taken over as president and business agent of Teamsters Local #5 after the national Teamsters finally stopped Local #5 from paying Big Daddy in prison, and Joe had become a football coach at Zacharay High School and then their principle, and remained uninvolved with the Teamsters. My cousin, coincidentally named Jason Partin, but much bigger and a football star for the Zachary High Broncos was there, and so were a splattering of other cousins and ex-wives that I knew of but rarely saw. All were a part of Big Daddy’s family after Mamma Jean had left him, and only Kieth took me around them, and that was because of Grandma Foster. Both Kieth and my dad had lived with her at some point in their childhood, after the FBI had found them hiding with Mamma Jean’s family, and Grandma Foster had always shown them unconditional love and acceptance, just like she had me.
She was a tiny woman, barely 4’10” tall and hunched over in her old age; she was in her 90’s by then, and her bright blue eyes had become covered in cataracts and were now a paler blue, but still vibrant and unquestionably Big Daddy’s eyes, the blue eyes that added to his charm. Kieth had them, too, and so did Doug, and though Joe looked a lot like his brothers, he had hazel eyes that were round and open, just like Grandma Fosters; my dad and I had Mamma Jeans narrow, dark brown eyes, and I had always noticed that I was the only one with brown eyes that visited Grandma Foster.
Grandma Foster said, “Look who’s here, Edward, Edward’s son!”
The people in the room seemed to part, and behind them, sitting on a stool on Grandma’s back porch, was Big Daddy, older and deflated yet still smiling and with his bright blue eyes open and alert.
My life changed at that moment. I’m still unable to describe why and how, but I will try throughout the next few chapters. A result, though, is documented in the 19th Judicial Court, East Baton Rouge Parish, in August of 1989. I remember the day well.
Judge Robert “Bob” Downing peered down his nose at my paperwork then looked up at Wendy and me across the top of his reading glasses. He paused, then looked back down his nose and reread my request. A few seconds later he put down the paperwork, took off his glasses and rested his arms on his large wooden desk and leaned forward. He sat silently for a moment or two, calm and not judging either of us .
“Miss Partin,” he began, “this is the first time I’ve been asked to emancipate a youth at their request.” Wendy looked up with a sad look on her face and quickly narrowed her eyes and looked back down at her lap where her hands held each other tightly.
Judge Bob leaned back in his chair so that he could see us at the same, took a deep breath, and said, “Usually, a family requests a youth’s emancipation in order to release themselves from legal responsibility. In those cases, the youth has a history of delinquency. But, in this case, Jason has requested emancipation so that he may obtain a driver’s license in order to continue working and going to school, where he has a C grade average and is active in several sports and activities, and he wishes to graduate high school and join the army for the college tuition program. You have refused to sign his driver’s license permit, and you have refused to sign his army contract, and you request that he leaves your home as soon as he graduates, which would be six months before he is 18 and legally able to sign his own contracts, therefore he believes his best choice is to be emancipated now.”
He paused, and we all sat in silence for a few moments. Wendy looked up again, then looked back down and focused on her hands, subtly scratching her left fingernails with her right. She had done the same thing when wet with my principals, when I used to get in trouble at school. But that was a long time ago. Two years. Maybe less. But a long time for a 16 year old.
“Miss Partin, once you sign this, Jason will cease to be your legal responsibility. This can not be revoked. I need to ask you again, are you sure that you have no objections?”
Wendy was frowning, and her jaw was tight, and she stared down at her hands and wrung them back and forth and said she didn’t object. She looked up at me, her lip trembled, and she added, “He’s just like his dad,” as if that explained everything, or somehow vindicated her. She had always said that; even at our one attempt at family counseling, she just kept repeating that I was just like my dad. I only went to counseling that one time, but Wendy returned once a week for an entire semester of school. It hadn’t helped.
“Jason,” he said, looking at me. “Do you have anything to add?”
I looked at him and said that I didn’t. Nothing had changed since I first filed for emancipation a month before. We still hadn’t heard from my dad, Granny was too sick from chemotherapy and radiation, and Grandma Foster was too old. Uncle Bob was dead, and Auntie Lo was a drunkard.
He took off his glasses and leaned forward and rested his weight on his forearms. “Jason, I admire your initiative. Not many youths come from a family with as much trouble with the law as yours, and even fewer change their situation for the better.” He had known both my dad and his father.
He looked back at Wendy and said, “We haven’t heard from Mr. Partin, so all we need is your signature here…” he slid the single piece of paper to her. She signed it and pushed it back towards him without looking at either of us.
“And Jason, we need your signature here…” He slid the paper to me and I pulled it to my side of the desk and signed it. I looked him in the eye, smiling, and he smiled back. I wasn’t necessarily happy – I had inherited my grandfather’s smirk – but I was glad this was over. A month was a long time to wait to become an adult.
“Thank you,” he said. He put on his glasses, looked at our signatures, and signed across the bottom. He picked up a heavy stamp and pressed it across his signature, creating a raised seal from the State of Louisiana. He said to keep that one with me, but advised me to have a certified copy left in the courthouse records, and to take a copy to the recruiter. I said I would, and he stood up and signaled that the court session had ended.
He thanked Wendy for her time, stuck out his hand, and said, “Mr. Partin, I wish you luck.” I shook his hand and thanked him. Wendy didn’t say anything. We left the courthouse together, and parted ways without saying anything more.
I began my senior year of high school a month later. I had a motorcycle that Granny had helped buy, and could ride back and forth from work to wrestling practice, and because the motorcycle was small and got almost 54 miles to the gallon, I could afford weekend trips to wrestle with other teams in New Orleans at a gallon each way. I was alternating between staying at friends’ houses with sympathetic parents and at my ex-girlfriend’s parent’s house; her dad had worked for Big Daddy’s NASCAR raceway, the Baton Rouge International, for many years and had even been one of the Teamsters removing materials from other construction sites to build it for Big Daddy. He adored me because he said he was indebted to my grandfather, that no one else gave them work back then but Ed Partin did.
“Did you know he could have been governor, if he had had a college degree?” he’d ask me, rhetorically.
“He was a big man!” he’d say, smiling in awe and raising his hands and widening the spread to show broad shoulders above his head. “And no one messed with him. No one!”
I never talked about seeing Big Daddy after he was released, except for my now ex-girlfriend, Andrea, whom we all called Leah, like Princess Leah from Star Wars. Each time we talked about that day it would be because a new pop culture reference would trigger me to use it as an example. For example, when we saw Time Bandits together, there’s a scene where God is chasing midgets who stole a map from him, and the special effects are that God’s a giant head and it dominates the screen and the midgets are trying to run away but keep getting pulled towards God’s head or God’s head is somehow filling their entire view. I paused the VCR at that scene and re-explained that day with Big Daddy.
“It was like that!” I said, emphatically pointing at the television with the now frozen screen, a partial freeze on the VCR tape that left a streaked image of the midgets; and though that term is considered unacceptable now, it was how we saw it then, and I didn’t think much of it. I was more focused on the head of God.
“His head! It was all anyone could focus on!” I paused and looked down and bit my lip and said, “No, not his head. Not his face.” I paused again. “His eyes? Smile?”
I uttered a curse word and Leah braninstormed with me based on previous examples and some role-playing from our theater improve class at Belaire High School. The rules are never dismiss something, and built off of it. Yes; and. We accepted that the experience was somewhere between midgets being pulled towards God’s “essence” and a scene from Star Wars that we could imagine happening if Darth Vadar had come home from prison physically weakened but still strong in The Force.
Everyone in the room had been focused on Big Daddy’s essence. Everyone was chatting and he barely spoke and I can recall every word I heard and every voice and tone and inflection, and I can smell every person and Grandma’s unpleasantly burnt smothered chicken, yet the only image I can recall is Big Daddy’s essence that my mind epitomized as his sky blue eyes and subtle smile and, somehow, the sound of his his charming southern drawl captured as a visual image associated with his essence. And I was terrified. I was aware that I was trapped by his essence; I was a midget in a room of giants and unable to run away, even though I wanted to. I don’t know why I felt terrified, and later in life I would change the word “terrified” to be “mesmerized,” which was terrifying for me to experience back then. In that example, Leah and I agreed it was like the little boy in The Jungle Book cartoon movie felt like when the giant python snake mesmerized him and he was hypnotized by her eyes or frozen by her essence as she spoke softly to him and slowly coiled around him.
He and I spoke briefly, and later that day I realized I wanted to be nothing like him or any of my Partin family. I hadn’t found a way to explain why to Leah or myself, but she remembers every day after and the quick series of events.
I returned from Grandma Foster’s and a man named Mr. Martin Samuel’s picked me up at Granny’s and took me to Dr. Zuckerman’s house, a mansion in the wealthiest part of Baton Rouge. He had had the architect add a magic room hidden behind the entrance hall’s bookshelf, just like in Hollywood’s Magic Castle on the television specials. His wife, Mary, opened the front door and welcomed us and extended her hand towards the bookshelf and I said, “Open Seasame!” just like they did to open the bookshelf at The Magic Castle and Dr. Z’s bookshelf clicked and gently swung open a foot or so. I pulled it back and Mr. Samuels and I stepped inside to a meeting of the International Brotherhood of Magicians Local Ring #178, The Pike Burden Ring.
Mr. Samuels was president of Ring #178. On the drive over, I told him I had seen Big Daddy.
“Oh, really?” he said in his deep, resonating, and remarkably articulate voice. He had been a performer for almost fifty years without ever needing a microphone. He had managed an engineering department at CoPolymer for 35 years and had carpooled to and from work with Granny and a few others during the 1970’s oil crunch. For a while, he had taken Wendy to her sporting events around town, when Granny had begun drinking too early in the day to drive Wendy anywhere. When he learned I was interested in magic, he surprised all of us by pulling three thin pieces of rope from his pocket and performing The Professors Nightmare and inviting me to the monthly IBM meeting. I couldn’t become a member until I was 14, still a year away, but Mr. Samuel’s had picked me up and driven me to meetings as a “junior member” for more than a year.
“Do you know what a ‘seargent at arms’ does for an organization?” he asked. I said no. He said, clearly and methodically, “Well, your grandfather was once Jimmy Hoffa’a seargent at arms. Hoffa asked him to guard the door for him.” I knew the story, and so did everyone in America who had seen The Blood Feud. I said a seargent at arms was a bodyguard.
“Yes, I can see how you’d see it that way,” he replied. “And that was part of what he did. I met your grandfather once. Did I tell you that?” I said no and asked what it was like. I was still confused by how I felt after having met him. It had been so long since I saw him that I considered that day as having met Big Daddy.
“Well, he was charming. Everyone in the room seemed calm. He was facilitating talks between salaried managers,” he paused and continued with an extended pause between each contingent, “non-unionized hourly workers, unionized hourly workers, lawyers…” He paused to collect his thoughts. “And he kept everyone calm and focused on following the rules of a meeting.”
Mr. Samuels never had anything unkind to say about anyone, and was always willing to help people. He and his wife’s children had left home for college around the time I was born, and they had always offered to help Wendy whenever she asked, and they had been taking me to magic meetings and had even invited me over for lunch once or twice.
Mr. Samuels was big on rules, and ran Ring #178 according to strict Parlimentary Procedure. Everyone loathed it, because it took so long we couldn’t play around and teach each other magic tricks. That evening, he nominated me to be the Ring’s Seargent at Arms, and I agreed. To keep things calm, I interjected his long winded explanations a few times and reminded him of time limits, and we finished the meeting early and gathered around John Rocherbaumer to watch him demonstrate the latest Paul Harris card effects from Paul’s book, “The Art of Astonishment.” Dr. Z pulled me aside and thanked me for cutting Mr. Samuel’s short. They attended synagague together, and Dr. Z said no one there could get him to stop. We giggled and showed each other a few card moves until John coughed and exaggerated his scolling of us for being too loud.
Dr. Z joked something back, lowered his voice, and said, “Do you want to meet David Copperfield Sunday?”
David Copperfield was the world’s most famous magician, and, according to a national pop culture magazine, the 5th highest paid performer in the world. He earned $33 Million a year from television shows and his Las Vegas theater. He married a super model and bought an island, walked through the Great Wall of China, made The Statue of Liberty disappear, and would be flying in that weekend’s live performance at the Baton Rouge Centroplex.
Dr. Z whispered that David wanted to meet John, a well known card expert and creator of effects, and an author of books on magic history, and David Copperfield is still known as an avid collector of magic history and pioneer of showcasing other people’s magic to a larger audience. Paul Harris produced the David Copperfield show, and David’s close-up magic came from The Art of Astonishment.
Of course I said yes.
That Sunday, Dr. Z picked me up at Wendy’s and drove us to the Centroplex. He paid for valet parking and we saw the show. David flew around the Centroplex’s big open space, tucking his legs like Peter Pan when he zoomed over our heads, and I was unimpressed by the show yet fascinated by the audience. They were mesmerized. For me, everything was obvious. I was more impressed with the engineering and the opulence and the concept that one could earn a living doing something as fun as performing magic than the actual magic, except for the close-up portions of the show. Those were fun.
It was like a juggler watching another juggler and respecting the practice but not necessarily in awe, because you were much younger and had your entire life to practice and get better. I saw that I could soon be better. After all, I had recently one the Louisiana magic championships, junior division, by performing a routine from Paul Harris’ The Art of Astonishment that Dr. Z had lent me, including what David had done on live television, The Immaculate Connection, where he tore holes in three cards and linked them together like the famous Linking Rings tricks of ancient times. My version was better, I felt, and somehow that inspired me when I saw how mesmerized the audience was when they stared at the televised screen projecting David’s hands performing The Immaculate Connection.
But then I was startled, because David introduced Chris Kenner, his other producer and also a close-up magic inventor and author. His book Out of Control had just been released and even Dr. Z hadn’t been able to get a copy yet.
Chris thanked David and took a seat in front of the camera, and everyone stared at the projected screen that was the size of a movie theater screen, and we watched Chris make coins disappear and reappear in what, for me, was the closest thing to seeing real magic I could imagine.
After the show I met David briefly and was surprised to recognize two of his assistants, twins who coincidentally had graduated from a nearby high school a few years earlier and were somewhat like hometown heroes who occasionally were shown in the community section of the newspapers. That’s part of why David’s show lingered in Baton Rouge and why so many people were backstage meeting everyone. He spoke briefly about his community work, Project Magic, that put magicians into hospitals to teach magic and help with hand-eye coordination and mobility rehabilitation, and to give confidence to sick or injured people by teaching them to do what well abled people can’t.
I had heard all of that before and I felt a bit crowded by the fans and reporters, and Dr. Z probably did also and suggested we go find Chris. We did, and for the next hour the three of us sat around and Chris taught us a few things not even in his book or shown to magicians except for people like Dr. Z. It was the cleanest, most deceptive vanish of a silver dollar I had ever seen, and was so perfect that I still recall it as pure magic. He tried to help me do it, but emphasized that it took him many years of diligent practice before he felt comfortable showing it to someone.
Dr. Z dropped me off. We couldn’t stop talking about the coin work. He agreed that my Immaculate Conception Routine was better. Even Paul agreed that he liked starting with three-card monte and he was amazed by how I solved what to do with the torn pieces at the end. But, for Dr. Z and me, we couldn’t stop talking about and practicing something as simple as making a coin vanish from the fingertips of one hand and instantly appear in the fingertips of the other. That simple in concept, yet so difficult to execute that we laughed every time we failed. Dr. Z even drove part of the way home with his knees so that he could practice with his hands held lightly against the steering wheel.
That Monday, one of my friends convinced me to wrestle him on the wrestling team’s mat. It was the first day of practice, and the mats had just been unrolled after having been stored all summer, and Big Ben and his brother Jack Daggar wanted to clean the mat and warm up early. I did, and within thirty seconds Big Ben’s big head hit me in the face and cut my eye deeply and I was soon sitting in Doc’s office as he applied butterfly bandages to my eye and told me I should consider getting stitches. That’s when Coach Ketelsen waddled in.
Coach was a squat man, shaped somewhat like a marshmellow. But he seemed solid, thick, and strong. His waddle was the walk of someone with a body that doesn’t yield when pressed against itself, and his strong calves were slightly spread apart and his thick forearms were like Popeye’s, overtly strong. His head was flat on top, as if you could rest a coffee cup on it. His old grey eyes were alert, and his lips were in a perpetual range of calm to smirkingly mischievous. He calmly asked what had happened. Doc told him, and Big Ben introduced me as Magik.
“Magic, huh?” Coach said, smirking.
Yes, with a “k” I said. I was surprised he didn’t know me – I had become somewhat famous at Belaire for winning a school talent show and performing a show for the theater department’s fundraiser.
Coach reached down to his desk next to Doc’s table and picked up a business card and smirked as he tucked it behind the fingers of his outstretched right hand. He held his palm towards me; it was so small that the business card’s edges poked through his thick fingers and I could see the card bulging and building up spring tension, and I knew what he was about to do.
“Hey, Magik, watch this.” He smirked impishly and reached forward with his right hand and snapped his business card into the front of his hand. He did that part well, but there was no denying that his small hands prevented him from hiding anything.
He gave me the card and I read it. Dale Ketelsen, Driver’s Education Instructor, Belaire High School, and then it gave the shared phone of the office used by Doc and the football coaches.
“Ben,” Coach said in his steady but rhaspy voice, as if there were some gravel in his mouth whenever he spoke in his slow, methodical midwestern accent. He reached up and clasped Big Ben’s tricep. Ben wrestled at 194 pounds and was 6 feet tall.
“What did I tell you about bringing people to practice?” Ben looked down and apologized and said he forgot and had just gotten excited. Our wrestling program was new, and Ben had been recruiting.
Coach handed me a waiver to be signed by my parents and a form to be signed by a doctor after giving me a physical clearing me for practice. He told me which stores carried wrestling shoes, and the cost of a uniform, and for some reason I liked Coach and gravitated towards him and I said I’d take the forms home and ask my mom; I had learned to say “my mom” instead of “Wendy” to avoid questions.
Ben and I followed Coach back into the wrestling room that was shared with the weight room, and he spoke briefly to the small group that had gathered for 1987’s first practice. This wasn’t going to be a practice, because Coach still had a few weeks with the football team, but he said they could ask questions and then practice on their own with Ben and Jack leading. Someone raised their hand and asked about standing up when someone’s held you down.
“Just stand up!” Coach said, raising his hands to the sky dramatically. “Stand up!” He repeated the motion and paused for what he said to sink in. It didn’t.
“Listen,” he began, and he told a quick story slowly about some of the famous olympians many wrestlers would have known, and about a Russian olympic coach’s strategy to focus on removing someone from their base, taking away their balance.
“If you take a man off his balance, you can do anything you want to him. Watch.”
He gestured for Ben to stand up, clasped his tricep, and swooped under his center of gravity and stood up with Big Ben flailing in the air. He placed Ben back on his feet and held up a finger and looked serious and asked, “How’d I do that?” and a few guys commented on how he stepped forward to get his weight over his quadracep, the strong muscle, and he stood up with Ben.
“Do the opposite when you’re down. Get your balance back, so he can’t control you. Do it just like picking someone up, and first get over your strongest part and then just stand up.”
He called a few football players over, and a few of the biggest seniors dropped their weights and came over, familiar with what was about to happen. Coach dropped down and they piled on top and tried to hold him down, and he pushed his body over his bent right leg and balanced himself and stood up effortlessly, sending four football players flying off of him and laughing about how they had never been able to hold Coach Ketelsen down.
I went home determined to learn how to never be kept down.
Wendy signed the parental consent form and took me to the doctor because I was covered under Exxon’s health insurance, but she said she wouldn’t buy me shoes or pay for the cost to drive to tournaments. She said that I could save my money like she had to do, or write to my dad and ask for it, that even though he was in jail everyone knew the Partins kept cash hidden in walls all over Baton Rouge. She said that dismissively, as if common knowledge. And in a way it was. It had been part in The Blood Feud and disclosed in the national magazine, Life. Big Daddy kept rental houses all over town and filled the walls with cash and the plastic explosives that Hoffa had asked him to get from New Orleans. But I had never saw any of it, and told Coach the truth, that Wendy wouldn’t pay and that I didn’t know when my next paid magic show would be; kids birthday parties paid $25 per show, and I’d need approximately $75.
I’m unsure why I felt comfortable enough around Coach to be truthful and concise, but it paid off because he produced a uniform from under his desk and even managed to find a pair of wrestling shoes big enough for my still disproportionately large feet. He even joked that those shoes were for a former wrestler at 171 pounds. I weighed 126 pounds.
Coach Dale Ketelsen was a former marine and nationally ranked collegiate wrestler who was an alternate for the 1968 Olympics at 152 pounds. The US Olympian who beat him beat him 3-2 and went on to pin every opponent in the olympics and earn a gold medal. Though Coach was an alternate, everyone respected his weight class in the 1960’s and he earned a spot in the Wrestling Hall of Fame and a job as assistant coach of one of the the country’s most respected teams, Iowa, and then was asked to build LSU’s team in Baton Rouge in the mid 1970’s. Four years later, LSU was ranked fourth in the nation and had just defeated Iowa in a dual meet. Coach had done it by recruiting local middle and high schoolers to wrestling camps and building a local foundation that he augmented with several scholarships to out of state stars. He had founded the Louisiana Wrestling Association to host summer tournaments and find insurance programs that allowed kids from any socioeconomic group to participate, and he started a sports equipment company so that he could purchase equipment at wholesale and give it to schools with even fewer resources than Belaire. At the time, Belaire was considered a disadvantaged school, with statistics pointing to more than half of us on free and reduced lunch, a population 68% African American and 14% Asian due to the nearby Vietnamese neighborhood formed by southern Vietnamese displaced after the war. We had two teachers from a national program that placed teachers in hard to fill schools, Teach for America.
By 1987, Coach was the Belaire High School driver’s education instructor and an assistant football coach, and was attending school in the evening to obtain a master’s in education. LSU had disbanded their wrestling program along with a few other male dominated sports after congress passed the 1979 Title IX act that required public institutions to provide equal access to sports between males and females, and because so many males played the money-generating sports of football and baseball the only solution universities across America found was to eliminate male sports that did not bring money into the university’s system. By then, Coach’s three children were in middle and high school, and he and Mrs. Ketelsen were settled into their church, and they decided to stay. They cut their costs and focused on their home and Coach helped a few schools here and there until Belaire opened a job for a driver’s education instructor, and Coach took it and volunteered as a assistant football coach while working on his master’s that could one day qualify him to be a physical education teacher. When I met him, his son, Craig, had recently one the state championship for Belaire, but the rest of the team had a long way to go because almost no one had ever heard of collegiate wrestling, much less practiced it, and Coach was starting from the beginning, like he had done at LSU.
I only wrestled 7 matches in 1987 because I mindlessly uttered a curse word in math class and was suspended from school, and according to school policy anyone suspended can’t compete in school sports. Coach allowed me to attend practice, though, and I wrestled 76 matches in the 1988-1989 season, an extraordinarily high number that happened because I was ranked so low at first but gradually increased my ranking. In dual meets, you wrestle one match at your weight class, but at tournaments you wrestle many times and begin by being seeded in a bracket according to a combination of your record and a pre-tournament meeting by all coaches to ensure the best wrestlers meet each other in finals, when the bleachers are full of spectators and the top wrestlers can compete at their best. The brackets begin by matching the first seed against the last seed, which was usually me at the beginning of 1988, and the second seed agains the second to last seed, which was often me. The first and second seed always win and move forward in a series of matches that get progressively more challenging, but they rarely wrestle than more than four matches if they keep winning. The second seed usually wrestles the same number of matches, and they meet in the finals with their full energy and focus.
The losers along their journey to finals drop down to the third place bracket, nicknamed the loser’s bracket, and fight for third. By the spring of 1989, I was consistently ranked third or fourth at 140 pounds, and that meant I wrestled several times in the first bracket until being beaten, then I moved to the losers bracket and wrestled several more times until the third and fourth place loser’s finals. I almost always met Hillary Clinton or Frank Johnson in the first bracket. Hillary was a three time state champinon and had defeated both Frank and me seven or eight times that year. He had pinned me every time, yet Frank had scored against Hillary a few times and had even lasted a full three rounds for a total of six minutes against him, which was rare. Because Frank did a bit better against Hillary, the coach’s usually seeded him above me and I’d meet him in the semi-finals. The winner of us would face off against Hillary, which wasn’t necessarily considered a good thing. Hillary dominated Louisiana wrestling those years.
I had defeated Frank two out of six matches. In the loser’s bracket, I would be placed in the line for third and usually wrestle three or four more times, meaning I wrestled three to seven times every weekend plus once every Wednesday, and by the spring of 1989 I had amassed what most people said was twice the number of matches they had, perhaps because I was accelerating in seeding instead of the more common occurrence of moving along with the crowd at the same relative pace.
When asked why I was getting better at a noticeable pace, I pointed to something Coach had said and had led me to supporting my team by being at the edge of the mat and focused on what they were doing, looking for advice that could help them. I was learning by observing, and by practicing focus. To my surprise, the team acknowledged that I also helped them by voting me as co-captain for 1989-1990. I was co-captain with Jeremy, a former midwest wrestler whose parents relocated to Baton Rouge for work at the oil refineries, and he had won second place in 1989’s state championship. I qualified for state but lost my first two matches and spent the rest of the weekend in New Orleans hopping from mat to mat in support of our team. It was things like that that led me to being voted co-captain.
The best wrestler was usually chosen as captain, but Coach had us vote in a ranked choice system not unlike how Most Valuable Players are chosen in sports and somehow no one feels their choice wasn’t counted, similar to Maine’s later attempts to change their electorial voting system to be ranked choice instead of one candidate vs. another. The only reason Jeremy and I were co-captains in the ranked choice system is that Coach’s version allowed that quirk only because Jeremy listed himself as the only choice and I didn’t include myself in my ranked list of five choices. When tallied, we were the only co-captain team in the state of Louisiana, but it worked for our team, and they said that even though Jeremy was the best they appreciated my support and felt we were a better team because of it.
I finished my junior year of high school attended the downtown Junior Olympic wrestling camp for two weeks early that summer, hoping for a spot on our Junior Olympic team that would travel to the midwest for nationals. But, both Granny and Uncle Bob developed cancer and their diseases progressed rapidly and I stayed in Baton Rouge to help care for them. Granny had throat cancer and Uncle Bob had spinal cancer. Wendy had a nervous breakdown, and tried her best to help Granny. I stayed with Uncle Bob in his hospital room and then moved in with him and Auntie Lo when the doctor’s said there was nothing to do but keep him comfortable. I was trained by nurses and the nonprofit organization Hospice, and spent days and nights tending his bed sores and checking his morphine drips and cleaning him after he peed and pooed from his permanent spot on the couch. A few weeks later, after many long nights and a drunk Auntie Lo bawling every afternoon before passing out, Uncle Bob died. We spoke candidly throughout, especially about Wendy’s nervous breakdowns and why he didn’t take care of me when she abandoned me, and Uncle Bob died without regrets. It was the only advice he gave anyone: live a life without regrets.
I was 16 years old and wanted to wrestle and wanted to leave Louisiana and perhaps become a professional magician, but for some reason I wanted to do something remarkable. I had felt that way ever since meeting Big Daddy. I had recognized that my original explanation of being terrified had been replaced by mesmerized, but that wasn’t accurate, either. I was alert, I had realized through wrestling, but everyone else was mesmerized by the same force that drew my attention towards Big Daddy’s essence. Everyone laughed and spoke more freely than I had every heard them speak when he wasn’t around, and everyone had laughed at his many crimes and joked that he could fool anyone, even the Kennedys and Hoover and a long list of mafia bosses and juries of specific trials. Even the supreme court justices had been fooled! All except Earl Warren, and I felt a bit like Earl Warren, able to see Big Daddy for who he was, and I had been transfixed by the energy of the room and fascinated that no one else was seeing what I saw. And I wasn’t frozen, but everything was in slow motion. It felt similar to how I felt when I wrestled the best, now that I had begun to recognize the sensation. Somehow, I felt that was like a superpower, and somehow it empowered me to look for loftier goals that were farther away, and even though I was training hard in wrestling practice I had also joined the cross-country track team after Coach said it was a good way to get in shape and drop weight, and I was attending swimming practice because it strengthened my shoulders and back and also because several girls I liked were on the team and wore bathing suits to practice. After one of Uncle Bob’s former coworkers visited him and expounded on Uncle Bob’s respected management and, randomly, he mentioned that even though many of the stevedors didn’t have health insurance, the Veterans Administration had just replaced his hip for free, and he patted his hip and said that the VA had stuck with him ever since his service in WWII. Two weeks later, after I had visited the public library and researched options, I chose to join the army on their delayed entry program because they would pay more for college in four years than other branches, $36,000 vs every other branch being below $20,000. Plus, by joining a year early I’d automatically be promoted to Private Second Class, E2, which was almost $100 more each month. The college fund required contributing $100 every month for a year, and I could withdraw another $100 towards Series EE savings bonds that were tax-free if used for college. But, I was 16 and couldn’t join the army without Wendy’s authorization, the army recruiter had old me, and she refused without explaining why. She was still upset after Uncle Bob’s death and because Granny’s health was rapidly deteriorating from cancer and the chemo and radiation treatments. The recruiter had mentioned allowing me to join if I were emancipated, so I went to the downtown courthouse near our wrestling camp and filled out the paperwork and scrambled together a few birthday party magic shows and paid the $180 and became a legal adult before my senior year of high school.
After I was emancipated, I stayed with Leah’s parents and she drove me around to take the army’s physical – the government paid for that – and to sign my contract. I had chosen the 82nd Airborne, infantry, because I had learned that after the Vietnam war they had been the most active in combat that I didn’t even realize had been going on. They were America’s Quick Reaction Force, combat infantrymen trained to parachute behind enemy lines. Their forte had become capturing airports by parachuting through firefights and landing around military airbases and capturing the base to fly in more soldiers and heavier, deadlier equipment. Since Vietnam, they had led assaults into Honduras in 1982, the Dominican Republic in 1985, and a few others I couldn’t recall. I felt that if I wanted to challenge myself, I would rather do it, as corny as this sounded to me, according to the airborne’s motto: All the Way! I even appreciated the infantry’s motto: Follow Me! I felt it was like Coach coached, lead by example and commit to what you’re doing while you’re doing it. I signed the contract and ensured I’d begin in September of 1990, allowing time to wrestling in Junior Olympics and compete in the state magic tournament again.
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