I’ve been trying to tell this story for most of my life, but it keeps sprawling all over the place. So, I’m weaving it around a symbolic object: a thunderbird ring.
This particular silver thunderbird ring was made by a Native American in the Southwest. A band of silver inside the finger spread out on the sides, widening finally into a substantial flange upon which is was carved a thunderbird, a mythic Native American figure that conveys power and strength.
I received the ring from the actor David Carradine. He played the Shaolin monk, Kwai Chang Caine, in the TV series Kung Fu. He liked playing the good guy.
In 1970, when I was 17, I lived in a teepee set on a flat-ish notch carved into the side of a steep and crumbling sand slope that David owned in the Hollywood Hills above Los Angeles. You could see the smog floating over the city from the big picture window in the main house. I was a flute player, and David had invited me and my best friend, Woody, a guitar player, to come out and join his band.
Back then, he was racking with Barbara Hershey, who was also in the movies. Later on, she played one of Hanna’s sisters in Woody Allen’s Hanna and Her Sisters. They lived above the teepee in a shack next to the main house. The shack had a phone. The main house had plumbing, a kitchen, and that nice view. There were seven of us hippies on the place. One day, I was in the shack with David, talking about something, when he reached into his closet — which was full of concha belts and fantastic shirts and leather boots and jackets — and pulled out the thunderbird ring. “Here,” he said, grinning maniacally as he slid it onto my right fourth finger. “It fits!”
And that was that. I had a strong and powerful spirit on my hand. I wore that ring for a long time.
I was still wearing it a few years later, the night my stepfather attacked me.
Picture a six-foot six, 220 pound, 50-year-old Nazi with flaring nostrils, breathing like a bull, and you’ve pretty much nailed him. My mother married a Nazi.Which is weird because my birth family is Jewish. Go figure. I think they were into sadomasochism. How else can you explain the voluntary nature of the relationship?
The fight was over my brother, who, my stepfather said, “stole” his “fan.” He was claiming that a fan my brother had used to cool his room in summer since he was a kid should not have moved with my brother to a basement apartment across town when they kicked him out. My fan. That was the beef.
To set the scene, imagine my cousin and his wife, at the kitchen table shucking cold steamed clams from the night before into a big red pot. My sometimes-Orthodox cousin, and his wife, shucking highly non-kosher shellfish into a pot to make chowder from day-two bivalves. They’re very quiet. No speaking role. Shuck. Shuck.
My mother is standing in red hot pants and bare legs, looking like a teenager. Death is four or five months away from a cancer that’s been eating her for a decade. But that night she looks beautiful. I pop my head in the back door.
“Where’s Rob?” I ask.
“Upstairs, reading to the kids,” my mother answers. He’s out of the way, occupied with my cousin’s kids.
“Good,” I say. “Benny’s down on the street, and he wants to see you. Let me take you down.”
Without a word, she kicks on some shoes and heads for the door. Shuck. Shuck.
And I walk her, arm in arm, out the back door and down our lane, lampposts lighting our way, to the street, where, across the street, younger brother Benny is slumped on the steps of a walkup. They throw their arms around each other to have a good cry, and I head back up to the house.
Earlier in the evening, Benny had come around — to see the cousins and have some food, but also because his mother was dying. He was the youngest, and he wanted to be with her. And the fracas over the fan was just a pretext so my stepfather could drive him away. We were all there, and Benny showed up. Rob growled at him and chased him off. A few minutes later, the kitchen phone rang, and it was my pop, who lived in the suburbs with his second wife at the time, telling me Benny is down at Cronin’s — a dive bar a couple of blocks away, an establishment near Harvard Square where Dylan Thomas drank his liver into oblivion. And Benny’s blubbering from a phone booth in the back. He is just beaten down.
Anyway, I yell at my stepfather, “See what you did!” and head off to Cronin’s to see what’s what. I get there, and he’s slumped dramatically in the booth, just collapsed. I say to him, “I’m going to guarantee that you get to see mom. Come with me.” And I take him out of there and bring him to the street, where I place him on the steps. “I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere,” I tell him.
So, I get back to the silent shucking of my cousins and am able to spirit my mom off to Benny quickly. But once that’s done, I have to head back to the front — up at the house.
I get back inside, and Rob’s downstairs again. Shuck. Shuck. “Where’s Hopie?” he asks, already wary. My mother’s name was Hope.
“Down on the street with Benny,” I tell him quietly. No use trying to hide it.
“She shouldn’t be down there! She should be up here!” he begins shouting and starts toward the door.
Knowing this was coming, I slip out ahead of him. “I don’t think you should go down there, Rob. They need some time together.” He’s gathering steam. I can see his nostrils flaring, the clench of his jaw, his mouth compressed into a thin line. I can hear him breathing like a whale through its blowhole:
And I’m stomping along right beside him, just slightly in front, as we head around the corner to the gate. We’re on the little paved path that skirts our miniature lawn and garden, going around the side of the house. I’m 22. My stepfather outweighs me by 60 pounds, and he has a good six inches on me. I’m wearing shorts, a tee-shirt, and no shoes, which is pretty normal for me in warm weather. For some reason, I have a folded $20 bill in my front pocket. And the thunderbird ring on my hand.
Somewhere around the corner but shy of the gate, he’s saying, “She shouldn’t be down there! She should be up here! She should be making my dinner! Who’s going to make my dinner?”
At that, I lose it. “Your dinner don’ mean fuckin’ shit!” I cry out, surprising even myself at the challenge in my borrowed accent. “Your dinner don’ mean fuckin’ shit!” I yell with yet more vehemence. At which point, we’re at the gate, striding ever faster. We can’t both go through at once. I get up under his armpit, and just kind of lean gently into him, deflecting his trajectory ever so slightly. His momentum carries him toward the left gatepost, which he grabs heavily. It cracks under his weight. Then, he turns, and comes running at me with outstretched hands, grabs me by the shirt and throws me down onto the lawn.
I can’t tell you how glad I am to hit grass. Concrete would be really uncomfortable. We roll in a grapple.
How things happen, you never know. We keep rolling. Now, I was always a decent athlete, but I had never fought before in anger. I’d even been humiliated for not fighting when I suppose I should have. But I had taken wrestling in elementary school, and one thing came back to me: don’t end up on the bottom after a roll. So, as we we’re coming to a stop, I give a thrust of the shoulder and roll us one more half turn.
And I end up on top.
He may be bigger and stronger, but I’m younger and faster. I jump to my feet in an instant. I take a stance, and, as he lumbers heavily to his knees in preparation for standing up, his head just around my waist level, I punch him twice. I never boxed, and it would be another couple of years before I studied karate, but instinct seemed to guide me. Or maybe it was the thunderbird.
Because I hit him just right: a left jab to the jugular to set up a tremendous thunderbird-ring centered right cross to the temple. On contact with his head, the ring breaks.
“Ping!” it sounds in the night.
He’s laying still, face down on the lawn. Suddenly, after all that noise — the yelling, and snarling, and breathing — it is dead silent.
I stand there, heart racing, trying to catch my breath, not believing how things turned out. For a few seconds I ponder whether to do him more damage now, while I can.
Then, I start running, back down to the street. Benny and mom are now engaged in a full conversation, laughing, sitting close to each other. As I sail by, running down the middle of the street (which was nearly untrafficked at night back then), I sing out, “Rob and I had a fight. I decked him. He’s in the yard. See you later.”
And I run back to Cronin’s.
I call my pop from the booth at the back, and he says he’ll come get me. I tell him not to come to Cronin’s because that’s where they’ll look first, and I don’t know what condition Rob is in. I name another restaurant elsewhere in Harvard Square and go there to wait. That’s when the twenty bucks comes in handy.
Not a half hour later, Benny turns up — with a girl. And now he’s all swagger and braggadocio. He’s been in contact with pop, and he’s coming with me out to the suburbs.
From there, it’s a denouement. Turns out I broke my ring finger, a hairline that eventually healed by itself. About a week later, we had a peace meeting in a restaurant in Chinatown that failed to change anything. My mom died a few months after that. Rob grabbed all the money and married a younger woman. He even had one more kid to add to the five he cranked out with the woman he was married to when he met my mom. I got the ring repaired. You can hardly tell.
I haven’t worn it in years. I wasn’t wearing it when I was in LA decades later, wondering whether I ought to try to get in touch with David, and deciding against it, and it was already in a safe deposit box when he died of autoerotic asphyxiation — or, more elegantly, hypoxyphilia — in a hotel in Thailand.
But the power of the thunderbird flowed through me when I had needed it, a larger spirit to carry me through.