In the early 70s, my family of five moved to a suburb of NYC from Brooklyn, NY. It was a small town made up of mostly white working class people. I didn’t know it then but that town was a haven for white people fleeing school re-districting. My father had a long beard and long hair; he was a hippie. My parents made hand sewn leather jackets. My father, also did Tai chi, smoked marijuana and was into organic gardening. We clearly did not belong there.
My parent’s were raised Catholic but never brought us to church. In Brooklyn I remember kids asking me what my religion was and I answered “public.” I guess I thought they were wondering what school I went to as some of the other Italian-American kids on our block went to Catholic school. Being hippies they made every effort to keep our mind’s open. They took us to the Museum of Natural History and MOMA often. My father had Salvador Dali books on the coffee table, along with a copy of the I-Ching and Mother Earth News was always visible. Not going to church or anything created an emptiness in me. I felt left out. I felt like I had no identity.
As the 70s progressed the pressure to conform wore on my parents. In a few years, we went from no sugar cereals and no TV, to eventually having a TV, and occasionally getting a box of Fruity Pebbles. We were all really excited to own a TV. I remember my father often practiced Tai chi in our living room. He tried to get me to stand in a Tai chi posture and he would test my balance by pushing on me. I would topple easily. Along with feeling identity-less I also felt physically unstable. I was an insecure kid.
After dinner, we would all go and sit on my parent’s bed and watch a few shows on TV. In those days there was only one small TV in our house and it was in our parent’s room. My father would watch the show Kung Fu with David Carradine and explain some of the principles illustrated in the show.
I became enthralled with Kwai Chang Caine. The intro to the show showed Caine dodging spears, fighting an old blind man who can listen to grasshoppers. It also showed him as a vulnerable boy struggling to learn the ways of the Shaolin Temple. The superheroes on TV seemed too ridiculous to take seriously but Caine was someone to look up to. My father loved the show, which only increased its awesomeness and the show also supported his Tai chi and eastern philosophical interests. Without a religion or any other thing to call myself Caine quickly filled a void as a role model. I still can see in my mind specific fighting scenes from episodes and I also tried to reenact them with my younger brother. In one scene Caine fights a man with a long handled ax but holds it closer to the head for better leverage, which my father took time out to explain (maybe that is why it is such a clear memory). During this period my father actually participated in the family.
Things soon started to change. The times were changing. Every morning all the school kids walked to the bus stop, gathering together to talk about all kinds of stuff and see who would be made fun of and who would fight. Back then we all had to fight. One day some older boy brought an adult magazine to the stop. There was a series of photos of David Carradine, the actor who played Caine, having sex with a woman on the dirt in what appeared to be a teepee with candles all around them. It was a pretty freaky image for 9 or 10 year old to see. I was quite disturbed by it. He was a real hero to me. He was the one that saved people. He healed them when they were sick, counseled them when they were troubled and fought for them when they were being unjustly attacked. I needed Caine now more than ever.
As we crept closer to the 80s, my father cut his hair shorter, quit Tai chi and tried to be a yuppy. My parents even stopped sewing jackets. The only thing left over from the hippy days was marijuana and solo albums by Lennon and McCartney. My father became quiet and withdrawn. Life changed. Our family changed. I never fit in at school and was always made fun of. The kids at school were quick to point out that my parents didn't look like all the other parents and one kid told me that my parents were witches. As I went on to middle and high school, people thought I was Puerto Rican or Jewish. No one ever considered me white, and many kids often used the words weird, fag, and gay to describe me. As the kids grew older verbal abuse turned into violence and since I was very gregarious I was often the one who they sought out to publicly humiliate.
The football team made it their mission to beat me down any moment they could. When the teacher turned his back in class or when I went to the bathroom, or just walking down the hallway they would be there smacking me in the head, kicking me in the back or just choking me until I screamed. They just couldn't deal with me, they didn’t know who I was. I belonged to nothing. I tried running away from home a few times but that didn’t help. I pleaded to my parents to help me and take me out of school. They made an appointment with the principal to discuss the bullying. They tried but I knew things would get worse because of that and they did.
When I began high school I was extremely nervous. I knew it was going to be hell. It was 1979 and I had already dreamed of revenge and would often cry alone in my room. I often thought of showing up at class with a gun and shooting them at their desks. One day, the biggest guy on the football team followed me into the bathroom with a group of about 5-7 other boys. I can only see his face all the rest were a group of blurry laughing faces. He commented on my new white sneakers and peed on them right in front of everyone. I was devastated that was worse than the actual beatings. I didn’t know what to do.
Not long after that horrible episode, I went to a movie with a few friends. Some older guy recommended we see this movie called Game of Death, starring Bruce Lee. I had never heard of Bruce Lee prior to that and I had totally forgotten about Caine. I remember sitting in the theater and being totally amazed at how the 5' 7" Bruce Lee knocked down the 7' 2 Kareem Abdul Jabbar with a flying side kick, and by the blinding speed of his nunchakus in his fight against Dan Inosanto, a filipino martial artist. To say that my mind was blown was an understatement. I went home and broke apart a wooden red chair in my bedroom to make the red nunchakus Bruce wielded. I began twirling them and knocking my head multiple times because of my poor understanding of the proper knots to make them fly smoothly.
With a whole football team against me, my father withdrawn into a pot smoking zombie and nothing to belong to martial arts rescued me. Thinking back I have to say that making those red nunchakus was my first step onto the martial path.
It is now 2015 and although it is technically true that I have never stopped practicing martial arts, I have to also admit that I wandered off the true path often and I still struggle to stay on the path. My father is a bitter old man who still smokes pot everyday. David Carradine died in 2009 from some weird sexual fetish and here I am struggling to keep true to the path. Still not belonging to anything but martial arts. Martial arts truly saved me multiple times from those stupid bullies in middle and high school, some angry people on the street and most of all from myself. My own self destructive behaviors often got the better of me.
We are all fallen idols in some way. One by one from my father to Carradine to Bruce Lee they have all fallen. It is a difficult thing to grasp because we want something pure and unadulterated to give us hope. Unfortunately, time and time again we see our heroes fail and we see ourselves fail. I have failed so many times and I still fail but I have learned to accept that it is part of the process.
The most important advice I can give to someone is that they will inevitably fail, and their idols will fail but despite that heartbreaking reality they must get back on the path.