Tuesday, September 02, 2008
These days, having a tattoo isn’t a big deal. Lots of guys have them. For that matter, any time a young woman bends over, and skin appears, it’s about even money that you’ll have a chance to spot some sort of ink above her ass crack. Back in the 1950’s, though - when the story I’m about to relate took place - tattoos were almost never seen in public. The only folks openly sporting them were circus freaks and military men. And, among the military, sailors were the ones most often known to have them.
The tradition of getting a tattoo, among men who go to sea, goes back centuries. Sailors were the first white men to encounter the art among various Polynesian and Asian peoples. Sailing to the then-mysterious and exotic ports of call in the South Seas, they saw that the island natives had intricate designs permanently etched onto their skins. Being adventurous and romantic men to begin with, many had these natives put designs onto their skin as a sort of permanent souvenir of their far-flung travels. It was a point of pride, and machismo, to have such artwork adorning their bodies.
My father was a sailor. He served in the United States Navy, during the Korean War, onboard the USS Mindoro, an aircraft carrier. One day, he decided to carry on that grand old naval tradition. He decided to get a tattoo.
OK. Truth be told, it was night, not day. And, prior to his decision to get a tattoo, he had been following another grand old naval tradition. While on shore leave, he had been helping the indigenous personnel to clear the area of toxic liquid substances. That is, he had been pouring them down his throat as quickly as possible. He was knees-buckled, eyes-crossed, barely-able-to-talk, ossified-drunk.
My Dad, Tom Sullivan, and one of his good buddies from the Mindoro (whose name is lost to history, but who, nevertheless, could be readily identified even today, and you’ll find out why) had been imbibing at an alarming rate. For the sake of expediency in telling the tale, let’s call his buddy, "Jack." Jack was originally from the hill country of Tennessee, while my father was from the Forest Hills section of Boston. Perhaps having both grown up on inclines was the original basis for their friendship. In any case, these regional beginnings made little difference in their current state. They were both equally plastered.
They had left the ship together in the morning, clean and sober. As night fell, and they increasingly became in danger of also doing so, Jack noticed, through the window of the bar they were now occupying, a neon light flicker to life on the street. Squinting through the haze of rye surrounding him, he saw that the sign said “Tattoos.”
Jack elbowed my father, pointed in the general direction of the sign, and said, "H’Sulla! Lesgeddussadadoo!"
(Translation: "Hey, Sully! Let’s get us a tattoo!")
My father, who had been busy trying to light a Camel without also setting his nose on fire, replied, "What an entirely splendid idea, old chap! Yes, let us adorn our bodies with artwork. We will no doubt be the envy of the entire fleet once we have a cartoon of a smiling skunk on one arm, with the legend ‘I’m Stinky’ emblazoned underneath! Good show, old man!"
So, both of them slid off of their barstools, stumbled out of the bar, and stumbled into the tattoo parlor. Once there, they somehow made the proprietor understand that they wanted to be decorated. Even being as inarticulate as they were at that moment, it probably wasn’t too hard. Why else would two drunken sailors have been there?
They looked at the portfolio of drawings, and chose what they wanted him to draw on their flesh. The tattooist excused himself, going into his back room to wash up and otherwise prepare. Jack flopped into the artist’s chair, while my father stood, unsteadily, next to him.
Jack turned to my father, and said, "H’Sulla. Hahziswork?"
My father, ever helpful, told him, "Seazy."
With that, my father picked up the electric tattooing needle that had been resting on a tray next to the chair.
He said to Jack, "Hole out ya han’"
Jack did so, palm up. Whereupon my father took the needle, pressed the button that turned it on, and then dragged it across Jack’s open palm.
Jack regarded his palm. It now had a thick blue line running from about the middle out to the base of his thumb.
He said, "Huh. Zat all?"
Then, he wiped his hand on his shirt. After doing so, he looked at his palm again. The line was still there. He squinted at it, spit in his hand, and wiped it on his shirt again. When he brought his hand up to eye level once more, the line was still there. He laughed, and said, "H’Sulla! Thizint comin’ off!"
Jack continued spitting into his hand and wiping it on his uniform, in a vain attempt to erase my father’s impromptu artwork. Meanwhile, my father had sobered up dramatically. He now understood the permanency of what was in store for his body if he sat in the chair after Jack. When the tattoo artist reappeared from the back of the shop, and Jack was otherwise occupied with having his body professionally inked, my father bid a hasty (if somewhat uneven) retreat towards the Mindoro.
The next morning, when they both awoke on the Mindoro, neither one had much memory of the night before. They were both wickedly hung over, of course, so they knew why they didn’t have any memory, but beyond that, the night was a mystery. They rolled out of their bunks and hit the showers.
My father noticed the bandages on Jack’s shoulder before Jack did. He said, "Hey, Jack, what did you do to your arm?"
Jack said, "I don’t know, Sully..."
Jack carefully removed the bandages so he could see what tragedy might have befallen him. When he did so, he saw not the wound he was expecting, but instead a big red heart with the word "MOTHER" written in flowery script beneath.
Jack looked with dismay at his previously virgin shoulder. "Aw, Sully! What’d I do t’ mahself?"
My father laughed a little, but then dimly began to recall the previous night. He gave himself a quick check for bandages and drawings. He offered up a quick prayer of thanks when he found none.
Jack now noticed his hand. He rubbed at it. The line was as recalcitrant as it had been the night before. He uttered a soft moan, and said, "Oh, man! Where else’ve I got drawin's on me?"
As Jack checked himself for further desecrations, it all came back in stunning crystal clarity to my father. He now said another prayer, this one that his buddy wouldn’t remember where he got the tattoo on his hand.
Well, according to my father, Jack never did remember a thing about that night. For the rest of his time on the Mindoro, there was always a slight foreboding, in the back of my dad’s mind, that somehow Jack would have something happen to him that would dredge up the memory of just how his hand became tattooed. Thankfully - for both of them, I suppose - it never happened.
(On the off chance that "Jack" is reading this: My father is dead. For what it’s worth, every time he told this story, he expressed his sincere regret about what happened that night. He also expressed his sincere thanks that he wasn’t the first one in the chair.)
Soon, with more better stuff.
(Photo of The USS Mindoro comes from this webpage, wherein a former crew member is searching for some folks who served with him from 1953 - 1956. This is slightly past my Dad's time on the ship, I believe. In any case, his name isn't listed among those that this fellow is searching for, so it's probably safe to assume he isn't "Jack.")
(Should you wish to have some artwork on your very own body, the image of the tattoo needles came from here. I'm sure he's wonderful.)