The old skin game

I still remember the first tattoo I ever saw. I was 6 or 7 and it was on my neighbor Russell Demerse’s left arm, which though I didn’t know at the time, was its perfect location.

The tattoo had three parts. At the top was an eagle, under that was a pair of crossed cannons, and under them were three red chevrons.

“What’s that?” I asked, pointing at it.

“A tattoo,” he said.

“I know that,” I said, already sophisticated beyond my years. “But what’s it a tattoo of? What do those things mean?”

“It’s my rating badge from the Navy,” he said, pointing to each part in turn. “The Navy eagle’s on the top, then the cannons, ’cause I was a gunner’s mate. The three stripes show my rank.” He puffed out his chest a bit and added, “I was a First Class Petty Officer.”

My neighbor, a First Class Petty Officer? That was impressive! It was also the start of my lifelong fascination with tattoos. For a long time it was a frustrating one as well, since tattoos were as common as monocles, Rolls Royces, and UFO’s.

Essentially, the only men with tattoos were veterans because tattoos were not respectable. And even though the veterans themselves — Our Boys, God Love ‘Em – were respected, their tats were accepted only as the sign of flaming youth, patriotic fervor, or the relics of a colorful life now long gone.

The sun never set on Sunny Boy

My tattoo sightings took on a new life when I joined the Navy. It started in boot camp, with all the salty dog lifers, to whom a tattoo wasn’t optional so much as de rigeur.

Those guys’ tats were the classic “Sailor Jerry” type: Hearts, daggers, snakes, bluebirds, stars, ships, and of course hootchie mamas in all states of dishabille.

When I got to A school in Pensacola, because it was a Navy town, there was a tattoo parlor. And because the guys were now officially sailors, far from home and hearth, the tattoo parlor did a brisk business. And more’s the pity, since the tattooist was blazingly incompetent.

Eagles looked like chickens. Black panthers — a classic, with the claw marks from supposedly sliding down the arm — looked like malnourished alley cats. Clipper ships looked on the verge of sinking; flowers looked dead; skulls looked alive. But no matter how bad the tats looked, the guys still got them.

There was one noticeable exception to the appalling lack of artistry. My pal Wally Suneby got an anchor with USN underneath it, and it was a real beauty. Then again, if anyone got a great tattoo from that shop, it had to be Wally.

Wally was Karma’s Golden Child. He was the living embodiment of the Law of Attraction, long before the Law of Attraction existed. It seemed he sent good vibes out into the universe, and the universe responded in kind. That’s how he got his nickname — Sunny Boy. Though it was a play on his name, it was also a dead-on accurate description of his upbeat disposition.

Wally was a unique specimen. He wasn’t all buddy-buddy with his peers, nor the least bit of a brown nose to the higher-ups. But everyone liked him and everything worked for him. He did everything well, and at his own pace. Also, if he ever worried about anything, I never saw it. He just floated through A school — Buddha in dress blues,

One Saturday Wally said we needed to go to the tattoo shop.

“Why?” I said. “I don’t want a tattoo.”

“Don’t need to,” he said. “You just gotta see the place.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Let’s go and you’ll find out.”

Ah, a mystery. I had no idea what he meant or what lay ahead, but whatever it was, it had to beat sitting in the barracks playing Pitch and smoking cigarettes.

There’s gold in them

thar hillbillies

The shop was clean and well-lighted, the walls covered with flash and photos of clients over the years. That was to be expected. What wasn’t expected was the tattooist — a lady who looked older than the Pyramid of Cheops … and just as weathered. Her face seemed to have no skin, just an infinite number of criss-crossed wrinkles. But for all that, she had bright black gimlet eyes that didn’t miss a thing. She sat in an overstuffed chair that’d seen better days, a cigarette dangling out the corner of her mouth.

“Hi, Trudy,” said Wally.

She said nothing, just nodded at us.

“I brought my friend here, to check your shop,” he said.

“Knock yourself out,” she said.

We looked at all the pictures on the wall, then we looked in her albums of of her other work – all of it as bad as her current stuff. The whole time she said nothing, nor did she even look at us.

Wanting to engage her, at least a little, I said, “So how’s business?”

Slowly, she looked at me.

“No damn good,” she said.

“It isn’t?” I said, surprised. “But this is a troop town.”

“Troop, poop,” she said.

“So why’s business so bad?” I asked.

“‘Cause of the frappin laws, that’s why,” she said.

“Laws?” I said. “What laws?”

“Minimum age laws,” she said.

“What about them?”

“Used to be there wasn’t none,” she said. “Now ya gotta be at least eighteen to get a tat.”

It sounded reasonable to me, but I said nothing.

“Yeah,” she said. “If I could tattoo thirteen-year-olds I’d be working day and night, till the cows come home.”

Then she took a deep drag of her cigarette, exhaled, and looked off in the middle distance, presumably at a golden (and mythical) time when she was filthy rich from all the pimply-faced adolescents she’d turned into stars of the world’s greatest freak shows.

On our way back, Wally said, “So, what’d ya think of Trudy the Beauty?”

“A real humanitarian,” I said. “If her shop fails, she can always open a Waldorf school.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Or maybe work for Child Protective Services.”

“Seriously, though,” I said, “You’re mighty lucky she did such a great job with your tat.”

“For all the difference it’ll make to Marlene,” he said.

Marlene was his girlfriend. They’d been going out since at least kindergarten and they were getting married on his next leave.

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“‘Cause when I enlisted, she told me, whatever else I did, not to get a tattoo.”

“Was she serious?”

“As a heart attack,” he said. “She said, and I quote, she’d never allow a tattoo in her bed.”

“What’d you say?”

“I said she wouldn’t have to, that I’d dangle my arm off the mattress.”

“So did ya tell her you got a tat?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“You gonna?”

“Nope,” he said. “I’ll let her find out for herself.”

“And when’ll that be?”

“Oh, Probably less than three minutes after I get home,” he said.

He nudged me with his elbow. I winked back at him. Two men of the world.

He and Marlene got married right after A school and within the year they had twins. We exchanged Christmas cards for years — his was always a photo of the four of them, arms around each other, beaming joyously. So I assumed theirs was the happiest of happy marriages.

But I must confess I never found out, nor did I ever ask, where on the marital bed Wally’s arm was … or wasn’t.