My father was a walking tattoo museum. Both hands and both arms were covered with tattoos, and he had a tattoo on each knee and foot. The NRA eagle spread across his chest, and he was about to have Pharaoh’s horses tattooed on his back when, at age 37, he met my mother. Once he met her, he never went to sea again and never got another tattoo.
I’ve never been able to reconstruct the exact chronology of his life, but here are the bare essentials: He left home to join the Navy when he was 15, and his father signed the necessary papers because he thought he was 18. During the next twenty-one years, he served in the Navy, the Coast Artillery Corps, the Merchant Marines , and finally spent the last six years as an able-bodied seaman hiring on as crew on oil tankers . It is while he was in the Merchant Marines that he was in ports all over the world, and perhaps he got a tattoo in each port?
I’m guessing that he got his first tattoo when he left home and I know that when his mother saw it, she said, “Just don’t get tattoos on your hands.” With that he went directly to Philadelphia and began accumulating them on this hands.
My father’s tattoos fascinated me, and I would spend hours examining them, so you would think I would remember each and every one and the story that went with each. I can picture an anchor, a star, and a crescent moon on his hands and the head of Lady Liberty on an arm, and the tattoos on his knees and feet, but that’s about it, except for the enormous eagle which was unforgettable. As for the stories, I recall only a few.
On my father’s left hand was a small scar from tattoo removal. Probably around 1910, he had a swastika tattooed on this hand. I hasten to tell you that, at that time, it was seen only as a symbol of good luck and had been for some 3,000 years. When the swastika became associated with Hitler and Nazism, my father had the tattoo removed. He said the removal procedure hurt more than any tattoo he had ever had applied.
My father also recounted the story of having an American flag etched on his arm in Japan, the tattoo “artist” jabbing him with the needle each time, grinning maliciously, saying, “Nice Amelican (sic) flag. “
As for the tattoos on his knees and feet, I never did discover the significance of Mutt and Jeff on his knees, but with the help of Google, I learned that seamen often had a pig on one foot and a chicken on the other. These were good luck symbols to protect a sailor from drowning as neither animal likes water and will escape the water as soon as possible.
In his later years, my father was embarrassed by his tattoos and even said to me, “When I die, lay me out with gloves on my hands. I don’t want people staring at my tattoos.” Is it terrible to admit that I did not honor this request? I had always loved his tattoos and thought that anyone who knew him well enough to attend a viewing had long ago accepted these as part and parcel of my father’s interesting history and saw him for the awesome, wonderful man he was.
© Dorothy C. Judd
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