Time: 1946; Place: Green Cove Springs Naval Station—the Commissary—Cast of Characters: “Nick the Greek” an Able-Bodied Seaman and Vickie-Dahlin’, age 6 and, yes, that is what my mother called me.
I was wandering around in the vegetable section for no good reason other than I didn’t want to stay by my mother’s side. Nick the Greek was working in the veggie bins, strong forearms and hands ripping leaves from lettuce and cabbage and beets. He saw me staring at his right forearm, smiled and pulled his hand out of the box of greens long enough to show me the Hula Dancer tattooed there. He beckoned me closer to look at the great traditional art work. Without warning, Nick made the dancer start to move her hips and arms by flexing and undulating his arm.
I was transported. This was man-magic like I had never imagined before. Sure, I had seen Popeye cartoons in the funnypapers, but Popeye only had that dopey outline of an anchor. This was color and sunlight and nipply ladyparts, something a man could be proud to show his pals.
Later that night I ran up to my father when he returned from a hard day of being Executive Officer of the base (he had a driver and an all grey Dodge with USN on it). “Daddy! I want a tattoo!” I cried trying not to get any dirt on his dress whites. Anytime Commander Miller had an official function he wore his dress whites.
His face went into hot, bothered, and stunned— way out of its variable comfort zone. “A Tattoo?!” he cried.
“A beautiful beautiful Hawaiian lady dancing!” I replied, trying to make it sound really really wonderful. I could sense I had been thrust into a thorny sticky place where my hopes could find no purchase. (Thank you Coen brothers) I always repeated adjectives when I felt I needed conversational italics.
“Over my dead body!” Commander Miller retorted to his midget offspring.
I hesitated, sensing that I was not going to make things better no matter what. “Why not?” I proffered, thinking in 6-year-old-ese that logic might replace outrage if I asked the right questions.
“Why not?!” Commander Miller, veteran of the North Atlantic as well as the Pacific theaters of WW II (Nazi submarines and Japanese Kamikazes), cried, outrage rising, “Because you can never become a Naval Officer with a tattoo!”
That made sense to him and so I had to accept that it made universal sense because that’s what we did in 1946. (Officers and Gentlemen did not have tacky tats or any tats, especially not half naked Hawaiian women who weren’t even citizens yet.)
The subject was buried, but I went on to think about tattoos whenever I could. When they invented the ballpoint pen I sketched them on my bodyparts erstwhile Commander Miller could not see. Happily, in 1989 I got my first tattoo and have not stopped adding to the collection. However, when I sat at Commander Miller’s deathbed, I kept my shirt sleeves rolled down so as not to speed his exit from this vale of tears and tacky tats where it has become more and more difficult to tell a gentleman from an enlisted man. (BTW: I never made it beyond Lance Corporal in the USMCR.)
I guess my dad was prophetic when he said, back in 1946, “Over my dead body!” Fathers and sons…can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em… I still love him no matter what.