Life Tattoos

Craig Jones
Legacy Columnist

My late uncle told us a lot of stories when we were young, firing our imaginations and revealing his own. 

Some were made up, like his tales of the “Side Hill Gilger” (second G pronounced like a J). The Gilger lived on the side of a hill, and one of his legs was conveniently shorter than the other one so he could walk around without falling or sliding down the slope. 

He told us about the boogeyman living in our attic, too, and scared the living shit out of us.

Other stories were true. My brother and I sometimes called him “Uncle Navy” when he came to visit, because he was a WWII vet and had been on Iwo Jima. He let us see his Purple Heart and told us about serving in the Pacific and how he got his scar.

Remembering my colorful uncle, whether he was spooling out fiction or not, reminds me that scars have stories. They have provenance and they have causes. They carry memory.

The greatest scene in Jaws, for my money, was the scar scene, where the three men were sitting in the boat drinking at night and waiting for the shark to resurface. They started comparing their scars. Quint shows off his missing tooth from a fight and also a permanent bump on his head. 

Hooper says “I got that beat” and reveals an old mark on his left forearm. “A moray eel bit right through my wetsuit.” Quint then shows that he can’t extend his left arm fully owing to an old arm-wrestling injury celebrating his “third wife’s demise.” 

Hooper displays his left leg and says, “Look at that. It’s a bull shark. Scraped me when I was taking samples.” Quint comes back with his right leg, saying, “I got something for you. That’s a thresher. Thresher’s tail.”

“I’ll drink to your leg,” Quint says, “We’ll drink to our legs.” 

Then Hooper says he has the crème de la crème and unbuttons his shirt, pointing at his chest area, and says “See that? Mary Ellen Moffatt. She broke my heart.”

After that, the mood changes when Brody asks Quint about that other scar which, it turns out, was a tattoo of the USS Indianapolis. He’d had it removed after surviving the sinking and the shark attacks that killed all but 316 of the original 1196 sailors and marines.

“Sometimes that shark looks right at ya,” Quint goes on in part of the story. “Right into your eyes. And the thing about a shark is he’s got lifeless eyes. Black eyes. Like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, he doesn’t even seem to be livin’ … ’til he bites ya, and those black eyes roll over white and then … ah then you hear that terrible high-pitched screamin’. The ocean turns red, and despite all your poundin’ and your hollerin’ those sharks come in and … they rip you to pieces.”

I have no horrifying shark stories and nothing that earned me a Purple Heart like my Uncle Navy, but I have my own landscape of scars. 

I have a scar on my right leg from when I scratched the hell out of a mosquito bite at summer camp when I was probably 12. 

I have the outline of a third-degree burn on my left leg because I dumped my motorcycle one rainy night on the gravel (wearing shorts like an idiot) in the driveway of a woman with whom I was hoping to have sex. I dumped it in a moment of inattentiveness (doubtless preoccupied with my plan), touched the tailpipe with my bare leg and ended up in the doctor’s office getting it painfully debrided. No sex happened.

I have two long white rectangular scars on my right thigh from the skin graft taken to repair my right arm in 2004. I had been infected with the invasive group A strep bacteria that was chewing up my soft tissue. It was necrotizing fasciitis or, more Stephen King-like, flesh-eating bacteria. Of course, there’s a mammoth scar there, from my armpit almost to the elbow, as well as two biopsies nearer my wrist. 

I know there’s still a scar behind my right earlobe. I was riding on the handlebars of my cousin’s bike, first day of sixth grade, and let my foot get caught in the spokes. We totally flipped the bike and I got a gash in my head and blood all over the new shirt I had for school.

My newest one, which I am rather proud of, stretches from collarbone to armpit, after right shoulder replacement surgery in 2018.  I remember texting my son, who has permanent stitchery on his own chest, owing to a brush with mortality back in 2011, the surgery for which included a new heart valve and a pacemaker at the age of 27.

I mentioned my scar to him, because the last piece of tape had fallen off, and I had taken my first full body shower in the three weeks since shoulder replacement surgery.

He replied –

Good shit, pops I’m proud of you man! I remember my first shower after my surgery was terrifying! For some reason it just freaked me out. Even water seemed scary at that point! So I’m proud of you man! I still laugh to myself thinking how scared I was of the water hitting my pacemaker and how it feels great at this point and love my showers again. And a year will fly by and all this shit will just be another chapter in the book you look back on man! Love you pops! Can’t wait to see you and check out the new scar – life tattoo I like to call it!

Life tattoo is a pretty fair context for our scars.

In Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses is the line “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”  One of the most memorable locker room speeches of all time has Henry V saying (with Shakespeare’s poetic license): 

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars, And say, “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”

We all have scars, some more visible and talisman-like than others, which can serve to remind us of where we’ve been, the arc of our personal narrative. I am looking at all of mine, afresh, these autumnal pandemic days. We have millions of new scars now, seen and unseen, all over the world. We have a need to imbue our suffering and hardship with meaning. That’s what we, alone among sentient beings, have the power to do.

It’s a chance to fall in love with our own story, once again, to look at our scars and remember that we are still alive, we’ve been given one more day, maybe one more year, perhaps more.

Take a look at your own life tats, exult in your life. We can make our scars Sacred Scars by imbuing them with the energy of what they have taught us.

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