Uncle Verns tattoos

I was nine years old I guess.

We went to Uncle Vern’s house. I loved this place, because my aunt let me sit in the garden with a shaker of salt. You

should try being nine years old and licking a new tomato so the salt sticks, then biting into it like an apple. Wonderful.

Uncle Vern was a mystery. He was down at his workshop at the end of the drive, past the horses and pasture. I found myself nervous and excited as Aunt told me, “Go ahead and walk back to see Uncle.”

My legs made a wobbly path even as my waffle-stompers kicked up puffs of that summer’s dust.

Vern was a man with no hesitation. He cussed, he smoked, he lived hard, and occasionally, he played poker with the men. He almost always won. On the poker faces at our family table, brows came down in consternation, but then came the half-grins. They respected him.

I walked up the three steps to the porch, the sun was shining, casting shadows from the rough-hewn rail.

I know now that Uncle was not a big man, but I remember him as shoulder, forearm, and jaw. The family stories say he won at poker because he had been all over the world in the war and was shrewd for his age, but he did not talk about those days.

I knew the stories were true, because of the tattoos.

Uncle Vern always wore a long-sleeved shirt. In the heat of the summer or the cool of the evening, those sleeves were down. On occasion, I glimpsed the paint through the cut of cuff. Aunt told me, “Don’t ask Uncle about his arms. He has some tattoos, and he does not want you to see them.”

I was not the kind of kid who ran out of the house immediately to defy an order from my aunt, but as summer dragged on, I could not stop wondering about those shirtsleeves. I guess I found my courage the day I walked out to his workshop. Uncle standing on the porch he had built. I found my words coming out, “Uncle, please show me the tattoos!”

The leathered face, the pool of eyes, the man himself stared back at me.

I held my breath even as my legs wanted to run. Uncle said, “I regret these as much as anything I’ve done, boy.” Then, “Son, never make the mistakes I have made.”

He rolled up those sleeves for me.

My eyes looked at a navy anchor on his right oak tree of an arm, a dragon on the more massive left. He let me touch them with small fingers, and as I did so, I caught the motion of muscle under skin. “Did he make that dragon’s tail move on purpose, even though he told me he wished the tattoo was not there?”

I hope so.

Uncle Vern’s tattoos meant something that we can understand in our day; but this book is not about my Uncle Vern.

This book is about those of us who have a story to tell, and the tattoos to prove it.

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