January 18, 2013 — Disclaimer up front:  Tattoos have nothing to do with Alzheimer’s.  However, Ken does have both.  Not tons of tattoos, but more than the average sailor from WWII.  He also continues his journey into the dense fog of dementia’s number one disease.

tattoo on shoulder

After just one tattoo Ken’s mom made him promise, “no more.”  16 tattoos later he obeyed.

A few evenings ago as I sat on the couch next to Ken’s bed watching Wheel of Fortune while my husband, having completed another day in his battle with AD, settled in for a good night’s sleep.  He turned a little, raised one arm high into the air, pulled at his sleeve until it fell past the elbow, and then scratched where it itched.  I glanced over to make sure he didn’t need anything more for his comfort.  In doing so, my eyes drifted to the array of pictures covering the  aging skin of his arm, and I thought of our third meeting (not a date) at my company picnic.

Ken didn’t work there, but our mutual friend Jim did and invited him to come along.  The men, already relaxed after a few beers in the sun, were tossing around a football on a nearby lawn.  Off to the side a pile of sports shirts grew as the players threw off their superfluous clothing in favor of either bare chests or white tees with a crew neck.  Good grief, I thought to myself, both of Ken’s arms are covered with tattoos. I did not know about his tattoos before the picnic and the discovery reminded me that I hated the ugly markings with  an unbelievable passion.


Previously, my sister Janet had been dating Bob.  Bob’s best dating attire was a clean, white tee shirt over a pair of grungy Levi’s.  One sleeve was folded over a pack of cigarettes, and then rolled up until it rested on top of his shoulder.  Just below his supply of nicotine on the bicep of his arm was a small tattoo of a sailing ship with “Mom” lettered a quarter inch below.  Hardly noticeable it would not have been seen except for the rolled-up cigarettes.  Furthermore, that tiny tattoo was the only one he had.


“After Bob left I said to my sister, “How could you even go out with him.  He has a tattoo.  How disgusting!  I would never ever date a man with a tattoo.  I was adamant as I lectured my older sister about her poor selection of dates.

Actually, I can only reason that at about age 10 my negative thoughts regarding tattoos began to build somewhere in my subconscious.  I’d never known anyone with a tattoo, although I had seen the strong man at the circus whose entire surface was covered with indistinguishable needle “art.” He also had disfigured other areas of his body all in the name of show biz.  “Eweeee,” I recall saying to my mother after observing most of his blue-inked skin. Other areas of muscled flesh had been cut and fashioned into thick loops for holding additional weights.  Shuddering, I concluded, even as a child, that all of the above were deliberate self-mutilations to one’s body.  I also remember quite vividly looking at his handsome face and wanting desperately to ask, “Why did you do this to yourself?”

Without truly realizing the impact of that experience during my growing years I must have formed some very caustic opinions by the time I became a young adult. Odd though, because as a child I decorated my own arm with a few rub-on tattoos using the small transfer designs and lots of spit.  Yet when I saw Ken’s tattooed arms, even though I thought a small “Eweeee,” and felt a tiny twinge of disappointment, I made no resolution about never dating him again.  In fact Ken and I were two of many packed into Jim’s car for a ride home from the picnic at day’s end.


During our courtship I did ask him the “Why” question letting him know of my deep feelings, verging on phobia, about tattoos and defiling one’s body.  Summing it all together he admitted to an attitude: “The war, eat, drink, be merry, shore leave, friends – what have you – and I was drunk every time.”  If there were next-day regrets, it didn’t stop Ken’s additional inebriated visits to any one of the local tattoo parlors scattered throughout the South Pacific’s wartime American posts.

Fortunately, long-sleeved shirts covered his poor man’s collection of art, and only on occasion did tattoos become a topic of conversation.  I accepted them as part of the good man with whom I fell in love, but I never liked them nor did his mother, Rose.  She cried when he came home on leave after the first one, making him promise, “NO MORE.”


There were 16 tattoos by the time he finished his stint with the Merchant Marines and the U. S. Navy.  For our children, he was just dad, although daughter Julie thought they were cool.  On warm days the long sleeved shirt was often abandoned and yard work accomplished in comfort as were other activities.  Three times a week Ken lifted weights in the backyard, weather permitting.

One bright Saturday afternoon as he was working out bare-chested and in shorts our neighbor’s young boy, Donald, sat on our shared fence watching Ken go through his 40-minute routine. Lifting the weights Ken allowed them to drop with a heavy thud at the last count.  During a pause Donald called out, “Hey Mister, I bet I know where you work.”  “Where do you think I work,” replied Ken taking a deep breath.  “I bet you’re the strong man at the circus.”  We both laughed; me much more than my tattooed husband.  It was deja vu.  There, at that moment, according to Donald, I was married to the strong man at the circus. “Eweeee.”  I was just grateful Ken didn’t have any fleshy self-made loops for holding additional weights.


Alzheimer’s, at times, turned Ken into a kid, or perhaps the underage “swabbie” of the South Pacific.  As memory slipped away so did some of his inhibitions especially as tattoos and piercings of all sorts became a fashion statement – with women as much as men.  Suddenly, his impulsive choices of youth were not only acceptable, but a mark of distinction with many.  My husband’s other personalities, especially puberty aged Bud (Rose’s nick-name for her son) stepped forth with pride whenever there was an opportunity to show off, brag and compare tattoos.

Old memory appeared to kick in and momentarily won against Alzheimer’s as Buddy pointed to the fading skull, chains around both wrists, sailing ships, farm animals, a parrot, a tiger, snakes – and then remembering a dragon just up from his shoulder blade and flying birds above the pectoral muscles across his chest Bud was ready to pull off his shirt.  Rolling up his sleeves to play, “can you top this,” with fellow tattoo collectors was one thing, but I put my foot down at removing his shirt so his youthful admirers could watch him flex his pecks and make the blue birds fly.


Today, I doubt Ken would know that he has tattoos any more than he knows me or our family.  Alzheimer’s has robbed him of just about all of his memory except for those moments of what I refer to as “floating fragments” which do not include such elusive thoughts of adventures during the war years.  However, my heart would soar if he ever looked up at me when we’re giving him his shower and ask, “Would you like to see my blue birds fly?”

Originally posted 2013-01-19 08:02:18.


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