I hadn’t given much thought to getting a tattoo when I joined the Air Force but when I got to Howard Air Force Base in the Panama Canal Zone in September 1976, my first duty station, I had a change of heart: three months later I was ready to be inked.
What brought about this heart of change was seeing the ink that some guys in my barracks had done by a tattoo artist in Panama City. After I had seen their ink, which had been specifically designed for them, I thought it would be cool to have my own tattoo. And that’s exactly what I decided to do at the end of 1976.
Actually, I was not the only one who was interested in getting some ink done. One of my best friends Howard, who I had met that previous summer at a military hospital in Denver (while we were waiting to get our yellow fever shots) and who was now in the same supply squadron as I was, had also been thinking about getting a tattoo after he had heard me talking about getting one.
Once we had decided to get a tattoo, we went down to this tattoo shop, not far from the Buffalo Bar (which was off-limits to the military) a few nights before to select our tattoos. The tattoo shop was pretty drab-just the kind of hole-in-the-wall shop with its walls covered with a lot of flash of “old school” tattoos-that you would expect to find near some military base overseas. There were lots of eagles, panthers, tigers, anchors, hearts (with Mom written across them), Geisha girls, Mermaids, and dragons.
As for our “first tattoos”-I had my heart set on a tattoo of a flag and Howard, hailing from Minnesota (not to mention his Finnish ancestry) was going to go with a tattoo of a Viking. We told the tattoo artist that we would be back in a few nights and would probably be wasted, so we didn’t want to make any mistake when it came to choosing our first tats.
During the holiday season, our supply squadron gave us all a nice Christmas present by having skeleton shifts. I was off the week before Christmas and Howard had the following week off. Back then, most people only worked an 8-4 or 9-5 shift-probably one more reason why so many people had wanted to be stationed at Howard. On the night Howard and I were going to get our tattoos, Howard, who had been off that week, had already gotten an early start drinking with Lee (his roommate) and John, an airman who had recently arrived at Howard.
I met up with the trio at the base NCO club and tried to catch up with them sucking down one rum and coke after another. It was the day before New Year’s Eve 1976, but you would have thought it was New Year’s Eve the way we were celebrating that night. After we felt that we had adequately prepared ourselves for a night on the town in Panama City, it was time for a quick bus ride that would take us out of Howard, past Rodman Naval Station, across the Thatcher Ferry Bridge (which spanned the Panama Canal) and finally the bus stop outside the Ancon Inn.
The tattoo shop was located just down the street from the Ancon Inn and down another narrow side street to the right.
While Howard and I went there to get our tattoos, Lee and John headed off to one of the more popular watering holes nearby to wait for us. When we got to the tattoo shop there were no customers inside so I went first. I sat down behind the wobbly wooden counter and rolled up my sleeve on my right arm. The tattooist used a toothpick and tattoo ink to draw the outline of the tattoo on my arm. Next, he sterilized the needle by dipping it in some rubbing alcohol and then lighting it with his Zippo lighter. The thought of getting hepatitis or some other jungle disease hadn’t even crossed my mind.
A car battery that he had rigged up on a small shelf behind a chair that he sat on when he did a tattoo powered his needle-gun. Before he started to work on my tattoo, I had Howard run to a bar down the street to get me a rum and coke. Drank a lot of rum back then as well as Cerveza Panama.
The buzz of the needle-gun was too much for Howard, who after bringing me my rum and coke, decided to stay outside as the tattoo artist began to draw the outline of the tattoo on my upper right arm. I could see Howard through the doorway holding onto a wooden utility pole as if he was going to pass out. He didn’t hold onto it too long-before he said something about wanting to join Lee and John-but promised he would be back.
He never did come back.
At first, when the tattoo artist started to do the outline, the pain felt like a stinging, burning sensation and reminded me of a cross between being stung repeatedly by bees and scratched by a cat. As for the tattoo artist’s technique, it sort of reminded me of when I was in elementary school and used the point of a geometry compass to gouge my initials and other acronyms on the wooden top of my desk.
Not long after Howard had left, in walked a group of GI’s stationed at Fort Clayton, who just got in from two weeks of jungle training. They were all liquored up and itching to get some more ink done.
As soon as they saw me and the little ink the tattoo artist had already outlined, I was fair game.
“I think he’s going to pass out,” said one of them. “Look at him, twitching and grimacing.”
Well, I was grimacing a little. Actually, it was more than a little, but I was not about to let these guys know what it truly felt like.
“Hey, you’re not going to pass out are you?” asked another taking a swig of his Cerveza Atlas.
“No, I am not going to pass out,” I replied gritting my teeth.
Please don’t let me pass out.
“If you think that hurts, take a look at this,” said another GI.
He unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a large tattoo of a lion on his chest.
“I am going to have him finish it tonight,” he said proudly. “If you want to know what pain really feels like, have one done on your chest.”
“Shut up Johnson,” said one of his buddies, punching him in the arm. “Don’t listen to him. He cried like a baby.”
“Hey, you want to step outside?” said Johnson, about ready to throw a punch.
“Lighten up the both of you,” said another GI.
“Would one of you guys mind getting me another rum and coke?” I asked. I took out a few damp, crumpled bills from one of my pockets and tossed them on the counter in front of me.
“Sure man,” said one of the GI’s. “Anyone else need a drink?”
It took a little over two hours to do the outline and then have it colored. I had a couple more rum and cokes and by then I wasn’t feeling too much pain at all. The GI’s from Clayton were impressed and even bought me a few of those rum and cokes.
“Welcome to the club,” said the guy with the lion on his chest as he patted me on the back and then plopped down in the chair that I had vacated. “I’m next.”
After I got my tattoo, I eventually caught up with Howard, Lee, and John at the Fox Hole Bar. They were all pretty well trashed by then but still wanted to see the ink I had done.
“Let’s take a look,” said Howard.
I rolled up my shirtsleeve on my t-shirt and removed the white gauze covering the tattoo artist had put on. Although the bar was dark inside and there were tiny beads of blood across the tattoo, they could still make out the design.
“Cool,” said Lee.
“That’s awesome,” said John.
“Maybe I’ll just have to go back there another time and get my tattoo,” said Howard sheepishly.
“Yeah, that would be cool,” I said.
Howard never went back, but I did, in fact I went back that same night to have another one, a small one inked on my left forearm and two weeks later, to have one done on my upper left arm. Twenty-one years later I would finally get around to having that smaller one (an airplane propeller with the initials U-S-A-F written above it) covered up, which would begin a tattoo metamorphosis or awakening of sorts that would take me to tattoo shops in Bangkok, Phuket, and Yokohama.
As for that first tattoo, it has long since been covered up; however, the memory of it and that night in Panama City all those years ago has been permanently tattooed in my soul.