My sister, Laura, and brother-in-law Anton recently spent two weeks in Solana Beach. They are the perfect guests; rent a fabulous condominium on the beach and we hang out at their place. The primary reason for their visit was to celebrate our uncle Stan’s 90th birthday. Laura had another mission, as well.
A week into their stay, Laura mentioned “I think I’m going to get another tattoo.”
She has a beautiful one on her right wrist she got several years ago in Lucerne Switzerland, near their hometown.
“Where are you going to get it?”
“Same place you got yours—Big Fish in Solana Beach, right?
That was the place.
“I’ve got an appointment for 4 p.m. on Thursday. Do you want to come?”
I thought that would be cool. “Absolutely. What do you want to get?”
“I’m thinking a California poppy. A couple of days ago I met with Chris one of the artists. He’s working on a design.”
Laura went a little deeper about her decision:
I have known for a long time that the red poppy was a symbol for the soldiers who died in World War 1 and 2. They are by far the most common poppies in Europe. This is perhaps most famously evident in the poem written by Canadian officer Lt. Col. John McCrae in 1915 shortly after the Second Battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium. Alexis Helmer, a close friend of McCrae’s, was killed during the battle. McCrae performed the burial service himself, at which time he noted how poppies quickly grew around the graves. He wrote this the next day at a field hospital in Ypres.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The idea of a poppy tattoo came to me quite spontaneously last summer, when Diana [our cousin], Nancy, and I were in Normandy. We took basically the same tour you, Hilary, Anton and I did in 2015, and somehow being on Omaha Beach a second time was even more moving.
‘Remembrance,’ without a specific person in mind, was the word that came to mind with the thought of a tattoo.
And at some point, the red poppy morphed into the California poppy, simply because those are the poppies I know; the ones I remember and have always loved. They remind me of California, and the image of poppies blowing in the wind and sun is a very clear one—a happy one. I also admire the fact that the California poppy only opens when the sun shines.
But the idea to have the tattoo done wasn’t something I thought about very often during this past year. And then, as the trip to California drew near, I realized that if I was going to have it done, it should be done in California, and I remembered that you had yours, which is so beautiful, done in Solana Beach.
Hilary gave me the name BIG FISH and I stopped by there one day soon after we arrived. I wasn’t at all sure if I was going to go through with it, but after meeting Chris, it felt right.
When I arrived Laura was already in the lobby. The déjà vu wasn’t as heavy as I anticipated. Big Fish had moved a block off their previous location on Coast Highway. The new suite was bigger and brighter. Another couple arrived shortly after us. They would both be getting tats from the owner, founder, Dave Hartman.
After Chris finished up with another client, he came out and greeted us and showed Laura his design. “Perfect.” He asked if she wanted some color. She hesitated, and I chimed in “I think color would look great—but this is your tattoo.” She agreed—with both.
After meticulously setting up his work area, Chris escorted Laura to “the chair” and directed me to one close by. He began by pressing the design on her left forearm to create the template. After Laura approved the location, he fired up the needle.
Shortly after Chris started his work, Dave Hartman walked into the studio with the couple trailing. He peered over Chris at work on Laura. “Is that your own design, Chris?” It was. “Cool.”
I piped up and mentioned “Dave, I was here six years ago and you did my first tattoo.”
He exclaimed “Really? Well, let’s take a look at that bad boy!”
I stood up, took off my shirt and turned my back to the small crowd in waiting.
“I remember that!” Dave exclaimed.
This 69 year-old had instant cred with the other three artists and their clients in the studio.
As Dave was setting up for his clients, I walked over to him. We spoke privately, but everyone’s ears were perked.
“Dave, I don’t know if you remember the timing and circumstances of that tattoo.” He didn’t. Why would he?
“Six years ago, Hilary and I came into your shop on Coast Highway. I showed you what I had been thinking about. ‘I can definitely do that,’ as you looked in your calendar for an open slot. ‘The first date I have available is August 8. Does that work for you?’ It was three weeks out. Hilary and I exchanged a glance, and I said ‘That will work just fine.’
“You did my tattoo on the five-year anniversary of the last day we were with our 24 year-old son, Jimmy. The last time we hugged him and kissed him goodbye—that we thought was only for the night. He was accidentally struck and killed by an automobile early the next morning on August 9.”
Dave’s eyes grew big and moist. “What! Really?”
“I unveiled your beautiful tattoo the next day to the rest of my family. The 5th anniversary of Jimmy leaving us.”
“Oh man,” Dave sighed. “I didn’t know that.”
I explained the tattoo was inspired by the title of the poem Jimmy wrote a few days after he ran the 2007 Los Angeles Marathon. I wrote a story about the marathon, the poem and the “Jimmy Tattoo.” https://www.writemesomethingbeautiful.com/2014/02/23/suffering-is-the-only-honest-work/
I pulled out my phone and showed Dave the photo of the cover of our book.
“Your tattoo inspired this cover, man.”
Dave was temporarily rendered speechless, which is hard to do for this very energetic, eloquent man.
“I’ll bring you copies of the book if you like.”
Dave and Chris went back to work.
The vibe and energy level had definitely escalated. Dave cranked up the music piped through his studio. Chris didn’t really know what was going on and, respectfully, didn’t press.
Chris finished Laura’s tattoo around 6. It was beautiful. Laura was so happy and pleased.
Laura had to quickly leave for a dinner with our cousin Diana and her father, our uncle, Stan.
The following Saturday was an absolutely perfect, clear, warm day in San Diego. We have many of those, but this one was exceptional. Stan could not have picked a better day to celebrate his 90th birthday and host the family on a deep sea fishing trip out to the Coronado Islands.
Hilary and I hosted the birthday dinner that night.
That’s where we unveiled Laura’s Poppy Tattoo.
The vibe was so strong at Big Fish.
Dave doing my Jimmy tattoo six years earlier.
Everything Laura and I have been through, suffered and shared over so many years. And joy and much happiness too.
It just felt more than right to do this–share this–with my sister.
And check out the photo in the purple haze behind us.
That’s the photo Jimmy’s close friend since childhood, John Dale, brought over to us on Christmas, 2008- our first Christmas without him–of Jimmy playing his saxophone.
Of course Jimmy would not miss dropping into this momentous occasion!
In 2009 Hilary and I took a tour of Flanders Fields in Ypres, Belgium–the killing fields, cemeteries and the memorials to the millions who fought and died in World War I. At sunset, we attended the daily Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres. This is a very powerful and spiritual place where the 55,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died, but whose bodies were never found, are honored and remembered. We were deeply moved by reading the names of these men etched on the marble walls, and the ceremony.
Laura’s tattoo reminded me of that unforgettable experience.
I will never forget Hilary’s and my visit to Flanders Fields in May 2009 and the Menin Memorial in Ypres to the unkown (never found) soldiers killed in WWI. Jimmy’s loss was still so raw and, yet, walking those sacred grounds where so many men took their last breath, most of whom were younger than Jimmy, added some much needed perspective. I can’t say it comforted us–but it did bring home the horror of war and how many parents have suffered this loss of a deeply beloved son. We weren’t singled out. We were not alone. Remembrance is powerful and essential.