Originally published July 1999
The calls started Saturday morning and went through the day, as friends and family wanted to make sure I was all right after the news that John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane was missing and he and his wife and sister-in-law were presumed dead. Because I’ve had the image of a 3-year-old John-John saluting the casket of his father tattooed on my inner right arm for 14 years, it’s like he’s a part of me. The Kennedy mystique was certainly a big part of my upbringing, with our house decorated with busts, plaques and tapestries of the first Irish Catholic President of the United States and his brother Bobby, who was on his way to being the second. As a 6-year-old living in the Azores in 1963, I remember being awakened at 3 a.m. to go to Lajes Field for the landing and refueling of Air Force One. Jackie waved to the crowd as the President slept on the eve of his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.
My fascination with the Kennedys didn’t make it through my adolescence, however. After the assassinations of President Kennedy and Bobby, the clan seemed to be just widows, kids without fathers and Teddy. The bullets ripped through the fairy tale facade and brought on tragedies as if scripted. I still collect Kennedy memorabilia, but these days it’s more in the spirit of kitsch.
Why, then, did I decide to have the image of young John John etched in my skin forever? To me, that Life magazine photograph symbolized history’s last moment of pure innocence. The child salutes the father without having any idea
of the impact of the moment or that his life will be forever changed. Beatlemania, free love, rebellion in the streets all grew, in part, as a way of coping with an assassination that exposed the myth of America right and might. The truth of modern society is that anyone can point at anyone else and make them dead. We’re all gonna die, so we might as well dance naked in the psychedelic fields.
I have a parallel in my own life, when my mother died of cancer at age 42. I was 18 at the time and had never drank a beer or smoked a joint or had sex, even the self-inflicted kind.
If I ever considered doing something wrong or illegal, growing up, I would just think about my mother finding out and that would be the end of it. She died in April ’74; by December of that year I was writing music critiques and satire for a hippie rag called Sunbums. My co-workers and I smoked dope all day long: you could even smell the marijuana in the reception area. My virginity, meanwhile, went up in smoke when I met a lesbian vegetarian who liked my polarizing concert reviews. At 18, I was going to mass every Sunday. At 19, I was ordering coffee from McDonald’s just to get the plastic coke spoon that came with it.
The Sunbums publisher had a concert promotion business and I became the right hand man of his right hand man, sent out to do all kinds of errands, from picking up the luggage of Rod Stewart and the Faces at the airport to loading my car with 500 pounds of dry ice before a Deep Purple concert. I fell deep into the rock ‘n’ roll life.
In the mid- ’70s, a new style of single-needle tattooing was being pioneered at Tattooland in East L.A. by Goodtime Charlie Cartwright, Jack Rudy and Freddy Negrette and I was right there watching. Former Sunbums editor Kate Hellenbrand got a job at the shop on Whittier Boulevard, which had just been bought by Ed Hardy after Cartwright found religion. I’d see the stream of customers bringing in photos of their parents, kids, spouses, pets, cars, whatever. With the new sketch-like precision, the artists would perfectly duplicate the photos.
Back in Honolulu, Kandi Everett was becoming really good at single-needle portraits and she liked my idea of recreating a famous photograph on my skin. It was just merely concept, however, until ’85 when Everett visited Mike “Rollo Banks” Malone’s shop at 2712 Guadalupe. There was no real tattoo business in Austin at the time and Everett was bored. I was bored, too, as I folded biker T-shirts — Rollo’s side business — in the back of the shop. It was time to put on John-John. Everett worked in silence for 90 minutes and when she was done I satisfied her asking price by buying her lunch at Hut’s.
“What are you, some kinda Kennedy fanatic?” I get that all the time. (Also, “Is that the Morton Salt girl?”) But, to me, the main theme of the John F. Kennedy story is one of unrealized potential. We’ll never know how good of a president Sr. would’ve been. And now we’ll never know what sort of man his son would’ve become over time. Just as the dream was about to come true, the world snapped upright, drenched in nightmare sweat.
People who don’t understand tattoos point to the permanence as a negative thing, but that’s really a big part of the appeal. Life is fleeting, as are fortunes, relationships and careers. In a world where everything can change in an instant, it’s reassuring to have something that no one can take away. It’s my most prized possession, this tattoo that cost me a hamburger. It expresses so much of what I feel, but can’t fully relate. As the casket rolled before him, the boy saluted, but it hadn’t sunk in. It wouldn’t for years. But eventually, he’d feel the loss every day of his life.
3 thoughts on “John- John Forever”
I remember reading this in 1999, and now I re-read it on your blog site. My mother, too, never saw her grandchildren; neither did my father. And they never saw me really grown up. That knowledge haunts me every minute and it will be the chain that drags behind me as I die. I’m half-Irish (immigrant-through-Ellis-Island-biological-mother Irish), had the surname “Fitzgerald” at birth which was changed by my adopted parents to their own of Andrews. My adoption papers serve as some sort of grounding point for me — who I really was, then became. I feel deeply a Fitzgerald when I try to figure out who I am. My biological father was a sailor from Rome who met a lonely San Francisco Navy man’s wife. After growing up in my adopted family’s Pentecostal household, I had to convert to Catholicism when I first visited Rome. It was home. It felt like home and every slab of cold marble and every soft column felt like the skin of my ancestors. Irish/Italian Catholic. Oh yes. I also have a fascination with the Kennedy mystery, and have the collection of books and memorabilia to pass on to the girls…and hopefully the grandchildren. And I feel some strange lure to leave flowers on Julius Caesar’s grave like those who sneak into the Forum during the night to pay homage. Four parents did I have. Four parents did I lose…I have promised my girls that I will be the grandmother to their children that they never had the privilege to meet. That’s all I can do to give back to the four who would have loved me here on earth longer if they had the chance. Futures unfulfilled of our parents are the hardest to live with because we were their future. How do we live up to that? We all wanted so much to see our parents’ delight in our life, our children, our accomplishments. And we know how much they wanted to live and be there for us as we grew into adults and took on the world. All the things parents want for their children goes up in smoke when a parent dies far too early. (My father (by adoption) died of a massive stroke when I was 12…I lost my adopted mom when I was 27.) What would I have accomplished if my father had lived? He was the guiding force in my education, in my whole world. I was a Daddy’s Girl. Then he was gone. I had one last glimpse of him as they pushed him on a gurney into an elevator in Dallas St. Paul’s Hospital’s emergency room. He lifted his head with his left hand, looked at me and laid back down. He couldn’t speak. But did he know it was me? I cried out, “Daddy!” then the doors closed and I never saw him alive again. I was 12, but my Mom wouldn’t let me or my little brother see him the five days he lingered through surgery after surgery to relieve the pressure from the blood clot that was dissolving his brain. Nothing was ever the same again. No guidance from a super-educated mathematical genius who read and spoke Greek (he was Scottish) and no more Shakespeare and Whitman memorization sessions in the summer on his job sites while he taught me to use my hands and a hammer…he was a master cabinet maker and carpenter. I lost them both too soon and it ripped my soul and future apart. When we worked at the paper, I was the most alone person there…or so I thought until I read your story back in 1999. Michael, I am so sorry you lost your mother. But I am so glad that you get it. No one does unless they’ve lived and grown up without their parent. My thoughts are with you on this day. My mom’s day is Sept. 13, 1985…it was a Friday the 13th…
Did I ever send you these?
(“Questioning Camelot: Nov. 22, 1963 – image, memory, myth”)
(“Ladies and Gentlemen … the Beatles!”)
I like what Cronkite says in this one …