THE TATTOO THAT SAVED MY LIFE
by Jack LaChance
"A tattoo saved your life? Come on, Jack, tattoos are for screwballs. Do you expect me to believe that?"
This is the reaction whenever this subject comes up in conversation. Little did I realize that this novelty, this marking of my body, would someday save my life.
In 1951, training at Fort Lewis, Washington with the Canadian Army, I acquired two tattoos before shipping out for Korea. Later that same year we left for our tour of duty, interrupted by a short training stay in Japan.
During a weekend pass in Tokyo, I decided to have another tattoo applied. Tonto (closest I came to being able to pronounce his name) was a small man in mid 50s who had been a sergeant in the Japanese army. Most of our dealings with the Japanese up to this point were by charades. We had to "guess and by golly" most of our conversations.
For some reason, he insisted that at the bottom of the tattoo he would insert the Japanese characters for "Nippon" (Japan). Few people would know what it meant but would draw them to ask questions. Thus, it would start conversations and help meet new people. You can imagine how long it took he and his wife to convince me of this in a game of "Me no speak your language." Finally I agreed and had the inscription put below the tattoo.
Tonto awed me by the precision and delicacy of his work. The instrument he used consisted of a short bamboo stick which had several needles attached for the penetration of the ink. It was like unveiling an art treasure in a gallery.
It was now time to concentrate on the 13 months of active duty that was awaiting me.
Life in the hills and mud of Korea is another story in itself. Spending ten months in the trenches dusk to dawn, in what was then one of the most infested countries in the world, being shot at and bombarded by artillery day after day, I miraculously lived to tell about it.
Upon my return in late July 1952 I stepped back into society and my old job. In September, two friends and I were attending a football game. Suddenly, I started to get chills and began sweating and shaking. The guys loaded me into the car and drove me home where my mother ordered me to bed. She thought I had the flu or that I might have eaten bad food at the game.
Six days later I was still in bed freezing, covered with all the blankets we could find one minute, and sweating like a faucet the next. Delirious most of the time and hallucinating, I was seeing large rats running around my room. Eventually, they admitted me to one of our local hospitals.
Here again I stayed for another week while they tried to discover what was wrong. It certainly was not the flu. No one in Windsor, Ont. had ever seen this before. Afraid of ending up at the nearby military hospital, I did not reveal my recent experience in the Far East; therefore, they did not think to consider any oriental disease. The doctors talked about removing my spleen/appendix/gall bladder, even tonsils, but fortunately none of these happened.
During the next few days my temperature rose higher and higher and my brain was close to the bursting point. Two doctors stood at the foot of my bed trying to save my life. One was reading from a medical book and both were at a loss of what to do. Lying on my back with my left arm hanging from the bed, I was semi-conscious when a young Japanese intern entered my room. He glanced at my arm and read the small characters on the bottom of my tattoo. Understanding immediately, he turned to the doctors and said, "This young man has obviously been to the Far East. He probably has malaria."
Within two hours they were checking me into Westminster Veteran's Hospital in London, Ontario. 37 days later I returned home 30 pounds lighter but alive and recovering.
I am thankful at that time, in that place, the only person who could possibly have recognized the characters on my tattoo was there to save my live.
Over the years I have thought of Tonto personally. Now I thank him; not only for words that saved my life, but for the interest generated each time I have told someone about how a tattoo saved my life.
Jack LaChance, writer and poet, lives with his wife, Frances in Sarnia, Ontario. His poem, "The Korea Veterans Wall," is engraved in granite at the centre section of the Korea Veterans National Wall of Remembrance in Meadowvale Cemetery, Brampton, Ontario. Jack served in Korea with the 2nd and 1st battalions of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. He is a member of KVA Unit # 4.