Leviticus 19:28 by Mazal HaMidbar
This is about the Nineties television show “The Sentinel.” In Season One, the title character, Police Detective Jim Ellison, has just rescued Blair Sandburg — his sometime work partner, housemate and best friend — from a serial killer. The anthropology doctoral candidate notes that in some societies this would make Jim his permanent “blessed protector” and then offers to have the police department logo tattooed on himself in gratitude. Jim responds, “You get a tattoo and your blessed protector is going to kick your ass down seven flights of stairs to the lobby.”
This was written for a fan competition years ago whose goal was to explain Jim’s over-the-top objection to a buddy’s wish to get a tattoo. Jim’s inner monologue refers to his father, William Ellison, a wealthy, emotionally distant businessman who raised Jim and his younger brother alone after their mother left the family. Single fatherhood was highly unusual for the timeframe (1960s and 1970s).
I deviate from canon in making William is a decade older than canon states — born in 1928 rather than 1938 — and, like my own dad, a World War II veteran. I dedicate this story to him and to the father of my best friend, a real-life liberator.
This story has been edited slightly since it was posted in 2007 in response to a Moonridge Zoo Sentinel Day auction challenge. (The annual event raised funds for the zoo in Big Bear, a town in my home base of San Bernardino County, California.)
Here is an important note for international readers: ROTC is Reserve Officers’ Training Corps; someone already on track to earn a bachelor’s degree in college in the United States might choose to also complete this program along with an academic one. That would then require that he/she become active-duty in the military – as an officer, with higher pay and higher status than an enlisted soldier – shortly after graduation. Being an ROTC member would not be an unusual choice for a man born in 1957 in the USA, as canon states is true of Jim. We know from canon that Jim held the rank of captain in the U.S. Army – a rank possible only for someone who was already a commissioned officer (and who probably earlier completed ROTC).
Leviticus 19:28, by Mazal HaMidbar
I was taken aback that Sandburg would even josh about getting a tattoo. And he in turn must have been surprised at my very strong reaction to the idea. After all, I’m a veteran of law enforcement and, before that, the military; in both cases, ink often is a big part of what Sandburg would surely think of as the deep-seated tribal culture.
So, he eventually probably thought what folks usually think when they learn my position on the subject. That I’m against it because I have the “my body is a temple” fetish of the stereotypical bodybuilder. Or else that I’m too damned conservative — Sandburg’s a tad young to know the expression “square” — to realize that tats are hip, happening and now. Maybe he even would conclude that I hold with the Old Testament prohibition against marking one’s flesh.
Those are reasonably good guesses all, I suppose. Except it’s not any of them.
The night before I left for the Army after finishing my ROTC course, my father (I prefer to think of him as William, which gives me some much-needed emotional distance) and I got drunk together. First time, only time. And it was the first time, only time, he ever told me anything about his own stint as a GI.
He was one of the youngest to serve in World War II, that last good war, volunteered toward the end, lied about his age by two years to enlist, so he was 16 or 17, way younger than I was at the same point in life. Surely that’s why what happened hit him so hard . . . and why he never talked about it before, or, to my knowledge, since. Probably not even to Grace — Mom — and for sure not to Stevie.
Here in Major Crimes, I’ve seen some really rough scenes, lots of bodies. Hell, way before that, as an Army Ranger in Peru, lost in the jungle after a secret mission gone wrong, I buried seven of my own men by myself, digging the graves one by one.
But I’ve never seen anything like William did when he was still a boy.
General Eisenhower himself had shoved the camera into his hands. Every man not assigned other duty had to shoot film and take photographs. Document it all, the future president sternly ordered, so that, down the line, no one could ever claim that reports of horrendous atrocities were mere wartime propaganda. They have, though, anyway, these past couple of decades, those damned Holocaust deniers.
So William took pictures, all day, all throughout the concentration camp. Of the dead. The dying. The living skeletons. Men, women, children. And all of them, on their living, dying and dead forearms, had tattoos in blue. Just numbers, because, to the Nazis, they didn’t deserve names.
William had drunk more than enough Scotch by that point in the conversation to be bleary-eyed and teary-eyed. Truth to tell, so had I. But I never forgot what he said next — his exact words — though it was half my life ago.
“Can’t stop you going in, Jimmy. Can’t tell you what to do about anything, you’re a man. And a man could do a lot worse than fight to defend his country, this way of life, democracy.
“Gotta ask you one thing, though. Don’t ever get a tattoo. Don’t ever give one. Or ever let anyone you love get one. The tattoo — it’s the devil’s own mark of humiliation and victimhood!”
It’s one of the few things he ever said that I’ve been glad to comply with all my life.
I didn’t tell Blair any of this. Much as I care about him — and it’s more than he would guess, even after my comment — I probably never will. Some things are meant to stay between father and son. I can’t help wondering, now, though. What else about his early life has Dad never told me?