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She looked at him in a puzzled manner for a moment, then she gave way to the modern equivalent of the old-fashioned blush--she swore like a longshoreman with a crate on his foot.

"Strawberry Birthmark"

by Philip Cyrus Gunion


Girl Watcher

No. 2, June 1959

    THERE WASN'T A LIVE WOMAN within 1,200 miles of the island of Canton and this fact was turned into a handsome bonanza for Barney Aiken who was fond of saying. "I've made more dough out of dames than Lucky Luciano.''
    He was a perfect example of the Horatio Alger story come to life; a self-made tycoon who had started out with some pretty sleazy material. He had arrived on Canton with nothing but an idea and pictures of three naked naughty ladies. Now he was the curator of a collection of more than 1,000 specimens all different.
    Barney's method of adding to his stock--like the secrets of most great men was pure simplicity. He met every plane which came to Canton for fuel and food and shook down the crewmen for any risqué pictures they might have in their wallets.
    The average stop-over was an hour and this gave him plenty of time to copy the borrowed pictures and return them. In exchange for the copy privilege, he gave each man two copies of pictures from his files, along with the original which he had borrowed.
    This enabled him to get hold of not only pictures of hundreds of naked women whose main and simple virtue was that they were female and couldn't deny it, but pictures, real or faked, of some Hollywood stars, some of which subsequently became famous. The pictures. I mean.
    I can best demonstrate what kept Barney's market brisk by sketching in the story of Capt. Alexander Graham Bell, our weather officer.
    He arrived at Canton just after dusk one day and walked into the operations office with his flight bag to report. He found the men on duty huddled over their picture albums.
    One sergeant sighed, took his eyes from a pair of nameless mountains, and walked to the counter to see what the new captain wanted.
    Captain Bell was much impressed with the studious group. All the albums were jacketed in covers which had been designed to hold Army Air Force Rules and Regulations and he was deceived into thinking he had blundered into the most spit-and-polish outfit in the service.
    He was instantly disillusioned when a corporal came across a couple of features in his album which he had overlooked before and began a series of vocal expressions of extreme approval.
    This led the captain to a personal examination of the regulation which had caused the merriment. Then he looked rapidly at the other albums. His face grew red and he stalked out of the room.
    His first official act on the island was to go to the colonel in charge of the island to protest the habits of the enlisted men. He got nowhere.
    The colonel said politely, but firmly, that he considered the circulation of the albums as nothing more than a harmless diversion. The men certainly needed something to occupy their minds. After all, there was no USO on the island. "The men get stiff in the joints when they spend all their time playing poker, you know." The captain retired from the field.
    He never did know that the sounds he had heard in the colonel's office before he had been admitted were caused by the opening and closing of the drawer into which the colonel had placed his own album before the interview.
    Captain Bell fought against the albums as best he could without support from above for a few weeks, then he relaxed and became more tolerant. He simply requested the men to look at them on their own time so that the work of the weather station could move forward without having huge banks of mammatocumulus clouds coming from nowhere to obscure the latest synoptic map.
    Then came a transitional period when the captain found himself borrowing albums during the long hours of the midnight shift--just so that he could see what they were really like.
    Eventually, of course, human nature and the tropics combined, the captain found himself $75 poorer. He rationalized--at least for our benefit--that it was part of his duty to keep abreast of the interests of his men.
    His feet would be comfortably propped on the desk so that his knees could support the heavy album as he turned the pages in a paradox of interested boredom. It became increasingly harder to reconcile him with Harvard '39 and IBM '41.
    The first inkling we had of the island's growing importance in the scheme of things came when Barney discovered it was no longer necessary to solicit pictures from air crews as they climbed out of their planes. The crewmen would be fumbling with their wallets as they landed.
    I asked Barney one day what he wanted to do after the war was over. I rather expected him to outline some lurid, slightly illegal venture connected with sex and money, but he surprised me. "I want to set up a little studio in some jerky little town, maybe the one where I was born, and take pictures of kids
and their mothers. And brides. Stuff like that."
    "On bearskin rugs?" I said with a leer.
    Barney looked at me as if I were a piece of dirt on top of a chocolate cream pie. "In the sort of town I mean, people keep their thoughts clean and their clothes on," he said.
    Barney continued to look at me in scorn as he dipped a famous Hollywood actress, nude of course, into a bath of developer, although to my untrained eye she seemed developed quite enough.
    This study of this actress, the same one who eventually came face to face with Captain Bell, became quite famous in many quarters and is still the subject of debates at the YMCA and the Yale Club as to whether the picture was a clever fake or a faithful reproduction of talents the actress had never chosen to display before.
    Barney was already up to his navel in hypo on the sheer merits of the art itself when it was announced that the actress herself was coming to Canton as part of a package show of stars.
    It was like a new oil strike in Texas. Everyone wanted a copy of that picture and they wanted it right away. The price of the print jumped to $10.
    By the time the actress arrived, everyone had a copy of the picture and all eyes mentally undressed her as she stepped from the plane. But she was unaware, as she shook out her golden hair with a breathtaking motion which made her shoulders quiver deliciously, of the question that was upper most in all our minds.
    There were perhaps 300 soldiers and officers on Canton at that time and when the star arrived all of them found it necessary to be near the operations building to watch her arrival on the plane. Everyone stood in an attitude of complete awe.
    The line backed away slightly as the actress emerged into the brilliant sunshine. You must remember that no man on the island had seen a woman--any woman--for at least six months, and here was one of the most beautiful women in the world advancing toward us in white sharkskin slacks and a tight-fitting golden blouse.
    "Hello, all you gorgeous men," she breathed.
    There was a strangled gasp from a man in the front row. Then silence.
    She walked past us into the operations building and a sigh like the wind from a burning city swept after her.
    The wind grew into a hurricane as the men speculated loudly--but out of her earshot--about whether the picture they all carried was authentic or had been patched together. Mental calipers were called into play. Engineering officers used mental transits. The cartographers attempted to reconstruct the topography from memory. Stress and balance men worked with their charts. Our assorted plotters and planners thought of various--and highly impractical--methods of settling the question.
    None of us would have thought of the truly direct approach Captain Bell, once the proper Bostonian, blundered into.
    It happened that the captain was chosen to be one of the group of officers to dine with the actress. He immediately went into a sweat of nervous anticipation.
    "I haven't talked to a woman in so long--My God, it's been eight months--I'm sure to get myself into trouble," he said gloomily.
    "How I'd like to get into trouble with her," one of his unfeeling enlisted men said.
    "Just get the conversation rolling by asking her if she really posed for that picture," another said.
    "What picture?" Captain Bell asked innocently, betraying himself with the hand which slid over his breast pocket.
    That elegant nude study must have preyed on the captain's mind. We got all the dinner details later, not from the captain but from the enlisted man who was fortunate enough to have served as the officer's mess waiter assigned to her table.
    After several grapples for unlikely objects lying on the oozy bottom of his mind, the captain came up with a rare pearl.
    The lady had never been to Boston; the captain had never been to Hollywood. Worse, he couldn't have been described as a movie fan of even average knowledge. "But we do have something in common," he blurted out at last, in the middle of an awkward silence, "we both have strawberry birthmarks."
    She looked at him in a puzzled manner for a moment, then she gave way to the modern equivalent of the old-fashioned blush--she swore like a longshoreman with a crate on his foot.
    "So that damned photograph has found its way over here," she said when she had calmed down at bit. "I suppose you have a copy?"
    Unwittingly the captain had come close to settling the uncertainty about the authenticity of the photograph. If he had only pressed his advantage our suspense might have ended right there between the carrot strips and radishes and the chili con carne. But Captain Bell fumbled the ball. He began to eat bean soup as if it possessed some magical qualities he had never discovered before.
    The actress continued to give him the auger eye until she realized she was the object of a faux pas rather than a pass.
    Her eyes began to twinkle like they usually do in reel three when she decides it's drizzling so hard she'd better spend the night on the sofa in the bachelor's apartment and he brings her the pajamas which are three sizes too large.
    "Yes, I do have a strawberry birthmark," she said with a malicious grin, and our spy reported he could hear the captain's heart ringing the changes on that one right through the bean soup. "But so have a great many other girls," she added.
    Then she whispered something into his ear which no one else heard.
    Captain Bell never opened his mouth about the picture after that dinner. But he did keep that mouth in a peculiar smirk for several days after the historic event.
    To show you the way hunch players bet: Barney was able to raise the price of that particular picture up to $15 without a squawk from a single customer.

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