by Travis Klempan
Black and white photos don’t do it justice.
The greens were of a thousand hues, enough variation to give an Irishman pause. The most startlingly obvious were the olive drab utilities – somehow the scratchy fabric perfectly complemented the dreary dye. Slip a set of those on and a man could lose his individuality and gain a permanent itch. But there were other, more impersonal greens – the slightly darker shade of the paint used on the airplanes, the not-quite matching olive of the gear humped over thousands of miles and dropped at the slightest provocation of rest or firefight, the tropical greens of palm trees on Guadalcanal and the deeper forest greens of German pines, water when it got so shallow you knew the beach was just ahead. The very biological nature of the greens became present every time a bug was swatted away, every time a snake was avoided, and every time the foliage itself seemed to conspire not just against friend but against foe and against every little minor sacrifice of effort and every ineffectual attempt to tame the wilderness, both within and without the perimeter. A green like that could scare a man into believing anything was possible.
The blues could make your head ache. No blue over a farm in Indiana or set against the mountains of Colorado could compare to the vast empty blue of a Pacific sky, a blue that challenged the ocean below it and the heavens above it with an impunity and an arrogance normally reserved for a Titan. The ocean itself tried but couldn’t compare with that blue, and so set against that backdrop the various blue shades of a man’s uniform only served to highlight his puniness and insignificance. Good luck trying to sell that to a superior officer but there was a heaviness of fact to it, to the very idea that a blue that big could swallow a man up, could swallow an entire army of men or a fleet of men or a nation of men and just swallow them up and not even spit them out and there’d be barely a trace of what came before. There was a reason the ancients revered and feared the Ocean and the Sky and knew they came before and would be here long after.
Yellows and browns and khakis were somewhere in between dreary and mundane, but contained their own elements of possibility. Every time a sweat- and rain-soaked piece of stationery containing a thousand pedestrian details and a few profundities was removed from a protected pocket, unfolded, and exposed to the air, the stationery itself – a rapidly yellowing piece of paper that surely wouldn’t last the campaign – was a yellow talisman, a totem, a treasure map without any treasure, where no X marks any spot. The browns were everywhere, since dirt was the fighting man’s friend. A man could burrow into it, dig a shelter out of it, cling to it when the artillery began to crack and thunder and smash the very air out of his lungs, and still the dirt was brown. The farmer in him could recognize the life-giving chemistry of a handful of dirt, but the scared child in him would only know it as the last defense against an oblivion so complete that the only echo of his fear would be another soldier in another time squeezing the last bits of magic out of a handful of soil, and he might realize he was begging and supplicating in the midst of centurions and legionnaires, and maybe even a Bonapartist or two. In a lighter shade and grainier form the brown dirt was yellow sand, which afforded even less protection and less [memory of the past] than the dirt. Sand could and did fly in a thousand directions each time it took a mortar hit, but there was an in-between-ness to it, the fact that it straddled the line between the deep blue ache of the ocean and the twisted fiery reds and blacks and greys farther inland. There, on the margin, the border, the Rubicon, a man could at least exist in a state of, if not grace, at least limbo.
Those reds… Not the worst of all the colors, because they expected the red of fire and the red of blood (two very different shades, one a much more active and kaleidoscopic scarlet and the other a slowly darkening flow of crimson), but a terrifying color because of what it meant. Even a red sky at night was no one’s delight, since all it did was remind them of the blood they’d seen and the blood they’d see, the flags unfurled once the red morning gave them warning and it began again. If they were lucky. If they were unlucky they’d have to fight against blood and flags that were caped and canopied by the darkest black nights a man could scare himself into imagining.
Grey and black went hand in hand. Steel grey of ships and tanks, of unfinished products on assembly lines, of the very weapons used to wage war and defend against war. The haze grey of paint, the gunmetal grey of guns and the soupy grey of fog and smoke and ash. The blacks were soot and stain, what used to be called wrack and ruin. A grey cloud at least hinted at or teased about rain and relief, or camouflage, but also a certain point they knew it kept the planes on the ground and did nothing to protect from a shell that couldn’t tell let alone care about the weather.
And the stark whites of clouds, during those brief times when you could turn your head and eyes from the war and to the sky, were enough to weigh your heart down with the weight of a thousand summer days, days when those clouds could have been billowing and piling up over Dayton, or Anaheim, or Rochester, or Columbia. Your heart could nearly burst thinking that the clouds didn’t care, didn’t care a whit about what they passed over. Even worse were the whites of the crosses, the ones they managed to erect when the fighting was over long enough to bury the dead. They stood in ranks and files, in some sort of crude homage to and reckoning of and rendering of soldiers on parade. The white crosses set against the green of a lawn set against the blue of a sky so deep and never-ending you knew you didn’t matter one iota, and you set your eyes back down on the green and you see the whites of the dress uniforms and you see the similarities, in fact the identical nature and uncanny resemblance between a man in his best uniform and a man buried under a white leafless tree.
Travis Klempan served as an FMF Corpsman for two years, attended the Naval Academy, and graduated as a Surface Warfare Officer. He is currently applying to MFA programs at University of Colorado at Boulder and Naropa University. He lives in Lafayette, Colorado.