The Power of Color
James Camera

To this day, when I blunder, lapse into poor judgment or otherwise fail to make the right choice, my mind goes back to 1969 and the reception center bus, painted blindingly yellow against the glare of the sun, that carried me to the start of basic military training.

This bus deposited our motley group of raw recruits into the harsh world of a new reality. It was the start of a life where every decision was made for us, and consequences were suffered when orders were not carried out to the most exacting detail.

We were stripped of our civilian clothing, shorn of our neglected, unkempt locks and treated in an undignified manner the likes of which I was completely unaccustomed. I chose to be there, having boosted my draft status to be a part of the war effort and to avenge the death of a friend. At 19, I was naïve enough to think that I could make a difference. But I was taken aback by this lack of respect and inconsideration.

The “reception” center was anything but welcoming, as we were separated from one another to stand a foot apart and begin the process of de-individualization, the intent being to rebuild each of us from the ground up in order to become a cog in the wheel of a unit with one sole purpose.

Bright yellow in color, reminding me of the red-orange buses that carried me to the Coney Island amusement park in the 1950s with my catechism group of boys and girls and chaperoning Catholic priests amidst the sounds of laughter and excitement as the carnival came into view. This yellow bus carried with it the anticipation of an exciting chapter in our lives until the moment a demonic drill instructor grabbed the boy ahead of me and pulled him to the ground, holding him in place at the neck with a shiny, spit-shined boot glistening in the South Carolina sun and silver spittle flying as he shouted inarticulate obscenities at the frightened young man.

The colors swirled in my mind — red with rage, grey with uncertainty — as I thought that this couldn’t possibly happen to me. But it unfolded in an instant, and I was grabbed by the arm and forced off balance, the hot breath of the glaring drill instructor fouling the air in front of my sweating face.

He screamed at me, “Your momma must be mighty ugly boy, judging from the looks of you!”

I tried desperately to contain my anger over the remark. “Don’t take it personally,” I said to myself.“He doesn’t even know my mother.”

But still, the indignation swelled red hot in me nearly to the point of no return. I was new to this environment and tried desperately to accept the adjustments I knew I’d have to make. I was in for the long haul, after all. For the next several years anyway.

When I failed to react quickly to his remark, the DI moved on to his next target. That taught me something in itself. This time the subject was a young man bigger than the rest of us, a bit slow-witted and awkward in his movements, and he was wearing an expression of complete bewilderment. The master sergeant in charge had hit pay dirt.

“What’s your name, boy?” He glared at the young man with malicious intent.

“Bailey,” came the nervous and barely audible reply.

“Where you from, Bailey?”

“Buffalo.” Again, a tense, short response.

“I didn’t ask what you was, I asked where you was from.”

The drill instructor guffawed along with the rest of the cadre in charge as Bailey from Buffalo stood awkwardly staring at the red clay dirt at his feet. He fumbled for a plausible explanation until the DI interrupted his thoughts.

“Fall back in formation, Buffa…I mean, Bailey!”

Again, his cruel remark set off a burst of laughter as the recruit’s eyes glistened with tears. Fortunately, the sergeant didn’t notice as he moved on to his next subject of ridicule.

That moment stands out graphically, its white brilliance illuminating my mind with the appalling look on Bailey’s face, the uncertainty of his environment and the circumstances that brought him to it emblazoned across his face for all those around him to see.

Time has done little to diminish that memory, and every bus that I’ve ridden on and every trip that I’ve taken by this mode of transportation reminds me of that bright yellow bus.

I am unsure of the reasons why these events are connected to colors. Maybe it has something to do with the white heat of emotions that ran through me at the time as I anticipated the outcome of each journey. The burning red desire to avenge my fellow recruits and my own callous treatment by the drill instructors. Or the mood that permeated the atmosphere as the mud-rust colored, open-sided, canvas topped bus took us from Saigon to Phu Bai, then on to a holding camp on our way to a meeting with an elusive and formidable enemy.

Each emotion frames a color to accompany it. Perhaps it’s an attempt to cope with the beginnings of what we now know as PTSD, which was unheard of at the time. It all created feelings of doubt and hopelessness, like a grey and rainy day. My emotions were extremely high back then, and the colors may have been my way of compartmentalizing events to keep them in perspective.

Maybe. At times it is beyond my understanding, but suffice to say that colors stir passion and trepidation in me, and recalling those old dormant wounds is perhaps my way of finding closure in varying degrees or shades.

As my outfit stepped down, we were greeted by the solemn faces of the troops, the “boonie rats,” whom we had come to replace. Their tour of duty was coming to an end, and ours was just beginning. We stood across from one another facing in opposite directions. No one made eye contact. The atmosphere was tinctured a dull blue as shadows of late afternoon began to form. We were about to become the new boonie rats.

We were then hustled to the waiting olive drab flying behemoth larger than a city bus commonly known as a ‘shit-hook’, or Chinook. Its dual propellers’ deafening “wupping” filling the air with a hazy brown dust and nearly drowning out the sound of the waiting airborne bus.

I turned my head for a final glance at those returning to “the world” boarding their homeward-bound transport and saw, in my mind, the yellow reception center bus where in essence my journey had begun. And just beyond over the next hill, the orange sun fading to a burnt umber. Then I turned to step up into our waiting oversized conveyance with a vision in my mind as black as pitch, black as the jungle around us, of the harrowing place it was about to take me. I was wondering what I was in store for and thrilled and terrified at the same moment. Oh, how the complexion of my mind would alter the man I was to become.