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The Space In-Between a Soldier
Sixty-seven laptop screens click on as the professor enters the lecture hall. One hundred thirty-four millennial eyes switch attention from our passcode-entering to sixty-seven-year-old man who will play the role of our collegiate Socrates for the day...or, rather, for the duration of the ninety minutes of his lecture.
He carries a ninety-nine cent cup of coffee: the iconic emblem of a disheveled professor. Still, he’s branded with the universal scholarly uniform of mildly wrinkled slacks, a flannel-like blue button down, and the staple tortoiseshell frames to top off the look. Similar to his chaotically untidy papers peeking from his leather portfolio, his hair is jumbled in a strange order only he understands.
Although he hasn’t spoken a word, we all internally predict he will sound as customarily monotone as Arial 11 Point font. So, once he clicks to title slide on his presentation, six-hundred seventy fingers are slow to begin tip-tapping on our keys. Although he hasn’t uttered one sound, we all hypothesize he’s the stock, stiff lecturer.
Yet, then he clicks to the next slide. Oh, and I can’t hear people typing now.
The stoically haunting image of a soldier Too Young to Die bepaints the dimensions of the projection screen. Vivid colors in the photograph leaves our eyes vulnerable to bombardment by the beautiful and intense hue of battlefield blood bleeding from his freshly-butchered arm. It’s as brilliant and brutal as a beheading. That deep crimson blood morphs into his thick uniform in the fashion that a Name Brand Paper Towel absorbs even the Toughest Stains. With his right arm, he hauls the remains of a fellow and lifeless man with the same casual fashion that he likely transports a container of supplies. This Victim of Death is only held up to dignity by the soldier’s calloused grip beneath his limp shoulder. Despite the chaos of smoke circling the standing soldier, he glares into the eye of the beholder from the dusty warzone of who-knows-where. His image feels as close to us in the lecture hall as that man is close to The End; his electrifying azure eyes are only sixty-seven inches away from us.
Without looking behind at the ghostly image, the professor knows he has projected the right slide from our tightly frozen faces, “Rethink what you know about war,” Compared to his messy exterior, his voice sounds too articulate, “Tell me, who is this man? Who is this boy?”
The blanket of silence clouds the pause following his rhetorical. We don’t know.
“Fine, then...Now, tell me what is this man?” The professor converses with silence for a moment, “No one? Just tell me, what is this man? I’m talking elementary level analysis.”
At last, some brutish-looking man in the front lifts two fingers in reply, “A soldier?”
The lecturer nods his head in reply, “So, we have now established this man is a soldier. I bet you all knew that before I asked you. Now, why is that? Remember, I’m looking for simple replies.”
The man that answered prior lifts the same pair of bandy and buff fingers in reply, “I guessed he’s a soldier ‘cause I looked at him and he looks like he’s in war or something.”
“Very true. We know he’s a soldier because we can see that. And nothing more,” The professor smirks like he has a tricking point up his buttoned sleeve, “Now, here is where our lesson begins,” With a flick of his wrist on the pointer, the slide changes to a cropped image of the same war photo.
In this new image, the soldier feels closer to sixty-seven centimeters from the edge of my chin. This time, the blood stain is gone, the empty shoulder socket is gone, and his lifeless friend is gone. These things were dead and gone before, but now I’m lucky enough that they’re cropped out.
But, oh god, this soldier. Our professor’s new slide is zoomed in to intently focus on the poor man’s face. His face and piercing blue eyes are even more vivid. Those eyes that beam parallel to his tight, mute lips that form a one-hundred-eighty degree angle. There’s just something unsettling here.
He gestures behind to his new, more gruesomely graphic visual, “We know this soldier. We’ve memorized the image of his blown off arm and the dead man he carries. And that’s it. So look at him…That story has something more to it. That man a life behind what we saw in the first picture. His life is his own story and we are the witnesses to that particular photographed moment. Still, we subconsciously decide whether or not that white, small town USA boy is an American Hero. We guess how long he has until his life expires. Staring into that picture becomes more and more uncomfortable for us, so we’ve decided that we know all that we want to know...But the thing is that we only know the physical factors that appear. And that is not fair for us to form opinions on.”
There’s stillness in the lecture hall. The professor removes himself from the podium and paces across the front row. It’s like a tango back and forth with each point he makes.
“It is not fair for us to ‘guess’ who he is,” The professor declares, “I want you to all stop your ‘guessing’ and just take a moment...look at the screen,” He travels back to the podium, “See this soldier and see his eyes.”
Oh, god, looking into this dying soldier one more second makes me itch. There is just something remotely daunting from his metal gaze. It’s uncomfortable. I don’t like the photo.
I don’t like this lecture. It’s just...The professor’s trying to scrape some loose point up from the edges of some sad picture. I close my laptop and gather my things to walk out. This isn’t teaching me anything. He isn’t teaching me anything.
The professor’s voice stops me as I exit the row’s aisle, “Such emotional depictions of images can have daunting effects on the viewer.”
Oh, god, am I his “real-life psychology example” now? I know he’s trying to make some point here. I stand like a deer in headlights as he continues to preach all these pieces together. He’s talking about me.
Without directly using me as an example, he articulates that, “The biological response to focusing on a stimulating visual causes the brain to form a relationship with the material at hand. An emotional reaction is the product of the mind interacting with what it sees. Or rather in a scientific equation, the reactants are the image and the human mind, the reaction that occurs is a change in thinking, and the product is a new perspective that lies deeper. You are the living reaction to the variable. And the variable is this image.” The professor stares right into me with eyes almost as sharp as the soldier.
I look up from the professor to the projection screen and I meet the soldier’s gaze. There’s something more that’s in the soldier. There’s something that the professor is saying that has a little more weight to it… He’s onto something. So, I sit down once more, with a sense of heightened hearing as I hang onto every word in the harangue.
He grants me a pleased nod, “Now, someone’s interested.” The professor makes a one hundred thirty-four degree turn to cross back to the podium, “Clearly this more close-up image has an affect on us. Because what happens when the pandemonium of life (or battle, in this case) is metaphorically cropped out of our view in our own connections? What do we notice past the chaos of context?”
A swift click changes the slide once more. There’s something placid about the soldier now. The added grayscale of the same image quiets the screaming colors of the original photo. We can’t imagine the volume of gunshots, yelling, or machine cries because they all remain a safe echo-distance away now. All the image has to offer is the intimate crop of the soldier’s countenance in two simple colors. Like the second image we saw, there’s no action in the foreground, resting bodies intruding on the soldier’s focus, or the frightening absence of limbs. There’s something that remains calm inside the soldier when the rest of the world around him is gone and in gray.
And the soldier. And his eyes. They still hold the warmth of zircon without possessing the gem’s color. It’s not as if his Windows to the Soul are now transparent, but I can fixate through without the seeming blockages that physically expressed color carries. I can see something more than I did before, but I’m still not sure on what that is. I think someone is...
“Let yourselves see the image now. First, you saw the summative scene with every aspect of his battlefield. Then, I gave you the image of the soldier from a tight view on his face, and you saw nothing of the action. This final image appears clone to the second image, but stripped of the frivolous aspect that color has to offer. Who is the man now?”
Buckets full of hands rise up, but the professor gestures for them to drop down. The blank stare painted on the soldier’s face almost matches the look of inquisition our professor wears as he scans the room.
“Sixty-seven people have met a man today. You have seen his battles, his emotions, his failings… all in one image,” He takes a lap across the lecture hall’s floor, “But we did not know this man until we saw past the bloody scene in color. We met this man when we saw him as nothing more than the simpleness of the feeling his face projects.” He laughs.
I fight the urge to laugh, but somehow a chuckle slips out. The question-answering brute in the front barks out a low giggle.
In a halfhearted, but confusingly joking manner, the professor utters, “We all know who he is! Not because of any indicators or attributes, but because you saw through this mirroring lenses of basic humanness. It was such a heightened and zoomed view of a face that we saw something more,” He doesn’t seem to laugh anymore, “We saw the truth of this man. He is nothing more than any of us once you look through with simplicity.”
I make eye contact with the soldier. Somehow, this third photo paints him with clarity in a way that’s two sided. It’s as if I finally know him. And he can see me too. His piercing eyes give me a nod of approval.
“Knowing someone or something past the facade or distractions of the active world leaves you with this,” The professor looks back at the screen for the first time all day. He connects and analyzes with the image, rather than with us, “I know him now. Because once you scan past the materialization of the physical world, what is left is the stillness of a focused, grayscale image of a life. So, find wonder in that. Find wonder in what’s left when you zoom in and see. Here is your final question: Once the physical anatomy of someone’s world is removed, what do you find? Who are you then? And how you do you connect with another person? ”
One hundred thirty-three hands clack on their keyboards. I raise mine to the sky, almost as high as the projection screen showing the soldier. Two pairs of gray eyes from the front of the lecture hall look into me.
They nod to me and I answer, “That’s where you find the space in between it all where you can see clearly. And even though the color and action on the surfaces of life are removed, the color of substance in life fills itself in between. And that’s where you find it all.”