Neat parallel rows of brown canvas perfectly aligned for miles. Turn left and there will be more brown canvas tops then you can shack a stick at.
Unlike their smaller colored canvas cousins, these brown beauties rest on sturdy wooden plats. Made homey by the small impromptu porch just big enough for one chair.
Inside sixteen cots, evenly dispersed, eight on each side, wait the airmen returning from a doctor’s shift. Not one spec is out of order. No sand drifts upon the planks despite the endless sea of it surrounding the miles of tent city.
Inside it’s all brown and camo green. A cot, and a locker, and one chair are all that define the space. The only way to tell the difference from one cot area and another is memory and the key that fits the lock.
There are rules to be followed, some even designated by ropes and signs: male section unit 101, female section unit 202, signs with color designated this area England, that one Germany, and then Italy. At the end of each other row were the same style tents that were designated for sanitary stations. The only variance here was a constant sheen of water the soaked in the sand just outside the tent or the scent that was overwhelming different.
It was ideal if you weren’t living within a few hundred feet of them. Except at two in the morning, as cold rain pelted the top and sides of the canvas walls while you were catching a precious two hours of sleep and debated how badly you wanted to force sleep or get up and make the trek to the end of the row. Was it worth donning a slicker and braving the cold after the bones had finally caught up with the heat in the sleeping bag?
The days blended into one brown day after another. The heat was intense, but usually didn’t prevent the blurring of lines to have a drink with England or Germany while bathing in the Turkish sun.
It didn’t come on schedule or with any predictability. The suit was there, always. We were luckier than most. The office, the vault, was built in to the side of a hill. It was the safest place for miles. The piercing sirens never failed to stop your heart for that millisecond of thought followed by a flashback to the sirens blaring from the top of the hill — FIRE! A small two hundred year old religious summer camp turned town could be wiped out in mere moments. Sirens called help from miles away. Sirens that warned of the dangerous invisible air; the only help from your suit.
It was habit now, the donning of the oversized suit. The one that could protect you from the deadly invisibile air. It would not withstand with whistling of the metal.
The feeling of being stuck in something too small came when the fly shaped eyes sucked into place on your cheek bones followed by the helmet snapping into place. You never know how much you rely on your peripheral vision until it’s gone. I wonder if that is what a seeing person who goes feels.
It’s dark, heavy and overwhelming. It’s not something you get used to it’s something you learn to live with — the panic of wondering if you’ll get out of this head gear, the pit in your stomach if the next breath of safe air you take will be there, the weight of the suit pressing down on every fiber of your body.
Returning to human form depended on where you donned your safety gear. If you were in the vault, it was a matter of stripping back down before pressing on with business as usual. If you were unlucky enough to be outside the vault, it was a long slow and painful bus ride to the designated area.
First you were swabbed then hosed down then stripped in reverse layers. One layer per box after swabbing each layer box by box until all that was left was the heavy suctioned fish eyed hat. Shear panic of suffocation usually set in two or three boxes from the end. Gasping in great gulps of invisible air in order to prove to the body all was right in the world — until the next piercing sirens.