My parents first noticed it when I was six or seven. I’d begun to paint, and had made a few attempts at landscapes. My efforts were probably no better or worse than any other boy would do, but there was something disturbingly odd about the colors. They told me I’d painted brown trees, green-tinted skies and purple rivers.
Sometimes my mother would say “red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” What was she talking about?’ The sky looked a golden yellow to me.
I went on painting and, in my early teens, graduated to oils on canvas. By now I was doing a better job, but the colors were still weird. In my pictures, the red-sailed Thames river barges that plied the estuary near my home had mud colored sails, or magenta smoke curling up from cottage chimneys.
There was no question, I was colorblind.
At school I went on painting for a while, but Mr. Lockett, the art master, talked me into abandoning color and concentrating instead on pen and ink, and other black-and-white media. He also persuaded me to try my hand at clay modeling. My earliest attempt was a disaster. At fourteen, I modeled a headless, naked earth goddess, two feet high. Her stomach was somewhat distended, and her breasts larger than life. It was blatantly sexual, and looked like some kind of African fecundity fetish. My parents raised their eyebrows, and told me not to keep it in the house, or show it to neighbors or friends. But at least I’d found ways to express myself without using colors.
Being colorblind became a more serious matter in the British Army, which had a rule that, before you can train to be an officer, you must first experience life as a private soldier. For six months, my comrades and I endured endless drill parades, kit inspections, rifle and bayonet practice, physical training and route marches, cleaning latrines, and futile practices such as polishing coal and whitewashing rocks.
One day, when we were on the rifle range, lying on our bellies, legs splayed, squinting into the sights, Colonel Martin, the one-eyed veteran who commanded the training battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment, passed by on a tour of the unit. At that moment we were firing at targets several hundred yards away, in the shape of Russian soldiers. The colonel strolled up behind me and tapped the heel of my boot with his swagger stick.
“What’s your name, lad?”
“All right, Birch. Let’s see how good you are. See that red triangle on the chest of target 3?”
“You can’t see it, man? You colorblind or something?”
“Yes, sir, I said.”
The colonel grunted and moved on.
The years slipped by, and when I was about to “pass out” from Sandhurst, Britain’s version of West Point, I had a shock. There’d been a strict medical exam when I’d joined up, but since then they’d introduced the infallible Ishihara Test. You can’t slip past this by guessing, and I was pronounced colorblind, unable to distinguish the difference between red, green and brown. A few days later, the report came in. Attached to it was a letter couched in bloated officialese, saying that no-one who was Grade 4 colorblind could serve in a combat arm – such as an infantry regiment, armored unit, the Royal Artillery, or the Royal Engineers. My first choice was infantry, in the South Staffordshire Regiment, but had no choice but to join one of the support services that handle transportation, stores, pay, or radio and telecommunications.
This saddened me. But for this defect I’d have passed through Sandhurst high enough in the order of merit to win my first choice of regiment, yet was balked for a reason that, at the time, didn’t seem all that important. But, then, just a few days before the “passing-out” parade, we learned that General Sir Richard Gale, the army’s Director of Infantry, was coming to address us before we were commissioned. I wondered, could he intercede on my behalf? It was worth a shot.
On the day of the address I visited my college commander, Colonel Alistair Mitchell, a tank man in the Royal Horse Artillery, and told him my story. Would it be possible to have just a few minutes with the general? Mitchell was sympathetic, but not too hopeful; a rule was a rule, he said. It was irregular, but he’d do what he could. I was to report to the staff and faculty mess after the address, by which time he’d have tried to arrange a brief meeting.
General Gale, affectionately nicknamed ‘Windy’ Gale, duly gave his speech in the packed auditorium. Predictably, it was a forceful paean to courage, loyalty and selfless fortitude. Soon afterward I walked up the steps of the mess, and asked a passing steward for Colonel Mitchell, who escorted me to a little antechamber that led off the mess drawing room, wishing me luck as he left and closed the door behind him.
I seemed to wait forever, alone in the empty room, listening to the buzz of conversation in the room next-door, and rehearsing my plea in my head. Then, at last, the door opened and there loomed Windy Gale – a paunchy, cheerful man with a handlebar mustache -- and we shook hands.
“Well, young fellow, what’s your problem? Tell me about it?”
We sat opposite one another in leather club chairs while I told him the story of the color test, and what options I’d been offered.
From time to time he nodded and shook his head, but said nothing, and asked me a battery of questions. When he’d finished he asked, “What regiment did you say you want to join?”
“The South Staffords, Sir.”
“The 38th Foot, eh? Damn fine regiment. Did a jolly good job in Burma against the Japs!”
He fell silent for a while, and seemed to be thinking.
“Lookie here, young man. It’s really agin’ the rules for anyone who’s colorblind to be in a fighting arm. But Colonel Mitchell thinks you’re a decent chap, and that you’ve done well here.”
He stood up and held out his hand and I shook it again.
“I can’t make any promises, you know, but I’ll see what I can do. How’s that?”
I muttered my appreciation, and the general gave my shoulder a fatherly little pat. “I’ll get your details from your company commander. Good luck, laddie.”
Then he was gone. I walked back in the dark to my quarters. It had been the briefest meeting. Would he, could he do anything?
A week or two later, while I was on leave at home, a manilla envelope arrived from the War Office, telling me I’d been commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant into the South Staffordshire Regiment, and that I was to report to their depot at Whittington Barracks, in Litchfield.
So Windy Gale had pulled it off.
It was during a prolonged anti-terrorist campaign a year or two later on the island of Cyprus that I realized there was wisdom behind the ban on colorblind officers serving in the fighting arms. After some time as a platoon commander in a rifle company in Germany, I was sent to the Support Weapons Wing in Wiltshire to attend a seven-week course on 3-inch mortars, the British version of the U.S. Army’s 81 mm mortar. Every infantry battalion had a mortar platoon armed with six mortars, which acted as the unit’s in-built artillery. The weapon can fire a ten-pound bomb nearly three thousand yards, and so high that it can reach unseen targets on the other side of villages, hills and woodland.
And this is when I discovered the most serious drawback of being unable to recognize colors. There were three kinds of mortar bombs -- the U.S. Army calls them shells -- high explosive, distinguished by a red band, white phosphorous, marked with a white band, and white and colored smoke bombs to screen troops on the move within sight of enemy positions. But it wasn’t so much those colored bands that were difficult; the hardest thing was telling the colors of signals fired with a special pistol by the company commander we were supporting. The colored fireworks told us not only when to fire, but also what to fire, and I found colored pyrotechnics especially hard to differentiate.
Fortunately, my deputy, Sergeant Murtagh, a World War II veteran, had good color vision, and all I needed to do was to turn to him and ask, “What color’s that signal?” It never failed, and I managed not to obliterate a target with high explosives when we should have been laying down a harmless smokescreen. Nonetheless, I was relieved when promoted to be second-in-command of a rifle company, when suddenly color became much less important.
People often say, “How do you see everything?” That’s a question I can’t really answer. How does everyone else see everything? But, happily, life isn’t entirely a dull monochrome thing. I get pleasure from spring and fall leaves, but I suspect they’re not as startling as they are to others. The difference is especially strong in art. However brilliant its form, nearly all Medieval art is too dark and shadowy as are most paintings by Constable, Reynolds, Turner and Corot, but many Impressionists, such as Cezanne, Monet, and Bonnard, and later painters like Van Gogh, Matisse and Utrillo, are full of excitement and light.
It’s all a matter of degree. To mangle a popular saying about love: “Better to see half a rainbow than never to have seen at all.”