Spring Break Postcard: Sunsets and Shrapnel

“So, you take pictures of sunsets too?”

“So, you take pictures of sunsets too?”

I squinted, lowering my cellphone. Purple flashes from the sun dazzled me, but I could vaguely make out shadowy figures. Slowly the psychedelic swirl resolved itself into a man on a bench. His hair was matted and his skin tan and burnished by the elements over the decades to a soft, wrinkled sheen. He sat, hands on the shoulder straps of his backpack, looking up at me. I shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so.”

We were surrounded by spring breakers, waiting to to catch the shuttle from Fort Lauderdale Airport to the beach and the party that awaited us there. The shuttle was already a half hour late and we were anxious to get going after a day of travel.

A rush of wind as a bus shot past us drowned out what he said next. I cupped my hand to my ear, and yelled “What?!”

“I said my son likes taking photos of sunsets too!” His smile was checkered with gaps.

“Oh.” I glanced back at the sunset framed by the palm trees. “I think most people take pictures of sunsets. I guess they’re just universally considered beautiful.” The sky was growing redder, scattering higher in the atmosphere.

“Yeah, and no sunset is the same, right?”

“Right.” I felt like our perfunctory conversation had reached its end, and turned back around, training my smartphone on the horizon.

“I used to take pictures of bombshells falling.”

I couldn’t help but turn around at his non sequitur. “What’d you say?”

The man pulled a dog tag out from under his shirt. “I served in ‘Nam, and brought my camera everywhere with me. I got some really close shots in the jungle, and next to villages that were bombed.”

A shuttle rolled up to the curb. People poured out of it bearing suitcases. I started forward, rollaway trailing, but realized it wasn’t the right one. I walked back and cracked my knuckles. The man was still looking at me, expectantly. I didn’t really know how to reply so I said, “That’s not quite the same as taking a picture of a sunset, huh?”

“No, not really. But still, each one was unique. The way it would flash in the light right before it burned. The way the sun burns.”

I wanted to escape this conversation, which was clearly an excuse for this veteran to talk about his war days. Just as the silence became awkward, our shuttle pulled around the corner. I whistled to my friend, who lazily got up off his seat near us. “Well, this is us, we’ve got a cruise to catch, it’s nice to meet you, goodbye.”

I dragged my suitcase onto the shuttle and shoved it into the rack behind the driver. We still had a few hours of travel ahead of us. Out the tinted window, the colors of the sun were muted and the man sat on his bench, smiling at nothing in particular. I had missed, as I always did, the legendary green flash right after the sun vanished beneath the horizon. The clouds still caught the embers, and streaks studded the sky like shrapnel.