From the moment we entered basic training, we began hearing about the dreaded CS gas chamber. Everyone had a theory about what it entailed, and I soon came up with my own theory. As I mentioned earlier, my theories about military life were always wrong. I neglected an important truth when formulating my theories. In the army, you must remove logic and reason before making any predictive calculations. Unfortunately, I did not make this connection until years later.
If you are not familiar with CS gas, it’s an eye and respiratory irritant. Kind of like political speech, only less damaging. It burns the skin a little, but the eyes and nose are its favorite targets. Just think of your nose as a dormant volcano, and CS as the earthquake that releases the molten lava.
At the beginning of basic training, we were issued a gas mask, along with other common household items. We were taught how to put it on quickly, and during various times, someone would holler, “Gas, Gas, Gas,” and we’d all have to don the mask before sudden death overtook us. Basic training was six weeks, and the gas chamber was scheduled for week three.
The dreaded day arrived and I stood in line with my friend Ron. Ron was fidgety and I could tell something was eating at him. He turned to me and asked, “How bad do you think it will be?”
“Well, I have a theory,” I began. “Each year thousands of soldiers go through this training, and I haven’t heard of anyone dying, so I figure that it can’t be that bad.”
No sooner did the words leave my mouth when we heard a scream of agony. Kind of like the ones you would hear from someone having a gall bladder removed without anesthesia. A trainee came running out of the smoke while flailing at imaginary bees. His eyes were clamped shut but he was in a full sprint. You are probably guessing what was in his future. You guessed correctly. He hit a tree at full throttle and fell to the ground unconscious.
Ron looked back at me and I shrugged and said, “Of course, I could be wrong.”
A few minutes later, we were instructed to put on our masks and walk into the chamber. I could feel a slight tingling in the skin around my mask when I entered the smoke-filled room. The sergeant gave some lecture about this being designed to give us confidence in our equipment. We didn’t hear much of what he said. Our focus was on the fact that we were not far from having to remove the mask and breathe this fowl air.
He pointed to the first guy. “Take off your mask.” He did and then doubled over. “Stand up, trainee. This aint that bad.” He then started asking the guy questions while the trainee hacked and sputtered. After a few minutes he pointed to the exit and the trainee stumbled out of sight. Then the next guy stepped up. One by one we were told to remove the mask.
My turn came. I took a deep breath and took off the mask. My eyes began to sting and water. He asked me a few questions and I answered, being careful not to expel all my air. Other than blinking, I showed little effect to the gas. “Say the alphabet,” he said. I began reciting the alphabet, calmly and concentrating on not using all of my air. When I got to ‘L’ he said, “Step out of the chamber,” and pointed to the exit.
I had made it! When I felt cool air on my face, I took a deep breath. I neglected one important hazard, though. Exiting the chamber with me was large whiffs of CS smoke. A split second before I inhaled, the cool air was displaced by a flume of smoke. I gulped in a full lungful of CS gas. My nose exploded with new life as I gagged and wheezed. Ron bent over beside me as we shared this intimate experience.
As joyful as this chamber of delight had been, it wasn’t the last CS encounter we would encounter.
Eddie Snipes 2013
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