Thursday, October 30, 2014
The Gas Chamber
Men among Men (part one)
The Gas Chamber
(Tears of Agony) 1969
If you’ve ever been a soldier, you’ll never forget the gas chamber! That’s a fact and that’s realism. If you haven’t been a soldier, here is a somewhat of a clear reproduction of it!
The year was 1969, Fort Bragg, North Caroline, I’m Private Evens, our company had 160-soldiers in it, our platoon 44-soldiers, and our squad 12-soldiers. We stood in line in a wooded area, where resided a wooden structure called: “The Gas Chamber,” which looked more like an old barn, than what might be referred to as a chamber. This was one of the last elements of our Basic Training program. As I stood behind Private Smiley (a nickname, he was really Judson Small), an Alabama boy, and dear friend, one that would be sent to Vietnam before me, and warn me in a last letter of his, “You really don’t want to come here,” I had told him I wanted to taste war, and he never returned home (but I would meet him in Vietnam anyhow for a few months); nevertheless, my first thoughts were, this stupid operation. To have to endure to experience the terrible effects of gas, by putting us into a gas chamber, and testing our responses, having to take off our gas masks in the process. Oh well, I had passed basic training like a wiz anyhow—up to this point, it was child’s play for me, but this, I was apprehensive of.
It was 2:00 p.m., in the afternoon I was leaning on a rail that led into the front door of the gas chamber. I heard ahead of me, beyond the door, unusual coughing and choking, then I heard soldiers running and slamming a door that evidently was in the back of the barn, so I shall refer to the gas chamber, according to its structural looks. The Sergeant in front of my pal Smiley said, “You go quick when I open up the door here, have your gas mask on tight, and hold your breath once you have to take it off in front of the Staff Sergeant, with the gas mask off say loud and clear, ‘Staff Sergeant my Social Security number is…’ if it is not clear, he’ll ask you to repeat it, and you don’t want that to happen because you’ll be sucking in poisonous gas,” then abruptly he blunted out to Private Smiley, “you will not have time to put it back on, the gas mask, hightail it out of the chamber and clear your head.”
A minute later I had joined Smiley, having caught a slight whiff of the air that came up from below, near the floor, as the door was opened and as I gulped in a gallon of oxygen for safe keeping, unneeded to be quite honest. The chamber was foggy, filled with gas, made me catch my breath some, and having done that, I sucked in a whiff of that gas trying to make sure my gas mask was on secure, held my lips tight thereafter, just breathing through my nose. I had inhaled just a whiff, just enough gas, on the instant, to forget my Social Security Number, everything save one thing, this was the whole test, not to get fragmented in combat, the next I knew I was a tinge dizzy, the fumes bit my eyes, throat, strangled them. The Staff Sergeant had a gas mask on, as I expected, and as I approached him he waved his finger for me to take mine off: this of course was the whole purpose of the course, that being the soldiers behind me and in front of me, in line, needed to be tested for their personal reaction and then we ourselves needed to acknowledge to ourselves, if we made any mistakes, if so to correct them if indeed we ever got into such a predicament. Everything was dim, foggily lit in the chamber, I saw Smiley hand’s tremble, and knees bend—he must have had a bigger whiff than I, I was right behind him clearing my mind to be tested next; the fumes had gotten into his lungs, he had to repeat his numbers all over, and forgot to say Staff Sergeant the second time, and started all over for the third time, and he was coughing and gasping, then he dashed to the doors that led to the outside, when the sergeant said, “Just get on out of here!” And as he did, he had a few collisions on the way, bumping into this and that woodwork.
My mouth had remained closed as not to inhale the slightest of anymore fumes, I could not withdraw the gas’ thickness being soaked into my eyes, and lips the pain of the fumes was bad, should I inhale them, God forbid, my lungs would be in pure agony—I was holding my breath as he said “Go ahead private…”, I told myself, ‘Shoot it out right, the first time!’ I burped out my Social Security number, not missing one digit, addressing the Staff Sergeant as Staff Sergeant, stumbled my way to the door, a short distance, seemingly a forever distance, I had to bend down some also, holding onto my knees trying to get my bearings, bumping my way around a desk, or chair, some woodworks, and as I opened the door, I made it to a tree, allowing the breeze to cool my eyes, lips, a tinge more in my lungs, until I felt halfway balanced; I dared not rub them, nor run, as I had already seen others do, worsening their situation, having it become more serious than had to be; careless collisions into trees, jeeps parked, knee caps bleeding from falling, rubbing those eyes appeared to incur more blindness, one fellow soldier was bleeding from a wound in his forehead, he had run right square into a tree—head first! What most of those soldiers who got hurt that day suffered, was not the gas in particular, but the effects of not allowing one’s self to endure the pain of the gas, trying everything that seemed sensible to ease the pain, when only time would do that, not allowing nature to take its course, and telling one’s self to be tranquil during this tribulation period. I listened to my instincts, having observed the results, and obeying the rule of thumb, which is, to listen to your instincts.
The intolerable bile of vapor, soaked into my eyes, skin, lips, especially into my nostril’s, lungs, and the brain, my brain was like everyone else’s wanting to collapse, but I told my brain to endure the pain, it was agony and helplessness, that had to be endured. It was the lack of oxygen in the lungs with the pain of the gas, and slight dizziness in my balance, or reflexes, had I had to repeat my Social Security number, I too would not have been unable to manage to stand upright.
I must have seen a dozen or more soldiers crawling on the ground hands and knees, others struggling manically, walking in circles, running and ramming themselves into trees. For many soldiers that afternoon it was an afternoon nightmare of agony. For a while my consciousness was blurred. From the moment I took the gas mask off there was several temptations for me to take a breath of air but mentally I told myself, I’d fall into an ultimate dark if I did, so yes, I fought my way step by step though the temptations, and dragged myself through the chamber back door, holding my breath for the most part, never lost my cool; this would help me later on while in Vietnam.
As I look back upon it, I am aware of one thing: not to react to emotions but to think, if not instinct, think, and think calmly, if possible instantly. Ere, one must be tested before he can receive sanction for being under combat, and this must be done by one’s self; of course this was the test that nobody failed, and should they think they failed, they knew now, what to expect, and what not to do. For life and death can reside in one point of issue, under fire: do you freeze or think! I call it ‘Calm instinct thinking’ for I saw many a soldier freeze under fire—
No: 1028/ 19 Oct 2014
Drawing by the Author
For: Private Judson Small