Wednesday, July 29, 2015
The Gas Chamber (Tears of Agony) 1969
Interlude Vignette 2
The Gas Chamber
(Tears of Agony) 1969
Men among Men
Sad and painful are various revolutions in life, and whenever we hear them spoken of, it wakens our minds, I think to hear of them should please both the writer and the reader, the fortunate and the unhappy, although nothing has been said on this subject, the Army, for the premise in this book is Donkeyland, and its neighborhood escapades, and in telling them tales piteous and true, where now were are towards the end of this happy, and somewhat bitter book, I shall sweeten it up with ‘The Gas Chamber,’ which is really between the time spent in Donkeyland, and Vietnam, and its return back to Vietnam, where I stop the escapades at 1972. Therefore, I have set this book between 1961, and 1972, as you can well notice. And this is the year 1969, so the event that is about to take place somewhat fits the premise, in that half the guys in the neighborhood ended up in the Army, and half of them ended up in the Vietnam War, and as you will read soon on, I even met one colleague next door to my platoon. Having explained that, let me proceed:
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 descent 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. The company over from me, was a friend of mine from Donkeyland, so I found out of all things. I went to visit him, he said, “Ha Chick, your reputation for being a trouble maker is making it over to our side, what you doing over there?”
“Just being a little resistant,” I told him, “and a few scuffles with my mates, nothing more.”
“I heard you’re fighting with everybody,” said Randy, whom was one of those guys whom was really a Rice Streeter, or from Rice Street, that went to Washington High School, and hung around with a few of the guys like John L., or Doug when it was party time, but never was what I would call a solid member.
“We’re going to the gas chamber tomorrow,” I told Randy, and he said, “We’ll be there to either before or after.” And that was it, we parted, and he avoid me, because he didn’t want to bring his platoon into any kind of mischief, as our platoon, was the considered the troublesome of the lot, at Fort Bragg, until I stopped resisting the insulting orders, and a confrontation with the Company Commander, I never would even salute the Generals. Funny now that I think of it, I became a Staff Sergeant. Well that tells you something, it just took some psychology, and adjusting.
Well as I was about to say, we stood in line in a wooded area, where a wooden structure resided 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, he told me, “You really don’t want to come here,” because I had told him I wanted to taste war, and he never sent a returned letter after that one; nevertheless, my first thoughts were, this stupid operation, the gas chamber. 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, some hoarse unusual coughing and choking, then I heard soldiers running and slamming a door behind them, 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… and make sure the number you say is clear, because 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.” He looked at me as if he shouldn’t need to repeat what he said, nodded his head, and I did the same, indicating I understood.
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 tables and charts and beams, everything wood it seemed around him.
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, ‘Say it out right, the first time!’ I per near hiccupped it out, slowly, number by number of my Social Security number, not missing one digit, addressing the Staff Sergeant as S t a f f… S e r …geant! then rapidly 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, and eyelids and lips and throat, a tinge more in my lungs, until I felt halfway balanced again; I dared not rub them, nor run, as I had already seen others do, worsening their situation, having it become more serious than it had to be; careless collisions into trees, jeeps parked, knee caps bleeding from falling, rubbing those eyes appeared to incur more blindness than relief, 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, that being, yourself 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 abyss 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, in that I’d not panic, and to be honest and frank, a soldier never knows this until he is tested under fire.
So I learned that day, as in the days in Vietnam, put all in a nutshell, one must have a mind to accomplish this, he must put aside all reason and justice, and devote his whole attention on what he is about to do. One’s mind in collaboration with one’s whole body.
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. 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. 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 (Reedited and revised, 6-2015)
Drawing by the Author/For: Private Judson Small