Ft. Campbell, KY. September 1969

Sometime around the middle of the basic training cycle a rumor began to circulate that we were going to be treated to a snootful of tear gas. This exercise was meant to familiarize us with the gas and to give us confidence in our gas masks. The rumor was that this training would be held indoors with a fuming tear gas grenade just like it was depicted in the war movies.

I had had some experience with noxious fumes when I worked a summer job installing natural gas pipelines. I had to handle bucketsful of hot, molten tar as part of the rustproofing for the welds on the pipes. The sulfurous smoke from that tar would burn my face, especially around the eyes and nose.

This training looked like a pass / fail exercise and thus had me a little concerned. If I washed out of this thing now, they would recycle me and I would have to go through the whole rotten mess all over again. I didn’t think anyone would have to carry me away in a basket, but a little advantage would be a good thing if I could cobble one together.

In all of this Army training I tried to get test scores in the upper half of my class, figuring the trainers wouldn’t flunk and recycle more than half the guys. If we individually failed at something, we got “extra training”. If we excelled at something, we drew “extra duty” teaching others. I wanted to avoid all this “extra” nonsense. Also, this 101st Airborne cadre was supposedly a hard-bitten bunch. The temptation was there to put one over on them and have a little fun at their expense. My rep. as an Abstractor of the Quintessence was at stake.

I began by learning to hold my breath. For the next couple of weeks, at odd times of the day, I would hyperventilate a little and then hold a lungful of air for as long as possible. Eventually, if I sat quietly, I could hold on for two minutes by the clock. Any moving around would knock several seconds off of that time.

The day finally came and the cadre marched the company out in the country to a blockhouse about the size of a two-car garage. This was the tear gas chamber. I had a tube of Chapstick and used it to grease up my eyelids the corners of my eyes and mouth, my nose, and my upper lip. We put on our gas masks and a drill sergeant led us inside.

It was a scene from the mines of Moria. The windows were windows in name only. They were so filthy and fly-blown they admitted only a dreary gloom of sunlight. There was a single light bulb hanging over a deal table upon which a tear gas grenade spewed white smoke into the air. Everything inside was frosted over with thin, white crystals. We shambled in a circle around the table in our masks and hoods like a procession of troglodytes performing some eldritch ritual. When one’s turn came to face a drill sergeant, he took off his gas mask and answered questions until he (the sergeant) got tired.

When my turn came, I took in as big a breath as I could, faced my inquisitor, and removed my gas mask. The sergeant, maskless, didn’t seem to be affected by the gas at all. This was not a good sign.

“Open your eyes, trainee!”

Immediately, my eyes began to burn and tear up. (It is called “tear gas” for a reason, right?) I found that I could tilt my head back a little and, by squinting a bit, keep a puddle of tears over my eyeballs and make the situation tolerable. But if I blinked, the tears would roll and I would have to collect the puddles again (Balancing those puddles would take half of my attention.). Then began the military conversation: name, rank, serial number, and general orders by the number. I think this drill sergeant tumbled to my breath-holding trick because he kept me at it longer than the others. I was running out of air. I was not in distress yet; I was running out of air to talk with. With my last puff I answered the next question with a gritty voice and let the puddles loose. He let me go then. I just made it out the side door without getting my authorized snootful. That first breath of fresh air tasted pretty good.

Most other guys staggered out of that door bent over, coughing, gagging, and drooling as Dad used to say, “like a hound dog ‘round a sassage grinder.” I had never seen anyone slobber so. Me, I was OK. My face and neck were a little itchy and the taste of victory was a little metallic, but I survived. We Abstractors take the small victories when we can finagle ‘em.

Abstractor of the Quintessence
Order of the Digital Grail