The Last Gas Chamber

(First Published in River Teeth: Volume 13, #1)

This is what I know about CS gas now: It stands for chlorobenzylidene malonitrile. Police use it for crowd control. Studies have linked the chemical to pulmonary, heart and liver damage, and increased risk of miscarriage. The U.S. Army Center for Heath Promotion and Preventative Medicine reportedly advises anyone exposed to its “very toxic fumes” to seek medical attention immediately, even though the gas chamber is a routine and required part of military training.

But at eighteen years of age, I knew none of this. Instead, before going in the gas chamber for the very first time, thinking I had it made with this “one weekend a month, two weeks a year” National Guard thing, I knew just one urban legend: that CS was strong enough to instantly curdle the dairy in your stomach, so unless you wanted to upchuck into your mask, better pass on the milk and yogurt in the chow hall.

Gas Chamber #1: July 2001

Age: 18

I wake up with a swollen face. Again. In the cavernous bathroom at the end of our barracks, I wait for a chance to wedge myself in at one of the five sinks, and then stare at my puffy, squinty-eyed face as I brush my teeth. I’m reminded of the little girl in the Exorcist. Are the wool blankets responsible, or is it because I’m sick? I’ve had an excruciating sore throat for over a week now. All they gave me at Sick Bay was a bottle of Aspirin with just twelve pills, long gone by now.

I dress with dread, and a little excitement. I have one extra item of equipment to strap on today. My gas mask. The mask is packed perfectly, the hood inside-out, straps inside-out, tucked into its little Army-green bag so at the warning “Gas, gas gas!” I can flip open the case, grab the mask, jam it onto my face, whip the straps over the top of my head and down the back, tighten, and then jerk the hood down over the straps. I like how the bag’s belt hugs my hips. It makes me feel like a gunslinger in the Wild West, like I’m carrying a holstered pistol, like I should be spending the day threading my horse through sagebrush and cacti, a bandana around my neck, a cowboy hat pulled low. It makes my stomach twinge remembering the bag actually carries a defense against biological warfare… but then again, it will make for a genuine boot camp horror story. Of course I won’t tell it like a horror story back home. I’ll wait for people to pry, then downplay the whole gas chamber experience, treating it like a bit of trivia on par with how the Army makes girls keep their hair above their collar line. I like to seem like a tough tomboy, even though I have the suspicion I’m only surface tough, not core tough.

In formation I stare at the back of Johnson’s head. Marching, and in line, I stare at the back of Blake’s head. Eggheads. All of the guys look like eggheads with their hair shaved so short—their sweaty, pimply skin uncomfortably visible underneath the tiny spikes of hair. I cannot wait for their hair to grow out. I don’t mind staring at the back of the other girls’ heads. But the eggheads make me think of cadavers and animals and prisoners and they make me want to squirm.

In the chow hall I get my tray and side-step down the serving line, pointing (we are not allowed to speak to the servers) at what I want. Grits. Powdered eggs. At the salad bar I find Jello and applesauce, all items easy on the throat. I slide into a space at one of the long, cafeteria-style tables and keep my head ducked, shoveling in as much food as I can in our allotted five minutes, wincing at every swallow. The drill sergeants prowl the mess hall, looking over our breakfast selections for a chance to ridicule. “Whoa-ho-ho, Steiner’s got milk and cottage cheese. Whoooo! Remind me to watch you come out today, Steiner. I gotta see if you can keep that in your stomach.”

We march out to a bunch of classrooms in the South Carolina woods. We file into the classrooms and practice donning our masks in nine seconds. In the real world, they say, if you can’t get your mask out of the bag and suctioned onto your face in nine seconds, you’re dead. In practice, I’m dead every time.

I take my place in a long, long line, single file, no platoon divisions anymore, just 240 teenagers, except for that one guy in 2nd Platoon we call Grandpa, who is 36, an anomaly. My mask sealed on my face, adrenaline churning through my body, I wait for one of the drill sergeants to come down the line and check me.

“Is your mask sealed? Cover your canister and suck in,” a short, heavyset female drill sergeant barks. I obey. She isn’t satisfied, and yanks the bottom straps as tight as they will go. “You leave it like that. I think you had a leak before.” I’m almost choking, the straps gouging into my swollen lymph nodes under my chin. I nod because I can’t speak. My thick outer shell begins to crack.

I wait in line for over half an hour, at parade rest. If I move to loosen the straps, I’ll be reprimanded, yet the taut pain is all I can think about. Finally, it’s my turn to enter the chamber, along with about twenty others. I file into the cave-like room, the air glowing an artificial, sickly, greenish yellow from the chemical smoke. The instructors, in full protective gear, close the door and break open a “chem. pill,” sending out a slow, roiling cloud of concentrated gas.

They have us breathe through our masks for a minute or two, letting us get used to the environment, saying things like “See? You gotta trust your mask. You’re getting clean, filtered air now.”

The skin on my exposed hands and neck feels as if it is simmering.

“Break the seal,” an instructor orders.

I take a deep breath and try to worm my fingers under the bottom edge of my mask. It’s too tight. I fumble to loosen the straps.

“Let’s go, private!”

I wrestle the thing off, ripping out a chunk of hair in the process. The air on my face feels gritty and dry. My eyes burn. I hold my breath.

“Okay, now re-seal your mask.”

I press the mask to my face, but can’t get the straps over my head. They’re all too tight. I claw at the clasps, slap the thing back on, and take a gulp of the contaminated air. It drops like a hot coal to the pit of my stomach. Racing to re-tighten the straps, clear and seal the mask back around my face, I shove down nausea. The air starts coming in clear again. My lungs burn, my eyes water, snot is running down my face, my stomach is doing flip flops, but really, I’m thinking, that wasn’t too bad. As long as I never have to do it again as long as I live.

Two days later, at the hospital, they tell me I have Mono and an enlarged spleen. They’re sending me home. Next summer I can pick up where I left off.

Gas Chamber #2: July 2002

Age: 19

A year older, a year into college, I’m already regretting signing up. This Army thing has suddenly become real, not something you practice on the weekends. The twin towers have fallen. We’re at war. I’m scared of what will happen to me. I didn’t see this coming. Did anyone? All I know is I can’t be sent over before I complete basic training and then my specialized job training. Hopefully, like Desert Storm, the war will have ended by then, because I am not one to break my word. The contract I agreed to at 17 years of age is legally binding, as thick as the complete works of Jane Austen, and bears my signature on every page.

During “in-processing” I stand in front of a bored-looking sergeant and tell him my story, how I can skip all this preliminary mumbo jumbo and join a company in Week Three. He informs me that no, I can’t pick up boot camp where I left off last summer, I have to start all over again, from Day One. There is nothing to do but obey.

When gas chamber day comes, at least I know what to expect. What terrifies me is I have a painfully sore throat. Exactly like the year before. I worry I’ll be doomed to repeat the worst part of basic training every summer for the rest of my life.

I march out to the training site, staring at the back of eggheads. I file into the chamber and watch the instructors release a cloud of neon, mustard-colored gas. My exposed skin starts prickling. The poison settles onto my clothes. I can smell trace amounts of the gas in my mask. I tense, waiting for the command to break the seal. What went wrong last year is I didn’t hold my breath long enough. I really didn’t have to breathe more than a mask-full at all, I think.

My plan works. I emerge, tears and snot running down my face, but virtually unscathed. I’m proud.

And I keep feeling more proud as training goes on. I can do this. I’m good at this. I love this—proving myself, being challenged, being recognized for what my young, athletic body can do, for what vast amounts of information I can memorize practically overnight. I like getting letters from people who feel sorry for me, like I’m serving some kind of sentence instead of making a voluntary sacrifice.

I graduate boot camp with honors because of my high score on the physical fitness test. I think I look damn good in my “Class As.” A general gives me a coin (which is a big deal in the Army). I go home and defend the military to anyone who criticizes. The most common complaint is that it brainwashes you. “No,” I say, “you’ve got it all wrong.” I recite things like “They break you down to build you back up stronger.” “Everything has a purpose.” “The drill sergeants actually respect you in the end. They treat you like equals,” and “There’s no racism in the military.” I am not brainwashed, I scoff to myself. No, they’ve really got it all wrong.

Gas Chamber #3: July 2005

Age: 22

Gas chamber day came about halfway through ROTC training camp. Why had I joined ROTC? Here’s the short version: I was called up to serve in Iraq. A few days after getting the news, an ROTC recruiter started courting me, telling me that I could finish college if I joined ROTC because cadets can’t be called up. Since I didn’t believe in the war, and since money for school was the main reason I’d joined the Guard in the first place, (a naive, shameless little mercenary), I agreed.

I was pissed arriving at Ft. Hood, Washington that summer. Not only because I had to go through the gas chamber again, but because the façade had crumbled down to its foundations. I was finally ready to admit to myself, out loud, that I didn’t belong in uniform, never had. I was ready to announce it to the whole world, but the maddening thing was I couldn’t get started on all that until I got back home. See, when I got called up, I had to go through “processing” again. At the last station, I was asked to fill out some medical paperwork, and on the last page of this paperwork was the question: Are you a conscientious objector? Yes, I thought, that’s exactly what I was! But until then, I thought that by definition, you couldn’t be a soldier and a conscientious objector. I thought the term only applied to the Vietnam era. No one had ever told me I could voice my objection. And why would they? My pen hovered over the box. If I didn’t check it, I would be lying to myself. But if I did check it, I worried the Army would think I was lying to them. “Oh sure, get called up and suddenly you’re a conscientious objector? Right.” I glanced at the sergeant watching me fill out the form.

“Do you have a question?” she asked, the lids of her eyes drooping with skepticism. She was already peeved about my insistence that I shouldn’t be in processing at all, that I’d already signed an ROTC contract and wasn’t going anywhere.

I hesitated. She started picking at her nails. “No.” I didn’t know the Army’s definition of a conscientious objector. I didn’t know if I needed proof. I didn’t know if they would try to punish me if I checked the box. Frankly, I didn’t know anything, and I was in way over my head.

As soon as I got home, I started researching on the Internet. I found a non-profit that told me about the rigorous application process to becoming a conscientious objector. It was next to impossible to pull off, they said, but I had to try. We schemed. They sent me the huge list of everything required, but I’d only just begun building my case when I was shipped off to ROTC summer camp, where I had to live the lie, or get kicked out and shipped off to Iraq after all, or get court martialed for refusing.

So there I was, deep in the Washington woods, disgruntled, jaded, angry, and trapped. Trapped by my own, idiotic, 17-year-old self. About to be trapped once again in a cement room with a gas I’d built up to monstrous proportions in my mind. I dreaded sucking in that poison again more than anything else the Army could throw at me. More than itchy wool blankets and shitty barracks. More than grueling PT sessions. More than latrine duty. More than marching in the rain and then sleeping out in the field, cold and wet, time stretching so each minute seemed like hours.

We filed off the cattle car, and surprisingly, were issued full MOPP gear. We got black rubber gloves, rubber boots and thick, Army-green jumpsuits to protect our bodies from the gas. My spirits fluttered.

I was the squad leader that day, so I led our squad up a hill into a clearing of trees, where we were instructed on how and when to wear the protective gear. The instructors stressed, “When you take your mask off, breathe in right away. Just get it over with.” Ha. Yeah right. I’d do what I did in Boot Camp Number Two: hold my breath, speedily clear and seal, and waltz out upright, not a puking, gagging, slobbering mess.

When we unrolled our gloves, I realized I didn’t have a pair, just one. When I pointed out the mistake to the instructor he said I couldn’t wear just one, so I stuffed the glove in my cargo pocket. A chubby, pimple-riddled spec-four shot me a sympathetic look and started explaining the gas chamber experience in earnest, until I said, “I know. I’m prior service. I’ve been gassed twice in the chamber and twice in the field already.” He shut up. I wanted to tell him that there were three prior service cadets in our squad, and two from military academies. One had just come back from a tour in Afghanistan. We weren’t the naïve, inexperienced babies he was picturing.

Then I started to wonder, when did I start thinking in “we?” When did I start identifying with these people I wanted so desperately to have nothing to do with? Why now of all times did I feel camaraderie, when all I wanted to do was leave, to declare that I was different, that I couldn’t be a part of the war in any way, no I couldn’t even be a cook or a fueler or a supply person, because that would be helping, that would be forwarding something I didn’t believe in?

We. I loved this we, and I hated it. I loved Stinson’s Dracula laugh and the way he walked heavy and deliberate like a 70-year-old, and how he didn’t get jokes, and was afraid to come in the female living quarters even though we said “all clear” three times for him. I loved that McGreer played the bagpipes as a hobby and Sara Waller could keep up a fake, snobby British accent for hours with me, until our stomachs hurt from laughing, and that Kleins, the youngest of us all, not even eighteen yet, saw things black and white enough to say “I’m here to kill terrorists. It’s that simple.” But how I hated the fact that they were all here voluntarily, how they not only wanted to do this Army thing, but wanted to be the ones organizing and manipulating it all. “Leaders.” They had no major complaints with the government and higher ups. They didn’t see that we hadn’t been in a Just War since World War II. They didn’t see that it was wrong, even predatory, to hold 17 and 18-year-old kids to six-year contracts on penalty of prosecution.

But there I was, part of the We, whether I liked it or not.

Heavyset in our bulky, dark green jumpsuits, boots and masks, we walked down the hill to a small cement building with wooden rooms attached. I kept sucking in on my mask with a hand over my canister to make sure it was sealed. Already, the edges burned my cheeks. Even though we’d wiped the inside with alcohol pads, there was still some CS residue.

Inside the dark, stone box, chemical lights shone from the corners. Four ominous instructors hovered behind a table set in the middle of the room as we lined up, backs to the wall. The instructors carried themselves like gladiators—calculated, balanced, larger than their actual frames. One of them broke open five CS tablets, which started spurting clouds of neon yellow. This was much, much more CS than they’d used in boot camp. The gladiators, dressed as we were, but with rank on their jumpsuits, paced and started yelling. “Alright there cadets, the side-straddle hop!”

“The side-straddle hop!” we echoed, the words muffled by our masks.

“One… two…” They counted. We hopped.

After jumping jacks we moved on to overhead arm clappers, flutter kicks, and finally, push-ups, all while fumbling slowly in all our gear, sweating and fogging up our masks as we yelled, never loud enough for the gladiators. My sweat loosened my mask’s grip, intensifying the burning there, as if thousands of tiny fire ants had burrowed into my skin and stung.

“Alright, alright, now that we’re warmed up, the fun begins,” another instructor shouted through his mask, rubbing his hands together. “You!” he said, pointing at me.

I walked up to stand in front of him, my chest heaving as I gulped in as much air as my lungs would hold. This fucker. This fucker wouldn’t get to me. And I wasn’t breathing in any of this shit.

“Take off your mask,” he demanded. I flipped the hood over my head, and started yanking the straps over.

“Get it off, get it off!” he screamed. I pulled the mask away from my face and held it in one bare hand. I met the sergeant’s startling, rabid-wild blue eyes, waiting for whatever he would throw at me. Already, tears blurred my vision, but I had a chest full of sweet, filtered air.

“What’s your name, cadet?”

“Rosa del Duca, sergeant.”

“Social security number.”

“###-##-####, sergeant.”

“Open your eyes! What platoon?”

“Third, sergeant.”

“What school are you from? Open your eyes!”

“Cal Poly, sergeant,” I shouted, thinking this had to be the last question. I was running out of air. Water poured from my eyes, leaving searing streaks on my cheeks. He paused, staring at me with those crazy eyes. I pretended to take a tiny breath in, raising my shoulders ever so slightly. I twisted my face in mock misery.

My performance would have convinced a civilian, I’m sure of it. Or maybe he really did think I was in pain—just not enough. Because he had suffered, I must suffer. That was the point. That was what drove the initiation into this thing. This exclusive club. Four years before I would have taken the punishment willingly, maybe even eagerly, to prove something, to feel closer to my battle buddies, to earn that money for school, to tell stories to people back home, to feel a shred of what people who’d actually been gassed felt and remind myself that this was why we needed an army. Four years before I’d accepted the rules—in part because I believed in them, and in part because I had to. But now I saw the rules as feckless dictates. I hadn’t believed in them for a long time. Maybe that’s what the sergeant really saw. Disbelief. Defeat. The fact that I was an imposter in this uniform. And he wanted to give me a small taste of the punishment yet to come.

The sergeant shifted his weight, crossing his arms. “And where’s that?”

“California, sergeant,” I choked out.

He paused a few seconds more and I panicked, drawing in a small breath of the thick, yellow cloud. I coughed.

And it was all over.

I couldn’t stop coughing, couldn’t stop gasping for more air, but the more smoke in my lungs, the harder I coughed, suffocating and gagging, my mask useless in my hands.

“There we go,” said the sergeant, no doubt grinning behind his mask. “Out the door, cadet.”

I turned around blindly and almost ran into the wall, hysteria building in my gut, and then someone was guiding me and I had enough sense to stretch my hands out so I didn’t ram into anything else, and I was moving through a corridor, and then out the door, where I stood doubled-over, retching and gulping. I tried to force my eyes open, but they stayed clamped shut. Amused voices shouted, “Open your eyes!” “Flap your arms, cadet!” “Say you love your mask!”

Loved my mask?

“Sound off cadet! Say ‘I love my mask.’”

I choked again.

“Say it!”

“I love my mask,” I mumbled between gasps.

“Where are you going cadet? Go around the circle, don’t come over here.”

Circle? What circle? All I saw was a blur of green and tan. I stumbled away and after a few more seconds of furious blinking, saw the outline of a dirt track in a field. Behind me, the rest of my squad trickled out, hacking and gasping. “I love my mask!” they screamed.

We met up in the middle of the field.

“You are a badass, del Duca,” said Kassano, shaking his head, his face as wet as mine.

“Yeah, how did you do that?” asked Stinson. “I got halfway though one answer and couldn’t get anything out.”

I gave a wry smile and fished my BDU cap out of my cargo pocket.

“As soon as I took the mask off, I took a breath and then I was like, shiiiiiiit,” said McGreer, giddy as a Ranger after his first jump. Of course McGreer, the man’s man, the soldier’s soldier would have enjoyed that.

“I did exactly what they said,” Ayma said, fixing her long dark hair in a knot at the back of her head. “I took a breath right away and they let me go.”

They chattered on, but I wasn’t listening anymore. I took a breath and they let me go? Yes, Ayma, be a good little automaton, I scoffed to myself, slapping my cap on my head and pulling it low over my eyes. But petty disgust quickly turned to jealousy. Why hadn’t I just done what they said?

Take a breath. And they let you go. It rang in my ears for days, like a promise I wasn’t ready to admit was just a fantasy. The words became a mantra I heard chanted to the cadence of my footsteps, the rhythm of my breathing. I imagined walking back into the gas chamber—no mask, no gear, no uniform even—and surrendering to the poison for as long as they wanted, until I passed out if that’s what they wanted, if only when I left the chamber I could keep on walking, right off the base, right out of Washington, right through Oregon and down the California coast, all the way home.

Take a breath, and they let you go. If only it were that easy.