Monday, April 25, 2005


It’s not the tears!

Standing in line we knew something really bad was about to happen to us. We were waiting to enter a large tent that seemed empty before turning into a Jiffy Pop popping pan. From our position about 500 feet away, the vision of bodies trying to escape through the sides of the tent without flaps was accompanied by screaming and yelling. We couldn’t understand what was being said, but we knew panic was in the air.

It’s not like we didn’t prepare. Cover the vents with both hands and blow as hard as you can. It really couldn’t be any simpler. We did practice, but the practice seemed like a waste of time. Any moron could do it their first try.

Six or eight or ten more entered the tent. I don’t remember the exact number. The number is not seared in my memory like the rest of the experience. More screaming, more yelling, more panic, and then out they came. Their faces and hands covered with snot, unable to talk or even breathe, running into each other, as they gasped for air.

It was my turn next. I repeated to myself, “cover, blow, breathe”, as I entered the tent. One instructor was in the center of the tent. One at the door of the tent. One each for the rest of us. After the last of us entered the tent and the flap was shut, the instructor in the middle dropped a pellet into a green can. Smoke started oozing from the can. We were instructed to take off our mask and not put it back on until we were told to do so. About 15 seconds later we were told to put it back on. I put my gas mask over my head, covered the vents, blew with all of the air in my lungs, and then started to breathe. My eyes watered and my lungs hurt, but I didn’t panic, and as I looked around, neither did anyone else.

As I started to smile and feel proud of myself, I felt a hand on my mask that was not my own. I reached up to grab my mask, but it was too late. It was also the wrong move. My hands went up in the air just in time to expose my chest and receive a fist right in my solar plexus. Now I understood the panic. It didn’t matter that my Drill Instructor gave my gas mask back to me because I couldn’t breathe anyway. Everyone did their best to escape the tent, but we were blocked and tackled and prevented from leaving. All of the instructors were yelling at us to put our mask on and clear it before we could leave the tent.

I never got my gas mask back on or cleared and I doubt anyone else did either. “Tear gas” really is a misnomer. If it were only the tears. When you breathe tear gas, it feels like your lungs and sinuses are being turned inside out. It’s a miserable experience to suck in tear gas when your lungs have been emptied by a blow to the solar plexus.

Sometimes in life we learn in a classroom; sometimes we learn by watching others. Sometimes it is enough to learn what to do; sometimes we need to learn what NOT to do. Gas mask training in Marine Corp boot camp is a time when recruits are vividly taught what NOT to do. Knowing how to use a gas mask can be the difference between life and death. Knowing not to risk leaving it off can be even more important. I don’t know if I have what it takes to slug a 17-year-old boy/man in the gut inside a tent permeating with tear gas. But I’m thankful someone does.


Jennifer said...

Great writing! I felt like I was really there.

Hammertime said...

Hah! Brings back memories, David.

Tear gas, indeed. It should be, "burning bodily fluids from every orfice in your head" gas.

David M. Smith said...

Thanks Jennifer,

It’s not as good as your Eyewitness writing, but it was inspired by your Eyewitness writing.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for the compliment! Even if I do disagree with you about pro-life stuff. Just kidding!


Buz said...

Although I didn't hear any explicit "spiritual" message in your discription, I can come up with three or four of my own.

I guess the bottom line is that, in a crisis, there is no substitute for experience.