Against The Grain

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Chapter 17

It bugged me that the wannabes were having such a good time talking to each other. The majority of them would talk, even if that wasn’t what they intended to do. Somehow, one wannabe talking invited the others to do the same. Private Price, of course, hushed everyone and then Carter mimicked her response. They were so predictable, I thought. The other wannabes began to tell the rest of the platoon to be quiet as well. Yet, the second time Private Price hushed us, she made it her business to break her stance at parade rest by turning around and looking at us.

“You want the drill sergeants to come back out and punish us? Shut the hell up back there!” she shouted.

Her eyes looked to have been aimed at someone for a brief second. She swiftly turned back around and repositioned herself at parade rest. I didn’t know who she was looking at behind me and I didn’t bother to twist around and find out either.

Drill Sergeant Drake finally returned to the head of our platoon. She announced that the drill sergeants had been awaiting the opportunity to present the platoon’s warrior of the cycle. She explained that the drill sergeants prepared pins in honor of those who have shown outstanding performance throughout the cycle. Those soldiers would also be completing the remainder of the cycle at WestPoint Academy with the rest of the elite.

I was pleased to hear that even we could receive an award for our leadership. Just as I began to feel appreciated, a sudden thought slipped into my mind. I considered the wannabes I already knew would receive those pins and I silently growned to myself.

Drill Sergeant Drake also explained that the awards wouldn’t be announced until after dinner chow at promptly nineteen hundred hours.

Among our company, we were all given the same information. At around 1400 hours, we were commanded to fall out of formation and retrieve our gas masks, within its case, from our wall lockers. Each platoon was commanded at a time to head upstairs. Each platoon had almost three minutes to complete the task. Our platoon ran upstairs and returned back downstairs after securing our gas masks. We were to carry our gas mask in their case and strap them around our waist snuggly. Our entire company was commanded to head over the grassy hill to get on the long white buses that awaited us in front of the company. Each platoon filled onto a single white bus as commanded.

After the bus ride, we formed up and the drill sergeants began giving us a block of instruction. They went over the rules and regulation of the training. We stood as a company in our platoons with our gas masks attached at our waist. We were commanded by our drill sergeants to ground our rucksacks and stack our weapons nearest our formation. Even though we formed as a company, we were segregated by nearly three feet of distance between each of our platoons.

I slightly leaned upward to look past Private Butler, who stood by my side in formation. I speculated the outside of the gas chamber because I’d never actually seen one prior to this experience and I didn’t know what to expect. The chamber was made of red bricks and it had a wooden rooftop. I first noticed the brown paint from the triangular rooftop. The gas chamber appeared raggedy from the outside, but yet stable and deserted. From where I stood I could see brown brush strokes painted atop the building.

“Are you motivated Delta Company?” Drill Sergeant Beacon shouted.

His voice carried across the training facility.

“Motivated! Motivated! Downright motivated! Whooah! Whooah! I wanna kill somebody!” They hollered on cue.

The entire company, minus myself, continued on yelling.

“Oh yeah, oh yeah!” a few females shouted.

After Sergeant Beacon gassed up the company, he gave his platoon the command to retrieve their mask. He then commanded them to use it to cover their faces and seal them. Second platoon would be the first to step inside the chamber.

Drill Sergeant Manning opened the single metal door and commanded his platoon to file into the chamber. The minute he opened the door, I could smell the tear gas beginning to breezy through the air. The rest of our company only silently watched as second platoon entered the chamber, one squad after the other. Not one of them appeared concerned, they just filed into the chamber as commanded without hesitation. I knew that the choking agent had to have drifted past the noses of the rest of the wannabes too, but the company was quiet.

The gas was not yet strong enough to choke me, but it was definitely making it hard for me to take in a deep breath. Our company stood directly outside the chamber waiting on second platoon to exit, despite the polluted air.

I couldn’t believe I was patiently waiting to be strangled by gas. Most of the wannabes who stood around me seemed to be vigorous about it. I overheard their excitement expressed through various whispers. We were supposed to be quiet and not loud, but they just couldn’t stop talking and laughing. I could hear second platoon yelling and getting rowdy inside the gas chamber. They were yelling out ‘delta’ and making loud noises.

Finally, second platoon was released on the opposite end. Our company was indirectly commanded to turn around and look at their faces as they exited. The drill sergeants wanted us to laugh and make fun of them, which some of us did. Yet and still, they all looked hideous. From where I stood in formation, I could see that every last one of them had wet, snotty faces.

Next, we waited on fourth platoon to undergo the gas chamber. It would be our platoon’s turn after fourth platoon. The tear gas didn’t have a sent, however, my eyes began to grow watery as we slowly moved closer to the chamber. I should have been frightened, but I honestly wasn’t.

We had our flack vest on and our gas masks secured around our waist inside our gas mask cases. I began to cough from the gas fumes seeping out. I was only standing outside and I was already coughing. The closer we moved the stronger the gas became.

Soon, it was our platoon’s turn to go inside the gas chamber. We were given the command to put our gas masks over our faces and seal them. Gladly, I placed my gas mask on my head. I could feel the gas beginning to irritate my lungs and throat right away and I felt another sensation to cough. I held in my breath and dismissed the feeling. I had to try and push on with the rest of them. When I glanced at the wannabes around me, they all appeared like aliens from outer space to me.

On Drill Sergeant Mayor’s command, our platoon began moving into the gas chamber. I quickly blew into my mouthpiece, placed my hand over it and inhaled. All I could do was hope that it was sealed. My stomach had an imaginary roller coaster on the inside of it, as we moved forward. The rest of our third platoon drill sergeants hurried ahead of us, aware of the protocol. Inside, they awaited our snail-like arrival into the chamber. I could see a flickering orange light as I moved forward. We pushed through the dark and gloomy confinement in a single file line. The temperature inside the chamber was like a sauna. I could feel myself warming up quickly.

“Hurry up and move down!” Drill Sergeant Drake hollered.

We entered the gas chamber slowly.

“Dress it right and cover down!” Drill Sergeant Andrews shouted.

“Up against the wall! Up against the goddamn wall!” Drill Sergeant Drake yelled.

Her gas mask barely muffled her voice. My voice was nowhere near strong enough to carry through the thick mask against the gas. The strong force of the chemicals against every swallow prevented me from grasping enough air. I placed my hand on my mouthpiece and tried to inhale. I couldn’t! My gas mask couldn’t have been sealed because I wanted to cough up a lung. I felt like I was already choking on my own saliva.

Drill Sergeant Andrews began gawking at me from only a few feet distance. I could see him clearly through my inserts. He watched me like a hawk as I shuffled down the line. I placed my left palm over my mouthpiece and began to cough. I managed to muster up an utter of a choking sound before my lungs gave out. Saliva flung from my mouth onto my mouthpiece and back towards my nose. My face felt like it was trapped inside a bulb and I was drowning in my own saliva.

“You were already supposed to have sealed your gas mask, McCoy!” Drill Sergeant Andrews shouted.

My eyes began to drip tears and I didn’t have the wind or the energy to respond to him. Therefore, I ignored him, but at that point nothing was new. I faced forward and continued slowly moving along the wall like the wannabe in front of me. My heart pounded a little harder as I eased along the wall. Somebody help me, I thought. They’re trying to kill me!

Woodchucks burned inside the metal trashcan that held a steady fire as if it were a fireplace. I felt the intensity of the heat. It would’ve been pitch black inside the hot chamber if it hadn’t been for the metal trashcan. The drill sergeants kept the fire burning in order to keep light inside the chamber. There was no floor inside the gas chamber, only the pebbled dirt.

The wannabes around me looked frightening in their black mask, so I stopped looking at them. I began to daydream, my mind trying to aid me in leaving there. I hated training so much I believe my mind escaped it in order for me to keep my sanity. When I daydreamed I became numb to the way they made me feel. My mind went someplace else and I tried my best not to have a care in the world.

My mind began to drift back to the dream I had that morning and I began to feel even worse. My eyes continued to drip tears regardless of my emotions. I peered over at Chapman in front of me. Her eyes were full of tears too. Uniquely enough, my teardrops blended in with everyone else’s.

I thought of a book I’d once read about a young boy who experienced the Holocaust. Then I imagined glimpses of a film I’d once watched, where the Nazi soldiers rounded up a group of nearly a hundred Jews, stripped them completely naked and shoved them in a gas chamber that was no larger than this one. Carbon monoxide gas poisoned them and they all died there in the chamber. That’s so horrible, I thought as I watched the flickering fire in the metal trashcan.

What if I go to Iraq and become a prisoner of war? What if they lock me in a gas chamber? I didn’t want to imagine enduring the experience without a gas mask. My mask must be protecting me to some degree. Suddenly, my skin felt like it was on fire. It felt like I had a horrible rash of some kind.

Private Miller appeared out of nowhere, moving toward Drill Sergeant Drake without a gas mask on her head. I wondered how she was even alive at that moment. It seemed like the gas wasn’t even affecting her, although her face was slightly flush. She held her gas mask out in front of her with both palms. Drill Sergeant Drake instantly turned around.

“Drill Sergeant, I don’t think my gas mask is working.” Miller cried out.

Everyone could hear her because she spoke loud and clear, without the slightest crack in her voice. I watched as a couple of wannabes and drill sergeants shook their heads from left to right at her. I, on the other hand, was admiring her. She was so strong.

A male, who I couldn’t identify through his mask, began laughing at Private Miller. He laughed so hard, he wasn’t able to catch a breath. I could hear him clearly through his gas mask.

“Oh, you think that’s funny,” Drill Sergeant Mayor shouted.

“Get down an beat yo’ doggone face!” he yelled.

The wannabe instantly got down and performed push-ups in the hot gas chamber. Drill Sergeant Mayor traveled around him, heading over near Drill Sergeant Drake.

“Get ya’ butt up against the wall and put your doggone gas mask on your face!” Drill Sergeant Drake shouted at Private Miller.

“I don’t care if yo’ gas mask don’t work. Die then! Fall out and die!” she spat, before walking off.

Her voice remained crystal clear as well. Miller then put her gas mask over her head and she began moving back to her place against the wall. Both Drill Sergeant Andrews and Mayor marched over to approach Miller.

“What the hell is wrong with you that you don’t get it?” Drill Sergeant Andrews yelled, glaring into Miller’s eyes.

Miller grew silent while he peered over at Drill Sergeant Mayor.

“This stupid, dummy don’t get it, Battle.” Drill Sergeant Andrews replied.

He glared back at Miller.

“You goddamn idiot! By the time you finish this training, you gone learn it good.” Drill Sergeant Andrews replied.

“Let’s take this Privah back outside, Battle. She can do this ten more times.” Drill Sergeant Mayor said.

“Good idea, battle. Maybe then her dumb ass will get it!” Drill Sergeant Andrews hollered, leaning into Miller’s face.

“Move out!” Drill Sergeant Mayor yelled.

Private Miller began moving out through the exit while Drill Sergeant Andrews and Drill Sergeant Mayor moved out behind her. I knew the drill sergeants took Miller outside to smoke her, like the male right here in the chamber, who was still down on the ground pushing.

Drill Sergeant Drake finally marched over toward him and granted the wannabe recovery. The male quickly rose to his feet.

“Warriors! Rrright face!” Drill Sergeant Drake suddenly commanded.

We all performed a right face movement.

“Release your masks!”

We reached up to remove our gas masks from our faces. Even Drill Sergeant Drake did it too. As soon as I took off mine, I felt the hot temperature against my face. Immediately, my skin became irritated.

I saw vomit shot out of someone’s mouth and land in the dirt. I realized it was Private Kunert. Luckily, I couldn’t take in a single breath of air and I was able to bypass the stench. The tear gas in the air remained strong. I could barely see anything due to the excess tears in my eyes. Everything around me appeared blurry. Yet somehow, I still managed to catch the wannabe who was laughing at Miller, curled over creating a thick puddle of vomit at his feet.

Drill Sergeant Drake only squinted her eyes at him, but she said nothing as she carried on with the task. She redirected herself towards the exit. She shouted at us to state our name, social security number, and company. I watched the drill sergeants crowd the covered opening on the opposite end of where we entered.

“Private Kunert, 563845762, Delta Company, drill sergeant.” Private Kunert whimpered.

I could hear the choking cry of her words and she sounded like a toddler to me. I knew she couldn’t breathe right along with the rest of us. I remained facing forward so I could get through the obstacle without any static from the drill sergeants. I didn’t want to draw any attention towards myself. The drill sergeants let Kunert out through the covered opening of the chamber.

For a moment, the blurriness of my vision left me after a few tears dropped from my eyes. I could now see that Private Erikson was indeed the male who had laughed at Miller and was smoked for it. He was also the male who’d just vomited. My eyes continued to fill up with tears that poured down my face and landed on my heavy flack vest.

I moved forward as the line moved and I stepped into a soft patch of dirt. I began to scan the ground as my nose ran. That’s when I noticed all the soft spots on the dirt ground. Vomit had previously been patched over with dirt before we’d even entered the chamber. We continued to move forward as we all listened to the other’s plea to exit the chamber.

“ …Drill sergeant.” Private Diaz whispered.

“Sound off!” Drill Sergeant Drake yelled at him.

“Private Diaz! 678995673, Delta Company, drill sergeant!” he whimpered.

His voice barely carried any base, but I could still hear his accent.

Private Cater stepped forward and faced Drill Sergeant Drake.

“Private Carter! 773885634, Delta Company, drill sergeant!”

He sounded like he had no trouble breathing whatsoever. He stated his information smoothly and clearly at the perfect pitch before he exited the chamber. I already knew who would come next.

“Private Price! 655743321, Delta Company, drill sergeant!”

I could hear her trying to project base in her voice and I knew she was trying very hard not to choke up in front of everyone. Her voice wasn’t as clear as Private Carter’s, yet I knew she was giving it her very best. She exited the chamber.

“Private Johnson! 766889765, Delta Company, drill sergeant!” he shouted.

His pitch didn’t sound very deep either. His words were muffled by what sounded like congestion. I tilted forward to get a quick glance at him. I could see that his face appeared wet like everyone else’s. It was extremely hot in the gas chamber and my skin felt like it was cooking atop the fire in front of me.

“…334889000, Delta Company, drill sergeant!” Private Green yelled.

His face appeared like red-hot chilly peppers, but his voice sounded strong. He quickly exited the chamber.

“Private Peterson! 666778900! Delta Company, drill sergeant!’ he shouted.

I’d never heard Private Peterson speak, but he was the loudest wannabe to exit the chambers.

“Private McCarthy, 766453288, Delta Company, drill sergeant!”

“Hurry up!” Drill Sergeant Andrews shouted out.

“Private Reed, 389956600, Delta Company, drill sergeant!”

“Private Davis, 654789008, Delta Company, drill sergeant!

“Private Rodriguez, 564454545, Delta Company, drill sergeant!”

“Private Santiago, 454234567, Delta Company, drill sergeant!”

I continued to step forward and I was grateful that the line was moving along briskly. I felt like I still couldn’t breathe and I didn’t want to pass out.

“Private Clinton, 767889455, Delta Company, drill sergeant!”

“Private Mendez, 919722234, Delta Company, drill sergeant!”

“Private Chapman, 233567890, Delta Company, drill sergeant!”

“Private McCoy, 456678499, Delta Company, drill sergeant!” I cried.

I turned on the ball of my foot, hoping they wouldn’t say anything to me. I walked on past the curtain cover and marched right on out the chamber door without a word said to me. I was so happy that they finally let me out of there. My face was wet with sweat and tears.

The wannabes from first platoon stood staring at us the same way we stared at them. I could barely see their facial expressions, so I only assumed that they were staring at us. As I walked away from the chamber I glance back and spotted Miller puking her guts out right outside the chamber. Drill Sergeant Andrews stood over her meek disposition while he yelled at her.

“Get yo’ weak body up! We gone do it again since you thought it was so amusing the first time.” He yelled at her as she folded over.

She looked as if she was being manually broken down. I wanted to stop walking, stand still and watch them mistreat her. I wanted to put a stop to it! However, that would only draw them onto me. I had to keep –

“Watch where the hell you goin’!” Private Clinton yelled.

She wanted everyone to hear her and see her scream right in my face. She glared at me with an animosity that remained far worse than any drill sergeants. I looked at her for only a few seconds, completely dumbfounded. I felt my heart pound abusively inside my chest. Her response made me deathly angry, but I knew I could only try to calm myself down. I eyeballed her just as she eyeballed me.

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