Saturday, March 28, 2009

gas attack

In army basic training, there were all sorts of rituals and skills to learn. How to salute, how to make your bed, how to fill your footlocker, how to shoot, how to run, how to march ... for eight weeks, the exercises continued.

The one that scared me the worst was gas training.

There were a number of different kinds of gas, we were told. Among them, for example, was nerve gas. During a nerve gas attack, those being attacked might see or smell nothing, but the eyes would begin to water, the nose to run and then the vomiting would set in. Eventually the nervous system would come unglued and that would be that. As a countermeasure, the army provided ampules of atropine. When the symptoms began to occur, a soldier would inject himself with atropine and the attack would be foiled. On the other hand, there was another kind of gas -- also invisible and odorless -- which produced the same symptoms. The soldier would inject the atropine ... and it was the atropine, which speeds up the heart rate (as I recall) that would prove fatal.

This was pretty spooky, but there was spookier yet to come.

One of the pieces of training we received was never to remove our gas masks unless an authorized leader (usually the sergeant or lieutenant) told us to do so. And at one point, our instructors popped some tear gas. The air filled with a quite visible smoke. We all put on our masks and waited. It was a little harder to breathe through the mask than it would have been without one, but the safety of clean air made it worth the price of admission.

Pretty soon, the smoke cleared. The sergeant had been called away, some lesser authority said, but we were free to take off our masks. Everything looked fine to the naked eye, so we took off our masks. It was a lesson we were not likely to forget.

The air was filled with an acrid, threatening presence. You might not see it, but you could feel it clawing at your nostrils and throat and lungs. It was encompassing. It was invisible. It was everywhere. It was life-threatening. It was as if your mother -- your deepest and most loving mother, the air -- had betrayed you. The longing to escape was powerful and reflexive .... but how could you escape the air? Where could you run? All around you was the invisible threat and you could see others in the same predicament ... wanting to escape from the inescapable. It was so frightening that I don't think one man in thirty thought to put his mask back on.

Naturally, the sergeant returned and reiterated what we had been told before: Only someone in command could authorize the removal of masks. We hadn't been listening and had paid the price. As I recall, there were a number of unkind epithets used to describe our idiocy ... "asshole" being one of the kinder ones.

Where will you go when you cannot escape the air? Where will you be safe when every situation in life has an 'out,' but this time there is no 'out?' Where will you turn when you are inescapably trapped ... trapped by hope or belief or goodness or evil or habit or love or anger or ... well, whatever the jaws of this trap are made of? Where will you go when everything around you seems to be a betrayal of the first, life-threatening order? Where will you go when there is no place to go? When goodness and evil cease to have meaning ... what then?

I dislike the manipulations implicit in many threats, but I can see why Christians might imagine it is a good tool. People listen when you threaten them. They are less likely to listen when you suggest that what is not threatening -- what is in some sense delightful -- might be an equal threat. How can I be in danger when I am having so much fun, when I am happy, when I am in love, when I am laughing? Go bother someone else with your threats.

But inescapability does not limit itself to happy or sad. This moment does not change its stripes for all the blandishments in the world. You can put as many offerings on as many altars as you like, pray soulful prayers, sit at the feet of innumerable wise men and women, read and collate as much collected wisdom as you like, do good deeds until the cows come home, stick your toes humbly in the sand, raise hell on a Saturday night, chastise yourself with virtuous nostrums ... and still, there will always be the whispering uncertainty ...

This is inescapable.

How shall I escape?

If I could escape, would that truly be an escape?

If womb-gloom-tomb won't cut it and 77 heavenly virgins at your beck and call won't cut it, what will still the whisper that cannot be stilled? We've all tried the Monty Python route -- "Run away! Run away!" -- but how can you run from the air?

How can you be where you are not?

More important, how can you be where you are?

If I were an asshole, I would tell you.

But I hate being as asshole. :)

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