They call it “The Disco Hut.” My son, when he went through Basic said they called it the “the Puking Palace.” I supposed others have had some less than complimentary names for it.

It was a small cabin like building with two doors. One opened in, and one opened out. It was a rite of passage of sorts for those of us in US Army Basic training. The entire exercise was designed to give you confidence in the Protective Mask used by the military. The protective mask is designed to protect you from the effects of chemical, biological, and at least some of the effects of nuclear warfare by filtering out the effects of gas, some biological agents, and fallout.

Now for why they called it “The Disco Hut.”

You go in and the experience is so horrible, you end up break dancing in an effort to get out of there. Drill Sgts had learned a long time ago to make sure they didn’t get ran over by someone who just wanted the hell out of there. It’s a place where even the bravest of the brave cried.

They had us all lined up to go in there, and we were instructed to put on our masks. For those who have never worn a protective mask, you put it on and you seem to morph into some low rent version of Darth Vader. Your breathing sounds more like someone on a ventilator, and it’s an almost claustrophobic experience. One young lady in our unit described it as drowning while still able to breath. You peer out at the world through two view ports that limit your vision, and you find walking challenging because you can’t see everything. I began to realize what a horse wearing blinders must feel like when all they can do is look straight ahead.

Slowly they herded us in one or two at a time. Every time they opened the door, music blasted out.

Then it was my turn. The door opened and I stepped through. I knew about tear gas. I was a police officer before I ever went into the Army, I’d used tear gas in riot control and barricaded subjects.  I knew what it did and I wasn’t looking forward to the experience.

I stepped into what I can only describe as a London Fog of tear gas. The far wall, which couldn’t have been more than five yards away seemed incredibly remote and distant. It was dimly lit, and in true disco tradition, had colored lights. A stereo playing the sound tack from Saturday Night Fever was turned up loud. Like a wraith in a horror film, a man materialized in the smoke. He wore a protective mask and seemed at perfect ease.

“What I want you to do,” he said, “is take off your mask and then tell me where you’re from.”

I took off my mask and the gas hit me.

“Oh, my God !” I said. It wasn’t a curse, but a prayer for deliverance.

“Where you from?”

I stammered out something. For all I know I told him I was little green man from Alpha Centauri. I wanted out and I’d have admitted to shooting President Kennedy if got me out of there!

My eyes were two pools of flame and my nose and lungs felt as if someone had shoved a red hot poker down them. I coughed, but the cough didn’t want to come, and my eyes seemed to swell shut. I wanted to breath but I was immersed in fire.

“Get out of here,” the instructor said.

I don’t remember thanking him.

Hands guided me out through the back door and into the cool spring air. Relief washed over me. But that didn’t happen right away.

“Face into the wind,” a voice said. I did as instructed, and opened my eyes. Blessed relief flowed through me as the wind washed the tear gas away. The flames in my eyes went out and my nose cleared after a couple of sneezes.

I could breath again and after a few minutes felt like I might actually live.

Within minutes, the Disco Hut became just one more milestone behind us.

A funny aside concerned a young lady known as PFC Lancaster.

There’s two things I recall most about her. She was a nice girl, but she talked at a yell. I’m not sure if she was 2/3rds deaf and assumed the rest of the world was also deaf, or if she was practicing to be a Drill Sgt.. One thing is certain. She spoke, and you heard her.

The other thing I recall most was when it was her turn in the Disco Hut. She walked into the Disco Hut (or so I’m told), cool as if she were walking down the street. When instructed, she pulls off her mask, looks at the instructor and smiled. They had her in there for a good five minutes and the girl didn’t cough or shed a single term.

Finally one of the instructors asked her, “Private, what did you do before you came into the Army?”

“I worked for Dow Chemical, Drill Sgt.”

“And what did you do at Dow Chemical?”

“I made tear gas, Drill Sgt.”

She’d built up an immunity to it and the little London Fog was no worse to her than a casual walk through the rain.

I envied her.