It was mid-summer, 1988, MCRD (Marine Corps Recruit Depot), San Diego, California. (Yeah, yeah, yeah, "Hollywood Marine", laugh on, flea bait.)
One of the many memorable, and substantially impacting, experiences of this three month adventure was going through the gas chamber.
The gas chamber is exactly what it sounds like, it is a room (a chamber) that fills up with Crowd Suppression Gas (CS Gas) at, well, uncomfortably concentrated levels. This exercise serves two purposes: to demonstrate that your gas mask does actually protect you from some things, and second, to demonstrate that you, as a Marine, have control over the way that you respond to the conditions you face.
Finally, it's our turn.
First, we are instructed to "don and clear" our gas masks (put them on). A field instructor inspects each one of us to make sure that we have put it on correctly. Then, we enter the gas chamber.
We line up in two columns, facing each other on either side of the room. I don't recognize the people across from me (they're wearing gas masks); but I know that they are half of the 75 men that I've lived with for the past month and a half.
There are some instructions given. I don't remember them. I probably wasn't listening, even them.
We hear a steady hiss and see a grey fog fill the room. We can smell it, we can feel an uncomfortable tingling on our exposed skin; but there doesn't seem to be anything really bad about it. Wow. I thought. Those other guys were really wimps!
Then, the Drill Instructor told us all to take off our gas masks.
Suddenly, my lungs feel like they are about to explode. That uncomfortable tingling that caused minor irritation to my neck, hands and ears, now filled my body with a surging fire. I convulsed. I hacked and gagged on the impressive volume of mucus that was now emitting from every orifice of my body. Guys around me we were all doing the same. We were stomping, hacking, beating the walls, and whirling in circles, unable to escape the gas.
Then, one guy caught my eye. His name was Mailman... no, really. If I were making this up, I would have certainly chosen something a little more plausible. He was generally the average sort of guy: totally unnoticeable. He pulled his weight; but didn't stand out. But today, he was the guy standing right across from me. He was standing still, his eyes shut, his fists clenched, but otherwise solidly in the position of attention. He was calm in a world that was otherwise filled with chaos.
I realized that he had control- and of all things in the Marine Corps, you learn that this is the one thing that will always save your life. I relaxed. I let my arms hang down, then took on the position, fixed upon my example. Seconds later, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, another man follow our example. Within a couple of minutes, we were all there, standing above our circumstances: the way that Marines always do.
My life changed that day.
I had always known that there are men in this life that we should follow as our example... but Mailman had never seemed to be the kind of guy I would expect that from . But, in that one situation, when no one else did, he took on the role that needed to be taken for our success.
We think about needing heroes in our life. We consider the kinds of people who really make a difference in this world. But, usually, we think that has to be one person who is that example all the time. We know that's not the kind of expectation that we want to live with. But Mailman never did anything ever again that influenced the rest of us. That was his moment. And, because of that moment, I'll be a different person, forever.
You don't have to be Superman to change the world. I don't have to live up to everyone's expectation all the time. But, in that one moment when I know what is right to do, regardless of what everyone around me is or isn't doing, that's my calling to change the world- to change the lives of others around me. It may be as simple as standing at attention when everyone else is reeling. It may be standing up to say, "I disagree," when everyone else is quiet. It may to wrap my arms around someone and say, "I love you," to someone that everyone else around me has rejected. It may be something big. But, in that moment, you know, just as I know, it is our moment. That's what makes a hero. That's what changes the world.