Behind The Gas Mask


Last week my husband took the kids to a nearby mall, bought them each an Angry Birds popsicle and picked up our family’s gas masks at the building’s distribution center.

“Look, Mommy, we have gas masks!” one of my 10-year-olds exclaimed excitedly when I returned home from an appointment.

While my son was enjoying the novelty of the rectangular brown box and the strange-looking mask he knew was inside, I couldn’t suppress a scowl. I’m quite familiar with Israeli gas masks and can’t seem to wrap my brain around the idea that my family, and everyone else’s may need to don one in the not-so-distant future.

I realize I’m in denial, just as I was in denial during the Gulf War. Even after foreign airlines stopped flying to Israel and my roommate fled to Europe, I still didn’t truly believe, in my heart of hearts, that the United States would attack Iraq.

Reality hit on a Jerusalem bus three or four days before the U.S. actions in January 1991. Reading the Jerusalem Post — I was a new immigrant and my Hebrew was abysmal — it hit me that I was alone, without family, in a potential war zone. I started crying.

Seeing the tears streaming down my cheeks, the motherly looking woman sitting across from me asked me what was wrong. When I dissolved into a puddly mess, she invited me to stay at her house “till this blows over.”

I thanked her as I placed her number in my purse, but knew, deep down, that I wouldn’t leave my apartment. Or Israel.

That evening I bought big plastic sheets, masking tape (I still think of it as “war tape”) and began sealing my bedroom window against unconventional weapons. Realizing I had no idea what to do with the gas mask I’d picked up earlier, I asked my neighbor, a recently demobilized soldier, to wake me up “if and when the war starts” and to teach me how to use the thing.

In the meantime, I continued to work at the Jerusalem Report magazine, and it was almost business as usual. Then, on Jan. 17, 1990, my boss, an intelligence expert, convened the staff and told us the Americans would be invading that night.

It was impossible to fall asleep, of course. Huddled under some blankets in my drafty bedroom, I listened to BBC Radio (the room had no TV reception). At 3 or 4 a.m., I heard a knock at the door. It was my neighbor.

“It’s time,” she told me with an apologetic smile. When she started to open the brown box housing my gas mask and tore the plastic surrounding it, I placed my hand on hers. “No. It can’t be time,” I said during the only moment of denial in my entire life.

“It’s time,” she repeated gently, scooping the mask from the box and handing it toward me.

And that’s when my beautiful 20-year-old neighbor taught me how to put on my gas mask. She unscrewed the mouthpiece so I wouldn’t suffocate, placed the big black mask over my face, helped me adjust the straps and taught me how to know if it was airtight.

When she was convinced I could manage, she squeezed my hand and left.

By the next night, my friend Susan, who was also alone, was staying at my place. It happened to be her birthday, but we didn’t feel much like celebrating. We shared the double bed in my apartment’s only “safe room,” and, when the air raid sirens began to wail, just like they do in movies about the London Blitz, we fumbled our way into our gas masks.

This time I forgot to unscrew the mouthpiece and almost suffocated. Though it sounds melodramatic, we honestly thought we might die from a chemical weapons attack. Then the phone rang. It was my friend Anne calling from New Jersey.

“We’re under attack,” I told her, gripped with fear. “I know,” she replied impatiently. “That’s why I’m calling!” For the next 15 minutes Anne related what she was seeing on CNN as we waited for the Israeli news to announce the “All Clear.”

It felt like a year.

I became much less fearful as the war dragged on. I went to work and even to the coast, where Scud missiles had fallen. Even so, I was freaked out when my best friend asked me to babysit her newborn son while she picked up her mother from Ben Gurion Airport (El Al was still flying). I dreaded the thought that the siren would sound and require me to zip this tiny baby into the protective tent his parents had received in the maternity ward.

Today, for whatever reason, I’m not losing sleep over the prospect of war with Iran or Egypt or Syria, even though the threats may be more real than I’m willing to admit.

What does keep me up at night is the realization that my children could be injured or worse in an armed conflict, and that they would be so terrified in an actual war. I chose to move from the U.S. to Israel. They didn’t.

A couple of days ago I took the kids to the sparkling new American consulate in Jerusalem, to renew their recently expired passports. I would have renewed them even without the Arab world breathing down on us.

I’m not making any plane reservations, but as a mother, I’ll be relieved when their new passports arrive.

Just in case.