Only in Israel Series: Getting Your New Gas Mask

Been there, done that.

Paula R. Stern

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Paula Stern

Ever lose something and then when you find it, you are so relieved? Well, we found it, but relief is the wrong word...we'll save ourselves 700 shekels (about $180) - so that's good. But it also means my procrastinating is over.

Tomorrow, I'm going to go and exchange the old gas masks we were issued long ago with current ones. What a concept this is, I want to shout out. No, I don't want a gas mask! I don't want to put it on; I don't want to even look at it!

I don't remember when or how I was given my first gas mask; I do remember clearly going to a small room in a hospital when I went to arrange the discharge papers. A soldier was there and he handed me a blue case. I asked him what it was and he told me it was a gas mask for my infant. My eyes filled with tears as I repeated several times in disbelief, "this isn't normal. You don't give a baby a gas mask."

He was all of 18 or 19 years old and he tried to comfort me, "it's okay," he said, "don't worry."

I have two other memories related to gas masks in Israel. The second was when I suddenly realized the US was likely to go into Iraq that night - and Aliza might be too big for the infant mask I had. We went running down to the gas mask distribution center; only to be told they had none left and I should try another place. We got there to find they were closing.

Again, the tears filled my eyes as I approached a soldier and practically begged him to help. He took us quietly through a side door where the extras were - though others had been turned away - and calmly switched the masks for us.

The third and final memory was around 8:00 at night, hours before the US entered Iraq for the Second Gulf War. The government had warned us - prepare to be hit by missiles, as had happened in the First Gulf War. We'd prepared a room to seal; we'd bought some provisions.

And then they announced that we should not only have our gas masks at the ready, but we should activate the filters and try them on. Aliza and Davidi were young. Elie was 15 years old. I froze completely. I didn't want to see my children with gas masks on - I didn't want to pull them from their warm beds to this nightmare we thought we might be facing.

It was Elie who told me we had to get the children out of bed - and we did. It was Elie who put the gas masks on his brother and sister, while I tried to keep them (and myself) calm. The next day, I took the kids to school. Shmulik refused to go - he offered to do dishes if I didn't force him to go. That didn't sway me to let him stay home, but his tears did. He was almost 13 years old - too old to cry; too frightened not to. I gave in because I wanted him calm and I wanted him to feel he would always be safe.

I wrote Davidi's name on the case of the gas mask and then I drew a heart and a smile face inside. I don't know what I was thinking - just that I wanted him to smile.

I took Aliza to the day care group - with the mask. I explained about how she had cried the night before and fought against us putting it on. The woman told me not to worry - and then she played a game with these young 2 and 3 year olds.

She had them take the masks out and used the cardboard box as a cradle for dolls and stuffed animals; then she had them practice putting on the masks.

By the end of the day, Aliza was fine with them; Davidi was accepting too. Shmulik was still refusing to go to school; and Elie was telling me all about what he had learned in school about chemical warfare and what we might be facing from Iraq.

Now, almost a decade or so later, Israel is reissuing new gas masks. The ones we had were made useless once we opened the filters and they've sat for years in our home. Now, we are being encouraged to get new masks and so tomorrow I'm going to do that.

We didn't even remember where we'd put them - my husband finally remembered and we found them there. The boxes are dusty and old.

Each box has a name on it. there are different models - for a young child, for a young adult, for an adult. It's a slice of Israel - this gas mask business.

I wrote about that period to a group of friends - yeah, me, writing...duh. Later, I called it Diary of an Almost War ...and ended it with these words:

"May we never see those damn cardboard boxes ever again and may none of you ever, ever, ever see a gas mask on your child’s face or hear your child say they are scared of something other than the dark, and spiders, and creepy things."

The last part is about to come true - after tomorrow, I'll never see TH0SE cardboard boxes again...they will take them away tomorrow...and give me new ones.

I guess I should have written it differently. I should have written, "May we never see (or need) ANY damn cardboard boxes ever again...."