Unmasked: My Trip to Pick Up an Israeli Gas Mask

This is a guest post by Abigail Pickus, a writer based in Jerusalem.  Check out her site: www.abigailpickus.com.  This article originally ran in The Jewish Week and is being reprinted with permission.
‘Have you picked up your gas mask yet?”
From her casual tone, you would have thought my friend was asking about the weather.
But no, she was asking about gas masks, which means war, which means fear, which means (why mince words?) death and destruction.
No wonder I almost passed out right there on Emek Refaim, especially when she specified that the gas mask “kit” also includes a syringe. (Ouch!)
Which is another way of saying, Who’s the American now? I mean, Israelis, for better or for worse, are used to gas masks and bomb shelters and the constant threat of attack.
But like J. Alfred Prufrock, I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
It’s true that I lived in Israel in the early ’90s, when terrorists were unleashing bombs right and left. But at that point in time, I felt no fear. I was young. Buses exploding had nothing to do with me. Death, in fact, had nothing to do with me.
But you don’t get to be 40 years old without finally grasping that one day we will be no more. And it certainly doesn’t help that there’s a madman in Iran threatening to make this day come prematurely so that he can wipe the “Zionist cancer” from “the landscape of geography.”
Which is another way of saying, I was already on edge when I arrived at the mall to pick up my “kit,” but I had no way of anticipating the sheer mass of humanity that had also arrived for the exact same purpose.
At first, I naively assumed that this was just a hoard of frantic parents who were trying to get through the last few days with their kids before school starts.
But then it hit me — this was the “line” for the gas masks. And by line I mean a mob scene the likes of which I have never seen in my life.
Behind the crunch and out of sight was a distribution table where people were handing out the kits. Overhead, a TV monitor played an endless loop of a pony-tailed man unpacking his kit and putting on his gas mask.
And all around were people. Young and old, babies in strollers, religious and secular, they were all pressed up against the makeshift partitions that had been set up to let the people next in line queue up. More people, mostly elderly, sat expectantly in rows of plastic chairs like they were waiting for the concert to begin.
An older fellow dressed in a guard’s uniform was given the unfortunate task of keeping order, which involved barking out numbers and only allowing in those who were up next. He also had to repeat for the umpteenth time which number was next, and fend off threats and complaints by frustrated people.
I stood there stunned until a lady motioned to the number dispenser and told me to get one.
What I’ve spared you so far is the soundtrack, by which I mean Lou Reed’s “Rock ’n Roll Animal.”
Just kidding.
By which I mean, people screaming their heads off. They were arguing with each other. They were yelling at the guard. They were mad as hell and not going to take it any more.
All it made me think of was not so much the trauma of war, but those last final moments before the bomb goes off when people are at their absolute worst.
How sad! It’s one thing to go down, but another thing to have to spend your last moments on earth with people who are behaving like savages.
The whole thing was so traumatic that I called my friend. The one who asked if I had gotten my mask in the first place.
“Breathe,” she told me. She said she had picked hers up the day before and had to wait two hours. There was no way around it. And since I had 133 people ahead of me — but who’s counting? — she offered to come to the mall and meet me for lunch.
Which is how I ended up having a lovely lunch and, in the end, only having to wait another 10 minutes before the cutest little Yemenite man handed over my kit.
As I headed home, I wondered what difference a little bit of protective gear would make against being bashed to smithereens by a nuclear bomb.
“Are you kidding?” that same friend responded. “If there’s a nuclear bomb we’re all gone. That mask isn’t going to do a blessed thing.”
So what’s the gas mask for?
“Chemical warfare from Syria.”
Makes a gal want to crawl under the covers and not come out until someone waves a big white flag, sets free a thousand regal doves and the wolf lies down with the lamb.
(Photo: Ice Foxx)