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Getting Ready
by Judy Lash Balint
December 10, 2002

There's not going to be a war with Iraq that involves Israel. That's the word from the IDF, says a diminutive 19 year old female IDF soldier who is nonetheless charged with providing instructions in English for immigrants on how to prepare a sealed room and wear a gas mask.

The reassuring words are offered at an instruction session that takes place at the Jerusalem office of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), where around 60 predominantly senior citizen members have come to learn the ins and outs of proper war preparation in their native language.

"You probably won't need this," the soldier repeats frequently throughout the session in accented English as she deftly pulls out one type of mask after another from her demonstration box. Those attending don't seem too reassured as they pepper the instructor with questions. "Why did they ask my age when I picked up my mask?" questions one elderly woman in the front row. "Well, how old are you?" retorts the soldier. "If you're over 80 years old, they give you a special mask with a blower," she informs the crowd. "Also it's for anyone with a beard."

The mask has to fit snugly about the face if it's to keep out the nasty chemical and/or biological weapons President Bush suspects Sadaam Husein is harboring. For the elderly and the bearded, a device is attached to the filter, which blows filtered air into the mask, keeping the other substances at bay.

The soldier tells us not to open or use the gas mask until told to do so by a Home Front Command notice broadcast over radio or TV. "How long does the mask work for?" someone asks. About 18 hours, we're told, "But you won't need it for more than that. You'll be evacuated before it runs out."

The masks are designed for use in the sealed room in our homes that each of us is supposed to enter when instructed by the Command. Our teacher tells us what kind of tape to use, but emphasizes that no one should run out just yet to buy tape and the plastic sheeting needed to seal every opening. "I don't think there'll be a war...and anyway, you'll have at least two weeks notice," she says authoritatively.

Still, she's doing her job, and she carefully explains that every opening must be covered, including light fixtures and bathroom drains, if that's your sealed room of choice. "If everything's so tightly sealed, how long before the air runs out?" pipes up one man near the back. "Oh, you'll have 3-4 hours of air, but that's plenty because we'll come to evacuate you," she says again, leading a few people in the back to speculate on the orderliness of such an undertaking, given Israeli nature.

Some of us suppress a laugh as we try to picture thousands of Israelis wearing gas masks and dressed in two layers of clothing (better protection against air-borne contaminants we're told) waddling down the streets of Jerusalem toward Teddy Stadium, which has been designated as a potential tent city in the event of a damaging attack.

Our soldier is telling us about the new developments in gas mask technology since the Gulf War. To the untrained eye, the new masks closely resemble the old ones. But the instructor jauntily points out the bells and whistles on the newer version. There's an improved drinking straw; fog-free lenses, and a feature that prevents anyone mistakenly attaching the filter to the mask without opening the air hole. "In the last war, a couple died because of that..." she says.

"What about wearing glasses with the mask?" a bespectacled man calls out. "Definitely not! No contacts either--they might get moved around--and you'll be in the sealed room, you won't have to see anything.."

Two religious, younger women exchange glances, as they try to imagine entertaining and feeding their young kids without being able to see properly. They grow more perplexed as they try to understand which mask would belong to which kid. "This one is for babies until three years old," chirps the instructor, holding up a contraption that resembles a mini astronaut suit. "This one here is for 3-8 year olds and after that they get a smaller version of the adult mask."

The 3-8 year old model has bright red straps and a blue plastic blower. "The kids really like it!" the soldier enthuses. "Just tell them it's Purim.." Forget about those CNN Gulf War images of babies in a plastic tent. Today's version is more like a plastic suit with arms and a place for a bottle, making baby more portable.

After answering a few more questions about how to drink water and what to use for a toilet in the sealed room (a sand-filled bucket) the soldier looks at the clock and briskly hands out a sheet explaining the symptoms and treatments for exposure to nerve gas, mustard and anthrax, before she heads out the door.

The crowd seems more anxious than when they walked in. "Es vert goornisht helfen," (it won't help at all) sighs a slight, elderly man, as he makes his way out into the dark, cold and windy night.