Fear Itself

A journey of army-navy stores

I don't know why it has taken me so long to come to any understanding of what has happened. Way in the back of my mind, I think I may have been looking for a personal escape route. The ground is unfamiliar. I have been very interested in gas masks for the last week or so.

It wasn't until my second conversation with Bill Gross, head of the Office of Emergency Preparedness for the city of Dallas, that the lightbulb came on. There are no Houdini tricks here. That's what this is all about, for better and for worse.

In our first talk a few days earlier, Gross had assured me that Dallas had been an active participant in a national campaign of rehearsals for chemical and biological attacks under a 3-year-old federal initiative. That made me feel safer.

But this second time on the telephone, I called with a more specific question, prompted by a closer reading of some recent federal studies. I wanted to know if it was true that most Dallas-area hospitals probably have as part of their preparedness policy a provision for locking their doors against the victims of chemical and biological attack under certain extreme conditions. I had been trying unsuccessfully to get some of the hospitals to answer the question. They had referred me to him.

After a pause, he said, "It's not as Draconian as it may sound." Then he proceeded to confirm that such policies probably are in place at the major hospitals.

By the time I got to this conversation, it made perfect sense to me that hospital doors, protected by police or military guards, could be barred against sick and even dying people. My family. Myself.

There also would be decontamination tents and other facilities in operation in the same place at the same time. The object would be to prevent contamination or infection from invading the hospital itself and turning it into a death trap instead of a place of help and healing.

A persuasive body of expertise out there argues that the likelihood of a successful chemical or biological attack is slight. These kinds of attacks are much harder to pull off effectively than some of the scare-talk would have us believe. (Something you might want to look at yourself is a study called "Ataxia: the chemical and biological and terrorism threat and the U.S. response" by Amy E. Smithson and Leslie-Anne Levy, accessible on the Web at www.stimson.org / PUBS /CWC/ataxiaexecsum.pdf.)

But it could happen. And here is the little bucket of ice water I felt on my face after my second chat with Bill Gross: If it did happen to my family, there would be damned little I could do about it.

This started with the stupid gas masks. I toured around to several Dallas-area army-navy stores to see how sales were going.

Really great. Sold out, in fact. Mike Green, proprietor of the Army Store on Garland Road, says the first big rush came within hours after the attack.

"I had boxes of gas masks stacked in the aisles, not even putting them on the shelves, just cutting the tops off the boxes and selling them," he tells me.

Green is a tall, middle-aged, sandy-haired man with an easy smile and intelligent eyes behind thick-framed glasses. I have loved army-navy stores exactly like his since I was a kid. In this shadowy warren of tunnels through pea coats and camo pants, in air laden with the oily scent of unused entrenching tools, I feel instantly at home.

"I probably sold about 1,000 masks that first day," he says. "On the 11th, people wanted the best ones, the new ones." A shrieky choir of phone lines are all ringing on the wall behind him.

This is way bigger than Y2K, he tells me.

"Y2K, when you think about it, was all white guys with computers. This crosses all ethnic groups. I've got Hispanic people coming in here and buying masks to send back to their families in Mexico. This is getting all walks of life."

He shows me the M-17 mask and an M-17A1. I ask what the difference is, and he shows me that the M-17A1 has a drinking tube. I had never thought of that. You get your gas mask on: The next thing you think is, "I need a drink."

The really popular mask is the Israeli simplex, he says. Especially the youth model. He was selling them for $19.95, but he says his supplier insisted he go up to $24.99. I start to ask a question, but, as if he knows what I'm going to ask, he cuts me off.

"I tell people the best thing they can do is get rolls of plastic and a lot of duct tape and seal their house. People are coming in and buying the gas masks and chem suits and rubber boots. But even with all of that, if you go out of the house, then you need a decontamination area."

A what?

He explains to me that if you leave a closed clean area in your home and go out into the environment that has been contaminated, either by chemicals or by germs, then you have to be decontaminated before you can re-enter the safe area, or you will bring the contamination in with you.

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