Fear Itself

A journey of army-navy stores

"Ammonia is a good neutralizer," he says. "And I tell people they can use a plastic wading pool in the garage to keep the stuff from getting all over. I think you could use a pump-sprayer, like for the garden, to hose yourself off."

I ask him why the youth model is the hot one. He cuts his eyes.

"People are coming in here," he says, "people with families. And you almost have to feel sorry for these people. They're buying youth masks and small chem suits and boots and backpacks, and they tell me they're going to put it all in the backpacks and have the kids carry the backpacks with them wherever they go."

Mark Andresen

At the next store, the Army & Navy Store on Harry Hines Boulevard, proprietor Joe Walker tells me what I really don't want to hear. He says all of the gas masks that have been sold from his store and the other stores in Dallas in the last two weeks are useless.

"They're gas masks," he says. He shakes his head slowly. His phone rings without cease. "They will only protect you if the terrorists attack you with tear gas."

There are chemical masks supposedly available on the Internet, he says, but they sell for five times what the gas masks go for in the army-navy stores.

"I've got these women calling me every two seconds, and some of them are crying on the telephone, and I tell them that these masks will not do them any good."

At a third store, the Army Navy Warehouse on Stemmons Freeway, Sylvia is behind the counter looking as if she is on the verge of tears or collapse or both. She doesn't want me to use her last name. Her phone rings incessantly.

"They call and call," she says. "I tell them we're sold out. I tell them the masks won't do them any good, but they keep calling."

She tells me about a policeman who came in before the masks and the chem suits were gone and spent three hours shopping. He loaded his family car with gear and provisions. But less than an hour later, he brought all of it back.

"I was mad," Sylvia tells me. "I said, 'Why did you spend all of that time shopping and then bring it all back? Was there something wrong with the stuff? Were you trying to sell it to somebody else?' But you know what he told me?

"He said he pulled over by the side of the road, and his conscience told him he was overreacting."

A sign across from the register says "No cash refunds."

But, Sylvia says, "When he told me how he felt, I didn't want to argue with him.

"I have four girls," she tells me. "My oldest one is 9. She knows what's going on. I can't lie to them. They say, 'What's going to happen, Mom?' I tell them, 'What God wants.' If it's your time, it's your time."

I told myself I was reporting this story of local preparedness, but in fact I was also looking for my own escape route, my trick, the special gas mask that would save me and mine. It wasn't until I had my second conversation with the head of the local emergency preparedness office--the one about the possibility of barred hospital doors--that the sheer finality of it dawned on me.

If it's your time, it's your time.

The cop who pulls over, thinks about it, then takes all of his survival gear back for a refund; Sylvia, who tells her children that what will happen will happen and then goes to work: These are the responses the terrorists assume we will not have.

Even though the likelihood of this kind of attack is small, the terrorists assume that we are a weak-hearted people and that even the slightest risk of it happening will paralyze us. The collapsing of the World Trade Center towers had as much to do with terrifying us here in Dallas as with killing people in New York.

Dr. Dighton Packard, chief of emergency medicine at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, tells me on the telephone, "People ask what advice to give the general public. That advice is to go on and live your life. I think the terroristic weapon here is fear."

This is a strange moment in time. The words we mouth to each other count for everything. We either get back on the horse and ride. Or they win.

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