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.

"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."

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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