Grumpy old man: Yes, dear

Had I ignored my wife’s nagging I probably would have remained squarely on my butt, and my family would be among the 46% of the souls in this country having to deal with yet another headache, a serious one at that.

IDF soldier fits child with gas mask 370 (photo credit:  	 REUTERS/David Silverman)
IDF soldier fits child with gas mask 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/David Silverman)
For weeks my wife had been nagging me to exchange our Saddam- era gas masks for the new Ahmadinejad model.
There had been announcements, sometimes even a bit of fanfare, about the Home Front Command and Israel Postal Company’s joint mask exchange and distribution program, in place and working since early 2010, but no warnings or exhortations for us to actually get off our butts and do something about it.
Perhaps all the talk about Iranian nukes over the past few years has made those strange-looking and uncomfortable facial appliances seem useless next to images of mushroom clouds and scorched earth. There are, too, the memories of 1991, when the masks may actually have killed more people than Saddam’s Scuds – which, despite all the talk about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons, carried conventional warheads.
So to humor her I called the Postal Company, which for a relatively modest sum will send someone straight to your door to deliver new masks and take your old ones, making survival in the age of nonconventional weapons about as mundane as ordering a pizza. Except that it would take far longer than the time needed for an onionpepper- mushroom combo – about a month longer. Not good enough, my wife said. “What if Bibi and Ehud don’t wait that long?”
So to really humor her I enlisted my son’s help in emptying out the boydem, the crawl-space built into our ceiling, until there, way in back, behind the knapsacks, sleeping bags, suitcases and assorted detritus of years of family life, were four dusty, shoe-box-sized cartons, each with an IDF stamp. And on Thursday of last week, I took the cartons to a shopping mall in Jerusalem’s Talpiot industrial zone, one of six brickand- mortar locations around the country where the joint mask exchange program was taking place.
I grabbed a number, 906, at about the same time 762 was being called, and after about an hour and a quarter spent seated in one of a slew of garden chairs placed outside the storefront – among strolling shoppers who more often than not seemed to have no idea what was going on – I walked out with four fresh cartons.
It wasn’t clear to me whether the contents of these cartons would be of any help should push come to shove with Tehran, but their presence, now up front in the boydem, immediately made my wife feel a whole lot better – especially the next day, when the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot made me feel a whole lot better, too.
THE COVER story of the August 24 issue of Yediot’s widely read weekend magazine Shiva Yamim (Seven Days) was not at all about whether the new gas masks would come in handy, or even about the growing tensions with Iran. Instead, it reported that fully 46 percent of Israel’s population, about 3.5 million people, lacked up-to-date masks. Even worse, the vast majority wouldn’t be getting them anytime soon.
Were the country to move to an emergency footing, the article explained, the Home Front Command could quickly open more than 100 additional distribution points throughout the country with the capacity to hand out a total of some 400,000 masks a day. A quick calculation shows it would take less than 10 days to distribute masks in this way to those still needing them.
The problem is, Yediot trumpeted, that there are only about 47,000 gas masks remaining in the country’s storerooms.
The factory in Israel that’s currently producing masks for adults is turning out only 1,000 a day, said its assistant manager, who added that the plant can turn out 5,000 masks a day when geared for peak production. So why, at a time of tensions, isn’t it doing this?
There was a change in governments after the gas mask exchange program was established and funded, and with new governments come changes in priorities. The current government, the assistant manager told the magazine, is now funding only enough gas masks so that “in case of an emergency” the production line would not be shut down completely.
The article went on to describe the usual fiscal-babble that accompanies such stories, with the Finance Ministry saying one thing and the Defense Ministry another: The money is there, but it’s not there; it was budgeted but used for something else; it was budgeted for something else but used for something entirely different. Blah, blah, blah and so on.
But even if the money were to magically appear, expanding the plant to full production might take half a year. Yossi Sagiv, a retired colonel who as a senior figure in the Home Front Command had established the gas mask exchange program, explained to the magazine that the hiring and training of additional workers would take time. He also pointed out the problems inherent in stocking up on materials.
“Most of the primary raw materials, rubber and charcoal, are imported,” Sagiv explained. “This is no simple matter. No factory will import raw materials if you don’t promise that there will be orders because these are raw materials with a short shelf-life. The factory is not a philanthropy or a voluntary endeavor.”
Clearly, there’s a downside to privatization.
Surprisingly, said the article, there’s no shortage of gas masks when it comes to children. While 90% of the country’s youngsters already have up-to-date masks there are some 800,000 more masks in storage. So why aren’t they being distributed to the remaining 10%?
“They expire in the next two years,” said a current senior figure in the Home Front Command, “and the cost of their distribution would exceed their value. I’m keeping them for an emergency.”
Clearly, at least one government establishment thinks it’s already been privatized.
And why, when there is a shortage of gas masks for adults, is there a surplus for children? That, Sagiv told Yediot, is because no other country makes masks for youngsters and since the early 1990s it’s been policy here to err on the side of caution, even if it means overstocks and waste due to shelf-life constraints.
Clearly, it’s almost impossible to plan properly when money is tight and your opponents are lunatics, but at least some people in positions of authority here were thinking of our kids.
WHY, WITH all this distressing news, did the article actually make me feel better? With apologies to those who won’t have gas masks, I guess it’s because Israel has become a country of individuals who must, first and foremost, fend for themselves, and when you’ve succeeded in taking an important precaution for your family in the nick of time there’s a major element of satisfaction, no matter how many people are left behind.
For this satisfaction, though, I must give sole credit to my wife. Had I ignored her nagging I probably would have remained squarely on my butt, and my family would be among the 46% of the souls in this country having to deal with yet another headache, a serious one at that.
With her foresight she’d make a fine policy planner, maybe in the Home Front Command. For the time being, perhaps it’s time for her to play a little lotto?