Fighting fears with plastic and duct tape

February 13, 2003|By Kevin Cowherd

Let me begin by saying I'm as concerned about this newest terrorist alert as the next person, unless the next person happens to live in New York or Washington, where the level of concern is a good deal higher.

But ... duct tape?

And plastic sheeting?

For a chemical or biological attack?

If that's what the government recommends to seal off a "safe room" in a house, all I can say is, good luck.

Me, I'd keep that bio-hazard suit pressed and handy, just in case.

In the first place, have you ever watched the average person duct-tape anything?

It's not a pretty sight. The average person can barely duct-tape the pedal on a kid's Big Wheels, never mind expertly seal off windows and doors.

Invariably, the sticky side ends up all wadded and bunched and unevenly aligned - assuming you can even tear it off the roll.

And that's when people are calm!

Can you imagine trying to seal a room when air raid sirens are wailing and people are screaming and your TV is blaring news of a terrorist attack?

People would be so jittery, they'd be lucky not to tape their hands together.

There is also another little matter to consider when trying to turn a room into your own personal biosphere.

If you do manage to make the room airtight, what exactly would you breathe?

Wouldn't things get a little, um, close after a while? As in close enough for everyone in the room to keel over?

What good does it do to create a secure environment if everyone's gasping for breath before the first cloud of nerve gas even arrives?

Still, during a quick check of various stores near me yesterday, duct tape and plastic sheeting were flying off the shelves.

At Office Depot, where I went because someone told me customers were buying five and six rolls at a clip, the duct tape was sold out by early afternoon.

(Office Depot, isn't that a strange place to visit in preparation for a terrorist attack? How does the mental checklist go there? "Let's see ... printer cartridges? Check. Sticky pads? Check. Two-inch duct tape to seal windows and doors in the event of a lethal contaminant released into the atmosphere? Check.")

At the Cockeysville Home Depot, they had two big pallets of duct tape parked at either end of the main aisle.

The store always does a steady business in batteries and flashlights, assistant manager Elaine Gavin said, and those weren't moving any faster than normal.

But duct tape and plastic sheeting were selling as if al-Qaida operatives were coming up York Road.

"To be honest, it's been mostly seniors" buying those items, Gavin said.

As we strolled back to the plastic sheeting section, which had been picked over like the $10 sweater table at Hecht's, I asked Gavin if she thought duct tape and plastic would actually save someone in the event of a biological or chemical attack.

Gavin smiled. It was the kind of smile the teacher gives the dopey kid who says two and two equals five.

"If it's gonna happen," she said of an attack, waving at the sheeting, "this isn't gonna do anything for you."

Amen, sister.

Instead of fooling around with plastic sheeting and duct tape if a toxic cloud were to appear anywhere near them, I think most people would be reaching for the car keys.

And dialing the reservations desk at a Holiday Inn in, say, Montana.

Gavin went on to say that she was 47 years old, and that what we were seeing now was just a new twist on an old fear: annihilation at the hands of another international lunatic.

"Back in the '50s, we had the [atomic] bomb scare issue," she said. "And what did everyone do? They built bomb shelters."

Back then, I told her, they held drills in my elementary school where a whistle sounded and all the kids ducked under their desks and covered up, as if Soviet ICBMs had suddenly been spotted in the skies over the jungle-gym and swings.

Now people of my age look back on that and laugh. Because the Russkies must have had pretty lousy A-bombs if you could save yourself by diving under a tiny wooden desk.

Luckily, we never had to use those bomb shelters.

You hope the same holds true for duct tape and plastic sheeting.

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