It's a long way from Tel Aviv to the Pacific Palisades, but Beth Weitz figures it can't hurt to be prepared. So when her teen-age son asked her for a gas mask on Tuesday, she marched straight to a military supply store--and bought four.
"If it makes us feel a little more secure, it's worth it," said Weitz. "It's a traumatic time for all of is. And if we don't need them, well, I can use them for planters. A little ivy growing out of the noses--hey, it might look OK!"
From the Big Apple to Los Angeles, the hottest selling item these days is something its purchasers hope they never have to use--gas masks.
"The phone is ringing off the hook and every third call is for a gas mask," said Ben Susman, owner of the Van Nuys Army & Navy store on Tuesday. "We had about 200 of them but they're all sold out--which is amazing, because they were made in Israel and the instructions are in Hebrew. I doubt many people will be able to translate."
Spy Tech, a Manhattan firm that seems to have a near monopoly on the protective devices in New York City, says it can hardly keep up with the orders from customers fearful that Iraqi terrorists may soon strike there.
"We're selling dozens of them at a time to everybody from corporations to the little old lady buying it for herself and her grandchildren," Spy Tech President Ed Sklar said. "We sold about 4,200 just yesterday alone. Since the outbreak of hostilities, we've sold about 8,000."
Last Friday, the day after Iraq first attacked Israel with Scud missiles, the company sold 1,000, he said.
"It's been total insanity," Sklar said. "We even have orders pending from other parts of the world that are astronomical. I'll believe them when I see their letters of credit."
Dan Sonenfeld, general manager of California Surplus Mart in Los Angeles, said gas mask sales have been "quite brisk" since the invasion of Kuwait Aug. 2. At first, he said, the buyers were Middle Eastern immigrants buying them for relatives back home.
But when the bombs started to fly, he and others said, the market came home.
"We had one woman in here the other day who wanted a gas mask for her dog," said a salesman at The Surplus Store in West Los Angeles.
The masks are Israeli surplus and sell for $20-$40 each. Made of rubber with a screw-on metal filter canister, they are identical to the masks supplied by the Israeli government to their citizens, merchants said.
Southern California merchants said that, for the most part, they have tried to discourage anxious customers.
"We don't sell them, and when people ask for them, we strongly recommend that they put the idea out of their minds," said Marguerite Morgan, co-owner of an Encinitas supply store called Be Prepared!
"The gas masks on sale in this country can actually be dangerous. People who don't know how to use them can end up suffocating."
In New York, however, Sklar has been advertising the masks in the New York Times. "Gas Masks--Survival in the '90s!" the ads say. "Call or Visit Our Showroom . . ."
Sklar rejects notions that he is capitalizing on ungrounded fears.
"I think people who buy them are being very prudent," he said. "I anticipate a terrorist attack. Most other people do as well. We're dealing with a man who is a mastermind of propaganda and has a training school for terrorism in Baghdad."
The masks are not the only item in demand in the wake of the Persian Gulf crisis. Emergency rations of ready-to-eat food, jugs of water and American flags are selling out, merchants say.
At the Survival Center in Ravenna, Ohio, owner Dick Mamkamyer reports that bomb shelter accessories have picked up nicely on his toll-free mail-order line.
"The phone lines have been lit up ever since August when the troops first went in. And it's been real hectic lately," said Mamkamyer, whose outlet is about 40 miles southeast of Cleveland. Sklar's Spy Tech, on the 80th floor of the Empire State Building, also stocks chemical suits at $200 apiece, protective hoods at $15 each and a $15 decontamination kit with materials to neutralize chemicals that get on skin, clothing or equipment.
"We've sold over 200 of the chemical suits over the last couple of weeks," Sklar said.
Bulletproof items, such as the $550 "Miracle" T-shirt that is designed to stop a .357-caliber slug, also are beginning to sell to New Yorkers panicky over the possibility of a terrorist attack, he said.
Richard Renda, 37, a Manhattan sound engineer and public relations specialist, is typical of the customers who have visited Spy Tech's offices in recent days. He purchased three masks, two chemical suits and six extra filter canisters.
"I want to have a chance to get out of the city alive if something happens," he said. "I hope I never have to use it, but you never know."
Renda said that he plans to keep the gear on the couch in the living room of his Upper East Side apartment. When he is out of the apartment, he said, he will take one of the masks with him.
Renda said that he searched all over town for masks for weeks to no avail until he learned about Spy Tech earlier this week.
He is philosophical about the more than $600 he spent. "If you don't use them, fine," he said. "Twenty years down the line, hand them to your kids and say: 'This is what 1991 was all about."'