Just around the time of my tenth birthday, I got a gas mask. In fact, everybody did.
My dad and I went to the collection point to bring them home. He signed a few papers, gave his ID, and we picked them up from the woman near the exit. She was wearing a gray uniform that made her look tired and bored, and it probably was boring sitting in a classroom all day handing out gas masks to people she didn’t care about.
Each mask came in a big brown box that my dad told me not to open unless the guy on the news with the large tinted glasses said so, but as we came into the house he opened one of the boxes so we could all see it for a moment. It was black and big, had two large openings for the eyes and had a new car smell, only more personal. Then he stored the masks on one of the shelves in his large concave studio, tucked in with the glass, wooden palates, rocks, and tools. After that, we had some cake.
I wanted to be the one who put the masks away, but I couldn’t because I was barefoot and shards of glass were strewn all over. And besides, he told me a studio was no place for a kid, only for men. The other thing that defined that period of my life apart from getting a gas mask is that I truly believed that all people were artists: all men had large concaved studios where they would listen to the radio or have friends come over to sip mint tea with leaves picked straight from the garden and served in cracked porcelain cups that they found at the flea market at the end of the day when vendors just wanted to get rid of their merchandise.
All the men I knew were artists, and all the old women chain-smoked long-stemmed menthol cigarettes and cursed and gave out stale candies. I believed everybody was a painter or an actor, sculptor, stained-glass artist, and potter because those were all my friends’ parents and all the people I knew, or my parents knew, which meant I knew by association. I was never allowed to sit in the studio and draw or write or play with toys, only deliver messages from my mom, although sometimes she would just go out to the front door and yell, and he would yell back, especially around dinnertime.
Every day I would take the school bus from the village to the comprehensive school where I met a lot of kids whose parents didn’t live in my village, but for me they were artists nonetheless. My friend Dan’s father was an artist who grew bananas, and the mother of the girl I was in love with, Naomi, was an artist who spoke with other people about their feelings. And Nimrod, the kid with the green-gleaming football shirt, had a dad who was an artist, but nobody knew what he did or where he was.
At recess we would all huddle in the corner on the far side of the soccer field. It was getting to be winter so we collected old blocks and made impromptu chairs for our little gang. Shmaya would take out his heavy worn sticker album and show everyone his latest acquisitions. I didn’t have an album but I did have a bunch of stickers that I would put on my notebook or the tape deck that my Uncle David gave to me when he came to visit from the States.
The stickers came in packets of four, with a piece of gum that had the color, and taste, of an eraser. All around the school you would see them lying on the pavement, waiting to be stepped on by an unsuspecting teacher or student.
That day Shmaya revealed his biggest find yet—it was General Schwarzkopf, standing in front of large screens, adorned in medals, smiling bullishly. His complexion was a dead green due to the faded, cheap façade of the sticker and it reminded me of how Iraq appeared on TV.
“What did you trade for it?” Ruvie asked.
“Two Russian Mig 21s, a Reo truck, two English Tornadoes, and James Baker.”
“You overpaid,” Ruvie glazed over us with a haughty look of a savvy auctioneer, “by a James Baker.”
Shmaya looked straight at him, unimpressed.
“Yalla yalla. As of now, I’m the only one in this school with a Schwarzkopf, and I already have a two James Baker’s at home. AND, the last time I saw your album, you didn’t have either.”
Ruvie seethed. “Well, my brother’s friend has all the collection and he’s much older that you and he said he can get more. So I’ll get mine in no time.”
Observing their little sticker-arms-trade tête–à–tête, I wondered how much James Baker was worth in the United States, where my uncle lived, and if nobody would trade planes for him, what would people do with all those stickers of him.
Ruvie scurried off, stomping through the damp field towards the class on the other side. We flipped through the album which was filled with airplanes, generals, tanks and politicians but in the middle of it there was a large gaping hole, a void so big, it eclipsed everything else one could get—even Saddam Hussein.
It was the Holy Grail of the sticker collection: the American Stealth Bomber.
Shiny and sleek, its amorphous, polygonal shape divulged some of its mystique. A chimera-like entity, the missing Stealth sticker loomed over the album, oppressive in its absence. It was a real piece of art, like those black and red steel sculptures you see in public gardens. My mother called those sculptures “kinetic”—my mom was an artist who taught art to the kids at my school. She didn’t make art, instead talked about it in long stirring words that seemed to me as beautiful as the pictures in the art books strewn throughout her classroom.
In this piece of art there was an artist who flew the plane all the way from Maryland or Pittsburgh or Huntington, West Virginia to Baghdad, but nobody has ever seen one, Shmaya told me. He was talking about the plane, not the sticker, even though we scoured the skies—and the local grocery stores.
The next day, on the bus to school all of us was staring through the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the planes flying to Iraq.
“I saw one!” Yoni yelled.
“It’s just a cropper,” Ruvie said.
“I’m pretty sure it was a Mirage,” Yevgeni said.
“I’m pretty sure you don’t know what you’re talking about,” Yoni retaliated.
The bus weaved its way across the field roads and dropped us off and we spilled like paratroopers from the door, jumping one by one on to the curb.
Nobody was still or silent during history lesson. The excitement of things to come was too palpable. We passed notes to each other, some were about the planes, some were about the fact that Sigal was now officially Yakir’s girlfriend, some were about how the lesson was boring and how Ms. Gilat always smelled like stewed lentils.
Napoleon and his army was nothing compared with a band of countries fighting in Iraq: America, England, France, Denmark, and Australia allied to topple one man.
Just as the ruckus was threatening to topple Ms. Gilat, the classroom door swung open and a man in a khaki uniform came into the room.
We all hushed up immediately.
“Kids, this is Sergeant Druker. He came to the school to go over what you need to do in case of a missile attack.”