Everything seemed normal, except for the gas mask kits slung over the kids’ shoulders.

Thursday was like most other days for my children. Three went to their schools in our Jerusalem suburb of Ma’aleh Adumim, and I took the fourth to his private day-care center. In the afternoon, my 8-year old son, Koby, had his basketball practice, my 11-year-old daughter, Sarit, invited a friend over to do a homework project, and my 14-year-old daughter, Adina, went to her dance class.

Everything seemed normal, except that in addition to toting their school bags and snacks and equipment, they were also carrying a government-issued gas mask kit slung over their shoulders.

The war in Iraq had begun, and even though it was hundreds of miles away, it was still close to home.

For the last few months, the people of Israel have been slowly preparing, both, mentally and materially, for the conflict, with the memory of the Gulf War hovering like a dark cloud.

Soon after Operation Desert Storm began in January 1991, Saddam Hussein decided to involve Israel by launching salvoes of Scud missiles into the main population centers around the coastal area of Tel Aviv. While there were few casualties, there was much destruction, along with emotional distress at the possibility that the missiles could contain chemical weapons.

My wife, Shelley, and I had moved from Maine to Jerusalem in 1985, and with a young daughter at hand, this was our first encounter with a war situation. We sat in a makeshift sealed room in our apartment with gas masks on during each air raid, and waited for the all-clear siren. Nobody knew how it was going to play out. At first it was tense and anxiety-filled, but after the first few raids, it became somewhat routine, as if being attacked by missiles can be called routine.

This time around, the government and the people are more experienced. There was no hysterical demand for plastic sheets and duct tape for sealing windows, as people have been stocking up over the last month. Same with mineral water and other provisions. In an exhaustive campaign, the Israel Home Front Command has distributed gas mask kits containing the mask, a filter and a syringe of atropine, a chemical antidote, to more than 95 percent of the population.

So on Wednesday night, when the government called on the public to open the sealed kits, we were ready. One by one we calmly and methodically took out each child’s mask, assembled the filter and tried them out. I showed them how to adjust the straps to tighten and loosen the mask, and to test whether air was seeping in (knowledge gained during my 12 years of duty in the Israel Defense Forces reserves).

Koby loved his mask and kept it on for 10 minutes, running around the house like a commando. Adina kept hers on for 10 seconds and pulled it off, melodramatically gasping for air and claiming she couldn’t breathe.

Shelley and I assembled our 2-year-old son, Matan’s, gas mask “suit,” a bulky spaceman-like apparatus that fits like a jacket, both of us commenting that there was no way he would ever agree to wear it.

We heard a groan from the living room, where the kids were watching the local news on TV. The Education Ministry had ended speculation and dashed hopes by announcing that, despite the beginning of the U.S. campaign in Iraq, schools would be open on Thursday. The Israeli version of a “snow day” didn’t come to pass. The kids went to bed grumbling at their bad luck, while Shelley and I watched the beginning of the war unfolding on Fox News.

The chances of an Iraqi attack on Israel are very slim – 1 percent, according to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Maybe that’s why, aside from the gas mask kits, there’s not much indication that anything is more amiss than usual in this volatile country. According to military sources, Israel will have a window of five minutes to destroy a Scud missile between the time it is launched and hits the ground. The public will be given a warning of about 3.5 minutes to put on their masks and find the nearest bomb shelter or sealed room.

When I drove the kids to school yesterday and saw all those children on the sidewalks carrying those kits – which are meant to protect them from death in a chemical attack – it nearly broke my heart. Protection from death! They shouldn’t have to be thinking about things like Scuds and sealed rooms. They should be playing and learning and dreaming about the future.

As I dropped him off, I told Koby, “Now make sure you don’t leave your gas mask in school.”

And realizing what 8-year-old boys are prone to do, I added, “And don’t take it out of the box to play with it. Even if other kids are doing it.”

“Why not?” he asked.

For him, and his friends, the gas mask was the greatest toy imaginable. Until they have to put it on for real.