Niche Market

She was slim, young and attractive, sitting in the window seat as our plane lifted off for Minneapolis. We’d talked before takeoff — selfishly hoping the empty seat between us would not be taken.

Anne was a salesperson for a Maryland corporation, eager to move up. “I’d like to be head of Human Resources,” she said. “But first I need to finish my degree at AMU.”

“AMU?” I asked.

“American Military University. It’s an online school. I’m majoring in public safety and homeland security.”

“What does your company do?”

“We protect people from weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, chemical and biological. Our main customers are the military and law enforcement, but there’s a growing civilian market.”

The words “weapons of mass destruction” rattled in my brain as I looked at her easy smile and unmarked face.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “How do you protect people from weapons of mass destruction?”

“We produce gas masks.”

The idea of gas masks providing protection against deadly biological and chemical weapons seemed absurd, but I tried to think it through. Yes, I suppose masks could filter some things out for a time, give some protection against a small attack. “It’s hard for me to get my mind around that.”

“Yes, it’s terrible. But they are proliferating, and highly portable, easily concealed. I think about it sometimes, ask myself if that’s what I want to be doing. But it’s a growing threat.” She paused, then smiled. “And a growing market for our company.”

“Mommy!” a high-pitched, annoying, insistent voice called out. “Mommy!”

I looked across the aisle. A 5-year-old was leaning forward.


The plane hit rough air.

“Headed home?” I asked my neighbor.

“No, just visiting family. My mom and dad live there, and my sister’s about to have a baby.”

I imagined the newborn, squalling. Then I thought about the Cold War, the 40-year U.S.-Soviet race to outpace the other in weapons development, with exceptionally bright, inventive people on both sides perfecting means of mass death. Had any of them, or the men who called the shots, ever paused to ask how in hell they’d prevent access by others to what they were inventing?

The plane banked and thumped as the landing gear dropped. We lost elevation, breaking through clouds. Houses and roads appeared below, coming closer. A flash of buildings, then air hangers. Dark military transport planes sat squat on the tarmac like fat locusts.

Our wheels hit blacktop, jarring. We moved fast until the reverse jets roared, louder and louder still, the rolling noise enveloping all. And I wondered: Is that how it sounds, the unfolding swarm of devils’ engines spewing chemical death as people run frantically and hopelessly below?