Monday, August 17, 2015

The passage of forty years

I first arrived in Israel late in the afternoon of July 16th 1967. I knew enough about the country not to expect camels and desert everywhere, but it did seem fitting that our first view from the windows of the plane was of sand dunes. By the time we exited the terminal it was dark, and we climbed aboard a taxi which had no air conditioning so the warm evening wind blew in through the open windows. The road up to Jerusalem was probably two lanes, but it wasn't crowded. Most Israelis  didn't own cars in those days. I remember it snaked up down and around, hugging the contours of the Judean hills; I also remember that we passed though a number of towns, and there were lots of people out on the streets, enjoying the respite from the heat of the day. Eventually we reached Jerusalem, and the cab driver had to ask directions to our destination, a hostel-like place in Kiryat Hayovel.

I especially remember the feeling of exuberance in the air. A few blocks from our destination the cabbie pulled up in front of a group of people sitting around a camp fire; a young boy rushed up to us and shouted in excitement "We won! We won!" Two blocks down a young woman also expressed delight in the victory, before directing us around the corner.

It was a month after the Six Day War.

I flew into Israel on the 16th of July this year, too, late in the afternoon. The sand dunes are all gone, covered by housing projects of 15- or 20-story residential towers. (There probably weren't more than two such buildings in all of Israel in 1967). The towns are crisscrossed by broad multi-lane highways, all of them clogged with vehicles. On the road up to Jerusalem we didn't enter a single town; the highway stays out of them all. Arriving in Jerusalem we saw no dancing groups of celebrators. People don't do public celebrations on hot summer evenings anymore.

48 years have seen a lot of change.

Forty years ago today, on August 17th 1975, I enlisted in the IDF.

The IDF in those days was still reeling from the Yom Kippur War. A year earlier recruits were reportedly given three choices upon enlistment: they could join the tanks, or the tanks, or the tanks. By the time I arrived people were volunteering to the paratroopers and being sent to the one or two other infantry units, but most people went into the armoured corps. Most of the army seemed to be there in those days; once there they served either on the Golan or in the Sinai. The enemy was Egypt, or Syria; I never had a single military encounter with Palestinians in my entire three-year stint - or for that matter, in my subsequent 30-40 months of reserve duty spread over the next 25 years. I had an officer who was certified as being shell-shocked, and a company commander who wasn't certified but should have been.

The first evening in the recruitment depot Evyatar and I crawled out under a fence and went to find a public telephone to call home. Being 18, we weren't afraid of fighting or dying; but we were apprehensive about sharing tents and training with the loud and rough-looking soldiers from parts of society we'd never interacted with. I suppose they may have been prickly about us, too, but we didn't see this at the time. Doing first rounds of kitchen duty was frightening: we were ordered around by soldiers who seemed to delight in our sense of apprehension and disorientation.

It was hot. It was strange. It was radically different. We had boarded the bus in Jerusalem cocky with the sensation that we were joining something big and important; now it looked mostly foreign and disconcerting. And l-o-o-o-n-g! Three whole years! In this?! Three. Whole. Years. Would we ever return to a normal civilian life, such as the one we'd just left so blithely behind?

Yes and no, in retrospect. We did, of course, because three years isn't, actually, very long. We didn't, in many ways, because by the time we got out we ourselves were very different.

That first evening, in a hot tent on a prickly blanket on a steel-frame cot was one of the most important points of my life. The thing is, I knew it at the time, too - and yet I didn't. Donning the ugly and uncomfortable olive uniform and clunky boots gave us the feeling of now being adults, citizens, contributors to society, lords of our destiny. And also hopelessly young and inexperienced, rookies, untested and insignificant cogs in a large machine which didn't at all care about who we'd been so far. We knew we were on the cusp of one of life's biggest adventures; we didn't have the slightest inkling of what we were facing. We knew we were setting out on a rite of passage; we didn't comprehend the rite or where we'd pass to. The system was reeling after war, and it looked solid and impregnable; we were over-confident and exuberant; ignorant of what we'd be called upon to deal with and what growth we'd be required to perform.

Evyatar eventually made it all the way to full Colonel. I climbed up to first sergeant. Yet each of us and all of us really did acquire a personal confidence based on achievement and the satisfaction of successfully coping, functioning in the system, and mastering its requirements. By the time we walked out, we really were adults, citizens, contributors to society and, oh yes, lords of our destiny to the degree this is granted to mere mortals.

And a good thing, too, because the country was changing. From two-lane roads across sand dunes, to highways between hi-tech development centers; from the simplicity of singing around a campfire on a hot summer evening to the complexity of a multilayered, multifaceted society smack in the middle of one of the world's most volatile regions. There is more than one path we can take in life, and more than one direction society can move in. Our ability to participate in the way we have, to contribute in the ways we've managed, to own our society for better and for worse, were profoundly forged by what followed when we woke, for the first time, in those hot ugly tents on the morning of August 18th 1975 to face our first full day in the army.


Fabián said...

Beautiful story!
August 17, 1975 was my first birthday :)

Yaacov said...

Mazal tov on your 41st!