Never underestimate the importance of a good night's sleep. I'm too tired to even think of where to start blogging, and it's only been a few days since I was drafted into the Israeli Army. Where to start...
I guess for this first post I'll just talk about what the heck goes on in the first day of the army. If you aren't so interested in a step-by-step post, and rather prefer my deep and biting analyses (sarcasm intended), just give this one a scan. Day one...
First of all, I was to meet at Ammunition Hill, an important battle site from the 1967 Six Day War. We walked up to a counter there, signed in with the soldier stationed to take our identification card for verification, and then waited outside for a very uninterested looking male soldier to guide us to the museum. We watched about a 30-minute movie, all of which was in Hebrew that I would have been lost on if it weren't for the accompanying video, and then waited outside for a bus. What really struck me about the video was the emphasis on combat. War. Guns. Deaths and killings. I kind of had a naïve thought that they'd ease us into this thing.
From Ammunition Hill we took an hour bus ride, me trying my best to relax and remember the best advice I've heard over and over, that it all is "just a game," not to take the yelling and stupid rules too seriously. That is great advice, as I've come to fully grasp its potential of making the hard times easier.
The bus eventually headed into a base that sprawled so far that I thought it was its own city! Soldiers to the left of me, soldiers to the right. Though I was slightly anxious, my fear had long subsided. It was time to start this business of protecting the State of Israel. First step, BAKUM - Basis Klita UMiyun.
Like everything in the army, everything, acronyms rule. Commanders are known by the acronyms of their position. Bases are known by acronyms (the one I'm at right now, for example, is a mystery to me). The minutes of "free time" before lights out is known by an acronym. The way you stand - acronym. Your clothes - acronyms. Even individual rooms are known by the acronyms representing which officer uses it. Even the officers' assistants' rooms have acronyms. It's really quite impossible as a non-fluent speaker.
Anyway, BAKUM is the massive processing base at Tel HaShomer outside of Tel Aviv where you get processed and make the transition from a real citizen with freedoms to a soldier. For any nervous foreigners joining the army, here's a basic rundown of what you do at BAKUM:
-Wait on the bus for a very long time. (8:30am)
-Turn in your personal bag you brought along. You are instructed to put your wallet and cell phone in the bag. A girl that was standing next to me later on during this whole long process had her phone in her hand (dumb), a soldier saw it, she was yelled at and led away... she returned an hour later. Who knows.
-Go into a bank-like room, with an office and clerk/soldiers (female jobnikot, of course), where you give them your bank number, branch, bank, and best of all, you get 100 shekels in cash!
-Stand in line, which I may not mention but that is the overriding feature of what you do at all times in BAKUM, and finally get your picture taken for your teudat choger. I'm not sure what choger means, but essentially it's your army identification card. I, of course, had to actually squat down to fit in the frame of the picture. I had to do this to get the picture for my civilian identification card as well. Here I am, a shy American-Israeli in the midst of literally hundreds of gorgeous native Hebrew speaking females either in uniform or preparing to get uniforms, squatting and being laughed at by the Russian soldier looking on.
-Get your teeth photographed. You sit down at a desk, put your pinkies into either side of your mouth, pull your lips away, and a soldier puts a camera with a metal spreader into your mouth. Top. Bottom. And of course I got the hot female soldier instead of the slow looking male soldier. Awkward.
-The next station is a room full of full body fingerprint scanners. A soldier calls you over, she takes your hand and does what she will with it on the laser scanner, all while another monitor shows your fingerprint in real time. It's actually pretty cool. They scan every finger, your palm, the sides of your fingers, etc. Then (or before) they take a biometric picture of your face.
-Medical stuff, such as filling out a form and donating blood in order to test for being a bone marrow donor, giving a DNA sample (by the way, the only English I saw in the whole place was the sign that said D.N.A.) by way of a finger prick and a woman squeezing your blood out onto a large circle on a piece of paper, and finally receiving immunization shots in your shoulder. I actually had one of my first moments of "Israeliness" when I, nearly an hour later, realized that on the form for donating bone marrow I marked yes for a serious medical condition that in fact I do not have. I thought the word in the beginning was referring to something else. So an hour later I realized this, trekked through the maze of the building into the respective office, and alerted them that in fact I do not have this particular condition. They said, "Don't worry, this isn't connected to being in combat or not." I said, "Do you have any idea how serious that is? If I had that condition, no army in the world would let me in!" They said, "Don't worry." I tried to get them to find my form a few times over, explained the condition, they wouldn't budge, so I left it at that, walked out, and on the way back to the next stage I passed an area where I had been speaking with a high-ranking officer. I hesitated for not half a second. I told her the situation, she got that high-ranking "I'm in the position I'm in because I do what needs to be done" officer look in her face, and she proceeded to lead me into the room, her shoulders squared, and promptly demanded justice. In 10 minutes it was all cleared, all the medical questions were reviewed, and I was on my way to the next station.
-Interview with a clerk/soldier. I had to give information, like my address and stuff. In typical Israeli bluntness, the girl asked me "If you die, who do you want to get your money?" OK! Hold on! I am going into the army, the least you can do is say "If something happens to you..." Not in Israel.
-Now, I think, you have an interview with a commander on what you want to do in the army. This isn't official in terms of requesting a unit, but rather, as far as I could tell, just a way for him to put your name on a card with your phone number and address, and your choice of unit. Not really sure what that was about, though the commander was the oldest guy I've met so far in my army journey. He was probably 35. He was the nicest guy I've met, too.
-Then you go upstairs, fill out another medical form asking questions from "Do you have AIDS?" to "Are you mentally ill?" and "Would you like to talk to a doctor right now?" A good range, I'd say.
-Lunch. Finally. I think that was around two in the afternoon.
-We got our uniforms at this point, I believe. Essentially, we waited in line for a long time, my group of about 100 guys on one side of a 5-foot wide hallway, the female Israelis being inducted on the other side. In short, it was a madhouse. Finally we were led into the warehouse-like room where we were given a sticker to put on our shirt, which was a designation for what type of gear we received. Yes, thank goodness, they had my size boots. In American sizing, that would be a 15. In Israel, it's a 50 - though they gave me a 51, which has felt a little clunky but still a good size. I'm going to write a single post describing the reaction from my platoon about my feet.
To be honest, I can't at the moment remember what happened next. It took us over an hour to get dressed. Why? The dressing area was a tiny L-shaped hallway with miniature stalls for your bag, a tiny bench, and about 2 feet of room to maneuver. Secondly, and most importantly, all the stupid, simple, everyday parts of your outfit that you just throw on is not so when it comes to an army uniform. How do you put on the belt? How do you put the beret on your shirt? Not an everyday bit of the average shirt, but still a seemingly simple thing nonetheless. Finally, how in hell do you lace up the boots? I'm thinking about making a post with a video just to show you how unique it is. Let's just say that the final part where you normally make a bowknot is instead like some strange seaman knot. It's actually pretty cool, but it took us nearly 45 minutes to get someone to explain it to us. Oh yeah, did I mention that? They don't tell you anything. It's a 'figure it out for yourself' system...
Anyway, where were we? Still reading? I wonder if this is interesting to anyone? I'm actually just writing all this "that happened, then this happened" stuff because I know that when I was waiting to go into the army, dreaming and dreaming for a year on exactly what day #1 would be like, I wanted to find a guide on exactly what happened step by step. It's harder than I thought to keep track, but this is my best try.
So, we got our uniform, and from there we began the army standard of "hurry up and wait." We got the uniform, got our "tik aleph," or primary gear bag, and were told which group we would be in. We did a check as a whole group with a gear-guy, going through each thing that should be in our bag. Of course, many, many things were missing from various bags. After that was done with, which was a comical event considering the Ethiopians' and Russians' healthy sense of humor and the easy target of comedy that is army underwear (picture to be posted at some point), we were rushed over to a seating area outside.
We waited for about an hour or more there, waiting, just sitting around, bag between our feet, no information on what was to come. Hurry up and wait. No directions. Just wait. Finally, a soldier lines us up, checks our names, and leads us to another area where the buses are. We were yelled at a bit, nothing serious at all, and we were soon to be shipped off to our bus. At this point we were allowed to ask a commander some questions. One guy seriously asked this: "If one of us doesn't want to travel on the bus, what happens?" The commander looks at him. "What? I didn't understand," he asked. "If one of us doesn't want to travel..." Unflinchingly the commander answers, "Go to jail then." That was good for a laugh, but then the group was yelled at for laughing, which happens about every 10 minutes.
OK, I'm getting ahead of myself. You have no idea how tired I am. I got up at 4:30am today. I'm just trying to bang this post out so I can relax. I'll talk later about what happens when you get yelled at for stuff like laughing.
One observation I'd like to make here that really is very telling. When we got to BAKUM, as we were sitting on the bus waiting, I couldn't help but be mesmerized at the age of the people walking around. They look like kids! Just young pups playing dress up! I walked off the bus when the time came and marveled at how much older I felt, and potentially looked. Israel has a compulsory army, so these kids are about 18 to 21. They look it. I feel much older than 18. And, so far, it's shown itself to be true.
But seriously, my morale level is so much higher right now than I thought it would be mainly because of this age difference! I just think, "What has this kid done? I've gotten a degree, traveled for months on my own, moved to another country, learned a new language in my 20s... I can do anything, and I certainly can do what they do! No need to be worried."
In fact, at BAKUM you are given the stickers I mentioned, and on them it says what "track" you are. My track was different from everyone else's. I wasn't sure what that meant, but it was that way until halfway through when a commissioned officer found me and went through this whole schpeel with two other officers about how my age is such a big deal. One of them even chastised the other for telling me how hard it was going to be. The age thing is VERY important. I will write another observation about that soon.
So, we finished with all the BAKUM stuff, were led to our bus, put our bags underneath, and boarded the bus headed for Michve Allon up north. The ride was eerie. The air was tense. What would the base be like? When are we really going to get yelled at? Who are our commanders going to be? Is the thunder, lighting, and rain a sign of the time to come?
In the next edition of Israeli by Day, the rest of day #1 will be detailed. I just have to figure out how to do the time-delayed posting feature.