As promised in the previous post, I'm going to go ahead and finish up a description of the first day of being drafted into the Israeli Army. After I finish this post, I'm going to go back to my previous style of dedicating each post to some kind of interesting and specific element of my day or experiences. I have so many of those specific peculiarities and interesting experiences, even out of just two days in the army. Again, I suggest signing up for receiving posts by email. Who knows when I'll be able to post.
So, I left off the last post by telling how we left the induction base, BAKUM at Tel HaShomer. We boarded with our commander beginning the yelling.
"Move out of that seat! Go sit with someone sitting by himself!" He adjusted his M4 machine gun, throwing it directly onto his back so he could walk the aisles. "No talking! I don't want to hear any talking! If you talk, we are going to pull the bus over and you'll be doing pushups until your lunch comes out your eyes!"
We promptly filled the spare seats. But, as I have later found out is going to be a recurring theme, the Russians and Ethiopians couldn't help but break the imposed silence. Luckily it only prompted a sharp yell from the commander, and the children bit their tongues.
The ride, as I said, was eerie. Long past dark, lightening burst horizontally across the sky, illuminating our faces through the windows. Purple light flashed on all shades of skin - North American, South American, European, Russian, Ethiopian. Temporarily we forgot that we were well on our way to our first military base, well on our way to being maggots, the bottom of the totem poll.
Our bus wound its way up north, turning on the mountain roads past villages burning yellow sodium lights. I found myself recalling a passage in a Charles Dickens novel, a certain monologue where a character walks towards a town at night, wondering what lives are being lived before him. He wonders what the lights are illuminating. How amazing that whole swathes of people are anonymous and so separate from our own self-centered world!
And here I was on my way to Michve Allon, the army base I am to spend the next three weeks in on a program for immigrants, so purely occupied with my own worries. Don't get me wrong; I don't have any guilt for being self-centered at a moment like that. We passed through a tiny town at the outskirts of the base, and as we turned a corner I saw the guard gate for the first time. I wonder if those villagers have jobs directly because of the base?
Entering the base we drove past dorm building after dorm building. We stopped in front of one anonymous U-shaped unit, a paved courtyard in front. The yelling began immediately.
"You have 45 seconds to grab your bag, throw it in the corner of the yard, and line up in formation! NOW NOW NOW!!!"
We pushed past each other as fast as possible, trying to figure out whose army issue bag was whose. They are identical brown duffel bags. Who could tell the difference? I, luckily, received one that had a blue shoulder strap attached. In the pitch black night, however, I only found it after most of the other bags had been grabbed. After throwing it in a corner I joined the group.
The commander surveyed his troops, walking up and down the rows of boys dressed like men. "Welcome to Michve Allon. You will be here for three weeks. I am your commander. We are not friends. We are not going to be friends. I am going to show you how to be soldiers, and you are going to listen to every word I say. You see that commander over there," pointing to a tall guy with three stripes on his arm and an army baseball hat, "he's like a god. He is your god now. You see all of us commanders," indicating himself and the few other real soldiers standing by, "we are your parents. We are just like your parents. We tell you what to do! We tell you when to eat, when to sleep, when to talk or shut the hell up!"
A Russian kid laughs at the seriousness of the commander.
"Who said that? You?," finding the offender in the rows, "what the hell do you think is so funny? You think the army is a joke? 50 pushups, NOW!"
The Russian looked at the commander unsure if he was being so serious so soon on base. The commander jumped 10 feet towards the boy, ready to strike, and at the top of his lungs, "NOW!!!" The Russian got the picture.
Our commander split us up into smaller groups of about 25 guys. He put us into two single file lines, and we made our way up to the main courtyard of the Michve Allon base. This courtyard is a paved square of nearly a football field by a football field with smaller yellow squares from corner to corner. The yard is lined with buildings dimly lit by more yellow sodium lights.
At the edge of the pavement our commander stops, turns around, and yells at us to stand at attention. "You see that entrance over there?," pointing at a blank building among many blank buildings, "how long do you think it will take you to run there and line up?"
"Two minutes," a French guy says.
The commander walks up to the boy and asks fiercely, "How do you call me?"
"Two minutes, COMMANDER!"
"Who has watches?," the commander asks as half of us raise our hands. "OK, now put it in the stopwatch mode. "Forty-five seconds. GO!"
We take off with our clunky boots slap slap slapping the pavement below. We reach the entrance, but then it takes nearly half a minute to line up in two straight lines, even numbers on both ends. The commander walked slowly across the courtyard to our position.
"What the hell are you looking at? Did I say two minutes? I'm pretty sure I said 45 seconds. You," eying an Ethiopian, "how long did you take?"
"I don't have a watch..."
The commander drops his head and turns around, shifting his M4 from his side to his back, and whispers in disdain, "pathetic."
The commander walked into the building, leaving us stationed in front of the steps for who knows what. I've learned quickly that you can't really ask questions, and you can't really worry why you're standing in formation in front of a building with a bunch of female soldiers sitting in an octagonal room with one empty seat across from each soldier. Why? What kind of interview were we going to do? Haven't we done enough interviews as it is?
The commander came back after about 15 minutes and advanced the front 4 guys into the octagonal room. Outside we stayed in formation. Commanders walked by, stared at us and just laughed. We really are the very bottom of the totem pole.
Hurry up and wait, remember? I think we stayed in position, waiting in our two single-file lines, for nearly an hour. Eventually our commander came by and asked if our legs hurt. Hesitantly we said yes, not sure if it was a trick question or not, but it turned out he was just being a nice guy. He said, "OK, so you can sit. Tell me next time."
I still wasn't sure if it was a trick or not. I sat down, looked at the boys around me making sure that my Hebrew wasn't mistaken, but everything seemed in order. I sat down on the pavement just waiting to be yelled at. It never came, but a few commanders later came by and wondered what the hell we were doing. They didn't say a word, but I guess they figured we wouldn't have sat unless we were told to.
The interview turned out to be the fourth time I've had to answer questions about my parents' names and address, my brother's information, who gets my money if I die, my bank account and financial information, et cetera et cetera. This interview hardly seemed necessary.
It wasn't until 1:30am until we finally made our way back to the dorm and yard where we had put our bags and first stood at attention. I left out the information about our meal on purpose because I want to discuss how meals work later. The point of the matter is that the day lasted forever, it was very much what you think of when you think of army b.s., and they had us running all over the place with time constraints that The Flash could barely make.
So we got back to our courtyard, grabbed our bags, and a commander called our names out and we approached him to receive our room assignment (which was really our 10 man squad). He told me my number and letter designation, and as I entered another commander asked me my assignment.
"2D... I think."
"You think? OK, let's go."
He led me to the 2D room, and as we entered I saw the sign on the door with the names written as to who sleeps there. My name was not on my initial scan, and the doubt running through my mind was growing stronger and stronger.
"Commander, this isn't my room. I forgot the number."
"You forgot your number in less than one minute?"
"Uh, yeah... sorry."
I went back out to the yard where the commander with the clipboard was standing, and I sheepishly told him that I forgot my assignment.
"What? Less than one minute and you forgot your number? OK, you're 2G."
I made my way back to the rooms. I entered and to my great joy there were two native English speakers in the room, including one German guy who is perfect in Hebrew and who I've gotten to know a little before I was drafted. Unfortunately, my bed was the only one lacking a mattress. My actual direct commander - there are many commanders, but he's my squad commander - told me not to worry, that he would get me a mattress.
All the guys were organizing their stuff, going through their army issue bags, figuring out where to put our various gear. I sat down on another guy's bed and pulled out my second pair of boots to put my second pair of dog tags inside them (there's a little pocket for them in each boot). My commander saw them, and he freaked out. You have to remember that these guys are keeping distance. They're being all serious and yelling at us and what not, even though they generally want to be friends with you.
He grabbed my boot, asked what size I wore, and pulled out his cell phone and snapped a picture. The Russian whose bed I was sitting on took out his digital camera and took a picture of it as well. Everyone was having a good laugh over my size. How tall are you? 6'4? WOW! How much do you weigh? 220 pounds? WOW! How big are your feet? 15? WOW!
I just hope they're laughing with me...
Anyway, we had about 20 minutes to organize our stuff, and then we had to meet back in the courtyard. That was at about 2am. We were lights out at 2:15am. Now, I won't tell you what we did for those 15 minutes. I'll save that for a little bit later. But I'll just give you a taste.
Before we entered our rooms we were given a very set amount of time to return in formation. 20 minutes or something - I don't remember exactly. Everything, by the way, is timed down to the second. We were 30 seconds late returning to formation. Well, a few guys didn't make it in time (dumb).
The commander walked the frontline, up and down the troops, sizing us up. "Thirty seconds late? Why? First night? Pathetic."
An Ethiopian cracked a joke.
"What the hell is funny?" And here comes the good part, the bit I'll explain later. The commander barked, "You know what matsav shtayim is? Yes? Good. Matsav shtayim!!!"