Near the end of shavua machlaka (platoon week), where you do drills taking an open field as an entire platoon, our platoon commander opened up to us and “broke distance.” I suppose I have a few things to explain here.
1) Shavua Machlaka is the product of a few other weeks. Essentially, infantrymen have the role of battling in fields and mountains and forests, and that mode of combat involves a very specific set of movements. Field movements, I guess it’d be called. As such, you have to build up from doing those live-fire drills alone, all the way to doing it as an entire company. The platoon week is the last week of this training before company-wide movements. In short, it’s tough and complicated. The platoon commander leads it all.
2) A platoon commander is your second lieutenant (the lowest rank of a commissioned officer). Since he’s a CO, there is major ‘distance’ between him and the soldiers.
3) “Distance” is emotional and personal space between you and the commanders. For example, you call them by their role and not their name, which you officially don’t even know (“Attention, Commander!”). At first you can’t even say things like “good morning” to your squad commanders. Et cetera.
So, now that you have a little background, I can explain to you the importance of our platoon commander (M”M from now on) breaking distance.
After making us sprint to a tree in the distance for seemingly no reason, an activity typically reserved for punishment, the M”M and staff sergeant had us sit down in the shade on the side of a dirt road. After smiling and rubbing his beard, a trait we’ve mimicked secretly to great laughter, the M”M began to speak.
“It’s come the time to break distance with you all. We’re getting close to the end of our time together, and you should know my name and where I’m from. My name is Noam, and I’m from Netanya.
I looked around to see if anyone would have the guts to ask something really personal, and I was happy to see everyone smiling, nervously, right along with the M”M.
“Do you have any siblings?”
The M”M rubbed his face again, and glanced over at a guy from my squad.
“Shmuel,” he said, “you probably know it all. You’re not allowed to talk right now.”
Shmuel had told me all about the M”M’s sister, who was in his grade. It’s a small enough country that many of the kids had some type of knowledge of our commanders, in some way, before or during the training. From Shmuel, I knew that the M”M had a sister who happened to look exactly like him... in a bad way.
“Any other questions,” the M”M asked.
Shachar, a small Russian kid, raised his hand and asked, “I heard you were in Oketz at first.”
“Dog breeders? No way! Golani, kavod. Respect.”
At this point the M”M shut down the conversation, with many questions left unanswered. Because we like him so much, we wanted to know everything. But, instead, “breaking distance” was limited to name and hometown.
Noam from Netanya. That’s it.
It wasn’t much, but do you have any idea how strange it is to actually call this officer by his first name? We’ve spent so many months being on our best behavior around him, even after being total jerks towards and around our squad commanders. The second the platoon commander walks in, it’s like we’re different people. We sit straight in our chairs, or straighten our shirts, and make sure hundreds of other details are in order. When you respect and fear an authority, it can change your whole act.
But now all of a sudden he is Noam. Still an authority figure, but Noam none the less.
“Hey Noam,” we ask, “Am I doing this right?”
“Yeah, Danny, that’s ok.”
And what’s even better is that just a few days ago we finished a week of being split up into separate groups, where the M”M was in a town away from my group. After we all met back up, there was lots of backslapping and sharing stories. I guess we kinda missed each other. I saw the M”M, and I kinda missed him.
So as I found him standing next to me waiting to get on the bus, I asked him how his week was. That’s pushing the buttons on the whole “distance” thing. He gave his typical smile, a restrained affair because of his rank where he looks to the side, maybe puts his hand over his mouth to cover it, and then gives you a short little answer.
“Good,” he smiled to me sideways. And then he slapped me on the back quickly and walked away, crooked grin and all. I wish I had the creative talent to describe his movie-quality deep voice, awkward beard stroking, and a signature smile I can only pathetically describe as enthusiastically 'restrained.'
You just have to see it. I guess you just kinda have to be there to know what I mean. Let’s say that this whole army experience isn’t what you see in movies, with stiff-lipped commanders who seemingly aren’t even human. Instead, your CO might just smile nervously too!