Sprawled on our gear, desolation engulfing us, we felt like orphans under the dishwater sky. You who enter Tze’elim, abandon all hope! Dust and discomfort are your fate.
A group of officers some distance off conversed about the impending exercise. Finally one broke away and approached. Tall and serious, albeit with the sparkle in his eyes, said: “I am going to be your officer for the exercise. It may be a bit difficult, and I appreciate your cooperation. My name is Nir. Nir Barkat.”
The brown envelope informing me of my reserve duty had arrived in the mail just as Avi, my officer, had said it would. There would be no reprieve this time. I owed Avi, the communications officer for my battalion, a favor or two, and he was calling in those markers. Another battalion in our brigade was scheduled for an exercise and a contingent of communication NCOs was needed to schlep field radios for an officer from the brigade assigned to observe the festivities. We would be four soldiers detached from our unit and on our own.
Good luck, and fend for yourselves.
We got to our feet and greeted “our” officer, feeling a sentiment that might best be described as “honor, but suspect”; in the reserve paratroop units, the officers are usually a good crowd, and yet a bit gung ho.
The first inclination of any soldier is to do as little as possible and go home. An officer who has something to prove thus presents something of a problem. Still, a job is job.
First things first: we needed transportation so we could go and sign out our equipment. After a bit of running around, Nir found a truck and we hopped over to sign for rifles, combat gear and radios. The radios posed a slight problem. Avi had warned us not to sign for them ourselves, but rather to force the officer to sign for us in case there were problems when we returned them. No way, said Nir, you’re going to use them and you’re going to sign.
It was a Mexican standoff. I shrugged, said a prayer and signed for four field radios.
Nir’s first goal for the exercise would be to observe the command and control of the battalion commander. “Observing” in this case meant monitoring the radio traffic between the command and the various companies while the latter accomplished their various objectives of shooting up the targets and throwing up dust in the middle of the night, when sane men should be in bed with their wives. The second goal was not to become a target ourselves and to stay out of the line of fire.
Since we were observing an infantry exercise, we were on foot, following the various units or walking parallel to them. We were a small group: Nir and another officer would observe and the radiomen would closely follow.
I was Nir’s main radioman, and followed him closely, usually close enough for him to hold the handset. I felt like a small dog on a leash being taken out for an evening jog.
The night of the exercise was dark.
Infantry learn to feel the ground with their feet, and the terrain I was feeling was like a moonscape. We navigated through wadis and hills, steadily progressing toward the main objective, which in this case was a “Syrian pita,” or a series of fortified positions that simulate the in-depth fortifications the Syrians used. After a couple hours of walking we found some higher ground and waited.
At this stage something unusual occurred: a long-distance phone call to Texas. Nir, who at this time was at the beginning of his hi-tech career, had to seal a deal with the publisher of a computer magazine to have a version of his anti-virus program included in the next issue. Details had to be closed and reserve duty or not, Nir had to get it done.
So there I was, following Nir around with a field radio while he was busy trying to get a clear connection. Cell phone service isn’t the best in the wilderness even today; then it was well nigh nonexistent. Finally he got a dial tone and made the call, wandering here and there to get clearer reception.
That is, until he disappeared.
I SAW, or more precisely felt, the trench too late. Besides, since Nir fell in first, and was holding the handset, I was bound to follow.
And follow I did, with all the oomph 15 kg of equipment lends to such occasions.
Luckily I didn’t kill myself, or land on Nir. I didn’t even break anything.
Except the phone. Well, I didn’t really break it – but where was the damn battery? Search as we might, it was gone. Luckily, Nir came prepared, and had an extra battery in his combat webbing. Extracting ourselves from the ditch, Nir calmly repeated the call, and the rest is history.
Not for one moment during all this did Nir loose his temper or raise his voice. Even when he fell in the trench, cutting off a crucial personal call, he did not show anger. (Considering what was at stake for him, I can hardly understand why he agreed to reserve duty at all.) Riding back to Jerusalem in Nir’s car we joked about the previous night’s adventure, switching topics between army, work and aliya. He dropped me off at my apartment and we wished each other the best.
Years went by and I didn’t see Nir again until Naomi Tzur reconnected us for a short briefing on the Jerusalem Light Rail. (Nir was having doubts about the project and my advice was to stick through with it because the Transportation Ministry was too heavily invested in the project to have it abandoned.) Nir remembered our reserve duty “adventure” right away and we had a nice little laugh about it.
Since I no longer live in Jerusalem,I will not be voting on October 22. Still, I work in downtown Jerusalem and I have seen that the city, steadily and noticeably, is becoming better and better by the day. I also notice that no one ever talks any more about the mayor’s constant trips to New York, his real estate dealings or other petty gossip – partly because there evidently isn’t much to gossip about.
Perhaps being a mensch doesn’t qualify some one to be a great mayor, but it definitely is a good place to start. Nir Barkat is first and foremost a mensch, after that a dedicated officer, a hi-tech entrepreneur, and now a successful, hard-working mayor.
Given another term he will achieve even more for Jerusalem and her citizens.
So if you ask: I’m with Nir Barkat.
The author has been a resident of Israel since 1980, and a transportation planner for the past 25 years.