One of the benefits of having a relatively large family is that you have a pretty good idea of what’s coming down the chute. With four kids some eight years apart, I know what to expect.
The first kid’s first day in preschool might throw you for a loop, but by the time the fourth kid walks past that pistol-bearing security guard and into the welcoming room with the alef-bet drawings on the walls, you know what’s in store. You have a sense of what the preschool teachers are like in this country, and what to do when your kid clings with white knuckles to your pants leg.
And that first August when the kid is not in any kind of set framework – neither in school nor in day camp – is extremely difficult. How do you cope? How much television is healthy for one kid to watch? Who takes off work to be with the kid? But by the fourth child you’ve got the drill figured out – you’ve learned, more or less, how to manage.
This is especially true for immigrants who never went to school here, never took their kids to a doctor here, never booked a hall here for a bar mitzva celebration. Over time, and with each additional child, it becomes less foreign and much easier to cope.
That’s the general rule. The army is the exception.
MY THIRD son, The Youngest, went into the army last week. We took him early Thursday morning to Jerusalem’s Ammunition Hill where, very unceremoniously, we gave him a hug, he gave us a wave, and then he disappeared into a hall from which he boarded a bus and – as The Wife starkly put it – became the property of the IDF.
That’s a tough phrase, “became the property of the IDF.” But it’s one The Youngest himself used when he returned for Shabbat after getting his uniform, his army ID number, his shots and a winter jacket. “I’m now IDF property, just like a chair on the base,” he said.
To a large degree, that’s true, and it’s not necessarily a comforting thought for parents. Now the army has more control over him than we do. Now the army dictates when he comes and goes, what he does, when he sleeps, what he eats, what he wears, what healthcare he gets. Our locus of control has been greatly diminished; it is now in the hands of Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and his subordinates.
The Wife and I have been there, done all this before with our two other boys – The Lad, who has since finished his army service, and Skippy, who is still very much in the midst of his (our daughter did National Service, a different experience altogether).
But – and this is what sets the army apart from all the other milestones our kids have passed – having experienced this before as a parent does not make it easier. It prepares you, but doesn’t make it easier.
Sure, we knew this time that there was no reason to get to Ammunition Hill punctually at 7:30 a.m. We also knew where to park.
And we knew precisely what scene would meet us there: the young faces; the friends seeing off their buddies with a hug and a slap on the back; the red-eyed mothers; the grandmother trying to shove a sandwich into the hands of her embarrassed grandson; the fathers taking their sons aside, placing their hands on their heads and whispering the Priestly Blessing: “May the Lord bless you and protect you; May the Lord shine His countenance upon you and be gracious to you; May the Lord favor you and grant you peace.”
BUT ACCURATELY knowing what would meet us there and what to expect did not lessen the emotional strain. Nor did our pride in our son lessen that strain.
The loss of your ability to protect your child, to coddle or cocoon him, has been snatched away. That is no easier to take, whether it’s your first child or your fourth, whether you’re full of pride or you’re not.
Also, it’s not as if you worry about things less because you know what’s in store. Indeed, sometimes you worry even more because you know what’s in store. Or you worry differently, with the worries more focused, more localized, more real.
THE WORRY, at least in the beginning of army service, is less of danger and more of whether the boy will adapt, slip into the army mind-set, feel comfortable, find friends, figure out how to cope, get a decent officer.
The worry about danger comes much later, after the training period, when the boys are taking part in missions. I always encourage my sons to take as many training courses as possible: basic training; advanced training; advanced, advanced training; the medics course; the commanders course – just stay on a base and train away.
Skippy – who went in last August – is still training. As such, I was actually worried less about him than my other three kids last October during the mini-wave of terrorism that hit our cities. I knew where he was: on a base, crawling in the mud. It was my other kids who were walking the streets, riding the buses, that I worried about.
But now two of my sons are in the army at the same time. Inevitably, the training will end, and the missions begin. It’s a moment I have thought about for years. When they were small, I did mental computations over and over about how much time I would have between when the first one went in the army, and the second. And how old I would be when the two youngest were in together.
I fantasized that by then, there would be peace. I romanticized that by that time, I would have the emotional tools and life experience to just let it wash over me, be unfazed by the whole ordeal.
I was wrong – on both counts. But there’s always the grandchildren. A collection of the writer’s “Out There” columns, French Fries in Pita, is available at www.herbkeinon.com and www.amazon.com