It is odd what will trigger a memory.  And even odder, sometimes, are the memories that are triggered.  Every morning I have coffee.  I have been having coffee for years, ever since I came back from my first summer trip to Israel following my Freshman year of college.  I had spent my time there working on a kibbutz just south of the Sea of Galilee.

            As I was pouring my cup of coffee this morning, an images from that trip replayed itself in my head.  Why getting a cup of coffee this morning happened to trigger flashbacks, I’m not really sure.  I’ve read that experiences such as déjà vu are the consequence of subtle cues flitting beneath our conscious awareness, particularly such things as odors, the way the light is hitting us at that moment, sounds, even our physical well-being.  Maybe old memories get replayed for the same reason.

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            In any case, I suddenly re-experienced one of my first mornings on the kibbutz.  In the mid 1970’s, Israel did not have a peace treaty with the nation of Jordan.  The living areas of the kibbutz were ringed by high fences topped with razor wire, with guard towers, armed guards, and bright lights. The kibbutz was located along the Yarmuk River, right on Jordan’s border.  I often worked in date fields where I could peer across the barbed wire fence and mine field that marked the frontier. 

            Every morning I was awakened for work at about 3:30 AM by one of the guards, armed with either an Uzi or an M-16.  Of course, most of the people on the kibbutz carried automatic weapons.  And they were well trained professionals.  Every man and woman I met on the kibbutz had fought in the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War.

            After awakening, I, along with a bunch of other college students, would wander out of the dorms, down the path to the hut—a sort of shed where we volunteer workers assembled to await being picked up for transport to the fields.  In the hut, there were always boxes of cookies—the sort that come in those round tins at Christmas time here in the United States.  There were also several handleless Pyrex cups and a teapot.  We’d scoop espresso ground coffee into the cups and then pour boiling water over the grounds and stir.  After waiting a minute or two for the grounds to settle, we could drink the resulting coffee.  There was always creamer and sugar that we could add if we were so inclined.

            I vividly remember the rough gray wood of the bench on which the coffee and cookies rested, the strong smell of the freshly made and horrendously strong coffee, and the look of the mud-like sludge left on the bottom of the cups after we drank the coffee. 

            Afterwards, we clambered onto the flatbed trailers hitched to the back of a blue Ford tractor.  It’s engine grumbled and snorted .  The trailer bounced and swayed while we clung tightly to keep from sliding off.  The air was filled with the stench of diesel, while overhead the sky had turned a brilliant blue, though the sun had not quite risen.  Around us, the noisy squeal of birds, insects and other assorted beasts filled the air with an endless background buzz.

The other powerful memory of that long ago morning was the bone-weary exhaustion, the dull tiredness that was never alleviated no matter how much coffee I drank.  For eight weeks, six days a week, I did farm labor in 100 degree temperatures on an average of five hours sleep a night.

            From that memory, my mind ricocheted to an overnight stay in Zurich, Switzerland, where, after an exhausting eight hour flight in the middle of the night I arrived in a nearly empty airport shortly after sunrise on a Sunday morning.  After speeding through customs, I boarded a bus that took me to a hotel somewhere near Lake Zurich, downtown.

            Despite the overwhelming tiredness, knowing I had but twenty-four hours before I’d take a connecting flight to Tel Aviv, I quickly made my way out into the city, intent on sucking up as much of it as I could. 

So many decades later, what I can re-experience in my mind are afterimages associated with strong smells: somehow I discovered an underground mall in Zurich and wandered into the food court.  Given that it was around lunch time, I ordered some food—specifically, what the tiny restaurant advertised as “American style Hamburgers.”  Their smell was oddly spicy, with a strong hint of relish.  It was undersized and overcooked, perhaps made of beef, and stuffed between some rounded, puffy bread that vaguely resembled a bun.  I’m still not quite sure what the Swiss meant by “American style Hamburger.”  Certainly it wasn’t the taste, which was nothing like any hamburger I’ve ever had before or since.  Perhaps they meant simply that its appearance would remind you of a real hamburger if you turned off the lights and you squinted just right.

            So why these memories on this particular morning?  Perhaps it was simply the combination of the coffee I poured and the weariness I felt on a Thursday after not quite enough sleep.


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