(photo credit: Ariel Schalit/AP)
The only specific birthday present Noam Schalit remembers buying his son Gilad was a basketball, somewhere in his early teens. Other than that, he can't remember anything special - just stuff, you know, things you get a child for his birthday.
Gilad never asked for anything ahead of his birthdays, never had big parties, and didn't celebrate much in general. He is a quiet young man, introverted and bashful. He never liked the fuss that birthdays bring.
Birthday parties in Mitzpe Hila in the Upper Galilee are informal, quiet affairs, and usually Gilad and his friends would just go hang out at the community center, which closed down a few years ago and reopened as a pub.
Riding a train from the North on Tuesday to attend his son's 21st birthday "party" in Tel Aviv, Noam Schalit struggles with conflicting emotions.
On the one hand, it is his son's birthday; he wishes him happiness and a fruitful future. On the other hand, his son is Cpl. Gilad Schalit, taken captive by Hamas 430 days ago, with no real sign, none whatsoever, of an end to this nightmare.
The family is happy that thousands of people will pass the tent they set up at Rabin Square, stop in to spend a few moments with the family and to sign the guest book. In a sad sort of way, this is the biggest birthday party Noam has ever thrown for his son.
Noam's cousin, Israel Fine, who has been sitting all day in the Tel Aviv tent, says that had the family known what was to befall them, they would have thrown Gilad much livelier birthday parties every year - made them occasions to remember.
"I don't know what I'd get Gilad now if he were here with me. I haven't thought about it," Noam says, dispersing all thoughts of happiness and sentiment in order to stick to the mission: Keep Gilad's plight in the public consciousness; don't let him become another Ron Arad (missing for more than 20 years); pressure the Prime Minister's Office to negotiate and to get results; pressure Hamas to lower its price; free his son.
Noam Schalit blames both sides: The government has failed and is not doing enough; Hamas has failed and has not managed to free prisoners ahead of two Ramadans.
He doesn't trust the government anymore, and wants to tell Israeli soldiers to always remember the case of his son, to absorb the idea that, in the event of their capture, perhaps not all that can be done will be done to ensure their return.
It is a painful thing for him to say. And it is a painful thing for any soldier to hear. Noam Schalit wishes everyone celebrating their 21st birthdays mazal tov, and asks them to remember his Gilad at their parties tonight.
Fine tries to figure out what's going through Gilad's mind on his birthday, assuming he knows what day it is, and assuming he even cares that it's his birthday.
Who knows what conditions he's being held under, if he knows if it's day or night, what information he is being allowed to receive, and if he even knows that so many Israelis are thinking about him today?
Fine uses the word "fog" to describe the situation: Nobody knows, nobody can see, and he wonders if Gilad can see, either. Gilad used to handle stressful situations with a seriousness uncharacteristic for his age, his cousin says; he is strong and will cope.
Just before Gilad's induction into the IDF, Fine took him on a hike from Mitzpe Hila down through the Nahal Kziv valley in the western Galilee.
The terrain is spectacular: rolling hills, trees, an old Crusader castle, clean air and lots of greenery. Fine and Gilad hiked along the trail and through the stream, and they talked about the army and even what Gilad should do after his discharge.
Now, Fine wants Gilad to remember the beauty along the trail, hoping the clear pools, the ruins of Montfort Castle, and the big sky are fresh in Gilad's mind as he sits in a dungeon prison somewhere in the Gaza Strip.
Gilad has a sharp mind, and even if he is not famous for his imagination, he is known for his strength of character. His family and friends say he is a whiz at math and science, and won a prize in school for an essay on the photoelectric effect.
He helped other kids in class with math, physics and chemistry, showing patience with some of the slower ones. He wanted to study science after the army, Fine says.
He didn't have to join a combat unit. His profile was low enough (eyesight problems) and his interest in science could have kept him off the battlefield.
But Gilad Schalit chose to follow in the footsteps of his uncle Yoel, who was killed in the Yom Kippur War, and of his own older brother, also named Yoel, who served in a combat unit. So he joined the IDF's 188 Tank Brigade.
Often, those close to him were amazed at his ability to remember the results of soccer games, league standings and other statistics. They say he has a stunning memory.
So if he wanted to, if he could find the inner strength, perhaps he could cast his mind back to a trail he hiked about 500 days ago, and in his mind, escape.
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