Purple hearts and green diamonds: How baseball unprepared me for war

Too young for Munich and Entebbe, my generation experienced tension and valor on ballfields and in stadiums.

Chicago, IL, USA; Oakland Athletics second baseman Eric Sogard hits a two-run single against the Chicago White Sox during the ninth inning at US Cellular Field. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Chicago, IL, USA; Oakland Athletics second baseman Eric Sogard hits a two-run single against the Chicago White Sox during the ninth inning at US Cellular Field.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Thirty summers ago I skipped sleepaway camp in the Catskills to visit Israel for the first time. In the course of a sweltering July I toured the tiny country with my family, discovering archeology and the Hebrew word for watermelon. Our Jewish Agency pilot trip, designed for promoting aliya, served us more as a subsidized vacation than a bonafide relocation survey.
That summer, schooled as I was in biblical narratives, I could still not identify Jerusalem on a map. For me, biblical legends and characters were storied but without territorial context. The liturgical promised land was to me mythic, unreal.
Geographical lessons of that summer were uninspiring and did not endure. The West Bank and Green Line remained enigmatic. The Galilee and Golan stayed confused in my mind for years. The people of Israel though, were memorable, different. Merchants were provocatively vocal. The army was a thing I would not quickly forget. More than humus and falafel, more than The Wall and the sand, what stands out from that trip are soldiers – rugged, accessible, raw. Approaching servicemen and women was like meeting baseball players after batting practice, only better. Requesting souvenir ammunition was like asking for an autograph but indescribably more awesome. In 1984, the only uniform that mattered to me was orange and royal blue, the only war I knew of was a cold one waged by men in pinstriped suits. Rawlings was more familiar than Uzi. A Louisville Slugger meant more than an M-16.
That summer in Israel, khaki-clad champions with high-powered weapons became instantly irresistible.
Numerous memories from that sunshiny time stand out, but scampering onto an M-113 armored personnel carrier outside a hotel in Kiryat Shmona glares brightest among them. That brilliant morning, at breakfast I did not know that Lebanon was north of Israel, that I was this close to the border, that a war was temporarily winding down. I was unaware the convoy lined up like circus elephants had seen battle, high-caliber casings on their chassis the possible detritus of lethal fighting. I had no idea how those hulking vehicles were cynically named “purple heart boxes” by American GIs because of their thin armor and propensity for earning soldiers posthumous decorations. I was indifferent to the bravery of those troops who joined us for olives, cheese and Israeli salad. What I could not know that scorching July was that 30 summers later, in the Gaza Strip, a brigade of Golani warriors would be exploded in their identical thin-armored carrier, earning those heroes posthumous recognition and erasing my indifference forever.
Growing up when I did in New York City, organized sports were – outside of organized religion – the dominant source of collective emotion. With no war effort to support or condemn and no terrorist threat to damn or contend with, children of my era rallied around their teams in public displays of jubilation, heartbreak and pride. Life was good no matter whose team won (though we would have insisted otherwise). We were protected from panic, sheltered from pain.
Too young for Munich and Entebbe, my generation experienced tension and valor on ballfields and in stadiums. Too distant from Normandy and Saigon, my schoolmates experienced desperation and daring on dirty basepaths and manicured green diamonds. We were trusting and in a sense innocent, unguarded and in a sense content.
Something changed for me that summer when I viewed fearless troops wielding rifles and not bats, although I would not realize what until decades later. Sports had always served as a metaphor for exaggerated character and sentiment, injecting extraordinary feelings into ordinary lives. It was all there. Commitment and courage, patience and pleasure, ferocity, disappointment, shame. When George Brett leaped from the dugout I felt his rage. When Kirk Gibson hobbled to the plate I knew his valor. Savoring the serenity of my boyhood was tiresome. For some reason feeling at ease was not enough. I wanted to sense more than existence itself provided. I needed sometimes to feel on edge. Sports afforded me the opportunity to feel what others less privileged were forced to suffer in the course of their living. Or so I used to think.
Sports metaphors began to fade after I moved to Israel in 1996. After a warless early life in which bloodshed happened far from home, violence was now committed too often in my backyard. Targets of terror and casualties of the fight against it crowd every neighborhood of this diminutive land. Here, sentiments of mortality linger thick in humorless air. In Israel I do not need baseball to arouse unfelt emotion, to give shape to flattened affect.
Here one’s emotions are on edge just by living. Here superstars are defined by endeavors of life and death. In a land of sufferers and heroes sports imagery necessarily falls short.
Still, the dictionary of baseball metaphors proved difficult for me to erase. Ten days after 9/11, when Mike Piazza lifted his team with a reparative long ball, I felt goose bumps on my extremities just like everyone else. While the wounds of 9/11 were still gaping, that home run somehow soothed, if only like the fictions parents tell children to make hurt go away. Home runs can be grand statements or just a way of earning triumph for your team. I heard Mike’s blast as a comforting prophecy because I could not bear the traumatic quiet. I wanted someone to lie to me because the heartache was too much to contain. That dinger was just what the doctor ordered.
Like other quackery the health benefits of that emollient proved fleeting. The country I now live in has been under fire for decades and no clean-up hitter can power that hurting away. Quaint as it may be to compare the Mets’ unremitting bungling to Israel’s ongoing despair, there is no apt analogy for bodies missing in action, no suitable metaphor for exploding purple hearts. While the rockets’ red glare may have at sometime proved something to somebody, the projectiles flying nightly overhead demonstrate only how my enemies wish to kill me. When running for shelter there is no time to play ball.
Something changed for me in 1984 that I came to realize only this July. Since my emigration to Israel friends here who have experienced combat and terror have rightfully dubbed me naive. Arriving in Israel after Oslo from New York I brought along measures of hesitant optimism, born in part from a lifetime rooting the New York Mets. I was skeptical but wanting to believe, fearful but needing to aspire. After the second intifada erupted I did my best to stay cushioned from the butchery and brutality that followed.
I was not in denial but neither did I want to witness terror’s gruesome details. Countless killings later, I am mindful that beyond the savagery of war and terror endure traumatized human survivors. Every martyred fatality is lamented by relatives, neighbors, citizens, friends. The soldiers I saw wielding rifles in 1984 were not caricatures but human beings, the first personifications of loyalty, toughness and courage I saw without bats in hand.
This summer it is my turn to be afraid. For the first time in my privileged life I have relatives and friends in battle.
My country is at war. My people are under attack. The best baseball can do is to distract me. I am no longer in quest of a vicarious emotion I do not already suffer. Ball players are not warriors and the enemy is not the other team. Mike Piazza is no Isaiah and training does not happen always in the Spring. My hero from Los Angeles is not named Gibson but Steinberg, a lone soldier who earned posthumous recognition in battle. I feel the heat of a purple heart box on the soles of my twelve-year-old feet and wonder how hot that armor felt when ambushed one night in Gaza.
There are no baseball metaphors for that.
Mendel Horowitz is a rabbi and family therapist in Jerusalem, where he maintains a private practice working with adults and children.