Out There: Safe landing

I was a father without a playbook guiding me on what to do when one’s son gets out of the army.

Cartoon 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Cartoon 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘What are you doing?” I recently barked at my oldest son, who was reclining on the couch in the middle of the afternoon, a beer in one hand and the second movie of the day playing on the television.
The sight of the lad just sitting there, doing nothing, triggered something in me that ran contrary to my basic instincts about the need to be productive, to constantly engage in something leading forward in life. If it was 10 p.m., my reaction would have been different.
But three in the afternoon? “I guess I’m just getting used to civilian life,” he said, disarmingly.
And indeed, this disarmed me. With those few words, my anger toward the lad melted away, replaced instead by some irritation at myself.
My son had just finished his three year army duty, doing stuff I’d never done, carrying weight for distances I’d never walked, deplaning aircraft in ways I’d never dreamed of, taking on challenges and dangers I’d never had to face, and all I could do at the end of his difficult ride was upbraid him for watching television? What kind of father was I? Simple, I was a father without a playbook guiding me on what to do when one’s son gets out of the army, just as I had no notes instructing me on how to deal with his going in, or fighting a war, or going on late-night missions. In short, I was winging it, and – in this particular case – I was winging it badly.
BUILT INTO the three years of IDF service is a month at the very end called hofesh shihrur, abbreviated to hafshash, roughly equivalent to “mustering out leave.”
The army gives the soldiers a few weeks at the end when they are technically still in the army, but out on extended furlough – they have returned their weapons and equipment and will be called back only, God forbid, in time of war.
This is the twilight between being a soldier, and being a civilian.
For some it is accompanied by a seminar where they are given useful information about civilian life: their rights as ex-soldiers, national insurance, tax breaks, educational and employment opportunities and all kinds of handy hints for making it in the real world. For instance, they learn that most people don’t have three meals prepared for them each day, that the world is not their latrine and that buses are not free.
During the hafshash, the soldiers are generally not permitted to work. So they come home, drink beer, watch television, tell army stories, look at Facebook pictures of their just passed “glory years” and contemplate their futures.
Their parents, too, do a lot of contemplating.
They contemplate how lucky they are that their sons, or daughters, made it through the ordeal safely, sound of body and soul. They contemplate the historical privilege of living in an independent, self-reliant Jewish state, with independent, self-reliant Jewish kids to defend it. They contemplate how if their independent, self-reliant kids don’t get off the damn couch and carry their own weight in the house, they are going to go out of their minds.
It is one of the wonders of human psychology how such contrasting emotions can commingle within one simple mind; how one can be so proud of one’s son, yet at the same time so often irritated by him.
For three years, while my son was off soldiering, The Wife and I laid off. We kept things in, preferring to tiptoe around him on his Shabbats at home, rather than snapping at him for dishes not washed, beds not made, siblings not treated overly well.
No reason, I thought, to clutter the lad’s mind with superfluous thoughts about stupid fights at home, when the most important thing was for him to simply go back to the army each Sunday morning with a clear head, able to focus on keeping himself safe and sound.
Everything was secondary to that and could wait.
So tiptoe we did. Until the hafshash.
Then those little tiptoe ballerina shoes came flying off, replaced – almost overnight – by 10-pound hiking boots.
With my son no longer facing nightly danger, I could get mad at him just like before. Free at last.
Free to nag, free to carp, free to pester, badger and hassle. Now the lad could no longer look at me with those combat- weary eyes when I asked him to do something, silently signaling what a tough week he had. Now he couldn’t say, because he only got a couple hours of sleep throughout the week, that he needed to sleep for 14 hours straight.
IDEALLY THE hafshash should serve as a buffer, and there is wisdom in it. Not only does it slowly ease the soldiers back into civilian life, it also gives their parents time to get used to the new reality.
How can I get mad at my son for not working during this month long furlough, if he is not allowed to work? By the end of the lad’s hafshash last Wednesday, when his regular army career formally ended, I had time to find the balance between all or nothing, between tiptoeing around him and kicking him in the teeth, between treating him like George Patton and Dennis the Menace.
Having now gone through my son’s army experience, I have come to appreciate the gradual nature of it all. Things build up, and wind down. The lad did not, from day one, go out and fight the bad guys: he had basic training, and then advanced training, and then specialized training, so by the time he was finally in any danger, The Wife and I were – to a certain degree – psychologically better prepared.
And just as the takeoff was somewhat gradual, so, too – thanks to the hafshash – is the landing.
When our friends realized that our son was about to get out of the army, they didn’t necessarily grasp the slow and plodding nature of the whole experience.
Instead, they said, “Three years already? Hey, that went fast.” To which my favorite reply was, “Right, for you.”
And their second comment was generally, “So what does he want to do now?” “Decompress,” I said, earnestly.
After three years in the service, the lad – thanks to his traveling plans and the academic calendar – will now likely decompress for the next two. Three years of service, two to decompress.
And he won’t be the only one decompressing. The Wife and I now also have two years to catch our breath – until the next son goes in, and this whole gut-churning ride starts all over again.