‘Abba, it’s Yona,’ said the voice on the phone

First Person: We thought we’d hit the jackpot when the lad told us he was going to New Zealand on his post-army trek. Boy, were we wrong...

New Zealand earthquake 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
New Zealand earthquake 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
“Where’s your son?” a friend called and asked my wife early Tuesday morning, before we had yet turned on the computer or the radio.
“New Zealand,” she said. “Probably on some mountain top. Why?”
“Because of the earthquake.Haven’t you heard?”
Well, no, at that point, we actually hadn’t.
Five minutes later, my cellphone rang, and another friend – with concern audible in his voice – asked about the lad, and whether he was in Christchurch.
He wasn’t supposed to be, I replied, explaining that we had talked to the boy the previous Friday, and he’d been in some city in the south of New Zealand’s Southern Island, planning to go off on a trek on Sunday. He was not supposed to be in Christchurch.
“Are you sure?” my friend asked, stoking my own selfdoubts.
And thus began an anxiety- ridden 48-hour ordeal during which my son, on his post-army trek, was among those young Israeli backpackers Israel Radio has consistently referred to as “unaccounted for” in New Zealand.
We tried to call him, but there was no answer. And with each passing hour, with each call that went to his cellphone’s answering machine, my certainty that he wasn’t near Christchurch was being chipped away. This certainty also decreased with each wellmeaning call from friends, asking if he was all right, but oddly adding to my fears.
My confidence plummeted when a relative who doesn’t frequently call from the States gave us a call. If they were all worried, how could I not be? He’s probably on a mountain without cellphone reception far from the earthquake, I told my wife. He’s probably unaware that it even happened, like one of those Japanese soldiers hiding out in a cave during World War II, emerging years later, not knowing the war had ended.
But not knowing for sure, not being able to reach him, was unnerving. Uncertainty does terrible things to the mind – it breeds intense anxiety, not entirely rational, that only begets the worst of thoughts: the “what if” thoughts.
What if, for some reason, he went back to Christchurch, where he landed about a month and a half ago, to pick up a friend? What if he was indeed hiking far from Christchurch, but the ground shifted, sending a glacier hurtling down in his direction? “Let’s just hope he was doing another bungee jump,” I joked to my wife. “This is nuts. You figure he gets out of the army, and the worrying stops.”
But, of course, it never does.
The irony is that my wife and I thought we’d hit the jackpot when the lad informed us of his travel plans months ago, and told us he was going to Australia, New Zealand and Thailand.
“Thank goodness it’s not South America,” we thought.
“Anywhere but South America.”
Not that I have anything against the continent, but the papers are always full of stories of Israeli backpackers drowning there in some river, or being involved in a road accident, or even being kidnapped.
But Australia and New Zealand – that’s safe.
Or so we thought. A few weeks after our son landed in Australia, he decided to go with a friend to Queensland – just as floods of biblical proportions hit there. He left Brisbane two days before the roads became impassable.
The day after he landed in Christchurch, he called and said he’d felt three earthquakes, which were indeed minor tremors – aftershocks – from the big quake that hit there in September. He was a bit spooked by the experience, and said he was looking forward to leaving the city and going into the mountains.
Which is what he did. And it was because he was in the mountains that he didn’t call when Tuesday’s temblor hit.
Our son’s call finally came Thursday morning at 6:30 a.m.
Then, just as when he exited the Gaza Strip after 15 days in which we had no contact with him during Operation Cast Lead, life returned to wonderful normality with the utterance of three simple words: “Abba, it’s Yona.”
Indeed it was, and he was fine. When the quake hit in Christchurch, my son was on the Southern Island’s opposite coast, the west coast, heading toward Fox Glacier. He didn’t even feel the earth move.
Two hours into the trek, he heard about it from other hikers, but they didn’t know about its magnitude, or the damage it caused; and my son didn’t deem it serious enough to hike back to the base and phone home. He thought it was a small tremor like the three he’d felt when he was in Christchurch in January. He thought this was more of the same – no big deal.
He was wrong, but – thank God – he was safe.