The sky went from pink and green to azure and finally darkened to a deep violet, and all the while we lay in the brush. When the order came over the hushed radio for me to return to the rendezvous point, black was overtaking the east.
It was our second day out on ambush. My three buddies lay next to me, and as the order came in I looked at them as if to say, "What the hell is that all about?"
Tomer fiddled with his night vision and Eli scooped tuna out of a can, his grubby hands using the bent lid as a makeshift spoon. They shrugged their shoulders and pouted as if to say, "How the hell are we supposed to know?"
Their inner lips were a vibrant pink beneath their black and green faces streaked with sweat. On the far side of the foxhole, Sergei slept hard, his nose buried in the carpet of leaves and sticks.
I knew better than to question an order, so I whispered an affirmation into the mouthpiece. I looked through my scope across the narrow, brush-choked ravine and in the dying light I discerned a young shepherd boy urging his flock towards the blocky outcropping of homes on the opposite hillside. The green fluorescent lights on the minarets bristling from the village flickered to life. The battered Datsun we had been staring at for the last 36 hours remained parked beside a small, windowless shack on the village's outskirts.
I stuffed the refuse from the combat rations into my gear, wished my pals good luck and inch-wormed my way backwards out of the foxhole, being careful not to disturb the camouflage netting.
Crawling, I made my way up the hillside towards the ridge at such an angle as to keep the vegetation between the village and myself. Once over the spine I stood and walked carefully down to the dried creek bed on the other side. There, behind a giant fig tree in a bend of the creek, the company commander and his driver sat, spitting the shells of watermelon seeds out of the open doors of the Hummer.
"Get in," he said. "You've been requested to attend a dinner for American lone soldiers for that holiday where you guys eat turkey."
I had totally forgotten that it was Thanksgiving, and I absolutely love Thanksgiving. I had to remember to call my family.
"I don't want to go, sir."
"You will go, you will eat turkey, or you will be court-martialled."
From the other side of the ridge I could hear the Muslim call to prayer blaring from the mosques in the village. Our guy - that murderous scumbag - was going to finally move that night and I was now going to miss it for a crappy lone soldier event. I reluctantly conceded and the commander gave me a friendly - yet sturdy - slap to the back of my helmet as I climbed into the back of the Hummer. The driver laughed and we were off, bouncing down the creek bed towards base.
I showered quickly under an icy cold dribble of water, using dish detergent to remove the paint from my face and neck. After a haphazard shaving job with a dull razor, I slipped my buttoned traveling uniform over my head, dug my red beret out of the bottom of my kitbag and gave myself a quick once-over in a shard of mirror to make sure I looked presentable. I noticed that I still had some paint behind and in my ears, but I decided I couldn't be bothered and I ran out of the temporary base, just making the last bus to roll past that desolate outpost of caravans.
As I sat down next to a settler cradling an M-16, I noticed my red boots were covered with mud.
I was asleep before my head hit the headrest, and the next thing I knew the bus was pulling into Jerusalem's brightly lit central bus station.
I arrived late to the dinner that had been organized by the American Friends of the IDF, or some such group - who do great work, by the way, and whom I greatly appreciate. But I was grumpy that I had been pulled out of a mission to sit in front of a bunch of beaming rich people, and I feigned a smile as I walked into the hall.
They welcomed me warmly and, after I had introduced myself, a recruit who had been speaking when I entered continued with his story.
Apparently from upstate New York somewhere, the kid was enthusiastic. And true, his commitment was admirable. But he was about as green as the olive beret on his shoulder, the color beret worn by guys still in basic training. I seriously doubted if he had ever even seen a Palestinian, but he said all the right things and the Americans ate it up.
He did not have a weapon, nor did most of the lone soldiers at the table. Instead, many wore the pins and patches of spokespersons, or equipment managers or intelligence - what the guys in combat units refer to as "jobniks," often with distaste, but more often with envy, especially during the rougher times in training.
At the far end of the table, I spotted a friend of mine from Givati. He too looked a little worn around the edges. He rolled his eyes as the youngster modestly shrugged and blushed at the praise heaped upon him by those hosting the dinner.
An outrageous spread of turkey and all the fixings cluttered the fine linen, and a plate piled high was set before me. I looked at the sterling silver cutlery and felt a pang of shame, remembering Eli scooping tuna out of the can with a bent lid. I stuffed a few sweet rolls into my pockets in the hope of smuggling them back to the guys in the foxhole if I was ever able to get back to base that night. The turkey looked fantastic, but each bite tasted like luf, the infamous meat-like stuff they put in combat rations. Like Spam, but worse, if that is possible.
I fiddled with my food as the guys each told their stories, and then - what I was dreading but certain was to come - I looked up to see everybody now staring at me.
A cheerful woman who looked to be from the Midwest turned to me with twinkling eyes and asked, "And why did you decide to come to Israel?"
I faltered. I wished I had something half as noble to say as the starry-eyed rookie from upstate New York, but I didn't. I cursed myself for not having a prepared answer, after having been asked the same question so many times over the course of the previous two years.
Be honest, I told myself, and I almost smiled as I pictured myself calmly explaining to the nice lady that I came with hopes to pay personal house calls to those Palestinians I saw on CNN, dancing and throwing candies in the streets of Gaza as Americans jumped from the Twin Towers so as not to burn. I would blame it all on Hemingway; the damn drunkard had poisoned my mind with his tales of the sorrows and romance of war in faraway lands.
Then, I'd elaborate. I'd tell of how I had been extremely selfish throughout, frightening my family in pursuing an impulse more profound than reason. I'd explain how I had been miserable back in California when I had every reason to be happy; that I had felt empty and dead inside, and, ironically, I only truly felt alive again dodging exploding buses in Jerusalem and having bullets graze my ass in refugee camps.
I would tell her I needed to one-up the rush I used to get surfing, when I would turn and paddle for a huge unmakeable wave knowing I would get slammed, or that scared-sick feeling I got playing football in high school, when the other team's fullback broke through the defensive line, and I found myself utterly alone as the last person between him and the end zone. I could tell her I yearned for the breathless exhilaration of frantic fist fights on the beer-soaked pavements of backyard high school parties. Going to Israel sight unseen and joining the army was the next logical step, you see.
"I just wanted to help," I told the beaming lady, and she clasped her hands and said, "Ohhh, isn't that great!" and the other beaming faces at the table bounced in agreement.
Later, over dessert, I excused myself to go to the bathroom, taking my bag with me. I slipped out the service door, broke into a run and just made the last bus back to base.
Lone Soldier made Aliya in 2001 and joined the army after six months in Ulpan. He completed his tour of duty in 2004 and now serves in the reserves. The emails he wrote home detailing his experiences and his impressions are serialized in this blog. For security reasons this content could not be published while Lone Soldier was actually in military service.
Previous blog entries:
Under the stretcher
Absorption under fire