"Can I get some cooperation here?” asks Yoel in the firm but plaintive voice of a reserve platoon commander.
Tourjeman, Brosh and I are sitting like three monkeys (bald, sandy blond, bearded; wiry, fit, and flabby) on a small mound at the foot of the dusty spur that we’ve been charging up all afternoon. The cardboard targets scattered there, painted in green with the suggestive outline of a helmet-clad infantryman aiming straight at us, are full of holes already. We have our arms crossed over our chests and our heads are down because we’re trying to stick our noses into the warm place between our arms and our torsos. An icy wind inflates the backs of our shirts, which are soaked with sweat from our last charge up the hill with full packs.
The platoon’s other guys are scattered around near us. Amar and Kochin, short and solid like Middle Earth dwarves laboring at a forge, are desperately trying to light a gas stove to make coffee, even though they know the canister’s empty. Mandelbaum the radioman switches on his flashlight so he can continue to read the book he’s been perusing during breaks in the training. He reads like a goat grazes, whatever’s at hand, halakhic responsa, windblown newspapers, the labels on cans in ration boxes. Diki has splayed himself on the hood of the truck that brought us here, trying to absorb some of the heat that the gray metal has stored from the fierce afternoon sun.
Tourjeman, who’s the platoon medic, accuses Yoel. “We’re all going to die of hypothermia. You said we’d be back on base before dark.”
“Only idiots go out to train in the Negev and don’t bring their coats with them,” says Yoel, who did not bring his coat, either.
“We followed your example,” Brosh says. “Like good soldiers are supposed to do.”
“That was the idiotic part,” I say. “Because it is well-known that officers never get cold, or hungry, or tired. They inject them with something at the end of officers’ course and it lasts for life.”
“If you’d get moving again you’d warm up,” says Yoel, jumping up and down like a retard.
“If I get up my frozen balls will shatter and my wife will be very frustrated when I get home,” says Brosh, who is in his third year of clinical psychology at Hebrew U.
“What do you have to say about that, Mandelbaum?” Tourjeman shouts. Mandelbaum, rocking back and forth on his haunches, smiles and calls out:
“There’s light in the dark, and a darkness at night.” “What did he say?” Tourjeman asks me.
“He said: ‘There’s a light in the dark, and a darkness at night,’” I reply.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I am alive enough to quote,” I say, “but far too close to ice to gloss.”
“Hey, guys,” Yoel calls out to the others. “Let’s get a move on. We’ve got a dry run and a live-fire exercise and then we head back.” No response.
The dusk turns to night.
“It’s really dismal here,” I say. “Nothing’s more depressing than nightfall in the desert in December.” Yoel eyes me. I sigh. I’m the sergeant. I slowly get to my feet, wincing as an especially strong gust cools my body by another two degrees.
“Okay, guys,” I call out. “Gomrim, holkhim. We finish, we go.” Amar and Kochin curse and give up the fight. They shoulder their rifles and drag their packs over.
“Mandelbaum,” I shout.
“Be right there,” the kid says amiably. “Just let me finish this page.”
“Brosh,” I say despairingly. “Go get Diki.”
Diki’s real name is Khachaturian. He showed up during our last round of active duty, out at Tapuah junction in Samaria. A big, blond, blue-eyed guy from somewhere on the steppes, finished his mandatory service just two years ago. He looked like someone who could carry a MAG machine gun as if it were a kitten and appearances did not deceive. He was very cooperative that time but very quiet. No one really got to know him.
Then he showed up for this week of maneuvers as if all the air had gone out of him. It was hard to get him up in the morning, hard to get him out of the tent. When we charged up the hill he took a few steps, stopped, then a few more, until he was way behind. I tried to chat him up but he wouldn’t say a thing beyond mumbling something about a girl and a job he’d lost. The guys started calling him Diki because he was so dejected.
Brosh shakes him. Diki heaves himself up slowly, slides off the truck, slings on his rifle, and heads off in the opposite direction. Brosh ambles back.
“He said he has to take a crap.”
We watch as Diki’s flashlight recedes over toward the hill to the south.
“It’s dark, don’t go far,” Yoel shouts. The full moon is just inching up over the horizon, luminous enough for us to make out the jagged blob of the base in the distance.
I get the guys lined up and they shoulder their packs. Yoel gives safety instructions and sends me and Brosh up the hill to light the gasoline-and-burlap tin can lanterns by each target. We’re on the second row when we hear the gunshot. We hit the ground.
“Shit, that imbecile Yoel has told them to start shooting,” Brosh screams.
But there are no more shots.
“Diki?” we hear Tourjeman shout. We run down the hill. By the time we get there the others are gone, except for Mandelbaum, who is still squatting and rocking. “What’s going on?” I puff.
Mandelbaum looks up from his book. “There’s the whiteness of dusk, and a gloom in the light.”
Brosh kicks the book out of Mandelbaum’s hand and shines his flashlight on it.
“Poetry?” he demands. “You’re just sitting here reading poetry?” Mandelbaum defends himself. “I’m guarding the packs.” Then:
“It’s Avraham Halfi. Do you know him?”
There are shouts, calls, “Diki! Diki!”
Then: “Medic! Tourjeman!”
“Shit, let’s get over there,” Brosh says to me. We run in the direction of the shouts.
The moon has come up over the hills so we can see pretty well now. The guys are in a cluster next to a runty acacia tree. Diki is sprawled on his back. His pants are down. Tourjeman is giving him mouth-to-mouth. Yoel is on one knee, holding Diki’s wrist. There’s a terrible stench.
“’He shot himself?” I pant.
“No blood,” says Amar, shining his flashlight.
“No lie,” says Kochin. “He really crapped.”
“No pulse,” Yoel whispers.
“Brosh,” I say, “Run back to the truck and radio for the doctor.” Brosh takes off.
Tourjeman slowly straightens himself. “Keep going,” Yoel commands.
“It’s no use,” says Tourjeman. “There’s nothing there.” “What the f--- did he do? How did he kill himself?” I think it’s me yelling, but it sounds like someone else.
Kochin, who lectures in philosophy at a small college up north, makes an inference. “It’s not a suicide.”
Amar, who has six kids from three former wives, observes: “The guy is depressed. He goes off alone. We hear a gunshot. We run over and he’s dead. That’s the only possible story.” “He’s not that bad a shot,” Kochin observes.
“I can’t figure it out,” says Yoel.
Brosh has come back with a stretcher, which he starts unfolding. “I suggest,” Kochin, “that as he was doing his business he had a heart attack and that he was in pain so he shot into the air to call for help but that by the time we got here he’d collapsed lifeless into his own feces.”
“That’s ridiculous,” says Amar. “No one dies like that.”
Tourjeman cleans Diki’s butt with bandages and water. We load him on the stretcher and take him back to where Mandelbaum is guarding our gear. We see the headlights of the ambulance coming toward us on the road down below.
“When I first saw him, I felt guilty,” I confess to the others. “Like we should have done more for him so that he wouldn’t feel like he had to shoot himself. But maybe Kochin’s right.”
“He could have tried to shoot himself, then slipped, and then been so scared that he had a brain seizure,” Brosh suggests. “Coulda been the cold.” That’s Tourjeman.
“Shut up,” Yoel advises. “A buddy of yours has died and you’re cracking jokes?”
Then, after a pause. “Let’s pack up the stuff and go back. They’ll want to question us and I’ll need to notify his family.” The guys don’t move. Then Tourjeman sinks to the ground by the stretcher. He’s sobbing.
“I killed him, I killed him,” he cries.
Brosh kneels down and hugs him. “That’s stupid. You did everything you could.”
Then Amar is crying, and Kochin, too. And I feel the tears running down my stubbly cheeks and before I know it I’m on my knees and Yoel is next to me.
“Explain it to me, just explain it to me!” Amar demands. “Mandelbaum,” Kochin calls out angrily. “Mandelbaum, is there something in your book that explains this?” Mandelbaum, who has been sitting off to the side the whole time, looks up.
“No,” he says.
“What do you mean?” shouts Tourjeman. “Look in your book and explain it to us. What’s it say about a poor lonely guy dying in his own crap?”
“It’s just a book of poetry,” Mandelbaum says. There’s a tone of desperation in his voice.
“I think it would be better if we carry on, Yoel,” says Brosh. “Psychologically, it would be better. We need to be active. Otherwise we’ll collapse.”
The ambulance turns off the road. Its headlights bounce up the path toward us.
“Poetry,” demands Tourjeman. “What’s poetry got to do with it?”Mandelbaum opens his book, shines his flashlight on it, and reads in a clear voice:
“Forever an instant like a face never seen, and a sacrosanct idol. A comedian’s grin.”
The ambulance rumbles up to us, its brakes screeching as it stops hard in front of us.
“Stretcher up!” Yoel commands. But we can’t pick it up because Tourjeman is slumped over Diki.
“Get the hell off him!” the doctor shouts. Tourjeman wails. “It’s so f---ing cold!”
The writer is the author of “Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel” and “A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley.” He blogs at Southjerusalem. com.