Bird's-Eye View: Short- vs long-term memory

One aspect of strengthening our long-term memory on Remembrance Day is couched in a lesson I learned from Brig.-Gen. (res.) Ran Ronen.

Holocuast memorial flame 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Holocuast memorial flame 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Flying an operational mission on Holocaust Remembrance Day or on Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars always held special meaning for me.
To be sure, the act of crossing a border raised the need for perfection any day of the year. Briefings always dealt with essential data only: current intelligence, meteorology, navigation routes, and the laundry list of “standard” details to be memorized or copied onto a briefing card, conveniently worn above the knee. Still, flying on these special days evoked greater awareness, even if there was never time to think about the significance of the date.
There was never a spare moment. After starting engines and taxiing to the far end of the runway, each fighter would plug into its own fuel truck (with a fire truck standing by just in case) to top off before takeoff. This afforded each crew member a few minutes to review his materials, placing the maps, photographs, and assorted crib sheets in a carefully constructed idiosyncratic order. A pilot could run through the mission in his mind’s eye, raising one or two of the many possible scenarios that might soon play out, live and in color.
I will never forget one Holocaust Remembrance Day snapshot, just before takeoff. Outside our cockpit, waves of heat rose off the black tarmac as hot exhaust from burning JP-4 jet fuel combined with the first hamsin of spring. We sat in our orange astronaut suits, nursing precious fuel until the last second, carefully calculated to allow us to reach the border at the exact pre-determined moment.
The oversized helmets and custom-fit suits, which provided protection in case the plane depressurized at altitude, severely restricted movement, making even the simplest physical task – like tuning around – a real chore. We gave the well-known “cut” sign (a hand slash across the throat), signaling the ground crew in front to disconnect us from the gas umbilical.
What chutzpah! He appeared to ignore us! We banged on the sides of the plane but he continued to stare at his shoes. Finally we revved the engines to catch his attention, when the “clue bird” landed in our cockpit. Despite the roar of the engines in this isolated spot, the crew chief had noted that the time was 10 a.m. and chose to observe the two-minute siren that he could not hear.
I’ve thought about that maintenance chief for years. He was a Yemenite Jew whose parents had learned of the Holocaust only after they were airlifted to Israel in the Fifties, possibly by pilots who themselves had survived the horrors of the Hitler years and settled in the Jewish state. His total identification with our collective consciousness, taught me a lesson not only in people-hood, but also in the need to balance long- and short-term memories.
Certainly, anyone engaging in a high-pressure situation needs to put on blinders and to focus solely on the task at hand, be he or she a pilot aiming at a target, a surgeon lasing a cancerous tumor, or a lawyer making a point. Even if one misses (indeed especially when one misses, as we all make mistakes), it is important to screen out the emotions associated with failure. That’s what baseball pitchers refer to as needing a very short memory that allows them to bounce back immediately after serving up a long home run.
Long-term memory is the stuff we need to pre-load our human CPUs: a compilation of stories and experiences that mold our thought patterns and help us make meaningful choices.
EARLIER THIS year, former MK Eliezer “Cheetah” Cohen brought to my attention a recent study documenting the personal tales of 120 pilots who survived the Holocaust and went on to fly and help build the Israel Air Force. Last Sunday many of those still with us gathered in Herzliya. Their collective stories are a triumph of the human spirit. Men like Meir (Miklos) Fischer who had “the dreadful job of gathering and burying the dead” at Mauthausen and rose to become a squadron and base commander; or Arie Oz who was hidden as a child in a Dutch attic by Righteous Gentiles and eventually helped bring Ethiopian children to Israel during Operation Solomon in 1991.
A few years ago, I was hosting a prominent Beverly Hills family (the owners of a wellknown Los Angeles restaurant) at an IAF base. We were sitting with Israel’s newest fighter squadron, just minutes before attending the IAF Flight Academy’s graduation ceremony. “S,” one of the youngest aircrew members to fly in the famous 2006 over-flight of Auschwitz-Birkenau, was showing a video clip of the F- 15s passing over the death camps, when the California family’s grandmother began to cry. She rolled up her sleeve and revealed the tattooed numbers that testified to her personal familiarity with the camps.
A few hours later, following the exciting wings ceremony, I introduced the grandmother to (Maj.-Gen. and next IAF Commander) Amir Eshel, who had led the fly-over mission as commander of Tel Nof Air Force Base. She hugged him and thanked him for keeping Israel strong. Instinctively, Amir thanked her, for without her strength, courage and will to live; there would be no state and no pilots to fly these planes today.
As the focus shifts to our national day of remembrance, those whose memories are closer in time fill our thoughts. Israelis pack the military cemeteries like people in the shtetl used to fill the shuls. We “visit” our friends, like Aharon “Arelle” Katz, who fell in 1982 over Lebanon after earning the Medal of Valor during the Yom Kippur War. Unlike most recipients, Katz was not cited simply for outstanding performance on a specific mission.
Katz served as an inspirational figure during the darkest moments of one of Israel’s most difficult conflicts. He was one of the younger members of an elite Phantom squadron that was blessed with some of the top aces who had flown sleek Mirages to smashing victory during the 1967 Six Day War. Interestingly, Katz was a navigator, a new role that that required some adjustments on the part of the former single-seat Mirage pilots. On top of that, he was religious, a rather uncommon phenomenon in the days when the kibbutz, or at least its myth, was a dominant force in the IAF.
What did Katz do to deserve this distinction? When legendary flight leaders like Asher Snir, who went on to become deputy commander of the air force, were faced with impossibly hard choices, Katz filled them with confidence and provided answers for nearly every problem, even anticipating those that had not yet arisen.
Snir wrote an article about what it was to fly with Katz. Everyone wanted him in their cockpit. When the toughest pilots sought out a quiet corner to rest between arduous missions, Katz volunteered to go out again and again, using breaks between sorties to help plan the next mission. Friends told me “if he can do it, so can we” and used his example to draw strength from reserves they never knew they had. As Katz said in a rare interview given a few years after that war, his beliefs gave him a sense of purpose. But his was not an authoritarian approach. In the confusing minutes just as war broke out mid-day Yom Kippur, Katz demonstrably took a piece of bread and told his comrades, “Now it is a mitzva to eat!”
Ilan Ramon was another who understood the essence of being a mensch. He arrived at our squadron after distinguishing himself on one of Israel’s most fateful missions, the 1981 bombing of the Osirak reactor, as the youngest pilot in the attack formation. When faced with a transition from the maneuverable F-16 to the more demanding Phantom, he immediately earned the trust of everyone he flew with. The F-4 was heavier but performed many more roles, including (as mentioned above) high-altitude reconnaissance.
Indeed, Ilan’s first brush with an astronaut’s suit came in our squadron, long before he was selected for NASA. One of my favorite images of him had nothing to do with flying. Late one evening at the headquarters, where he served as the colonel heading the Operational Requirements Division, Ilan held a meeting in which competing approaches to a project were being weighed. He gave a brilliant and decisive summary which chose one over the other. After the meeting, Ilan called back the young officer whose approach he had just shot down, to let him know that he appreciated his efforts and that he could still feel proud of his work.
When later selected for astronaut training, Ilan grasped the significance of his position. To be sure he was not the first Jewish astronaut (Wikipedia lists 14, including a Soyuz cosmonaut). However, he understood that he was chosen as the first representative of the re-born state to conquer the heavens. Everything he did – from taking a Torah aloft, to playing Hebrew music, to making Kiddush, was itself Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s name. He also reflected the hopes of all modern Israelis when he saw the world as it looks from above, without borders or conflicts. I still pause every time I hear John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which Ilan requested be played during his mission.
One aspect of strengthening our long-term memory on Remembrance Day is couched in a lesson I learned from Brig.-Gen. (res.) Ran Ronen. As commander of Tel Nof, he used to tell the young pilots – who felt a bit awkward reaching out to bereaved families – “When you first go to see them, you think you are doing something on their behalf. But then you get to know them, and invite them not only to your memorial ceremonies, but also to your parties and social events. Soon you realize that they give you a thousand-fold return on your investment of time and energy. They give you a sense of perspective... You understand why you do what you do. In the darkest hours, when you really need it, you will reach back for that extra bit of strength and it will be there.”
Not long ago, the new generation from my squadron lost an airplane with its two crew members. I came to know the pilots only through their friends and families. Haim, the father of Amichai Itkis, one of these remarkable young men whom we had lost, told me that he had been given the opportunity to stay in America where he had been sent as an educational emissary. The family could easily have remained but they decided against it. American friends asked Haim if he wouldn't prefer keeping his boys out of harm’s way, but the family knew where they belonged. Tragically both sons (Amichai and Barak, a naval officer) lost their lives in the IDF. Speaking with the father, I gained more strength and courage than I could ever bestow upon him. May his and all the other sons’ and daughters’ memories serve as a blessing and a beacon for us all.