Out there: Induction Day

If I had trouble relating to my son's pre-army concerns, my father was completely clueless.

herb keinon (photo credit: )
herb keinon
(photo credit: )
It's a day that, irrationally, I never thought would arrive: July 26, the day my oldest son became a soldier. Either peace would break out, we would leave the country, or my son would win a football scholarship to the University of Colorado. Maybe he would contract asthma. Ever since the lad was born 18 years ago and we started that count-down to the army, something - I unreasonably thought - would fend off Induction Day. Nothing did. Peace, like the messiah, tarries; the wife and I ended up really liking it here; my kid doesn't know football from cricket; and - thank God - the boy is healthy as a horse. So there we stood on July 26 on Jerusalem's Ammunition Hill, along with dozens of other jittery parents, sending our eldest to the army. The whole thing is strange, different; something we as immigrants - even as veteran immigrants - are inadequately prepared for. As a parent, I pride myself in having a pretty good understanding of my kids' emotional landscape. I can relate to much of their childhood and adolescent passages because I went through similar ones. Contrary to what the kids may believe, they are not inventing the childhood/teenage wheel here. Problems with school, concerns about popularity, embarrassment of parents, needing to rebel, acting obnoxious, testing the boundaries - been there, done that. As a result, I can identify and understand what my kids experience. Except when it comes to the army. Here my son is on his own: I simply do not have the tools to adequately gauge what is spinning through his mind. And as a parent who likes to have a good bead on my kid's mind - in fact, as a parent who likes to control my kid's mind - it's all a tad unsettling. For instance, in the run-up to the big day I had little idea of what my son was thinking. I didn't really know whether he was scared, what he was afraid of, and why he chose the very combat path that he chose. If I had trouble relating to my son's pre-army concerns, my father was completely clueless. He couldn't understand where his grandson's yearning to be the most combat fighter he could be had sprung from. Surely this wasn't something in the family genes. Ours is not exactly the story of a long and distinguished military history. My grandfather fled Russia to get out of the Czarist army. My father did serve in the military, he was in the US Air Force during the Korean War, but he was a clerk-typist. When the enemy came, my father backspaced. I always thought I had bettered my ancestors by actually serving in the IDF (I jokingly boast to my kids that I was in Sayeret Shlav Bet, very loosely translated as the alte-cockers commando unit), but I did the army much differently than will my son. I did it as a medic for four months (and then 15 years of reserve duty). I did it when I was already married with kids, when I was somewhat mature, and when I already had a bit of life experience. My service, though shortened and looked down upon by my son, was, in my mind, very real. But where I just tasted the army, my son will get the full-course meal. AND AS he tackles that big meal, the wife and I - who never ate at that particular table - have little idea about how to help him digest it, an uncomfortably helpless and impotent place for parents to be. "Don't worry," my dentist assured me, as he chiseled away at my gums the other day. "They love it. My kid went into a combat engineering unit a few months ago and he's really enjoying it." "What's there to love?" I spurted out. Considering the constant fatigue, the intense physical and emotional pressure, the hazards, the violence, the lack of freedom, the regimentation, and the difficult living conditions, I asked myself how anyone could really say they were enjoying their service. What about the danger, the discomfort, the pain? Watching war movies is entertaining, but actually fighting in the army? Skiing the Hermon is fun, but defending it? "Are you crazy?" the dentist rejoined. "They're teenagers. They run around all day, blow things up, and eat. What is there not to enjoy?" One hopes. My son is going to be in training for quite a while, so at this point the wife and I are not overly concerned about his physical safety, though that too is never far from our minds. No, at this point our thoughts are that things should be good for him, not too difficult. That his bunkmates will treat him well, that his officers won't haze him, that he gets enough sleep. As of yet we are more worried about bullies than terrorists, unsympathetic officers than Syrian commandos, and physical discomfort rather than being in the line of cannon fire. YOU SPEND 18 years trying to protect your child, and then one day you lose total control. Not only do you lose control, but you lose it to a framework that - unlike sending your child off to college - isn't exactly warm and fuzzy, but rather physically and emotionally very rough. But still, this is Israel, where the rough and fuzzy commingle. As the wife and I stood there on Ammunition Hill, all these thoughts going through our heads and gnawing at our hearts, our son looked at us before boarding his bus and said something that kept us from slipping too deeply into melancholy. "Take it easy," he said, "I'll see you tomorrow." Indeed, the boy went into the army on a Thursday; the next day he was already home for Shabbat.