The making of a man

The fact that my son will likely be spending the next three years in muddy tents, dusty jeeps and harm’s way doesn’t fill me with joy.

IDF recruit 370 (photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
IDF recruit 370
(photo credit: IDF Spokesman)
With my son about to be inducted into the IDF Sunday morning, in the shadow of Operation Pillar of Defense, I have been thinking a lot about Bruce Springsteen – or at least one of his performances.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s, the Boss used to punctuate his marathon shows with “shaggy dog” accounts about the travails of growing up.
Frequently consisting of apocryphal rambles involving how he met sax sidekick Clarence Clemons, his often futile pursuit of the opposite sex, or how rock & roll saved him, Springsteen’s elongated song intro raps took on a markedly more somber tone whenever he spoke of his father.
One long monologue, captured for posterity on his Live/1975-1985 triple album, has him recounting his relationship with his father when he was a teenager while the US was embroiled in the Vietnam War.
“There were two unpopular things in my house when I was growing up – me and my guitar,” he jokes as his keyboardists repeated a wistfully nostalgic refrain in the background.
The remembrance hardened as Springsteen replayed the arguments between him and his father over their disparate lifestyles, resulting in his father’s usual final words, “I can’t wait until the army takes you, the army will make a man out of you.”
With a national draft on, most American teenage boys had to report to their draft board in preparation for being called for duty at age 18. This was the period when soldiers were getting shipped back home in coffins at alarming rates, with the weekly death toll read out on the nightly network news.
When Springsteen’s day at the draft board finally arrives, he dutifully appears for his physical, but due to a leg injury he is deemed unfit to serve. That night when he returns home, he finds his father sitting by himself in the dark in the kitchen.
“So, what happened?” the elder Springsteen asks his son.
“They didn’t take me,” Springsteen responds.
After a long pause, his stoic father in a barely audible voice finally responds: “That’s good.”
AS WE began picking up items this week for my son’s army travel bag, I kept drifting back to that melancholy Springsteen passage, with its depiction of a father, who, despite disagreeing with his son about virtually everything, retains that innate protection reflex to keep him from harm.
We’ve shared some rocky moments on my son’s journey from childhood through the “tipesh-esray” years. And much to my chagrin – since I had always identified with the son rather than the father in Springsteen’s story – I found myself in moments of extreme parental frustration repeating Mr. Springsteen’s mantra – usually under my breath – “Just wait until the army takes you, they’ll make a man out of you.”
Well, that time has arrived, and that old adage of being careful what you wish for because it might come true, rings loud in my ears. Part of me would be grateful to have time stand still – and continue to barely cope with his teenage problems – clothes strewn across the room, broken or lost cellphones I’m still paying for, and the grades of an underachiever.
The daily annoyances of failed bagrut tests and broken curfews that his mother and I faced on his way to adulthood will pale as he enters the uncharted waters of army service, and challenges that could very well involve life and death dilemmas.
Nobody wants their son to go to war, though I’m sure you’d find some exceptions to that rule in Gaza. But as has been demonstrated time and time again – with Operation Pillar of Defense being only the latest example – we don’t have the luxury here of getting overly sentimental about our children. We raise, love, educate and argue with them, only to eventually hand them over to strangers barely older than they are who will attempt to undo all that nurturing.
Despite realizing, as a proud Israeli, the necessity of participating in that seemingly counterintuitive process, the fact that my son will likely be spending the next three years in muddy tents, dusty jeeps and harm’s way doesn’t fill me with joy.
In fact, I’m mad as hell that we’re forced to ask our children to give up some of the most carefree years of their lives because some of our neighbors are intent on our destruction.
But, like his two sisters and his father before him, the latest IDF recruit in this typically Israeli rite of passage will report for duty Sunday morning, most likely filled with fear and anxiety, but also, I hope, with a sense of purpose that connects him to 2,000 years of Jewish history.
If I could somehow trade roles with Mr. Springsteen, what would I say if my son came home and said that the army had rejected him? Would I also say, “That’s good,” revealing a hardened father’s rarely expressed love for his son? Or would I see it as a regrettable lost opportunity, both for the country and for his own personal growth? We’ll never find out, because as we all-too-well know, we don’t really have that choice.
So, I will tell him that I love him, give him the strongest hug I can muster, and with a heavy heart send him off to learn how to use a gun.