Yellow, red, blue, green—each activity required a corresponding tag; a little plastic epaulette inserted into our shoulder straps. Yellow tags for morning drills, red for afternoon ones … Or was it vice versa?
Tzrifin, home for Israeli Defence Force (IDF) training bases, sat at the outskirts of my hometown Rishon Lezion, and was worlds apart.
There were six of us sharing a tight room, roughly three square-meters, in the July heat: two small windows, three bunk beds, three rust-splotched cabinets, and begrimed walls. I took the upper bunk above Vered, whose frizzy mane, barely bridled by bobby pins, mirrored the shade of the caramel taffies she constantly chewed.
Sagit, who snubbed me from fifth through ninth grade (like when I asked for her help in math class, and she continued to gawk at the blackboard as if her ears went on strike), claimed the lower bunk closest to the door; as guard or first to flee, if needed—I wasn’t sure which.
Hoisting her short self with oomph onto the bunk above Sagit, Orly, who shared high school freshman with the two of us, exuded nothing but amity. I envied her sunny disposition, and was fascinated by the dance of her coal-dark ringlets. She did not lose her smile throughout those dizzying days of boot camp. Her friendship with aloof Sagit puzzled me, but I considered myself lucky to have two familiar faces around, nonetheless.
But if I were an unenthusiastic participant in school—(unceremoniously thrown out of that grade-factory high school at the end of freshman year)—boot camp exposed the hazy facet of my personality. Only now my bewilderment directly affected others.
“You are collectively responsible for everything in this room,” the drill sergeants informed us on our first day. These sergeants, merely six months our elders, were the initial authority most Israeli soldiers faced, and feared for that very reason. “When one of you fails,” they kept reiterating, “everyone in the room pays for it.”
My roomies didn’t seem to have trouble following instructions, but I was at a loss to decipher which tag went with which activity, my dust-smelling blanket got entangled itself when I tried to neatly fold it army-style, and then there was the gun—its barrel mysteriously crammed with invisible flyspecks nicknamed pillim; elephants. There was a whole herd of them hiding in my rifle’s gut, no matter how hard I scrubbed them free with the long brush dipped in gun oil, its sickening smell sticking to everything, souring the air itself.
I kept getting things wrong, and all six of us found ourselves refolding tidy blankets, standing on our feet in full uniform an extra hour after bedtime, and of course showered with barked reproaches from the drill sergeants.
Looking at me with arms akimbo and puckered eyebrows, Sagit rapped out, “We’re all doing our jobs, and so should you, Rona.”
Fashion-diva Shelly—shrouded by a thin whiff of flowery perfume, the dreary uniforms looking annoyingly stylish on her as always—nodded at me with a look that said, That’s right girlfriend, get your shit together! and cat-walked out of the room.
I couldn’t agree more. But I couldn’t help it, either.
I’d stare at the drill sergeants with astonishment; do they really care if my rifle was clean? It’s not like we’d be sent to war anytime soon. Or anytime at all. They can’t be seriously hell-bent on all these ridiculous rules. Or are they?
Sitting on the lecture hall’s floor with arms wrapped around raised knees, I examined the dozens of attentive faces around me, thinking: This isn’t just a game, where we’re all pretending to be boot camp soldiers? Am I the only one feeling we’re trapped in a Theatre Of The Absurd?
I dropped my head to my forearm, and stared at the gunk-framed tiles. If I snuck away now, I’d be home in less than an hour, I calculated, yawning at the sweet thought of sliding into my own bed, pulled into the arms of familiar scents, resting my head on my darling pillow.
I was tired to tears. Who in his right mind thinks that allowing for only six hours of night sleep suffices anyone alive, let alone those who are forced to run around all day long?
And with my blue and aching rump, achieved on the first day of enlistment, my six hours were painfully compromised.
“Relax your muscles,” instructed the male-nurse—his hand holding a syringe; a drop of hepatitis vaccination shining at the sharp needle‘s edge—before jabbing it in my bum’s left cheek.
At eighteen I was not used to presenting my bareness to strangers, especially of the opposite sex, so although I tried my best to follow directions, my body might have done it’s own thing. The nurse’s warning came true: starting at the point of the needle’s prick, my derrière began bluing shortly after being injected.
The group of us nervous new recruits, still in our civilian clothing, were pointed to a room heaped up with olive-coloured uniforms of various sizes. The crumpled and untidy piles reminded me of Jaffa’s flea market, except none of us rushed to the merchandise, or were even remotely excited at the sight.
After much digging, I fished out a shirt and trousers my size, doffed my white baggy pants and T-shirt—Goodbye my friends, I mouthed to them—and squeezed into the olive-coloured uniforms. Standing beside Sagit, we grimaced at our reflections in the mirror, our new reality hitting us. Funhouse hoax, I said, stopping my hands from ripping off the coarse fabric.
With the fresh bruise creeping up toward my lower back like a drop of ink thrown into water, I was pretty sore by the end of that first day. Trying to find a comfortable spot in my narrow bunk, I cursed the clumsy nurse and my bad luck, caressing my smooth sheets, inhaling on the home-essence, listening to the girls around me draw in deep breaths of sleep. I was a sea-borne woman in her boat, rising and falling on the waves of their breaths.
Lethargic and throbbing, my mind resembled London on a very foggy day, and so I kept failing my entire room.
Luckily, we had Orly.
“We’re in it together,” she said with a shake of the head, her dark thick-lashed eyes widening in pools of earnest warmth.
Out of compassion, or common sense, my roommates took me under their wing and made sure we were never punished again. Even if that meant folding my blankets during the morning panic (Orly and taffy-smelling Vered), or Shelly taking charge of my shoulder tags, replacing them throughout the day as we dragged ourselves from one activity to the next. I would stand in the middle of the room, eyes half-closed with sleepiness, handled like a baby.
They even took turns cleaning my rifle, including Jamie, our quiet American girl, who voluntarily joined the IDF. (“Say what?!” she was repeatedly asked; to which she’d shrug, beaming her sweet American smile.)
I was indebted to them forever. I’d probably be stuck in that stuffy room for a second round of training—or to this very day—if it weren’t for these golden-hearted girls. Even Sagit eventually took pity on me; before the first week of boot camp was over, though still frowning, she flung her hefty strew-coloured braid to her nape—where it properly belonged—and buckled without saying a word. Frenemies or not, she was recruited to the cause.
She and I had shared our enlisting day, after my dad drove us both to the Bakoom, the recruits’ absorption and sorting base—the first station on the road to soldiering up. That’s where I got my butt jabbed, though it wasn’t the first time I disrobed for the military.
During my first conscription order a year earlier, I walked into the examination room, shy and shaky, wearing dark nylons over my nicest underwear.
A gelid-voiced doctor, his wall-like back facing me, muttered, “Nylons off.”
No! I thought in dismay, I can’t.
With the musty air growing thicker, the equipment strewn about ogling me, my unsteady fingers hesitated for a long moment before obeying.
Naked save for my red panties, the ornamental frontal mesh showing dark puffs of pubic hair, I wobbled forward. The silent, mortified walls nodded at me with helplessness.
This is a strange version of my nude dreams, I thought when the stethoscope’s metal heart settled into my inner elbow, the poker faced nurse over-inflating the sleeve until I screeched.
A voice inside me blazed, Why didn’t I opt out?!
Following a line of girls from room to room, I was weighed, height measured, asked to walk hither and thither while my body was being scanned from head to toe by apathetic eyes, as hands jotted down observations. To my discomfort and relief, none of the woody personal made eye contact with me.
The final verdict: profile 72, due to foot deformation; the result of playing a game of dare with a sixteen-year-old boy straddled on his scooter. After a few rounds in which I jumped out of the way, he was forced to hit his breaks at the very last minute, realising I was not about to budge this time. The back of his bike thrust against my foot, sending me into the air in a wide bow. I froze on the ground fearing my entire body was shattered, but it turned out to be just the ankle, which I dragged for months until it healed crookedly—granting me a low military profile three years later.
Oh well, I thought; this un-heroic grade is no big loss. I’m a girl after all, not possibly marked for combat, even if I so desired.
Left in an empty room with no further instructions, I eventually figured out my medical assessment was done at last and I could leave. I dressed in a speed typical to lovers in movie scenes about to be discovered by the cheated spouse, and walked away from this first conscription order feeling more like a piece of furniture than a human. A creature measured before being offered at an auction. And I again pondered my options.
At seventeen I didn’t have much but my liberty. Since girlhood I was free to roam with friends, straying far into the open fields. And soon my freedom would be taken away for two years.
I contemplated declaring pacifism, which was rumoured to grant exemption from mandatory service, but I wasn’t sure I was one, or that I even truly understood what it meant. Or rather, I failed to see how a country could defend itself without an army, let alone a country surrounded by bloodthirsty enemies. How else could we keep our Never Again Vow?
I took this vow personally.
Being the first grandchild—on both sides of the family—to serve in the IDF.
Dad drove truckloads of ammunition in the Yom Kippur War.
His dad fought the Nazis in Italy as a soldier of the British Army's Jewish Brigade.
My other grandfather—sent home after shooting his left hand to dodge certain death as a Polish soldier on the Russian border—escaped to Siberia with Grandma and other youngsters from both of their families. His story of witnessing trainloads crammed with Jews heading east was passed down the generations.
After mulling over the various options, I decided to bite the bullet and join my peers. It wouldn’t be fair to not shoulder the burden and serve like everyone else, I reasoned with myself, thinking of my few closest friends. It’s just two years, I convinced myself, not a lifetime sentence.
But now in boot camp, standing at the threshold gazing forward, two years loomed impossibly long. I was immersed in the actuality of what I tried to envision when I walked out of high school after taking my final exam, realising that when I received the results I’d be in a very different world and school would be moon years away.
I finished high school at the end of June 1983, and two weeks later I was an IDF soldier with a sore ass and a rueful soul.
It is said that boot camp is where all social classes meet on equal terms. The neighbourhood were I grew up, and the school I attended, were far from upper crust, and yet encountering varied slices of the population in boot camp was an illuminating experience. One I would have happily skipped, but there I was, stuck with them for three weeks. 24/7.
My roomies and I were baffled, for example, by the tampon-chocked shower drains. Our yearning to shed layers of summer dust and sweat at the end of the day was met with flooded showers and the smell of blood and raw sewage wafting in the air.
Fearing revenge, we made no direct accusations, but in the evenings, with our door shut tight, roosting atop our bunks like birds in a tree before nightfall, jammies and all, we whispered guesses of possible culprits.
“It must be that loony with nappy hair from the room across the yard,” Sagit said, “she’s so—“
“Could you please stop making out with that dirty old toy?” Shelly shrieked at Jamie, who was snuggling with her stuffed bear. This wasn’t Shelly’s first time to frown at the bear. Jamie blushed in hurt. “He’s not old,” she said in her rounded American accent. “We’re the same age.”
“Say what?! Shelly asked, uprighting herself in bed, the fine silk of her lingerie flowing like water. “You’ve had this … thing, for eighteen years?”
Staring at Shelly in abashed silence, Jamie hugged Teddy tighter, her soft sandy-brown locks blending with his matted frayed fur.
Jamie and her bear were a cute and curious sight; none of us Israelis ever owned stuffed animals. As a child, I didn’t even know of their existence.
“Oh, leave her alone already!” Sagit said with a swift wave of the hand as if slapping Shelly on the wrist. “Anyway, as I was saying, she must be one of them, that chain smoker who glares at everyone with those raven eyes of hers.”
Glad to see Shelly silenced by Sagit—(none of us possessed such power)—I shared my two cents from my bed-perch, saying it was possibly Debby, the flabby girl next door, her croaky cusses heard over the paper-thin wall. “But with so many clogged showers,” I added, “it must be more than just one girl.”
Vered nodded in agreement. “True,” she said and popped another piece of candy in her mouth, masticating on it with her mouth open. “And we shouldn’t exclude nice girls; anyone might do nasty things when nobody’s watching.”
There was pregnant silence in the room.
We glimpsed each other.
“No way!” Orly said with a breathy laugh, and we joined her in relief, muttering, “No, no, of course not, it’s certainly not one of us.”
We skipped showers, bathing instead European style: towelling off at the sink, then a splash of Shelly’s perfume to the neck—a rose garden blooming in the middle of the desert. Our toilets, Turkish facilities nicknamed bool-kli’a; bull's-eye, were nicely matched with the showers. If I didn’t fall in, I’d probably suffocate on the stink, I thought, holding my breath, carefully crouching above one of these uncanny holes, at the depth of which—down, down, down—no waist-coated White Rabbit was anxiously glancing at his pocket watch, and a March Hare, a Hatter, and a Dormouse did not crowd together at a Mad Tea-Party.
As far as I could tell, there were no tea parties anywhere on the base, but it wasn’t hard to find a tad of madness here and there, like the lack of partitions in the majority of our amenities. Privacy was a luxury in boot camp.
Privacy was luxury, and routine was key.
The daily 6 a.m. wakeup—a door swung open by hollering drill sergeants; like a hammer driven deep into my brain while in a coma—was followed by a mad dash to the washroom three barracks away, in hopes of having my own sink for a few seconds. Then dart back to the barracks for the swirl of pyjamas peeled away, eliminated from the scene together with any trace of civilian life, such as toiletries, clothing, and sheets smelling less of home each day. Next, uniforms donned and tagged, the million loops of the black-leather boots laced up, and lastly the blankets, nicknamed scabies, shaken outdoors, blowing dust clouds in all direction, sending a few of us into sneezing fits no matter how many times these thorny covers were thrown into the air.
Preparations for the morning drills charged the air—their success setting the mood for the rest of the day. We were then marched to the dining hall for breakfast. The mandatory meal-march was repeated three times daily, and there—to the reprimand of some and the amusement of others—I found new artistic freedoms. With the background music of constant prattle and dull clanging of silver cutlery against plastic plates, I crisscrossed tomato slices with cucumber coins: a terraced mountain ridge, a halved hard-boiled egg for a moon. Encircled my plate’s outer edge with rinds of bread crust, the plate’s centre ketchup-swamped, two olive-eyes sunk into the sweetened-blood, the egg’s other half a mouth gaping in surprise.
The possibilities were endless.
I fed on crackers and foil-wrapped triangles of processed cheese I brought from home, eaten in the privacy of the room. These cardboard-n-plastic sandwiches symbolised the world from which I was extracted.
Once my bum fully recovered, islands of turquoise were crawling up my right thigh, where the rifle kept pummelling during the long field hikes. In ninety plus degrees, trapped inside tall boots and uniforms as thick as elephant’s hide, I snailed behind my group as we circled the base in broad loops under a sweltering sun.
Moonwalking alongside me, I once spotted a turtle. “I personally believe,” she drawled, “that haste is of the Devil.”
“You. And. Me. Both,” I intoned.
When I occasionally lost sight of the troop over a crest in the road, I’d gaze upward to the sun-washed sky, shake open my wings, lift off like a released bird—the ground slipping away from underneath me, my thick uniforms sliding off my limbs—and plash into the lake of sky water, the refreshing coldness goose-bumping my skin, awakening my every cell.
Only to land, heavy and dusty, as soon as the sandy path levelled again, revealing the dozen or so perspiring girls waiting by the roadside sipping at warm plastic-flavoured water from army-green canteens.
Tammy, the group’s drill sergeant, would welcome me with an encouraging smile as I neared them, pulling on an imaginary rope to draw me closer, then turn around while hoisting the invisible cord onto her shoulder, slow motioning in place as if ascending a steep hill.
She was the only drill sergeant to treat us with respect, and I wholeheartedly wanted to speed up, if only for her, but all the kindness in the world couldn’t energise my hopelessly sluggish limbs.
With sweat wetting my eyes like tears, I usually caught up with the gang back at the barracks, where they were well into the midmorning recess. I didn’t care if mine was cut short, for I cherished my time alone in the quiet of the thorn fields, the invisible boot camp clock forgetting to tick-tock inside my brain.
Our activities were religiously timed: five-minute march to the dining hall; twenty minutes munching; two-hour morning hikes followed by a fifteen-minute break; another meal-march, chewing, march back; an endless hour devoted to gun lessons (dismantling, cleaning, reassembling); the ninety-minute group discussions with Tammy. In one of them, probably because she seemed a notch above the other sergeants, I put down my rifle and opened my mouth.
“I don’t get it,” I said with a creased brow. “Who cares if my gun is clean?”
Debby flashed me a smiling wink. By then her name was removed from our shower-soling suspect list. Yes, she still used foul language with alarming frequency, but she turned out to be as harmless as a panda cub, and a bit of a Wonder Woman to boot, as we found out on an especially humid evening.
Hoping to catch a cool breeze, I joined a group clustered in the small yard outside our room when Jamie said, “But it’s true; it’s perfectly legal for cars in America to turn right on red.”
“That’s even more absurd than volunteering to the IDF,” Zehava from two doors down said, wringing her wet hair onto the ground. The drops dimpled the dirt, accumulating into a small muddy puddle.
Orly stepped closer to collect Zehava’s tresses that hung heavy like a theatre curtain, and turban-wrapped it into a towel. “Can you imagine if this was possible in Israel?” she asked. We shook our heads in unison, cackling at the thought of our ruthless drivers given such liberty.
At that moment, Hilla, the chain-smoker from across the yard, approached us in a cloud of smoke. Sagit grimaced in disgust, and raising her chin said in an icy tone, “Could you please take your cancerous habit elsewhere?”
I winced at that, fearing a backlash, but we all froze in place when Hilla pounced like a panther on its prey, with fiery eyes, drawn claws, and a burning cigarette.
It was chubby Debby who moved fast, hurled herself to shield stunned Sagit with raised fists and a facial expression that meant, I kid you not! The silent look worked like a bucket of cold water thrown onto a bonfire, and Hilla stopped dead, blinking in confusion, her lanky limbs deflating like a popped balloon, and walked away kicking up sand, a sour angle to her mouth.
We later learned these two were childhood friends, and it was mainly Hilla who was saved that day, but Debby earned our fondness nonetheless.
And now, her smiling wink earned her some extra points with me.
“I agree with her!” she said, pointing at me with a thrust of the chin. “Who gives a fuck?”
Tammy, as usual, ignored the profanity like one skips over a dead rat lying on the sidewalk, eyes averted. “You’re missing the point,” she said looking at me, a ray of afternoon sun refracted by her hazel eyes. “Everything we do here is meant to train you for self-discipline, which will serve you well as a soldier, and in civilian life afterwards.”
I shook my head, saying. “You’re confusing self-discipline with obedience.”
She gave me a half-smile. ”The two are linked.”
I replied with a raised brow and a slanted lip-curl, to which Vered threw me a disapproving glance, saying, “I love learning about guns! Why should men have all the fun?”
Laughter ensued, Orly’s rippling giggles rang high above the rest, piercing the stifling midday air. Her contagious laugh made me smile, and Tammy carried on with her pep talk.
I suppose I could understand Vered’s comment, but that didn’t help me recall which rifle part went where, or heal my aching bruised hip, nor prevent the oil’s pong from lingering in my nostrils long after each class. I could sometimes taste it in my Dutch Cheese-and-crackers dinner.
Tammy and I often locked horns while the others dozed off with their eyes open, occasionally stirred alive to swat at a fly.
By the second week of boot camp, I realised everything has been leading up to the big event: the firing range. The following week we were marched in threes to the edge of camp, where, shifting into single file, we were deposited in individual shooting posts with a moon-size bull’s-eye glaring at each of us.
While the other drill sergeants stood aside, Tammy walked down the row, crouching here and there to put a reassuring hand on a shoulder, issuing confident nods as the last of us lowered into splayed-frog firing position. Ricky, the stout shooting instructor, talked us through the drill, her stomps echoing in the cement floor pressing against my belly.
“All the way on your stomach,” she boomed, her voice bouncing across the long structure even though it lacked walls. “Prop your elbows like you’ve learned, that’s right, just like that, don’t be nervous, we’re not in a real war.”
Yet the bullets in my magazine were quite real. Each sharp with intention.
“Hold your rifles properly, now steady the butt in … ”
Her voice fell dimmer, tapering off. The gun seemed heavier than usual, its slick metal skin damp in my hands, the pungent oil-smell nauseating.
Sweat beads rolling down my face. Eyes stinging. Vision blurred. Licking brine drops off my upper lip. The ground pushing harder against my lungs. I try drawing breaths. But sinking deeper into the sultry air. My heart drumming on the cement floor. Pum-pum. Pum-pum. The floor replies with Thud-thud. Thud-thud. Gunshots fire-cracking on my right and left. My eardrums ache. I heave myself to kneeling position. Draw deep breath at last. Tammy springs from the shed’s far end. Walking toward my pointing barrel. My finger glued to the trigger. It tingles with desire to pull. It rasps Haven’t I been readying myself for this very moment?
I want to wipe my wet face
But my hands are heavy with metal
Tammy’s mouth moves as she steps closer
Gunfire swallows her words
My finger wiggles on that devilish metal-ear with a will of its own
Someone behind me screams Put down your gun
Rifle and I turn toward the voice
With eyes popping out of her crimson face
Palms flagging STOP
Tammy’s voice in my ear, “It’s okay Rona, you can give it to me now, it’s alright, I got it.”
The warmth of her palms on my shoulders; my finger persuaded to let go.
Shaking, my rifle-free arms so light they rose high like happy balloons. I plumped down, muttering, “Sorry … I didn’t …”
Sitting beside me, my gun on the floor looking innocent, Tammy spoke as if to a child. “It’s alright, nobody got hurt, this has happened before, calm down and we’ll do it together properly.”
“What?” I said, blinking my tears away. “No, I can’t, no.”
“Listen,” she said in a harder tone. “If you let your fears win, you’d carry this failure for the rest of your life.”
I shook my head No, and wiped my eyes with the heels of my palms.
“Take a deep breath,” she said. “Yes, good, another one.”
“Okay girls, show’s over,” Ricky called. Glancing around I realised everyone was starting at me. “Back to your positions everyone, nothing to see here.”
“Ready?” Tammy asked, her eyes saying, You can do it!
When my stubborn finger eventually got its wish, greedily grabbing the trigger, I nearly wailed when the rifle’s butt slammed into the nook of my shoulder like a giant fist, the pain gonging in my brain.
With Tammy standing close behind, I pulled the trigger again and again—freeing all twelve bullets—with eyes shut and a loosely aimed barrel. The ordeal was over faster than I anticipated; at the end of which I was showered with congratulations.
Tammy beamed at me. “See, you’re a natural!”
“If your target were alive,” Ricky said, “it’d be very dead by now, with ten holes stabbing its heart.”
“The others must have also fired blindly,” I mumbled, but she already turned away.
This was my first—and last—time to use a gun.
Perhaps I was a pacifist after all.
Now the group discussions picked up steam, centring on the question: was it self-discipline or obedience that prevented my panic shooting? I kept quiet, not telling anyone it was Tammy’s presence that saved the day. I no longer minded who won the argument.
Only to have my new fondness knocked over the next day.
“But why?” I asked with an incredulous gasp.
“You think outside the box,” Tammy offered.
“And this is how you reward me?” I grumbled, feeling my face reddening. “And what about the shooting incident; wouldn’t that disqualify me?”
She shook her head. “On the contrary, now you have a deeper understanding of the responsibility that comes with holding a loaded gun.”
I scowled at her in silent defiance.
“Please consider it,” she said, and I thought: I hate being angry with her!
An August breeze passed through the branches above. It was ten in the evening, and the air slid by quiet and warm. Feeling double-crossed and bitter I sat on a lone chair outside the base commander’s shack of an office, gnawing at my under lip.
I was received around midnight, and after an anxious and insistent exchange, in which I exaggerated rebellious sentiments, I got myself dismissed from the charge. Yet my bafflement lingered; why on earth did Tammy recommend me as drill sergeant?
Later on in my service I reconsidered: she might have simply wanted to continue our debates; as equals this time. Perhaps I was the one who had betrayed her.
Afraid I might be faced with yet another shady idea for how I’d spend my service, I volunteered to be a Hibba soldier; comb the streets in twos, searching for possible bombs, profile passersby, and body search anyone who seems suspicious. I thought: at least I’d be moving about in the open air all day.
It turned out the IDF schemed a different plan for me. Giving it little thought, I filled the vocation questioner two weeks earlier, wish listing the three most popular positions among the girls, never imagining I’d be accepted to any of these jobs.
When boot camp came to its conclusion, I was re-uniformed into light-grey khaki, and sent to another base to be trained as an operations-room sergeant in an Air Force squadron. Not that I had a clue what that meant.
Like a partially tamed farm-calf, I was now branded and tagged.