Fuck-ups galore. All of the criticism I’ve heard about the army being nonsensical and inefficient were totally validated on my first day here. It was a long day, and emotional roller coaster of falling through the cracks.
The first fuck-up of the day came when I had to wake up at 5:30 so I could drive to Jerusalem only to hop on a bus back to Tel Aviv. There was a screw up in my first Army testing assignment, and I was placed in Jerusalem even though it was two hours from where I lived and I gave them a secondary address in Tel Aviv. This meant that no matter how hard I tried, my enlistment was in Jerusalem. Either way, I spent the car ride trying to close my eyes and grab some sleep for what I knew was going to be a long day. Didn’t work.
When I got there I was still coasting on a very labored sense of calm. I looked around and realized that most of the people who were there to enlist were not speaking Hebrew. As I listened closer I started to realize that the enlistment date seemed to be for new immigrants and people in my machal program (volunteers from abroad). I calmed down a bit, realizing I’d probably have a chance to be with other Americans, at least for the first part of basic. I said good bye to my dad and hopped on the bus.
On the bus I got to know all these kids from Britain and the US and Finland and they all had similar stories to mine. Some were more religious, some did more intensive training programs that simulated basic, some were more prepared mentally, but at least I was in the same boat with people. And for the first time since I got here I was making friends easily. It was nice to be able to keep pace in conversation and crack jokes again. I knew it was going to be bad for my Hebrew, but it was a huge relief, I felt like myself on a day when I was doing something entirely foreign.
The guys kept me company throughout the day, as I went through the haphazard process that was enlistment at the Bakoum (enlistment center). The Bakoum was inside a huge army base near Tel Aviv called Tel Hashomer. It made a serious attempt at organization, with a kind of assembly line of stations you had to hit to get enlisted. You had a barcode, and a path number and were kind of handed off from station to station getting vaccinated, inspected, and registered. It was hard not to feel like a piece of meat, but it was nice to have people to laugh at the absurdity of it with.
I had a different track number from everyone else in the machal program, which worried me at first. They were all bound for a pre-basic training program at Mikve Alon (the place where they train new immigrants) where they would spend some time together getting accustomed to army life with people they knew. It sounded like a great idea and I was a little worried I wouldn’t end up with them because of my different path. I quickly found out that it was because I was supposed to meet the Kzin Miyun (placement officer who tells you what you are doing in the army) at the Bakoum, whereas the other guys had to wait until the end of their pre-basic at Mikve Alon. It gave me some hope that I was on the path towards Dover Tzahal (journalism, PR unit).
They shoved us headfirst into the process. First up was an introduction speech with an incredibly genial old man who was surprised we were all foreign, and evidently very proud of us. Then we had the hair check, to see if we needed the army haircut. Most everyone had gotten their haircut ahead of time after hearing the horror stories of the bored barbers who just wait all day with their dirty clippers for some shaggy headed asshole to wander in so he can royally fuck up his head. It was all true. The one poor kid who wandered into the barbershop came out looking like he lost a fight with a blender.
After that was the meatpacking conveyor belt. First you get your photo taken, then your finger prints and dental records are taken. A set of mouth X-rays are done in case your body is burned beyond recognition and they need a way to identify you (I wish I was kidding). You give some blood for DNA samples and a very nice program where they try to match you for kids who need bone marrow doners (a lot of the drug users chicken out of that one). Then you get your shots (three fat ass needles, my arm hurt for a week), and finally your dog tags. You get 2, one for your neck and one to break in half to place in each boot (for more dismemberment recognition). The morbidity continued with a brief interview where they ask to whom you would like your letter and money transfered to upon your untimely demise.
The whole day was made lighter by the guys. We all had fun ripping on the ridiculousness of it all. All of the incongruently pretty girls working awful awful jobs, they all looked they wanted to die. Taking the intimate details of a bunch of rowdy teenage boys all looking to make them laugh/piss them off.
Then came the moment I’d been waiting for, the interview with the placement officer. I was lead to a room and told to wait at the door, while another overly pretty female soldier asked where the officer was in what seemed to be a panic. Apparently he wasn’t there, and wasn’t coming in until later. I was told to wait on line to get my uniform and see him after.
We got a lunch break after an hour of waiting because the uniform people had gone out to lunch without telling anyone. The food was surprisingly good, apparently it’s about as good as it gets in the army save the Airforce and small companies. When we got back the mad rush for uniforms made us wait another hour.
This is when things kind of went to hell for me. I got separated from everyone and handed a lot of things that didn’t fit. I tried to fight to find a space in the very very over crowded dressing rooms, and ended up far away from any officers or really anyone who could help me. I had problems with everything, the shirt was too big, the pants were too billowy, I didn’t get the rubber bands to adjust my pants, I couldn’t work the belt, I couldn’t tie my shoes, and my Hebrew was failing me left and right. Finally I found an ex-Russian Special Forces operative whose Hebrew was as broken as mine and together we deciphered how to tie the boots and put everything on. I managed to make out one word from the group of Russians examining their uniforms: “Chooenyah,” which I’ve been told means covered in dicks.
After this, we received a gift bag (full of razors and bamba) and were funneled into a courtyard and told to wait. After conversing with the guys for a bit, I realized something was wrong, my path also had me slated for a different unit and bus than the rest of them. I started searching for someone who could tell me where to go and what to do. I was supposed to meet with the placement officer but couldn’t find him and no one knew where he was. I badgered everyone with ranks on their arm and after and hour or two of this was told to sit down and wait, I’d see him eventually. I knew it wasn’t right but I figured, it’s the army time to start following orders.
The guys started filtering out and got on their bus and left, leaving me feeling pretty alone and worried. After a few hours at roughly 6pm I was finally lead to the line to wait for the placement officer. The woman leading us spoke very very fast Hebrew but I’m almost certain I heard her mutter “Shit! How could I forget!” After another hour of waiting patiently, (and meeting another kid from Broooklyn who looked as lost as I was), they came out and gave me an update. Kzin Miyun went home, that’s it. They said there wasn’t enough time and I’d be sent home to come back the next morning. After all the bullshit, the hype, and the drama I would have to wait another day.
Just as I was coming to terms with it, an officer comes out with some papers and my ID and says, “Here get on this bus.” I asked him where the bus was going and he said, “To Basic.” Boy was I surprised. Not only did I have no idea where I was going to serve, but I was going to a basic training for which I wasn’t even sure what the level of it was. It certainly wasn’t with the guys I’d been with all day. I asked and asked and questioned and pleaded with the commanders that there had to be some mistake. I shouldn’t be going to basic, I didn’t even know what kind of basic I was supposed to be in. But at one point one just told me “It’s the army, what are you going to do?” He was right. So I got on the bus.
On the bus I sat next to a couple of wise-guys in the back speaking a blend of arabic and hebrew. The commanders got on the bus and started their schtick immediately. The guys were not having it and the whole bus ride was an agonizing back and forth of orders and retorts. As I looked around I realized these guys were going to be my platoon for the next month. No one wanted to be there, not the Druzim I sat next to, not the commanders, not even me.