So I’m sorry it’s been a while, but between basic and the crazy week of actually finding out my job I haven’t had much time to write. But I guess I’ll pick up where I left off in Basic.
Getting back from the first weekend home was a little harder than I expected. Although nothing in Basic had been too hard up to this point, who the hell really wants to go back to 4am wake-ups and sleeping in a frozen tent. I managed to pack a little lighter trimming a lot of this shit I didn’t need- like books or any sort of fun.
Arriving at the train station was a bit of a trip. I ran into some of the guys from the platoon, which was really nice- reminded me that I actually like it here sometimes. But I also saw a couple of the commanderettes, which was a little like seeing a teacher out of school. Seeing them gab about earrings and nailpolish remover like the 19-year old girls they were didn’t really help the issue I’m having respecting their authority. Though to be honest, it’s not all that hard, most of them have worked quite hard on that “bitch-face” of theirs.
Sunday was the big day because we were preparing to receive our weapons. There was kind of an air of excitement and dread. People were of course excited to get weapons, who wouldn’t want a second penis. But at the same time, like a penis, you can NEVER leave your gun. You sleep with it (under your mattress), you shower with it, you dress, work, clean, run, and shit with it. So needless to say, we were a little worried about the burden and responsibility that came with it.
All morning we spent learning safety rules about the gun- all for very good reasons. There are about 10 vital rules, all pretty much common sense, that we had to learn by heart. They can be boiled down to one phrase: Don’t fucking play with your gun. Ever. The profanity is very necessary. We even watched a very melodramatic film made by the army (complete with young soldiers playing themselves, very poorly) about how not to play with your weapon, and the potential consequences.
As we were getting hyped and about to go get the gun, I was called away to do something else. I’d heard about this happening- being called away from incredibly important moments of training to deal with the army bureaucracy. Apparently- right then, at that very moment, and at no possible other time- I had to have a talk about my lone soldier status and the process of making Alliyah (the Hebrew term for officially immigrating to Israel). The thing is I wasn’t making Alliyah, and they wasted a lot of time trying to figure that out. Long story short, I didn’t get the gun. I also missed several vital lessons, on how to disassemble, clean, and maintain the gun.
It was a little lonely at first being the only guy without a gun, but only for about 5 minutes. It was far more of a pain in the ass than the guys had expected. It’s an M-16 long, which is an old Vietnam-era relic of a gun- heavy, long, and uncomfortable. It took a whole week to find a comfortable way to carry it, and within minutes my friends had bruises from accidentally whacking each other in the legs, ribs and head. I slept fairly well that night, without the barrel digging into my spine.
The next day I started making up the lost lessons with the commanders, which actually turned out to be a blessing. Thought I missed some breaks and personal time, I got one-on-one lessons which drastically helped my Hebrew and understanding. I also learned on the commander’s guns (they carry a much more comfortable short M-16).
Later, I finally got the gun and it is as much of a pain in the ass as everyone said. It’s incredibly unnatural to carry, and I forget it constantly. Unfortunately forgetting the weapon is an instant punishment of 2 hours at exit (basically when everyone goes home you have to work and clean for two extra hours), and you can get the punishment many times.
Though I have to say, the gun is certainly very much like a second penis. You become mildly obsessed with it once discovering it, and can’t help but play with all the time though everyone tells that doing so will make you go blind. All the machismo power trips that they play up in the movies are totally true. For the first few days everyone carried it in the most badass (and usually least comfortable) way they could think of. Everyone’s posture got better, puffed chests and all. People started running in full gear and gun with a lot of gusto; everyone took pictures (see below). Basically, we looked like a bunch of assholes. I imagine the commanders laughed frequently.
Though what I liked the most was disassembly. There was a certain Zen to quickly taking apart the weapon, cleaning it and putting it back together. We did it at least once a day, usually at 4 in the morning in the freezing cold in our pajamas. I still liked it, though I don’t think I ever properly learned all the Hebrew names for the parts.
Tuesday we were thrown back into the kitchen. While I was a little more used to it, it still sucked. You work all day like a dog with few breaks, and almost everyone sneaks off and tries their best to do nothing. I’m really shitty at that, and I can’t really do nothing when there is a lot of work to do, so I was a good little boy and took on all the work that the others slacked off from. I will say most of my platoon stayed and worked hard. I started to see that we may have been the harder workers (or as some call the Friarim) of the Company.
One of the worst parts of the kitchen was throwing away the food. There was always too much food, and at the end of every meal we had to chuck all the stuff that wasn’t eaten. While I barely consider what they serve us food, it still broke my heart every time to dump trays and bins full of perfectly edible (sort of) food. The other American in the unit (Maoz) has a Masters in non-profit management so it hurt him especially that there was nothing we could do. The lunch we had was actually good for once, chicken and pita bread and stuff, and we were about to dump trays full of chicken into the garbage. I had already argued myself out with the commanders over breakfast (and the previous kitchen day) about finding a solution to throwing the food, so I resigned myself to the dismal task.
As we were about to start dumping, the commander came running and said to stop. We brought the food back and I saw this adorable older woman running and saying in terrible American inflected Hebrew that she hoped she wasn’t too late. Apparently there is a group of mostly American and Canadian volunteers that rides around to army bases and collects the extra food for needy individuals and new immigrants. The woman was named Debbie, and she was accompanied by this surprisingly spry older man who was a veteran of both WWII and the Israeli War for Independence. It’s a great program, but they get almost no help from the army. We helped them load up all the extra food and me and Maoz had a lovely chat with Debbie. We tried to help them out by telling them better times to come and Maoz took a special interest in improving their system. It was a nice little heartwarming event.
Thursday was the first day we were going to the firing range. For prep on Wednesday, we had a ton of classes on the firing positions and something called a Beemeet. It was some kind of practice run of the firing range, except you did it with lasers. It wasn’t until I got there that I realized the Commanders were just reading the name of the kit, it was called Beam-it. It wasn’t all that complicated, and actually kind of fun. You worked on your prone position (lying on the ground) and learned to calm yourself down, clear your mind, clear your lungs, relax, aim and fire. Shooting itself was also kind of a Zen experience. At least it was without the bullets.
In the evening I was pulled again from lessons to take a Hebrew Placement Test, It kind of scared the crap out of me because I was afraid doing poorly could complicate my job assignment. But it was also supposed to determine if I needed extra help in lessons or with test-taking, which I very much did. Taking the test I realized that while my spoken Hebrew was certainly improving drastically, reading and writing definitely needed a lot of work. Though by the end of the test, I was pleasantly surprised with how well I did.
We were then supposed to move onto our next Krav-Maga lesson. The guy who was teaching it was running late, so we were handed newspapers and told to hang out for a bit and catch up on world events. That day was the day the UN Atomic Agency released it’s report on Iran, which obviously has a lot of resonance in Israel. We all started talking (in Hebrew, yay for me!) about the political ramifications of what had happened. What Israel should do, how people were feeling, how it was different that we were having this discussion in uniform. It was kind of surreal but I also realized something very important. Israeli 18 year-olds were first off way more informed than most 18 year olds I know (including some of the people from universities). Secondly, there is a certain mandatory maturity and pragmatism that comes with being in uniform. Since what is going on directly affects you, some of the petty politics and personal opinion fades away to a wider perspective. While there were certainly still the war-hawks and gun crazy kids, the whole debate was far more mature than I would have ever expected. Incredibly right-wing and frightening, but mature.
Our day at the ranges came. Our platoon commander had worked at the ranges previously, so she was running the shooting drills for the day. She was deadly serious, but it was very clear she loved what she was doing and loved guns. Since it was our commander, we shot first.
My abusive commander was there to walk me through my first exercise. Luckily, enough he dropped the rough exterior to talk me through my first bullet. At first it was all the very familiar zen-like experience I had with the Beam-It. Pop in the magazine, get into position, charge the weapon, breath out, relax, find the target, adjust the sights, flip the safety, wait for the order, then pull the trigger. Suddenly, the world exploded in my hands, all my senses clouded with the experience. There was a bright flash, my ears rang, my hands buzzed, an acrid smell of gunpowder hit me, and adrenaline rippled through me. It was incredible.
I had hit the target, and would for the rest of the day (we were only shooting at 25 meters). As drill wound down, I find myself enjoying it more and more. It scared me a little how much I liked it, but I chalked it up to the little boy with guns syndrome. As I finished up I saw the others still shooting. I felt the shockwaves coming from each bullet and It was the first time I began to appreciate how powerful and potentially terrifying the pain in the ass under my mattress was.
Later in the day we had a lesson on cover and camo. At the end of the lesson, our commander gave us 7 minutes to gather up whatever we could find and camo ourselves, offering a prize to the winner who showed he’d absorbed the most from the lesson. Most of us dashed to try grab up branches, muddy our faces, and cover up shiny stuff. We then got a chance to pick a place in the open field to hide. It was days like this that really made me want to do combat.
Friday came and we were going home one last time before the home stretch of two weeks to the end of basic. Like usual we packed up, returned our equipment, cleaned ourselves, cleaned the base, and reported to turn in our weapons before heading home. There was another event over night before we left though. We found out that more rockets had fallen in the south, and that we should be near our phones in case we needed to be called back to base. That sat with me as I went home on the train.