adjusting to abnormality


A month has gone by since Eitan enlisted, and I haven't written anything about what's been happening by him, or by us since those first few days of settling in. To a certain extent that's perfectly logical - strange as it may at first glance seem, the experience of being in the army, or of having a son in the army, is totally “normal”, and certainly not out of the ordinary. In other words, perhaps the most basic adjustment that we've had to make over this past month has been to internalize the fact that nothing much has really changed.

One of the perks of being a small country that has to defend its borders is that our soldiers are never far from home. Eitan's base is about half an hour north of Eilat - about as far from the center of Israel as one can get. But it ain't Afghanistan. When his unit is set to be home for the weekend they go to sleep early Thursday night, wake up early Friday morning and get onto buses that take them north. Eitan gets to Be'er Sheva and from there catches a bus that stops by our road where I'll pick him up. By about 9:30 in the morning he's already giving us his laundry. Even those who live in the north are probably home by noon. Considering that since 9th grade Eitan has slept three nights a week at our regional high school, getting home for the weekend pretty much every other week makes the day-to-day of army service considerably less stressful than it might first appear to be.

Distance, however, is relative, and the army is the army. In other words, he's far away and in a stressful environment. But this is the age of the cell phone. I doubt that there is a single soldier in the IDF without a cellular, and this means that they're never out of contact with their families for very long. That doesn't mean that Eitan has his cellular with him all the time. Most of this past month of training took place in the field, for three or four days straight, and everybody's cellulars were off and left on base. Then again, we knew not to expect a call. When the trainees get back to base they have a “free” time period during which they're instructed to take a shower and call home. I'm not sure that their commanding officers check, but it's definitely an order.

In general, this is one of the ways in which cellulars have changed the army. Because a soldier's parents can pretty much call someone anytime from anywhere and say “what are you doing to our son?”, the army has learned to use some preventative medicine and see to it that the soldiers call first. What this means for us is that we don't sit next to the phone waiting for a call - we know more or less when to expect one, and know that it will be coming. Knowing that we'll get a phone call doesn't necessarily assuage our fears, but it certainly helps to take everything in stride.

So what transpired during this first month? Basically, the first month of basic training entailed rather limited infantry-type training (next month they start learning about their tanks). That's one way of saying that there was nothing special, though one event was “special” or stressful. Somewhere close to the beginning of his entering the Tank Corps Eitan decided that he wasn't going to try out for a rather elite unit that gets established from among the new recruits - a unit which is actually more infantry than tanks. This decision can be viewed as a bit strange since from the beginning he wanted infantry. At the last moment he decided to go for the try-outs where the main qualification was being in physical shape, and Eitan was most certainly in very good shape (considerably better than the others). For some reason, however, he didn't pass (there are a few hypotheses as to why this happened, some of them not at all connected to Eitan's performance). This definitely put him in a bad mood for a day, but he seemed to get over it rather quickly. (I get the feeling that he likes the idea of being in such a powerful vehicle like a tank.)

Other than this incident only one other more or less noteworthy event (that we know of at least) took place during the month that was set to conclude on Tuesday, September 7 at a swearing in ceremony at the Tanks Corps memorial site at Latrun, about half an hour from us. Sunday afternoon I received a phone call from one of Eitan's officers (non-commissioned - a low person on the totem pole, but still someone in charge of Eitan). He was making house calls to all of the soldiers in his direct charge (eight altogether) and we were next. We arranged to meet him Monday afternoon - he got to a bus stop close to the college, and I picked him up and brought him home for the visit.

Visits of this sort have apparently become standard operating procedure for the army - it's my guess that this is related to the era of the cell phone. The army has discovered that it can't close itself off to concerned parents as it once could, and has thus decided that it's best to preempt “intervention” by offering information. So, someone comes to visit us to tell us about our son. Eitan is, of course, a topic which we're quite happy to discuss, and we certainly wanted to know what this kid had to tell us about him, and about what's still in store for him. I think that for a 19 year old kid he did a very good job, and I suppose that I can't complain that he had very positive things to report. We were told that Eitan is a good recruit who does what he's commanded with a minimum of problems, and that if he'll want to, he's certainly of the material that will be sent to advanced (make that “command”, though I don't know the proper English term) training. I don't really mind if my son doesn't become an officer, and Eitan has made it clear that at least at present this doesn't interest him, but I've told him numerous times that what he likes least about the army is being told what to do all the time, and that if he moves up in the reign of command he'll have much less of that.

All this is still rather far into the future - there are still a few months of training to go before any additional decisions of this sort of have to be made, and I'm sure that these will have their ups and downs, though at the moment Eitan definitely seems to be in very good shape. Actually, physically he may be declining a bit since what he's doing doesn't demand much physical effort. Mentally, other than discovering that he doesn't like the army, he seems to be doing fine - after all, nobody is really expected to like the army.

The swearing in ceremony of the tank corps takes place at the Latrun Memorial. Eitan had informed us that we would have about an hour of visiting time with him before the ceremony, and that after it he would be released for a long weekend - the 7th being the day before erev Rosh HaShannah. School for Nadav and Hila ended relatively early that day and they got home for lunch before I got home from the college and we all got into the car to drive to the ceremony - with a bit of food and affirmative action bars I'd baked the previous night. On our way we picked up Tzabar, Eitan's girlfriend, who was also back from school (12th grade) and at home on her moshav directly on the way to Latrun.

This was the second time Eitan was at a tank corps ceremony at Latrun. Fifteen years earlier Avi, the “yotzei le'shealah” whom we'd adopted when he left the kharedi ranks, was also sworn in there. (Yes, Nadav was also there, but he was too small to climb on the tanks.) We had a bit of an idea of what to expect, and were relieved that this entire ceremony took place in daylight and, considering the heat, was over rather quickly.

This was the second time Eitan was at a tank corps ceremony at Latrun. Fifteen years earlier Avi, the “yotzei le'shealah” whom we'd "adopted" when he left the kharedi ranks, was also sworn in there. (Yes, Nadav was also there, but he was too small to climb on the tanks.) Having been to a similar ceremony, albeit 15 years earlier, we had a bit of an idea of what to expect, and were relieved that this entire ceremony took place in daylight and, considering the heat, was over rather quickly.

As I think I expressed when I wrote about Eitan's enlisting, there's a fine line between being proud and making this event into a militaristic celebration. My impression this time was that in general the atmosphere was rather low-keyed. Some families held placards expressing their pride and some friends of the soldiers brought placards that were purposefully comical or deprecatory. One family - both parents and three or four brothers and sisters - showed up in T-shirts with a photo of their soldier on them with the words “אני נשבע ” - “I swear”, as in “I do”, the words the soldiers yell out in unison during the ceremony - above it. I'd call that going overboard a bit.

Shortly before the start of the ceremony I noticed someone I recognized - almost thirty five years ago we had arrived together to our reserve unit. We spent only a few years together since he, a large and strong person who in the beginning was definitely a good soldier had basically burnt out and had stopped being a contribution to the unit and was transferred. I actually remembered his name and he recognized me … and it turned out that his son was in the same bunk as Eitan.

I’m not sure there’s much to report about the swearing in ceremony itself. At the ceremony the soldiers receive a rifle and a Tanakh which is no doubt symbolic. A Yizkor is read, and I found it strange that it opened “Yizkor Elohim …” rather than “Yiskor Am Yisrael …” which is the way I think I’ve always heard it (but then again, I’m almost always in a distinctly secular setting). A military rabbi also read the first chapter of the book of Joshua which I think is “traditional” since it's the chapter with the injuction to be strong and of good courage (חזר ואמץ) - four times no less. Alterman's Magash Hakesef was also read which I felt to be a bit over the top. One short speech was delivered - for some reason by the rabbi of the unit rather than its commander, suggesting to me that high ranking officers, once expected to be at least somewhat eloquent and capable of expressing complex thoughts no longer have that ability. The lengthiest part of the ceremony is when each individual soldier in the six companies (at the same time) is called to his commanding officer to salute him and receive the rifle and Tanankh.

yes, that's really Eitan saluting

Tzippi noted an interesting aspect about the ceremony. It took place on a large amphitheater, but the soldiers stood far to the back and the speakers were on the side, and the entire center of the stage was taken up by a large boom that videotaped the whole thing. In other words, we can purchase the DVD to watch often from home, and that seems to be more important than the event itself.

able to enjoy being finished

Army “efficiency” saw to it that returning the rifles to the units and getting final instructions for the long weekend took considerably longer than it should have, but at least for part of that time we were able to visit with Eitan and not just wait for him to be released (and it was at this time that he was able to distribute the Affirmative Action Bars which his friends had already learned to expect). Even with this delay we were still able to get home before dark. And of course since then until I've finally gotten around to writing this Eitan has been back to his base, spend Yom Kippur there, get home for another long weekend (from the start of Succot) and return to the army again. He seems to have adjusted, and we have as well.

A somewhat different review of the swearing in ceremony, in 14 photographs with descriptive captions, is also accessible.


September 26, 2010

Installment 1 (August, 2010) || Installment 2 (September, 2010) || Installment 3 (August, 2013)