So there I was sitting on a bus bound for the Paratrooper’s training base somewhere in the occupied territories. There was a babble of nervous chatter going on all around me, looking to my left and to my right I was sure that all of these guys had known each other for years from the way they were all so sociable. I couldn’t understand anything that they were saying and even if I could have I was much too nervous to speak. Now it was all real, I was actually on my way to becoming a Paratrooper and it was definitely too late to turn back. The finality of my commitment really dawned on me during that journey. As the bus moved East past Jerusalem from the green fields of the coastal plain to the desolation of the Judean desert I knew that I was utterly committed. Other than that nothing was certain any more, I thought of home, of my brothers and what they were doing at that moment. Nick was about to start University, he was having fun messing around with his friends smoking weed and getting wasted. I thought of my youngest brother Joel and how I hadn’t lived in the same house as him since he was 11 and how I didn’t know the man he was becoming and all the while the bus continued on its journey, transporting a whole new batch of fodder for the Israel Defence Forces to turn into fighting men.
It was a long drive, I don’t know how long but at a certain point in the journey I had come to dread our arrival at the other end. The bus was a safe place, I could sit there in my seat where no one knew that I didn’t understand the language, where no one wanted anything from me and where nothing was expected of me. At the end of that journey lay the full force of the army and my two years of service. My dreams were gone, they were being replaced with reality and I wasn’t sure that that was a good thing. As long as I was on the bus I was safe, once it stopped I had no idea what lay on the other side waiting for me.
Inevitably my bus and the several others that were also carrying new soldiers arrived at the base. I sat in my seat riveted to the spot, sweating. I had images of a US Marine Corps drill sergeant, running onto the bus and shouting at us I needed have worried. A paratrooper who had been on the bus with us simply stood up and said in a voice so quiet it was almost a whisper; “this is Nebi Mussa, grab your stuff and get off the bus”. I followed the others off the bus and into what can only be described as a boiling bowl of dust. The base was a far cry from what I had seen of the IDF thus far, it consisted more of canvas tents than it did of anything more solid, there was a sheet iron barrier around the perimeter of the base and some guard towers overlooking the desert outside. There were some prefabricated huts and two permanent structures, one was the kitchen and another a large briefing room and this was the sum total of where I was to spend the next three months of my life. I would later learn that Nebi Musa was Arabic for Moses’ Grave.
The buses left through a rusting red gate that had been opened for them by the soldiers from the intake before mine. They were in the transition between the end of the boot camp, the joys of which were waiting for me, and the start of their advanced training. So there we all were the newest recruits to the Paratroopers, all hyped and ready to go! Only no one seemed to care. We had gotten off the buses and watched them retreat back from whence they had come while we were greeted by a resounding nothing.
Eventually some shabby looking guys turned up and sorted us into large groups of a hundred or so. My group was led about 30 metres or so away from the entrance to the base and then we were lined up in rows once again only to be left alone once again. After a few minutes chatter began to seep out of the line. The talking became louder until everyone was talking as though they were amongst people they had known all their lives, everyone except me. I was just standing there wishing I spoke enough Hebrew to talk to someone while the sweat dripped down me. After a while the dusty soldiers turned up once again and wandered down the line telling everyone to be quiet.
They weren’t angry, they just told everyone to be quiet. Then they left and then everyone started talking again. This rhythm continued for longer than I care to remember, it was my first introduction to Israeli army discipline. Someone would give an order and no one would obey it, then the person who gave the order would see no one was obeying and rather than get mad would simply repeat it. It seemed incomprehensible at the time and that feeling never quite went away.
I would later learn to call the area I was standing in the ‘plugah’ this is the Hebrew word for a company of soldiers which consists of about 100 men and that was about the number of us standing there. The word is also used to refer to the area that the plugah is based in, the areas would be called plugah A, plugah B and so on. The plugah consisted of nine canvas tents that were set out in a three sided square shape with 3 tents on each side of the open square and a flag pole in the middle. We were all lined up in rows three deep facing one of the rows of tents with the flag pole in front of us and the open end of the plugah to our right.
Eventually someone who looked like he had some authority turned up and once again silenced the chattering. This time something was happening, one after the other the guys were lead into one of the tents, they would walk in a civilian and leave wearing green army fatigues and carrying a kit bag. When my turn came.I was shown into a tent that smelled of canvas and sweat, there were 10 metal cots in two neat lines with every piece of equipment a soldier needed laid out on each cot save for a rifle.
A couple of pairs of uniforms, two water bottles, one water bottle holder, a rolled up two man tent, a gas mask, an army belt were waiting for me. I put the uniform on, it was too big, I tucked the shirt into the oversized trousers and tightened the belt. There were two rubber bands on the bed that I placed around my ankles and tucked the end of the ridiculously over sized trousers up into. In the Israeli Army one size really does fit all. I gathered up the equipment laid out on the bed into the kitbag that had been provided and walked out. The man who had shown me in was waiting, he walked me back to the line and tapped the next guy on the shoulder. No one spoke, my heart was beating so hard that I thought it was going to beat its way out of my body. I stood there and waited in silence for the ritual to end.
As it turned out Boot camp hadn’t started yet, I was in what they call Trom Tyrannot. This is a couple of weeks of pre boot camp army adjustment. In essence it's a soft landing to give new recruits the chance to get used to wearing a uniform, receive their most basic pieces of equipment and most importantly of all be assigned to their specific units. This is the part that I was really interested in, in fact it was probably the most important part of my army experience. Despite all of my fear of the unknown and the pounding in my chest I still wanted to get to the Special Forces and it was during this period of faux boot camp that I would have the chance to do it. Everyone in the camp had already had to pass one gibush to begin training with the Paratroopers but there was another one, a tougher one for the really serious units.
I had heard of all the units that were recruiting from the gibush but there was only one that I had any interest in, SayeretTzanhanim. I had been dreaming of making into the reconnaissance unit of the Paratroopers for a long time and now my chance had come. The gibush was close and I dreaded it as much as I awaited its arrival with expectation, I simply couldn’t fail and refused even to countenance it as an option. I was determined that my time in the army was to be spent there and nowhere else. I had read stories about the unit in the history books, about how they had conducted the commando raids into enemy territory since the 1950's and it was the unit that I was determined to make it into.
My plugah was only established to last for the duration of TromTyranut and everything about it was temporary. I was split into a temporary platoon and given a temporary sergeant who was to provide me with anything I didn’t have and generally worry about me and the other guys in our platoon. His job was to babysit us and to make sure that we all turned up at the various things on the schedule for the two weeks. These included lectures from the doctor, lectures from officers about what would happen to us over the course of our training and a whole range of other irrelevancies which I forgot about as soon as I had passed through them. For me all of this was a waste of time, I understood nothing and barely communicated with anyone. When someone wanted something from me they resorted to hand signals or attempted English which, by and large, not many people spoke.
My first meal was in a large tent that served as a makeshift dining room. When I saw the food spread before me I wondered how I was going to be able to eat during my army service. In army terms it constituted a feast but my English digestive system had rarely considered hard boiled eggs, cream cheese, rice and very hard bread to be a meal. This was all available in abundance along with some tuna. I sat there on a folding bench watching everyone around me tuck in while I slowly spread some butter on a slice of bread trying to figure out how I was expected to exist on this…food.