I had thought about the gibush a great deal and expected the worst, it was with the worst in mind that I had trained, running everyday followed by pushups and situps. I wasn’t sure whether it would be enough but that was what I had done. The only solid fact I had about the gibush was that it lasted three days and nights. I expected to be deprived of sleep, beaten and starved, in the year between my arrival in Israel and the second gibush my imagination had run wild with thoughts of all different kinds of torture and I was determined to survive everything and anything in my quest to make it into the Sayeret.
The allotted time came; those of us who had requested the gibush were taken away from the plugah to the edge of the base. We had been instructed to bring an army issued bag with various items; a shovel, a one man tent and two army issue water canteens. There were a couple of hundred of us and we were spilt into groups of about 15 to 20 people. We all stood there as our names were read out and one by one we were given a group number and sent in the direction of the soldiers who would be directing our individual groups. I moved silently over to the knot of fighters who were standing next to a number 19 that had been written on a piece of cardboard and attached to the chain link fence on the edge of the base. I stood there waiting as one by one the other wannabe Special Forces fighters arrived at my group.
The men who were running my gibush seemed to be in the most part reservists. The man in charge was around 40 and was short and chunky. One of the others was a massive hulk of a man who stood at over 6” and seemed to consist of pure muscle, he seemed to be around the same age as the smaller guy. He was someone that I wanted to impress. Later I would understand that with the exception of the smaller man everyone there representative a different special unit and that later they would sit down and argue over who got to have who. Altogether there were 5 members of staff helping to run my particular gibush.
Once we were all assembled the first thing that happened was that the little guy passed around a hat and told us all to put our watches in it. That small action would had a massive affect, there would be no way to know how much time remained except by the setting and rising sun. With that small action completed the instructors marched us out of the base and into the Judean Desert, it was August and summer was at its height. Even the desert nights were stiflingly hot. Once we were away from the base the gibush began. The little guy lined us up in three rows facing him. He gave us 30 seconds to run to a rock a couple of hundred meters away and run back again and to stand in precisely the same formation that we had stood in before we started. We were all chomping at the bit to get going, we were all dying to impress the men standing before us. Looking left and right all I saw were competition for the limited number of places available for my dream unit. I wanted the others to fail, I wanted them to fall so that I could rise.
He counted us down and then I heard him reach “one!” I was off like lightening, made it to the allocated point and was one of the first ones back. I tool care to make sure that the same people were standing to my left and right. It took more than 40 seconds before everyone was back in position, I know because he showed each of us his stopwatch. “Not very good…again!” And we were off again to the rock, I reached it and ran back again as fast as I could. The man at my left was already there and I simply slotted in next to him, waiting for the guy to make it to my right. Everyone arrived to their allocated point and he clicked his stopwatch and shook his head. “38 seconds…again!” Once again we were off, each step kicked up dust that the man behind inhaled my throat was soon dry as we continued on and on in the same way never quite hitting 30 seconds.
Over and over again we ran to the rock and back, I don't know how many times we ran or how much time had passed before he stopped us, “What’s the problem?” he asked, “is it too hard? Why can’t you do it?” A couple of excuses would come from the assembled wannabe warriors, I didn’t dare speak afraid that my poor knowledge of Hebrew would badly influence my chances of getting through.
Again we ran and again we failed, he sent us back to that rock over and over and then it began. “Who wants to sit this one out?” The big man said as he ate a chocolate brownie. “It won’t mean anything bad. There were no takers and off we all went once again, soon the offers were more subtle; "who wants to do pushups by the side while the others run to the rock and back?” Off we went again though this time, on the way back I saw that two of our group were doing pushups while waiting for us to return. I knew that they were already finished. They hadn’t been thrown out of the gibush but these guys were already taking the easy option and the inctructors were watching. “Fill up your water bottles and drink!” barked the little man. “This time you are going to make it in 30 seconds believe me” he said as we thirstily consumed the lukewarm water in our bottles. It was as much a relief for the break as it was to get rid of the dust that had turned the inside of my mouth into a bleak desert.
He lined us back into the original three lines and allowed the two fighters to sit by the side and continue their pushups. He ordered us out again and as one we ran, hit the rock and came back in our original positions. He clicked down on the stopwatch and showed to all of us in turn as we stood there. “See you can do it!” He said, the timer said 29.87 seconds. It was counter intuitive, we were more tired than before but we had become more and more organised. we had, silently, almost subconsciously marked out a specific route to take and a way to get back into formation without bumping into each other.
The two doing pushups never re-joined our group and sat at the side as we stood in our three lines. The big man took out a plastic bag and began handing out numbered tags. Seeing them made my heart sink, it meant that all I had been trying to do in terms of impressing these older warriors had been pointless up to this point. They hadn’t even been writing down scores for any of us. The tag was placed on my shoulder, it was number 12 and that was what I would be called for the rest of the three day trial. That was when the instructors pulled out their notebooks and started paying close attention to who we were and how we behaved.
The gibush continued through the rest of the night with small tasks on a strict time limit always different but always very similar. I wasn’t touched, no one ever shouted at me, it was simply a case of do as you’re told or sit out, and spend the rest of your life contemplating your own weakness. I was too motivated to consider sitting out, for me this wasn’t about finishing but about excelling. All my life I had been an under achiever, all my life I had to suffer the humiliation of staring at an exam paper and not knowing the answers to any of the questions, but here, in the gibush I felt I had the answers. All I had to do was keep pushing through, be the first, be the most motivated.
At one point we were taken to a stretch of the desert with empty sandbags lying in a heap on the ground. The little man told us to fill them up with as much sand as was “comfortable”, I could see them making notes as we filled the bags up. I filled mine up and stood in a line with the others holding it on my shoulder. We all stood in a row with these sandbags on our shoulders, just waiting. Then he told us to start running and start running we did. I ran with the sandbag on my shoulder for what felt like hours, monotonously running back and forth along a stretch of desert.
At some point the sun rose from her slumber and I carried my sandbag around and around watching the sun come up over a mountain in the distance, I had survived the first night. I wished the sun would come up faster, I wished time would go faster and this whole thing could be done with. It hadn’t taken long before they had gotten every one of us to the point of exhaustion. To my surprise we were to be fed during the course of the gibush, once the sun came up, bringing intense heat along with it we were sat down in a circle and a ration pack consisting of tinned food was tossed into the middle. I knew it was going to be a problem as people scrambled for food all around me and I was unable to communicate effectively. Though this may well have worked to my advantage as I unnervingly noticed that the staff stood over us with their notebooks grading us on how we interacted with one another over the food. Somehow I managed to eat though there is nothing as destructive to your appetite as having someone watching you and making notes on how you go about doing it.
The August heat ensured that during certain hours the physical aspect of the gibush was put on hold. This came as another nice surprise for someone who was convinced that he was going to spend three days essentially getting beaten up. We were allowed to sleep in shaded areas for what I imagine was a couple of hours and also spent time playing certain mind games. At one point the big instructor could see I was having difficulty so he took me aside and explained the rules to me in English, for which I was eternally grateful. It interested me that more people seemed to quit during the downtime than during the heavy exercise period. I remember lying down and watching as a blonde kid very deliberately stood up, looked around and then simply walked away. It made me happy to see him go, one person less vying for my place in the Sayeret.
My attitude towards the gibush changed after a conversation with one of the guys in my group. He was number 8. We spoke in whispers and he told me all about the mind-set behind the gibush he told me about how the instructors weren’t looking for the fittest people but for those who helped out the most. He told me that the instructors were standing over us while we ate to see who made food for others and who just made it for themselves. He told me that they knew we would all become fit through the training that we had before us but what they were looking for is who can still think even when they are exhausted. These were the words that I had needed to hear. The guys around me, the ones I was competing against already knew what they had to do in order to be accepted, some of them had already taken other gibushim for different Special Forces units.
I lay on my back reflecting in the moments before sleep took me. These were the relevant hours, this was the time that would be the difference between success of failure. I was on the very last stretch now, telling my parents that I was coming to Israel felt like something that had happened in another world. My world now was canvas tents, desert and dust and hornets, meals consisting of hard boiled eggs and cream cheese. My world was this one now, my time in the army had already been given up to a fat sergeant in Jerusalem who looked at me as if I was a lunatic for doing it, now I was here and I owed it to myself to make sure I got to the finish line.
I changed my strategy, now I was the helper guy, now I wasn’t running in front of the pack but helping out someone slower than me. Now it made more sense why we had been running to make it back in 30 seconds, the fact that I had made it back in time hadn’t been relevant, the fact that I hadn’t helped the slower guys was the relevant fact. From that moment I was encouraging the others on, I was the helper, I was doing all that I could to propel others forward, I was doing all that I could to get to the Sayeret.
On the second day we were formed into a circle, two of us were called into the middle and tasked with forcing the other out of the circle. I refused to lose, I refused to be knocked out of the ring. When my turn came I rushed into the centre ready to taken on anyone, another recruit was called. He was roughly my height, we rushed at one another, the intensity of knowing that everything rested on victory made me heart pound with anticipation. The fight or flight reflex was at its zenith as I went all out for the fight. The rules were no hitting, it was a wrestling match and for a while we tussled there in the centre of the ring of people watching us. A confidence pervaded my body, I never doubted that this recruit was going out of the ring and I took a perverse enjoyment forcing him further and further back towards the edge of the ring. I put in a burst of power that sent him sprawling out of the ring. I remained in the ring while another, bigger recruit was pitched against me, he soon found himself on the ground with my knee in his back. I was on top of the world, I felt the exhilaration of domination. After the gibush the first recruit I had defeated would find himself in the Sayeret, the second in another Special Forces unit called Maglan and I had beaten them both.
The rest of the gibush passed in a blur of demanding physical exercise and mind games. To my surprise we slept at night and during the heat of the day. They put us to sleep in the small tents that we were ordered to take with us, they put us down early and got us up at what I thought was around 4 in the morning, well before daybreak to work us some more. I slept in a tent with number 8 who would school me a little bit more each night in English before we both passed out.
There were no bestial soldiers and there were no beatings, I slept and I ate during the three day gibush. This had been the big exam and I had pushed all of the way through, I hadn't let up, not once and the whole way through I had been thinking of the Sayeret imagining how awful the taste of failure would have felt as it made it's way through me