red beret


The shriek of the alarm somehow managed to pierce through the alcohol induced fog that clouded my mind. My hand soon discovered the source of the unwanted siren in the form of my mobile phone and I shut it off only to pass out once again. Several hours later I awoke with a start, something was wrong, it was my stomach…I was going to be sick. In a fit of athleticism I ran to the toilet, silently praying that I would make it in time. I didn’t, I did however make it to the balcony where I threw up in to the overgrowth four stories below. Unfortunately my downstairs neighbour happened to be watering the plants on her own balcony at just that moment, she was less than impressed. After my stomach had stopped contracting, my brain attempted to focus on something other than the fact that the room was spinning. There was something going on in there, something I was supposed to be doing…the lightning bolt hit with all of the power of, well, a lightning bolt hitting a person.

I moved back to my room and picked up my phone. It had done its job and woken me up at the correct time I just hadn’t been listening. I was now precisely 4 hours late for my first day in the army. Was it possible that after everything I had done to get this far I had sabotaged myself with a night of drunken debauchery? The next hour was a blur of getting myself together, grabbing the bag I had already packed and setting off once again to the main administrative base outside of Tel Aviv.
On the way I feared the worst, what did they do to recruits who showed up late? That had never been in any of the books I read or stories of the army that I had heard. I arrived at the gate clutching my draft papers in my hand and waving them around as though they were a magic parchment that would open all doors. As it turned out they did, which makes sense as that’s exactly why they were given to me. At the time in my simultaneously hung over and adrenaline filled state it hadn’t occurred to me that getting through the door would be so easy. Endless scenes of security checks and interrogations flashed through my mind on the journey to the base. After such a panic my arrival was something of a let-down as a bored, fat guard simply waved me in, barely looking at my papers.
After what felt like a lifetime of frantically running around the sprawling base I made it to the area that I had been ordered to arrive at in my letter. Standing in that office I was sure that a pair of handcuffs would be clapped on me and I would be carted off to jail. Instead a very bored looking girl looked quizzically at me when I apologised for being late before waving me in the direction of a bunch of very bored looking young men who were sitting down in a courtyard. It turned out that those guys had been waiting there for hours and no one had even noticed that I hadn’t turned up. So far my experience of army life was that everyone was bored and the meagre work they did do served only to make their boredom stronger rather than relieving it.
I wasn’t going into the Paratroopers, at least not straight away, it turned out that there was a course especially designed for new soldiers who had a limited use of the language and/or of Israel herself. Alongside a bunch of other new immigrants I was being sent to a course called Yahash in a base in the North of Israel. I looked at the faces around me and heard a babble of different languages. French and Russian were the most distinguishable, there were some occasional bursts of English to be heard also.
I hadn’t known it then but I was on my way to one of the most dreaded bases in the whole of the IDF. It was where any problematic soldier was sent. Those who didn’t want to serve in the army, those with learning disabilities and most of all those with extreme problems with authority were sent there. It was under the command of the Education Corps and morale on the base was low, even compared to what I had seen at the main base which was really, really saying something.
On my first day there I met a South African soldier, his name was Ken, he had cropped hair, white skin burnt red and the strongest South African accent I had ever heard. We sat on the steps of our shared barracks and I listened as he told me about the base I had been sent to. He had already been there for three months, sent there because his Hebrew wasn’t strong enough. Many of his comrades on the base were immigrants from the former Soviet Union who had been exposed to little Hebrew. Ken had arrived in the army with thoughts of becoming a fighter but after a single month had abandoned the idea as the weight of the enforced discipline and lack of anything else crushed his spirit. He refused to go to a combat unit and had his heart set on returning to South Africa. “I came here to serve and all the army did was spit on my dreams!” He said this with eyes looking down at the ground, he looked up at me and grinned. “But you are only here for a few weeks and then they will send you on to combat, and I my friend will be back in South Africa!”
This moment was the beginning of an utterly pointless three weeks of my army service. We were given mainly classroom lessons on the IDF, did some running, fired a rifle and generally were marched around. The discipline was strict and the activities mainly without any objective other than to keep us busy. At one point recruits were asked whether they wanted to take the gibush to the Tzanhanim. I figured that since it wasn’t particularly problematic the first time around I would take it again to make doubly sure of my entry to the Tzanhanim only to be denied the opportunity. The corporal in charge of me told me that I wasn’t eligible, which sent my mind spinning as to whether I was going to be able to make it to the paratroopers after all.
I met several people from English speaking countries while I was there. There was one American guy called Josh who struck me as being the perfect soldier. He was very quiet, when he did speak he was direct and to the point. He was eligible to take the gibush to the Tzanhanim and I was under no doubt that this tough American would find it an easy test to pass. We were in the same squad and though the conversation wasn’t great it was good to know that there was at least one English speaker there with me.
It was difficult to meet any of the others, there was a mixture of so many languages and everyone knew we would only be together for a short time only. It was frustrating, I felt as though I had moved from one version of limbo to another as I continued my wait to make it to the Tzanhanim The days passed slowly but they passed nevertheless, eventually they took us back (again) to the central administrative base of the IDF. There I sat in a prefabricated hut before a shaven headed 21 year old officer who likely as not had never held a rifle in his life. 
He chewed a pencil as he leaned back in his chair, eyes transfixed by the contents of the file he held in his hands. The contents of that file were all of the data that the army held on me, it consisted of a single page. Finally he looked from the file to me and, still leaning back in his chair said to me “your scores are easily high enough to make it to the Tzanhanim but you’re not going. There’s no more room.”
I sat there, mouth slightly open, palms dripping with sweat, “but, but, but, I came from London to be in the Tzanhanim” I croaked using a tongue that seemed to stick whenever it hit a part of my mouth. “Yeah well there is no room so I am going to give you a bunch of other options,” “No! I don’t want to hear any other options! I’m not interested in any other options!” My throat constricted and my eyes hurt with tears being held back in. His eyes narrowed, I cleared my throat, whoops, it looked like I might have made an enemy. I tried another tack. “Please…if there’s no room I need your help, we have to figure out a way to make sure that there is room, can’t they just throw another bunk in a room or in a tent somewhere? You see I don’t just want to be in TzanhanimI want to be in Sayeret Tzanhanim!” If I had thought that my revelation would make a difference to this man I was mistaken. He clearly hadn’t noticed that the future Chief of Staff was sitting before him. I had been firm and I had begged, surely one of those two must have helped. 

He sent me outside and told me that I would be called back at the appropriate time. He sent me away but I never left his side. When he left his office I was waiting there to remind him that I was the English guy who he was helping into the Tzanhanim and not to forget about me. When he went to eat I was there sitting opposite him reminding him that I was the English guy who passed the gibush and was now waiting to go into the Tzanhanim and could he please help? I waited outside his office until the shadows became long enough to merge into one another and the lights around the base came on. I was in limbo.
He left me there in limbo, waiting outside his office, watching other new soldiers go in and come out, each time wondering if I would be called in next to be told that I was going to be a paratrooper after all. I was seriously scared that the two years I had given up for the army were going to be a complete waste of time. I waited and I waited and the sun sank towards its Western resting place and still I hadn’t been called back in. The officer stepped out of his office and saw me sitting there in the same chair that I had been allocated hours before. “Oh, are you still here?” He said, I looked at him utterly dejected, he turned to his assistant, “send him to Camp C” he told his clerk.
I strained my ears but it didn’t seem to me that Camp C sounded anything like Tzanhanim. In fact Camp C was where all of the soldiers that the army hadn’t been able to place were sent. I was stuck with the various odds and sods who hadn’t been assigned.  I could hear music and see lights coming from the other side of the base, I was told that it was a show being put on for the new recruits to the Paratroopers. With that comforting knowledge I crawled into a sleeping bag, surrounded by people I didn’t know and fell asleep.
The next day I was once again called into the prefabricated hut of the same officer who had attempted to shunt me into a unit that certainly was not called the Tzanhanim. When I sat down he had a smarmy look on his face and was biting the end of a brand new pencil. Sat next to him was an officer with three bars on his shoulder denoting the rank of Captain and more importantly he had the red beret of the paratroopers tucked into the right epaullete of his olive coloured shirt. The officer said to me, “tell him what you told me yesterday”, and so I began my pleas to be able to fulfil my journey towards the vaunted paratroopers of my dreams.
When it was over the two men opposite me looked at one another and then an aide asked me to leave. I was none the wiser as to how well my pleas carried with the two men. I was put in a line with a bunch of the guys who had been in Camp C at the end of the line people were assigned to their various units, the army clearly having decided where they were going to send them. “I hope they send me to a unit where I can go home every weekend.” The voice was high pitched, nasal and I knew the face to which it belonged. It was someone from course yachash and I attempted to avoid him.
I reached the end of the line to find a soldier sitting at a table. Without looking up at me he simply asked for my army number, I gave it to him. “Goldberg?” He asked. “Yes” I said in a voice already shaking with emotion, fatigue and stress, was the plan already shattered into pieces? “Tzanhanim” he said and pointed to a group of soldiers standing next to an old bus. Although anyone looking at me would have seen me walk towards the bus there was a party going on inside my head and everyone was invited! I was going to be a Paratrooper, I was going to join the ranks of the men who jumped in the Mitla Pass in 1956, of the men who liberated the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967 and the veterans of countless other battles. 
I had done it! I had done it! I had done it!
Anonymous says:

I will never forget that we were out drinking on the beach in Tel Aviv the night before you were due to start the army. Great night and great story (above). Ross