Once we had our red berets Green began his cull. Only 6 months and a lifetime beforehand 20 recruits had begun their training to become Ravens. At this half way stage a comprehensive questionnaire was distributed and everyone filled it out anonymously. The army wanted to know what we thought of each other; who in the team was the most respected and who the least, who could perform the best under stress and who couldn’t perform at all. Supposedly this test formed the basis of Green’s decision on who would go and who would stay.
But of course it wasn’t.
The truth was that two of our number never even made it past boot camp, one hadn’t been seen since the first week of advanced training and another two hadn’t managed to make it to the end of the marches, making it obvious who was going to get dropped and who wasn’t. The questionnaire was handed out while I was with my family and I never even saw it, which annoyed the hell out of me. I vented this grievance to Green who sat me down and asked me the same questions that were on the test only he asked me where I thought I had been ranked on them by the others.
As soon as he asked me I understood why it hadn’t been necessary for me to fill out the questionnaire. In every respect I was right on the money when I answered him and he had known I would be. The truth is that you don’t spend six months eating, sleeping and bleeding with people only to remain blind about how they feel about you. I could have told him exactly how each and every one of the guys were ranked by the rest. Other than the five he kicked out we were a tight group of people who had come to love one another, even the guys I didn’t like I loved. A hand on your back pushing you forward, a drink of water from someone’s canteen when you’re on the verge of dehydration, being pulled along over kilometers by someone who is aching every bit as much as you are but still finds the strength to put their own problems aside and help you. These are things that build relationships and we were all well and truly in this together.
Once the five were gone word came down that replacements were coming to us. Naturally long before we heard it from Green Yuval had let us all know. He had heard it from a friend of his in the unit, who had heard it from the commander of the unit’s radio man, who happened to overhear his boss chatting about it on the phone.
The first thing we heard was that someone was coming to us from Sayeret Matkal, the top unit in the IDF equivalent to the British army’s SAS. Most people don’t last more than a month there even if they do pass the especially tough gibush and we considered it a very big deal indeed that we had someone coming from the peak of the army’s special forces units. We didn’t know anything about who the others were.
And so it was that the newest two members of our team turned up at the same time, lanky Asaf and stocky Aviv, childhood friends from Rehovot. It was Aviv who had come to us from Sayeret Matkal, to say that I was disappointed when I saw him would be an understatement. The bespectacled, nerdy looking character was hardly the superman I had imagined he would be. To call him stocky was a compliment, he was fat! How on earth this guy had spent even a minimal amount of time in the unit that stormed Entebbe airport and countless other missions that belonged in the films rather than real life was beyond me. I made up my mind not to bother with him there and then, so naturally we became fast friends.
Asaf was a tall, dark skinned character who had joined the army four months before me and been accepted to the Orev, only he had proven unable to suffer his officer and the feeling had been mutual. The officer had tried to kick him out of the unit but had been overruled by his own commander, leading to Asaf being ejected from his original team but not the unit entirely. He had been wasting time fulfilling various administrative duties until we reached more or less the point he had been at when he was taken out of his team at which point he was sent to join us.
My first memory of Asaf is of watching him working on the new equipment he had been issued. We were sitting on a stretch of grass waiting to be handed maps for navigation somewhere and he had seven magazines sitting in front of him. One by one he added parachute cord and taped a piece of foam to each mag. Watching him work was hypnotic. He taped each mag up in a specific way and threaded the cord through a hole in the bottom, he was at work with a lighter and a knife and had a special way of dealing with each mag. It had taken me hours on boot camp to get my magazines the way I wanted them and he accomplished the task, more professionally than I had within minutes.
Somehow I found myself sitting next to him while he was filling up those mystical magazines of his and we were even chatting. He stood at over six feet tall, thin as a leaf and had a big nose. His roots were Moroccan and his Dad was a professor at the world renowned Weitzman Institute, which was where they all lived. “You’re the one from England” he said “you’re the one who couldn’t get on with his officer” I replied, it was a beginning.
My first week of navigation training was everyone else’s second which made me feel at a disadvantage, mainly because I was. A couple of soldiers were sent to us from the almighty Orev to help us learn the ropes. For them it was a great deal as it gave them a chance to get away from the grind of operations in the West Bank and we all loved it as we got to hear their stories about life in the unit.
They came to us from an enclosed section of the same base that we were now billeted in. Of course while we still slept in tents they had rooms, while we had taps high up on the wall they had showers with shower heads and most importantly of all, they had toilets that actually worked properly. It was from this base that we would depart each week for training somewhere in the country and it was back to this base that we would return every week for an inspection of our equipment and then either a day and a half off or a weekend restricted to the base.
One of the guys who was helping us out was a kibbutznik called Hanan, Green told him to catch me up on the week that I had missed. He took me to one side and we sat on the grass next to a flowerbed. He used the earth to build little models of the geographical features that I was going to need to know about in order to make a success of this whole navigation business. He told me their names in Hebrew which I instantly forgot and then he told me how to recognise them which I couldn’t really understand. Unfortunately there is only so many times you can ask someone to explain something before you nod politely and pretend to get it. So there we sat while he made small mountains out of the earth and I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. He told me that at the base of a hill would invariably be a dry river bed, that these dry river beds would constitute the highways of my navigation treks and that if I found the right ones they would take me to wherever I needed to go. He then taught me about ridgelines and said more or less the same thing about them.
Soon enough the bus arrived and we grabbed our bags and various military paraphernailia and jumped on board for a ride into the North and my first week navigating through the hills and fields of the upper Galilee. Our destination was a barn in the middle of a field which the bus navigated to courtesy of a dirt path, this part of the journey left me feeling certain that any moment the bus was going to tip over but somehow the driver was able to navigate through the dips, bumps and puddles of the field while nonchalently smoking a cigarette and talking on his mobile phone.
We disembarked, maps were distributed and points to navigate to were given to each of us. My partner was to be Hanan and soon enough I found myself, map in one hand compass in the other, wandering through the fields. It wasn’t easy and it didn’t get easier either. After wandering around, map in hand for a few hours and having Hanan chat away in words that I rarely understood we ended up back at the barn we had started from.
Back inside we were given new points of navigation for the evening and I was given a new partner to work with. It was Aviv, the fat reject from Sayeret Matkal. I was conflicted when it came to this guy. On the one hand he had been in the best unit in the army, but on the other he was a reject and if we were accepting other people’s rejects then what did that say about us?
It didn’t matter much what I thought on the matter and I was learning very quickly not to spend too much time dwelling on the things that I had no control over. Aviv was with us now and we were with him and that was that. I wasn’t too sure how to explain to him that I didn’t really know where I was going or how we were going to get there, so I tried pretending that I knew exactly where I was going and how we were going to get there. That didn’t work too well either.
Okay so it worked for the first half of the night, that was Aviv’s half. Once he had found all of his points and it was my turn to take over I found myself wandering around not really sure where I was going. After a while or at least after it became appallingly obvious that I was lost I heard Aviv’s quiet voice asking me if everything was okay. I tried lying but it was pretty obvious and I found myself admitting to him that I didn’t know where I was going. I thought he would get mad, his section of the navigation had gone perfectly, the guy hadn’t even opened his map but had gone entirely according to compass bearings and the number of footsteps we took. Unlike me he had managed to memorise his entire route.
At Aviv’s gentle urging we took a break, I pulled out the map and he shone his torch on it while we both attempted to figure out where we were. He looked around us at the dark hills and mountains and I could see a flicker of recognition pass over him. He spent the rest of the trek helping me and showing me the ropes for navigation, his voice was a bastion of calm the product of a mind that was always logical and productive whereas mine had a rather nasty tendency to shut down when tired or highly stressed.
We moved ever forward, stumbling into the symbols on the ground that were the navigational targets of the evening’s entertainment. By the time we got back to the barn it was raining and many of the others were already int heir sleeping bags. I jumped into mine and passed out for a few hours of sleep, content in the fact that I had been partnered up with the fat reject from the ultimate special forces unit.
This was how the week continued, we spent our days learning our respective areas of the map and the nights trekking to Aviv’s areas as quickly as possible so that we had more time to get lost while looking for mine. There were many weeks of navigation laid out for us in our training with the distances and complexity of the routes growing along with our experience. The weeks were divided between the green of the North and the deserts of the South. The North was physically harder but I got lost less since the terrain had more features to it than the deserts of the South. Often I was with Aviv but Green mixed us all up sometimes too so I could find myself with anyone on any given week of navigation.