The Riverbed

So now I knew which direction the water from the rivers and streams that intersected my navigation route flowed in simply by looking at the map. In no way did this make traversing them any more fun, but at least when I sat down before Green and he asked I could give him an answer. The area we had been allotted for wandering around in for the next week of navigation training was in the North and consisted of very hilly terrain with lots of dry river beds and boggy ground. I was partnered up with Baby for the duration, sometimes he would lead me to the half way point and I would take over and sometimes the other way around.

One night I had my route memorized right down to a perfect T.  It was his turn to go first and walk the 20 or so kilometers to the half way point, at which point I would take over. Along the way we had to pass through a couple of specific ‘way points’. I was confident that everything would be fine, from my side at least. And so just after dusk we set off on out merry way, each of the pairs from our team being released at timed intervals until we were all in the field; each pair either doomed to wander aimlessly for hours until eventually discovering the base camp or to triumphantly move throughout the night to arrive back at base camp with plenty of time for sleep.

With my route carefully memorised I was happy to be off with Yuval taking the lead. We walked through the night over the rolling hills of the Galilee. At one point we came to a sheet metal fence where there was no earthly reason for it to be. Like true paratroopers we scaled the fence, barely even thinking about it. Once on the other side I saw that there was another fence of exactly the same type about 50 meters away. We walked towards it chatting away until I heard a snort to my right. I knew what it was before I even looked yet I had to confirm the source of this noise cutting through the night. It was, as I had imagined, a big, black bull and he didn’t look happy that we were encroaching on his turf.

I whispered something to Yuval only to be cut off when he whisper-shrieked “I know, I know”, “let’s just keep going” I said, petrified the bull would hear us, we walked forward in that way that keeps speeding up until you’re almost running but haven’t quite given in to your panic. I glanced to the left to confirm that there was another sheet metal fence there and that we had, in fact climbed into a bullpen. We hit the other side and almost leaped over it only to collapse on the ground panting. Eventually we looked at each other and burst into hysterical fits of laughter. It hadn’t occurred to me for a moment that I was armed with a powerful rifle and enough bullets to kill 100 bulls had the need arisen.

The first half of our journey through the night had barely begun, we scrambled through the rest of it, alternatively talking and then silent, wordlessly walking side by side. Once we reached the half way point it was my turn to take over the lead. Like I said I was absolutely sure that I knew the way and had the map memorised to the point where I didn’t even feel the need to open it. So we started moving away from the jeep that marked the half way point of our night. We walked along a path chattering in the moonlight until the path diverged into two. But both seemed to kind of go in the same direction and it was difficult to decide which of the two paths to follow. In the end I chose one that went on a slight incline instead of one that slightly inclined. And down we walked, we walked until what had been a nice wide path narrowed into a not quite dry river bed. We walked forward, forward ever forward. We walked onward while the dry river bed became more and more populated by large rocks that were hard to see in the dark. What had once been open ground on either side turned into steep earth walls that stretched way above us. we walked further forward, struggling through the trees and other natural obstacles that seemed to come out of nowhere, getting thicker and thicker the further we went along the river.

By this time it was incredibly, utterly, completely, obscenely obvious that we, I, had gone the wrong way. According to the only rule of navigation that really mattered, the moment I made this deduction I should have turned around and gone all the way back to that fork in the path and simply taken the other one, the right one. But I didn’t. Perhaps it was the result of all the training I had suffered through for the first 6 months. Training that emphasized time and again forward movement, where you never stopped, you never moved back, you attacked, you charged, you destroyed. Then again perhaps there was another reason, something more intrinsic to the human condition. It would have meant admitting that I had been wrong. It would have meant giving up on the route I had taken, it would have meant letting the riverbed beat me. I just couldn’t bring myself to stop moving forward, I had started down this path and I HAD to get to the end. It was a classic navigational mistake.

We spent hours stubbornly fighting through undergrowth, small trees and all the way along, rocks tripping us over at every turn. Still we moved forwards, always further forwards. We carried on struggling like that for hours, all thoughts of way points gone, all talking come to a close, communication limited to grunts alone. When one of us fell, as happened increasingly often a hand was extended though no words shared. The colour of the sky changed from inky black with unlimited silver twinkles to a deep rich blue purple with fewer twinkles to an lighter blue and still we grappled with the river bed. It was the sound of the dogs that let me know we were coming to the end. I had done enough navigation to know that the sound of those dogs meant habitation and the end of the nightmare that was the riverbed. We moved forward, the narrow confines widening with each step, the high banks that had towered over us in the dark now sloping down the world becoming a friendlier place with every extra bit of light illuminating our way.

The dogs were barking from within the village. It was an Arab village. The flat roofs of the buildings, the lack of any town planning, this was a Bedouin village, it didn’t appear on my map and was useless for letting me know where we had emerged. I called the dogs “Zombie dogs” I had only ever encountered them in the desert, they ran alongside vehicles there and protected the various Bedouin encampments from anyone who would find themselves staggering through the emptiness and encounter them. I called them zombie dogs because they were always foaming at the mouth, always damaged in some way, they would bark and bark and bark, they would run at us when we were walking nearby, they would chase vehicles, white saliva frothing on their cheeks and dribbling down them. Thankfully that night they remained heard but not seen as Baby and I emerged into their habitat.

It turned out that the majority of the buildings were made with sheet metal, there was sheet metal and corrugated tin everywhere around the houses, forming ramshackle fences, bits of it were discarded along the ground, wet with morning dew. I took a drink from my water bottle, Baby gave me a look that said he was glad it was over, his face filthy from falling over and crashing into various things along the way, I guessed that mine was too.

The village was built on the side of a sheer mass of land as if the ground simply fell away about 100 feet at a certain point. At the top of this land mass I could see a small village, it was this small village that marked the end of the night’s odyssey and the embrace of the oblivion we call sleep. I knew that the others would all be there in their sleeping bags already. GP Yosef would have been sleeping for hours.

We wandered around looking for a pathway up the face of the small, grassy cliff and eventually stumbled on one and proceeded with the last part of the trek, there was no pretensions even of the dawn anymore, with the dew being the only evidence left that it was even morning and even that was fast evaporating. We moved silently up the very last obstacle. I knew that not only would I be lucky to sleep for an hour but that I had nothing at all to show for a disastrous night’s navigation, save perhaps for the lesson learned that turning back and retracing my steps was the thing to do in the future. We climbed the path and made it to the top to discover a medic to be waiting for us. He was smoking a cigarette and looked at us through bleary eyes that immediately told us we were the reason he was still awake.

I didn’t really care, while he was spending his service following around soldiers in training I was slogging my ass off.

“Did you hear?” he asked us, which was typical of a jobnik, I’d spent the entire night wandering through the pitch black trying to figure out where the hell I was and he asks me what had to be, hands down the stupidest question in the world.

He asked the question of my back just after I passed by him on my way to my sleeping bag when he said “Mike’s Place was blown up tonight, don’t know how many dead.”

Then he flicked his cigarette, got up and went to sleep.

It turned out I wasn’t the only English volunteer in the Holy Land. The attack on Mike’s Place was perpetrated by two volunteers from England who were so overcome by their own hatred that they committed to giving their lives in order to take others. Both of them wore suicide vests but only one of them found paradise immediately. He took three people with him, one of them was Dominique, the French girl with the shaved head who had made the brownies and given me one for free.

It was the first time the conflict had really pierced through the all embracing canopy of the army. I was so involved in training that the events in the outside world barely registered. As a trainee soldier I was a baby in the womb, still being grown, still being prepared for the outside war. That bomb sent a shock wave that I could feel even through the protection afforded to me by the army. I hadn’t known Dominique well but I had known her, she was the first person whose life had been taken by this conflict to be more than a statistic to me. I had spoken to her, I had seen her smile, seen her work and joke and laugh. I had felt the touch of her presence and now she was no more, never to make more brownies, never to grace the bar again, never to feel the touch of old age, to have children or enjoy the sweet opportunities offered by this world.

It was difficult to know what to think or how to feel. The fact that the bombers were also British made me feel as though they had pulled away the last vestiges of my British identity, I was Israeli now and I was in the army of my people, prepared to give my life to protect them, the fact that these two men had shared the same country with me for most of our lives made me feel that much more convinced that I was in the right place doing the right thing.

I was here to defend my people, they had come to kill and die for theirs.

Comments

Thank you for sharing this…I remember when Elie went out on navigation and you’ve just proven everything I was afraid of! But seriously…this is a great way to show others how hard our sons train. Thank you for writing it. I’m so sorry about Dominique and so many others, so many others…may her memory be blessed and may she be smiling somewhere, knowing you and others remember her!