Place: city. Ashdod, Israel. Date: the beginning of summer, 2002.
“Alex”. I heard my wife’s voice from the kitchen. “Is it you?”
“Uh- you’re expecting someone else?”
“Not funny. Have a look, I think there is a letter for you from the army, probably, to Miluim again.”
“Yes! Great! Well, army it is. Where is the draft notice?”
“It’s there on the mirror, or lying somewhere in the hallway.”
“Well, let’s see, so where is it? Ah, here it is, the sweet, long awaited green piece of paper…”
“What are you grumbling about there?”
“Not grumbling, I’m reading, don't bother me!”
So, when should we go to the army? Aha, August, 12th... cross that bridge when one comes to it... and where? ... Arab Prison Megiddo...sweet, that’ll be interesting, but for how long? Till the 12th of September?! 32 days?!?! Holy shit!!
“Hey sailor-mouth- there are children in the house. What do you have there? Let me see… Holy shit!!!”
“Quietly, darling, there are children are in the house.”
So, it all started like this. Actually, it is the order of the day for us, I mean for immigrants to Israel as well as for the local mugs to go to army for miluim training (that is, reserve training). Of course, adults with wife, work, children, and all the beauties of immigrant life, are no forced to serve the entire term. But, as they say, you may not be a Jew, but you must be a soldier. Or,at least, a reservist.
It’s an easy task to become a reservist. You will just be sent for recruitment training, then you will be educated for some simple army specialty, and then there you are- if you would be so kind, please fulfill your obligations to your country once a year. If you are lucky it will take about five days, if not - what cannot be cured must be endured, and you may have to endure a month or more. Our regiment belongs to the southern district. Our area of expertise is chemical defense. If one day they deliver a gift somewhere in our little country from a wicked uncle Hussein, moreover with some nasties thrown on, it will be our mess to clean up. We will have to wash all these nasties away. There are almost no local mugs in the regiment, but almost all of us guys are immigrants. Yeah, US GUYS create a monopoly in the ranks of janitors and shit-cleaners in both civilian life and the army. Usually our miluim (sorry, but I will use this word, it is shorter than “annual Israeli reservist training”) is a recreational event for about five days. They gather us Soviet guys from all over the southern districts of the country. The mood is cheerful. It feels like you are on vacation: say goodbye to your family, give your job the finger. As a matter of fact, our training exercises look like a travelling circus. Can you picture it: a column of archaic fire-trucks, military jeeps and some buses are coming into a town. In front of the bug-eyed residents are what seem to be astronautys, wearing chemical suits and gas masks. They are spilling out of the buses and then beginning to construct quaint facilities a la field showers, etc.
“Son, what is going on here”, asks an old lady.
“Oh, Grandma, it’s better you don’t know, better run away and take your grandson with you...”
“Oh God!!! Vitya! Vitya! Hurry up to grandma! Did you hear what I said – run home!”
So, we scare people for nothing. And this year we’ve just caught a break. There is a war in our country, soldiers catch terrorists all over the territories, push them into prisons, and who will keep guard? That’s when the army remembers the janitors and shit-cleaners.
Place: Eliakim training-center. Date: August 12, 2002.
The great and mighty Hebrew language! It has a word “to soldierize” (sounds like “leithael”). To soldierize is, in other words, to get a khaki uniform and draft your will, so they know where to send your remaining salary if you die. It’s an emotional moment, believe me. You recall to memory all of your sweetheart’s offences, all the swearing and scandals. Suddenly, you’re tempted to will all the money to the Petersburg’s Zoo. But, then you remember your little shirttail kids, left at home, and everything falls right into place.
It gets even better and better as it goes on. We go and get a big duffel bag. It’s full of different rubbish: two sets of uniforms, a helmet, a sleeping bag and anything else. But it is especially worth mentioning the uniform. Its size is suitable either for two people or a half person. If you take one of the larger size, strap yourself with the belt, then bubbles will stick out everywhere from under the belt. If you manage to fit into the little one, it’s bad as well. You’re not able to breath in, or far..., I mean, breath out, moreover your ass is so tightly bound, that nobody would risk swinging his hips among perverted comrades-in-arms for the whole month.
Borya, why did you dress yourself in a sleeping-bag? That’s not a bag? So, what is that? Pants?! ... Hrmph, you should really put on some weight...
But when it comes to length, everything is very simple – it’s the same for all. Pants’ length probably are adjusted according to the height of a midget, although a rather tall one.
Roma, I assure you, these are not shorts, these are pants, PANTS!!! I swear on my grandpa... well, a bit shortish, agree... what do you mean “they barely cover my knees”? Stop acting up, you're in the army, and I am a storekeeper, not a wardrobe master, by the way. In the theatre they will tailor these, in the theatre, not here! It’s your problem. If you don’t like it, you may chop your legs whorter and get off my back. Look at him, seven feet tall, standing there trying to stare me down! Move on ... Next!
There now, as we’ve got uniform, finished fighting for folding beds, mattresses, and a place under the light bulb, we can kick back at last, lie and speculate philosophically about the events of the first day and the prospects for the coming month. So far so good. I have not missed my family yet. I will have time that yet. And then, a lot of cool buddies have gathered together. We haven’t seen each other for almost for a year. That calls for a drink. Vovochka brought the booze, Borya brought some small sausages, so we’ll have a feast. In another corner of the tent they began gathering a national team for cards.
Stoyan, a son of the Bulgarian nation is yelling something. I remember wondering where in the Soviet Union he was from, and he turned out to be Bulgarian. He speaks, or rather shouts, fluent Russian, and swears in a way not every Russian is able to. Of course, it was here in Israel that he learned it, not in Bulgaria. And he probably forgot his native tongue long ago.
I should also tell you about Marik, but it’s better to say something good or nothing or nothing at all. He’s a good guy, a kind person, and handsome the kind of way that scares children. Every word from him becomes a joke, and every joke becomes a masterpiece. However, he flatly refuses to take jokes at his expense. He feels aggrieved easily. So, no more words about him.
Here comes Genka. Nice fellow. You will never find a more sociable guy than him. And to look at him, you'd never know that he holds so important and serious post outside the army, as a city water supply engineer! This is not a trifle, you should understand, as they say, “if there is no water in the tap, they should kick Genka in the arse”… uh give it to him in the neck…something like that.
Shurka. Probably, you can imagine what happens if a clown goes to work in a nursing home for the elderly without knowing any Hebrew. Shurka went. One day, they made him feed some gramps with a spoon. The man ate very badly, but Shurka wasn’t put off by this. He got down to it enthusiastically. On the second spoon the gramps said "dai". How could Shurka know that that this Hebrew word meant “enough”? The same word means “give” in Russian. So, Shurka was happy to go on giving. “Here you go”, he said, and plunked one more spoonful into the old man’s mouth. So they were sitting and saying “enough” – “here you go”, “enough” – “here you go”, “enough” – “here you go”. Shurka went back twice to ask for additional portions, until the gramps began to feel sick. They say he didn’t eat at all for a week.
Edik is a Jewish Holy Father. It is not true that all the religious people do not go into the army. Edik goes and never complains. Strategically, he is a key person. He cooks there in the prison where we work as guards. If you do not fight with him, he will never grudge you an additional portion and will feed you extra, and if you want, he will recite a blessing over wine on Shabbat Kiddush. Shabbat (Saturday) –is a holy day of the religious.
“Edik, the soldiers are here. Give them eggs, please, give them more ... May God be with you, Shabbat Shalom!”
By the way, what about food? It’s time to run and have a meal. Let’s go and see what the Elyakim base eatery is famous for. It isn’t famous for anything. Breakfast is the same as dinner: eggs, olives, sour cream. Well, sometimes a yogurt as well. Lunch - either rice or pasta and something “like meat”. And this all is washed down with a drink “a-la army compote”: tap water, ice and syrup. A grand, imperial beverage!
But a soldier is not afraid of the difficulties of everyday life. He devours everything they give him, he swallows it all like a starving pig, and then his stomach is in for a surprise, and he just digests for three days.
“Borya, why are you so sad and why are you holding your belly?”
“Oh, don’t ask me, buddy. For the past three days I have been feeling like a fax machine on standby. It feels like once the paper is loaded, the machine will BURST!”
“Borya, I’m sorry, don’t be offended if this night I sleep on the other end of the tent.”
Well, why do I always talk about off-duty life and meals? We are in the army, aren’t we? Let’s speak more about army then. So, they gave us M16 rifles, a metric fuckton of ammunition, and for these three days we were taken to the shooting range. After we shot from sitting and lying positions, we saw the results on the training targets, which would be very disappointing. Not for us, of course, but for the Arabs. They have something to fear from us. We will get them, not with the quality of our shooting, but the quantity. And the wounds will be various, and across the whole body. Surgeons will hardly find anywhere we missed.
Then they showed us how to throw tear gas grenades in the right way. You should see this performance. I cried. We ran in all directions, crying. Were we crying because the gas hurt our eyes, or because it was just funny? “How can anyone be such an idiot and not check first which way the wind is blowing ... you are schlimazel, comrade officer, you are schlimazel...”
Training exercises went on. As I said before, we were to guard the prison, and not just sit on the watch towers, and sometimes also escort the terrorists to court. This is a unique situation. The route from the prison to the military court is not short and passes through enemy territory. You can expect everything.
“Soldiers, it’s time for training. A garbage truck (he means a bus with the prisoners) goes first, followed by an escort armored jeep. Upon my command, Misha, you jump out from the back door of the jeep and organize all-round defense. Let’s check for the last time if you have everything in its place. Helmet, ceramic body armor, rifle, five magazines full of ammunition, two two-liter canteens of water, medical pack, gas mask, army prisoner ticket (just in case)... Misha, is it so hard for you to carry it all, or why do you look so pained? Your bullet proof vest is too tight. What’s wrong with you? Loosen the straps on your helmet, look- your jaw is stiff and your ears are turning black…yes, like this, well done. Stand straight at last, pull yourself together. Cheer up, cheer up, look at yourself! Rambo aint got nothing on you! Ок, now, on my command , Misha, as I already said, you jump out from the jeep and… yeah, you’ve got it. So, everyone is ready, let's go, WE ARE BEING ATTACKED!”
Here I have to drop the curtain on this tragic scene and retell in my own words what happened next. It was a bad idea to loosen straps on Misha’s helmet. When he tried to jump out of the jeep, the stout Misha smashed full-force with his head against the roof of the jeep. The helmet drooped down over his nose and he was unable to see anything. The doors of the jeep flew open, and Misha, with his arms extended, flew out of the jeep… “I’m a sea-gull!” – a quote from some Chekhov play flashed in my mind.
This all happened on Friday the 13th.
The earth shook with the impact and the echo sounded around the valley. Misha lay lifelessly with his arms and legs spread like a sea star, just three meters from the jeep. There was a dead silence. It seemed that even the crickets’ chirping died down at that moment. The sun was red over a far hill. The captain leaned over Misha’s lump of clay and whispered quietly to himself, I’ll be sitting in jail as the sun is setting, and it serves me right.
But, it was preordained for Misha to live a little longer. When he regained consciousness, he flew off the handle, addressing the “whole damn miluim and damn captain together with his damn jeep”. The Arab terrorists and their relatives were also mentioned by Misha, with not so kind and gentle words. What can I say about this? It appears that Biblical miracles do happen in our holy land. Our hero didn’t get a single body scratch. Jackie Chan is no match for him.
Place: Megiddo Prison. Date: the middle of August, 2002.
Cast of characters: the same plus 1200 terrorists.
So, here we are. A little background first. Megiddo Prison is located in Israel, in its Northern part, at the foot of the mountain with the same name Megiddo. The mountain is “ar” in Hebrew, so it turns “Ar-Megiddo”. That very Armageddon. This is where terrorists who haven’t killed anyone directly, but just contributed indirectly to an attack, do their time. Politically, all factions are represented: Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other “friendly” organizations. On each territory they have their overseers - shavish, who deal with different matters. The military police supervise the work in the prison. Everyday security is taken care of by the reservists. The prisoners live in 20-place army field tents located on the fenced grounds.
There are two rings of towers and fences in the prison. From inside they guard the inmates, from outside they watch over the military base, where, in fact, the prison is located. Along the perimeter of the fence are the dogs, lovely windbag watchdogs. The reservists’ schedule is simple: four hours on the tower, eight hours’ rest. And like this all the time. Sometimes we escort prisoners instead of being on the towers. That's the way it is in general.
Days ran its course, and the day before was no different from the day to come.
“Who is on duty from two o’clock? Urgently get your shit together and go to staff headquarters for guard duty. Has everyone come? I’m reading your names: Alexander?”
“Dmitriy... what the hell, why are these all Russian? We are in Israeli army, aren’t we?”
Having complained a bit, he continued.
“Bri-e-fing. You are on guard in the tower. Make sure you have your M16, five magazines, gas mask, helmet with you.”
(Thoughts of the guard: As well as a book – a bad crime story, a newspaper, c.d. player, celly, a small mickey to stay warm…)
“It is forbidden to read, to listen to music, or talk on your cell phone on the towers. Do not sleep!”
(Do not dress in white, do not wear tight-fitting clothes, and, most importantly, DO NOT DANCE!)
“Do not get into any communication with the Arabs!”
(How can we?! Russo reservisto – obliko morale!)
“Report on any suspicious things to the center.”
(Romcho, if there is something interesting, call me on the celly?”)
No problem, Sancho.)
“Those who want to pee or poop should call the center, the center will inform us on the radio, we will send for you a jeep and an officer. He will come and replace you.”
(And so every soul will know…)
“Do not relieve yourselves from the towers, do not leave without permission! That’s all. Check the machine guns.”
The soldiers began clicking their guns. These specific clicks can be heard throughout the whole base. For those who are on duty on the towers, these are sounds that they dream about for the next four hours.
I will never forget my first shifts. The first time, when I sat on the outside tower, a little dog next to me died. On my next shift the following night, while I was on an internal tower, they took an Arab prisoner to the hospital. Even though these two events were different, they brought grey thoughts.
Let’s take that dog, for example. It lived like a dog, carrying out its dog-service, serving country for a piece of bread. It served at all times, day and night, in the heat and in the winter showers. It never complained of its hard luck. It survived that notorious year, 2000, when there was a prison riot and the prisoners were choked by gas. The gas was intense, and even cows dropped dead in the neighboring kibbutz, as well as a couple of dogs, who died on the base. But this mutt survived; it was saved and brought back to life. Of course, the poison gas damaged its health, but the dog continued carrying out its service. And today it took a couple of steps, whined and lay down on its paws. After that, it never got up. Died like a dog. A soldier came, threw the poor stiff on the barrow, took it away and buried it “like a dog” as well. And believe me, I felt as sorry for it as I would for a human. Fate is unfair; there should be a terrorist in its place.
Let’s not talk about these sad things. Let's return to our story. Day duty and night duty on the watchtower are very different. In the day time it’s easier to read, and sometimes your friends visit you. You don’t want to sleep because of the reality-show going on under the tower. It was a good show, but instead of girls in bikinis, there only bearded snouts marching back and forth. Watching them is as interesting as watching an ant hill. That is, it’s interesting for about ten minutes. Then it gets boring, and you want to spit. And sometimes you just feel sick. They all wear flip-flops, and they run to wash their feet every 15 minutes. It’s like a ritual or something. They thrust one foot in the sink, wash it, then the other one (by the way, without soap), then they begin to lick their hair with the same hands, smooth their beards and, to complete the ritual, cup together their filthy hands and drink water. When I saw it I felt sick. A dog sitting under my tower, cautiously stepped aside.
It goes differently at night. It’s too dark to read. Already during formation, they quietly ask each other who was on which tower and where the lights shine best. If you don’t read, it’s hard to stay awake.
One day, at the very beginning of our service they appointed me to the inside tower for the night shift. I came, sat down, parked, and took out a book. I heard someone climbing up the tower. I put the book under my belt, and “Oops! – Hello, captain”.
“Grab your stuff and come down.”
“What is this all abo...?
“I’ll tell you the details in the jeep on the way.”
We came to the outside tower.
“You know, Alex, we’ve swapped your position on the watchtower with another reservist.”
“Why doesn’t he want to stay where he is?”
“You know… he is… afraid.”
Ain't that some shit! They think they’ve found a hero? I’ve already mentioned to you once, that almost all of us were Soviet immigrants, and this one coward was a native Israeli. It was too late to argue, so I climbed up the tower. I looked around. Ten meters away from me was a black wall of forest, and I couldn’t see anything. And I, on the contrary, was sitting in a well-lit tower. It reminded me of our field drills, where they have waist-high man-sized targets with only a head and a body. And here I was, a back-lit princess, imprisoned on a castle turret. So beautiful, so straight, you could use me as a target. Why not? After all, there was a war going on, and just 7 km from this place was Jenin, in Arab territory. It was less than a kilometer to the nearest Arab village. There it was, right behind that next grove.
To be honest, I could not sleep a wink that watch. I just had to hope for the doggie’s vigilance. And the dog, a baby, yapped at every trifle. If it was a fox, or a raccoon, the dog ran, jumped, barked - a hero, in a word. But when a pack of jackals yowled there in the valley, it tucked its tail between its legs and made a puddle. That’s right, HEROISM HAS ITS LIMITS!
I’m sitting on an inside tower. 3 am. Can hardly keep my eyes open. It’s impossible to read. Too dark. Although yesterday it was all right here. I lost all hope of reading today, when a brilliant idea struck me. There is a spotlight on the roof of the tower, and a hatch in a ceiling. Yes, right, that's what I did. The problem was to fix the spotlight so that the bulb shone down-wards. But that was just a matter of technique; the main thing was that the idea was correct. Soon my book was as lit up as if by the sun. It was not for nothing that I had read the book “100 Great Inventions”; it really helped. But today the freebie was unsuccessful. Sadly, the bulb burned out.
The night guard duty promises to be dull. Nothing interesting. On the one hand the Arab terrorists are sleeping, on the other hand the doggies are sleeping in the kennel too. Even Lassie below me is sleeping too. It is only me who is suffering. Suddenly I see the Arab in one of the beds move restlessly, enjoying a balmy sleep, turn on the other side, roll himself up into a ball, shoot out his shity-ass and fart towards me. It was about twenty meters between us, but I was enraged. I sweated it out honestly as long as I could, but that was the height of impudence. I couldn’t shoot him, but there was no way I could forgive him. The most important thing was to shake Lassie in order to wake him up. It was not difficult to do with a flask of water. Lassie has a short fuse. Other dogs took off running at Lassie’s barking, and the whole kennel awoke. It was a simply gorgeous cacophony. The main thing was not to stop squiring the water. So, I squeezed until the water in both flasks was gone. That night nobody slept around my tower any more.
Slowly, these stories have begun to deteriorate to a retelling of childish pranks. I better talk about something else. Instead of telling the whole saga of food and prison cats, let’s content ourselves with this one.
I don’t like cats so much, but I feel pity for these domestic animals (now, together, we wipe away tears of tenderness). At the chow hall I always shared my small overcooked and dry schnitzel with the cats. They, unlike us, did not devour everything and anything. Often we were given little black cutlets, which we called “pseudo meat” (“dmui basar”), and the cats didn’t eat them. We ate them; we put some ketchup on them and everything was ok! Edik, a nice man, gave them cottage cheese. But Romcho, a roughneck, kicked them with his heavy boots. Good thing he missed. A small creature would not want to be knocked with a 14-size army boot between the ears.
I can tell you something about the rats as well. They lived everywhere. It was especially cool to watch as they scattered in every direction from under the dumpster when they hauled away the rotting biowaste.
Of course, not everything was so sad. We had holidays and luxury dinners too. It is a pity, of course, that there were more working days than holidays, but it was ok. There was a four day vacation as well, where we caught up on sleep and got some rest. And finally we came back home safe and sound to our fond wives and shirttail boys. And this is what happiness is.