January 24, 2008
The living dream
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Dan Kaplan, my other roommate, is a cantankerous 75-year-old veteran of the U.S. Army, who kids me about reading a left-wing publication like Ha'aretz and a left-wing writer like Amos Oz, whose novel, "To Know a Woman," rests on my bed.
John Whittam, a onetime RAF pilot who says he studied 40 years at a Bible college, refers to God as Yud Heh Vav Heh, instead of Yahweh, and expresses shock when I tell him that Satan is a sympathetic character in Milton's "Paradise Lost."
David Wizel, 70, a former officer in the Polish army, has the grin of Jack Nicholson and a voice reminiscent of Count Dracula's or a cross between that of an SS guard and a KGB agent, not surprising given that he was born in Austro-Hungary and studied engineering in Moscow.
Of the roughly 25 people in the program, about half are Jewish and half Christian. Some of the Christians are evangelicals; the younger ones, women from Finland, Germany and Holland, seem to be idealists as much as fundamentalists.
Some critics may view Sar-El or Marva as no different from the military camps or madrassas in Pakistan, radical training grounds for Muslims, but in truth, there is no attempt here to indoctrinate volunteers nor to demean Muslims or Arabs.
In fact, we have been told specifically by Benbenishty and Granot that we are not supposed to talk about religion or politics.
To no one's surprise, however, our discussions often do revolve around those two subjects. Though we are all dedicated Zionists, conflicts occur.
During our first week at an evening activity modeled after "Jeopardy!" we are asked to name as many Israeli towns as possible. One woman keeps telling me to list Bethlehem.
"Why don't you write it down?" she says.
"It's not in Israel," I say.
This woman, a Christian from England with whom I have exchanged pleasantries earlier in the week, becomes distant with me after this exchange.
As week one progresses, I move over to another warehouse with Barry Raffensberger, a former Air Force flier and commercial pilot who can distinguish F-15s from F-16s when they soar through the sky. I call my diminutive colleague, who hails from Greenville, S.C., and speaks with a Southern twang, the "Energizer Bunny," because he eats one meal a day and never stops moving. He keeps coming up with more ideas for work, even if it's sweeping dust outside the warehouse, an area that isn't supposed to be clean.
We carry heavy-duty batteries for jeeps, trucks and APVs, transport vehicles that look like tanks but lack the cannons, from the warehouse outside onto wooden pallets. Batteries that are no more than 13 months beyond the expiration date are considered good. We place them on one pallet. Those that are 14 months or more beyond the expiration date are considered old and placed elsewhere.
I doubt that the U.S. Army would use batteries that are even a month beyond expiration, but this is Israel, a country that lacks the wealth of America. The IDF may not be the ragtag army of 1948, which smuggled in guns, ammunition and soldiers by boat, but it still has to rely on guile and resourcefulness.
When Raffensberger and I talk to Lilach Bozaglo, our commander at this warehouse, she emphasizes how much she admires us for being here. She says that life in Israel is not easy. She has two young children and lives in Ashkelon, where Qassams have fallen on occasion.
Aviram Shvarts, a 21-year-old soldier of Iraqi-Jewish descent, asks me why I am here. I tell him I love Israel, and he looks at me with a self-deprecating smile. Shvarts is a "jobnick," since he commutes to the base every day and will not return to the army once he finishes his three-year stint.
He says that economic opportunities are scarce in Israel and informs me of his friend, a brilliant man who "knows everything" but lost his job as an electrician and now can't find employment.
Shvarts is a whiz at computers, which he hopes to teach in Los Angeles if he can get a green card, but he spends most of his time in the army inventorying auto parts.
In my second week in the program, I get a sense of Shvarts' routine, as I fold cardboard boxes and place nuts, bolts, radiators, fans, even safety belts inside them. Raffensberger and I call out serial numbers and the number of parts and check to see if they correspond with Bozaglo's printout.
I can understand why Shvarts is thrilled to be leaving the army. The job seems tedious, but it is also crucial. We have to make sure that the mechanics have the proper parts in case the jeeps, trucks or APVs break down during a war.
Unlike my Marva experience, this time I have come prepared for the army.
I took Hebrew lessons at American Jewish University every Sunday morning for 20 weeks. I renewed my jogging, benefiting from orthotics, and started doing pullups again, cranking out 20 in a set, not as many as years before, but still a good amount.
The last day I get to display my strength by hauling a tarpaulin up a hill. This comes about when I mention that it is supposed to rain here after the second week. The APV treads, batteries and other spare parts will get wet if we don't cover them.
Shvarts is amazed when I lug the tarpaulin, which is the length of half a basketball court, over rocks and through brush. With Shvarts and Amir, another soldier, helping, I lead the way to the warehouse, even as my sneakers begin to slip on pebbles. The tarpaulin is a formidable foe, but I yank it as if I am in a tug-of-war contest and heave the massive canvas up to the staging area.
This does not approach combat, nor does it involve great technical skill, but we have saved critical components from being damaged, which would not only have undone all of our hard work of the past two weeks but also impeded the effectiveness of the vehicles, possibly in time of battle.