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The Joy Menu #48: Kids
"If you’ve got a nice bunch of mess halls and horse stables with lots of nice, juicy fleas, why not fucking make use of them, right?"
Today, I am listening to the recordings. To my father’s voice, carried by the magic of technology, across the veil of existence. It’s singularly his — the mixture of depth and gravel, softened at the corners, a cliff-face worn away by years and tides, Joburg recognizable, despite fifty years, an accent eroded, if not an identity. Not yet by time, nor by death.
We hardly study our parents' voices as children — though I think we know them as well if not better than we know their embraces, their cooking, their moods.
As a child, when friends would come over for the first time, it was as if I had to remember: Your dad… he… has an accent. “I told you, I mean...” Right, but… I didn’t think…
And now, what else do I get from his voice? Do I taste it the way a chef tastes his marinara? Lift the spoon to my tongue; with grief, with desire — it always burns my lips. “More cilantro? More salt? More pepper?”
What else is there, in this completely familiar sound, which I hardly heard for most of my life, and now almost no longer hear. My body remembers what my mind knows is gone. His mother? His father? His brothers? His friends? His travels? His hurts? His ideas? His soul?
When he says a word in Hebrew, I google it. It takes forty minutes to unearth a transliteration, to understand what he’s said.
tr. Kele Shesh.
Literally, Prison Six. On the tape:
All the buildings were British, you see? They’re all the old fucking buildings the British had built and left behind. Jail Number Six was a British police station from the 20s or 30s; I don't know how old it was. If you’ve got a nice bunch of mess halls and horse stables with lots of nice, juicy fleas, why not fucking make use of them, right?
Him: I came back for my court martial — for my trial, for disobeying orders, and I had my little trial.
Me: It was in a courtroom?
Him: Well, it was in a room they’d made into a kind of courtroom. Down the way from where we’d waited for our assignments.
Me: All in the same structure?
Him: All in the same old British compound.
Me: So you showed up...
Him: I showed up, there was a judge. He sat there at a table, in the front. He had his little thing <gestures>. He was the judge. He had a little table for me to sit at. The accused table or whatever. And I sat down; they asked this and that, and I said, "Okay.”
Me: Just you and the judge?
Him: No, there were a couple of military policemen keeping order. <Laughs> Like there was going to be disorder.
Me: Well, someone else could have been on a trial for biting someone’s ear off or something, right?
Him: There were a lot of crazy people in the military, and there was a lot of... but look, they knew who was violent, and they didn’t mess around. Those guys would have been escorted or handcuffed, or whatever.
Me: Right. But you weren't. So you were just sitting at the table...
Him: I went in there, and he asked me questions. I told him that I wasn’t going to serve. That I didn’t intend to go. And he said, “Okay, well I’m going to give you a suspended sentence of 35 days.” That was the most they could do.
Me: He wasn’t a dick or anything? He was just like, “Okay, this is your sentence”?
Him: They had so many guys in the reserves; there was always shit going on.
So they basically said, “Okay, noted. See you later, you can go now.” And that was it. And I went home, and two, three months later, maybe in the summer, they called me again. They sent me the same letter, inviting me to come and serve my reserve service and...
Him: <Laughs> So we went through the same thing again. I showed up, and they gave me another 35 days. That was the maximum. They could only give you 35 days for the offense. That was the max. And they suspended it, hoping that I would come to my senses.
And next time they called — they sent me another letter — they figured I would maybe come around, otherwise they were going to activate the sentence. So they sentenced me. And at that point I told them, again, that I didn’t intend to serve, so they gave me the max, again, which was 70... Another 35 days suspended. But this time they activated it.
Me: Just like that.
Him: Just like that. And then they took me. I think it was a Friday... They sent me down to Kel Shesh.
Me: So, the second time you went, when you showed up, was it the same deal: the 200 guys, waiting around, the schmoozing, the cigarettes, all that?
Him: The second time was just me. It was a court date.
Me: A specific day.
Him: And a specific time. Because they knew I was a problem, right?
Me: Right. They had their eye on you.
Him: They were being precautious because they needed to be. They were already having a lot of trouble with Giora Neumann and his friends. There were little ripples of it all across the country.
Me: It was in the air.
Him: Exactly. it’s in the air, and it’s kind of tense, because they knew they were on very shaky ground with the occupation. It was already three years old.
Me: It was still so new.
Him: Yeah. Not three years old. It was '65, so... '67... So, yeah, it was already four years old.
And it was fucked already. People were getting pissed off. People were getting antsy. People didn’t want to serve. The local Arabs were getting annoyed and upset, and it was already not a joke. It was already too long after the war to say, “Well, we just finished the war, we won, now we’ve got to get things going, we got to organize things.”
It was like, “Okay, guys, you’ve had three, fucking four years; get your act together and decide how the hell you're going to handle this mess you’ve fucking got yourselves into.”
So they activated my 35 days, and they gave me another 35 days, and they sent me off to jail.
Me: Right then, the police came and escorted you to jail? Handcuffs and all?
Him: No, no, no.
Me: Just kind of like, “Come with us”?
Him: They just took me there. They were gathering up a whole truckload of guys for one reason or another. Maybe 30, 40 guys. They took us all, for whatever reason. They had their trials, and Kele Shesh was the place where they sent guys; it was the short-term jail. If you were going to go to jail for more than 70 days, they had another jail in, I think it was in Tel HaShomer.
This was a short-term for guys who were making trouble. Guys who were absent without leave. If a guy took off, for example, they’d give him 35 days. Or they’d give the guy 14 days. Some guys went for 21 days. You know? 35 was the max that you could get for one infraction.
So they schlepped us all down there in this truck. The military police,. And they took us down and they dumped us there.
Must have been about three, four in the afternoon. And we lolled around in this room. They stuck us in this fucking room. It must have been about 80 or 100 of us. They gathered everybody together and we sat there hour after hour after hour...
Me: Like an office room? Or, like a waiting room?
Him: No, like a fucking room, in a building... A room .
Me: Linoleum floor, buzzing lights, chairs?
Him: No chairs.
Me: Just standing around...?
Him: Just standing... Lying on the floor... Sitting on the floor...
Me: An empty room.
Him: Just a big, empty room, and there we were: chatting, sleeping, and hanging around...
Me: Were they friendly?
Him: The guys, you mean? Sure. Look, at 21, 22, I was one of the oldest guys there.
They were all 18-year-old kids, and 19-year-old kids. Little guys. Imagine it. They had problems. One guy left base — he wanted to see his girlfriend, or his mother was sick. He wanted to go home, so he skipped out. There wasn’t a war going on at the time, so it was all these silly little infractions.
Me: So everyone was talking about why they were there?
Him: Not really. Nobody was. Nobody had really done anything to be there. Some guys came in once a bloody quarter, once every six months. Most of the guys were young kids in the army. They were just serving their time. So they would do silly little things. Like, this guy had a little fight or something, so they sentenced him to seven days, and they shipped him off to try to get him straightened out.
Me: Like the equivalent of the Dean’s office. Everyone sitting around, kind of feeling like, “Eugh.”
Him: Yeah, everyone’s fucking pissed off because it’s Friday, and it’s getting late, and they’re tired, and getting hungry. And they haven’t fed us, and they know they’re going to be there all fucking weekend.
And the weekends are shit in jail because it’s fucking miserable and depressing and lonely. It’s just shit. There’s no action. You just lie around and hang out and wait for your next lousy meal.
Me: And there you were, in jail.
Him: I wasn’t even really in jail — yet.
Fifty years later, Google tells me, they’re still locking conscious objectors in Kele Shesh. In one story, two girls, both named Tamar, 19 and 18 years old, get put away for 115 and 155 days, for refusing to serve in support of the same occupation my father found himself unable to stomach fifty years ago. They’re still locking kids up for 35, 70 days at a time.
My father would have felt justified. Disgusted, sad, and justified.
“The same bullshit.”
Perhaps the story is not so old. Perhaps the colors have not all faded to black.
Perhaps the cliff face isn’t yet as smooth as to be unrecognizable.
Onward toward creative joy,