The Joy Menu #49: Dregs
"We had our own little base, our own little basic training. We were getting the minimum of everything, because all they wanted us to do was learn a bit of Hebrew so they could stick us on the road."
I keep coming back to the same stories.
I hear myself on the recording, bringing the conversation back, bringing it around to where we’d left off:
“And what was that like?”
“And who were you with?”
“And where did you go”
I hear my mother in the background; her comments, interjections, jokes. I laugh and then I redirect.
“You stopped in the middle… what happened next?”
I hear my uncle -- visiting at the time, when I made some of the recordings -- as clarification questions. “How old was I then? Just a kid?”
At some points the conversation wanders; at others I push it to places my father doesn’t seem intending to go.
It’s not only about Israel. It’s not only about his 70 days in jail. It’s about this whole other thing; this whole other life which he’s lived, this whole other world he’s inhabited, this whole other him which I want to hear about, document, and understand. As if recording his story, his voice, his memories will capture it, make it comprehensible, make it mine.
So that when he’s gone it will still be mine.
Mine as he is, and isn’t. Mine as he was, and wasn’t.
Here is some of it, as it was, and is:
Him: We waited most of the evening. Until I don’t remember exactly. I remember lying around that fucking room for hours and hours and hours. So we might’ve got there at two o’clock and sat there till six, or seven. Or we might’ve got there at 12 and sat there ‘til 5. I don't remember exactly.
I do remember one guy — he was a Russian Jew, he and I were talking. He was giving me this whole lecture about my reason for being there, telling me I was an idiot, that what I’d done was idiotic. He was awful; a real dick. I don’t know what he was there for, but I remember having this discussion with him and he was so dismissive. He was like, "You little shit, what do you know?" He was a big chess player, and — I don’t know how I remember this — but he was like a champion chess player and he thought he was hot shit. He was probably 24, maybe 26. Maybe a little older. And most of the guys, as I’ve said, were really young — there were only a few reservists, not many of us.
Me: What did this guy look like, do you remember?
Him: He had brown hair, curly
Him: I don’t think he had a beard. I was one of the few people that had a beard.
Me: Did he speak to you in English? Or Hebrew?
Him: No, no. There was no English. The only time I spoke English was when I was in my basic training. I was with a guy who was an Englishman; a fucking weird dude. Him and I were assigned to the same little driving school at the base. We were going to be together in basic training. He was a hell of a weird dude. What was his name...he was a bit older than me. We went into the army at 18, and he was maybe 20. And he was an immigrant, and he was a hell of a funny dude; he had these big lips, and he was kind of ugly.
Me: Pouty lips…?
Him: Oh, like fish lips, kind of. And they were always wet and a little bit sloppy. And he had funny little hair. And he was cheeky. Like, literally — had these fat cheeks. And he talked like a real fucking Englishman, and was so loud.
Me: Like Cockney style?
Him: Yeah...such a weird dude. So, we spoke English, of course, for all those three months that we were together. And we learned to drive trucks together. We used to be together and were kind of a pair. What a character...
Me: It must’ve been nice to speak English to someone.
Him: Yeah. We were in the same tent area. They had tents with 8 or 10 beds.
Me: At that point, how was your Hebrew?
Him: My Hebrew wasn’t great, but we went to Hebrew classes. We had these Female soldiers that ran classes for us, because, don’t forget, it wasn’t only us that couldn’t speak Hebrew that well. There were Iraqis who were even illiterate. All the illiterate guys and the guys whose Hebrew was poor, or whose language was poor, they made them drivers too. So they could teach them how to read and write. Some of the guys were totally illiterate.
Me: They’d never been to school?
Him: Yeah. One guy in particular, I remember, an Iraqi guy, he had never been to school. Didn’t know how to read or write in fucking Hebrew, Arabic, anything.
So they ran school there.
Me: Like an ulpan?
Him: Kind of. But ulpan is more for immigrants. For the military, they ran their own little classes, the girls. They would assign these young, again, inductees, and they’d send them to teach Hebrew to guys like us.
Me: Foreigners. The foreign troops.
Him: Yeah, we had Hebrew classes in the morning sometimes, or we’d go out driving for two, three, four, five hours, six in a truck. And then we’d switch and we’d drive for the morning. Then maybe we’d come back. Or in the afternoon we’d have class, and in the morning we’d drive. I don’t remember exactly.
Me: But how long does it take to learn to drive a truck ?
Him: Not very long. But you’ve got guys who don’t know how to speak, who don’t know how to read or write. You’ve got to do the driving test, you’ve got to do a written test. It takes a while; maybe, I don’t know, six, eight weeks. Our course was six, eight weeks. They had these trucks — you’d have a driver, and the teacher, and he would have controls as well, and then you’d have four guys, maybe, in the back seat. The double seat. And then we’d go out and we’d drive around. And every 45 minutes the guy, he’d get out, they’d stop, we’d have a drink, and some hummus, and they would switch.
That’s how the morning would go. Then they would take us back to the base. These were all civilian driving teachers, so then they’d get in their cars and go home, and they’d come back the next day and we’d go through the motions again.
Me: So this was their career?
Him: Well, they were driving; this was their service.
Me: Okay I see.
Him: They’d get called up for 30, 60 days or whatever, and that’s what they would do, because that’s what they did in civilian life.
I knew these guys. Some of them were great. They made our lives. They were terrific to us. They felt badly for us and they wanted to help us, and they wanted us to get through so we could get on with things. I remember one guy — I don’t remember his name, but he was really great to us. They’d go, they’d take us for coffee, and we’d make a day of it. A little outing.
They wanted to help us get where we needed to go. They knew we were victims in a way. They weren’t against us.
Me: You were kind of like the leftovers.
Him: We were what they call [speaks in Hebrew] — the dregs.
Me: Whatever the opposite of an elite placement would be. The rag-tag.
Him: The elite were the paratroopers, and the air force. And at the bottom of the pole were the drivers.
Me: I guess it could’ve been worse. You could’ve been used as cannon fodder...
Him: Cannon fodder — there was no such thing in Israeli army; all the fighters were elite.
There was no riff-raff out there in the field. It was all... The Kibbutzim, the pilots, and the tank guys were real tough and very disciplined. And then there were the infantry guys who had the hardest time, because they were driving around in these bloody personnel carriers, and jumping out and doing their thing right out in the fucking open. Shit.
Those were the elite. And in this base, one of the parts of the base was a big tank-training area, where they used to...
Me: So separate from where you were training?
Him: Exactly. Everybody was mixed. There was a big tank-training base carved out of the area where us little guys were learning how to drive and speak Hebrew.
Me: Did you share barracks with those guys? With your guys in your little rag-tag driving crew?
Him: No, no, no. We were separate. There were maybe two, three hundred of us. I don’t know how many. We had our own little base. We had our own little basic training. We were getting the minimum of everything, because all they wanted us to do was learn how to drive and get a license.
Me: And learn a little bit of Hebrew.
Him: Yeah, and learn a bit of Hebrew so they could stick you on the road.
And then, of course, the choice assignments were the ones I got. I got to go home every night. I got to drive for officers and wash cars occasionally, and hang out, and chat with the girls in the office.
Me: Do you think you got that because of the rag-tag you were the more educated or presentable? Or was it just chance?
Him: I’m sure it was on purpose. They said, “He’s clean-cut, he’s intelligent, he’s whatever.” You know what I mean? I don’t know how many of us were assigned to jobs like that. Maybe, out of the whole group, 10 of us went. Some went there, some went there; to the different headquarter bases. And I just so happened to luck out and go to a base that happened to be the headquarters for the paratroopers.
Me: So that’s why you spent your service working with paratroopers, but you weren’t a paratrooper.
Him: Exactly. I was a driver. Which is why when the time came, my reserve assignment was meant to be in Gaza.
Me: Hence the refusal.
Him: Hence the refusal, and the 70 days at Kele Shesh. The 70 days in jail.
Me: Which is where we left off.
Him: Is it?
Onward toward creative joy,