When my mother passed away last year, I found in her house a few items, documents and books that were left there since I was a teenager. One of them was a modest poetry book by the Israeli poet Yitzhak Shalev named “A Boy Returns from the Army” which I bought before I joined the IDF. This morning I took the time to read in it, and a wave of longing flooded me. Longing to my parents’ home, its smell still embedded in the book’s pages, and longing to the period described in the book’s poems –Israel of 1970. Everything was simpler, clearer and more immediate then. The gaps were smaller then, the materialistic ambitions more modest, and that which unites was stronger.
Each poem I read brought back memories. Memories of places I have been to, memories of events I experienced, and the memory of dear friends I knew and had lost. The poem “Pilots Die Young” brought back my dear friend Yoav’s face: “Pilots die young. Beautiful and winged. A cloud in the heavens attracts them, like the queen bee attracting its mates to die in their mating flight…” The poem “The Way of a Boy” brought back the vast landscapes that my years in the army took me to: “From the Golan Heights to the Valley, from the Jordan Valley to the Strip, and from there – to the east of the Canal…” The poem “The Doctor” brought back the hospital: “How harsh is the world for the boys. How cheap is their blood which quickly drains from their faces. And you receive them with careful, strong arms. Each one and his lips like grey parch, you return redness to their cheek and their cheek to their kissing mother, crying with gratitude…” The poem “A Boy Returns from the Army” brought back the year after the hospital: “His walk is careful – not to annoy his hurting knees. He will not run far any more and will not do battles…”
One poem, “A Helicopter Heading West” brought back to memory two short events that may not have looked that important in their time, and that I forgot about for years: “A helicopter heading west, seaward goes a chopper, taking the boy, taking and carrying, from the muddy undergrowth of the Jordan river, slippery with blood, to a sheet ready for a back in a hospital somewhere…” The year was 1976. As part of my duties I arrived at an IDF base in the Jordan Valley to take part in some operational activity. Once the activity was over and we were gearing up to go back, a soldier from the base’s command centre arrived and with him a young boy with black curls and a pale face, dressed in Jeans and a chequered shirt, missing a foot and hobbling on crutches. The soldier explained that the young man with him was a soldier from the local battalion who recently stepped on a land mine near the Jordan River and lost his foot. He missed his friends terribly and so hitchhiked his way back to their base in the Jordan Valley. Now he was looking to go back home and wondered if perhaps we could take him with us. We obliged, of course. All the way back the boy sat on the rear seat, his injured leg lifted up, and looked out of the window at the passing landscape. We talked a little. When we got back to our base I ordered a driver to take him into the centre of the nearest town so that he could catch a bus home. I did not ask him what his name was.
A year had passed. I myself was badly injured. After an initial recovery period in which my condition had stabilised I was moved to the hospital’s rehabilitation unit and was sharing a room with a few other soldiers. One day an officer arrived to visit one of his injured soldiers. After they talked for a while about this and that the officer got up from his chair and turned around to leave the room. He was sun tanned and had black curls and was wearing olive green uniform and high black army boots, his gun hanging on his shoulder. We looked at each other and he stopped and smiled a big smile: “Do you remember me?” he asked, and indeed I did. His lost foot was replaced by a prosthesis. After rehabilitation he went back to service and continued to the officers’ training course. We talked for a while. Again, I did not ask him what his name was.
So dear smiling officer – thank you. You have no idea how supporting and encouraging it was to meet you again, you on your feet in your uniform as if nothing had happened, and to know that with time, I will also stand, and walk, on my own feet again.