Sprawled on our private gear, desolation engulfing us, we felt like orphans under the dishwater sky. Those who come to Tze’elim, abandon all hope! Dust and discomfort are your fate. A group of officers a distance off conversed about the impending exercise. Finally one broke away and approached. Tall and serious with a sparkle of a smile in his eyes. “I am going to be your officer for the exercise” he said, “It may be a bit difficult and I appreciate your cooperation. My name is Nir. Nir Barkat”.
The brown envelope arrived in the mail just as Avi my officer had said it would. There would be no reprieve this time. I owed Avi, the communications officer for my battalion, a favor or two and now was collection time. Another battalion in our brigade was scheduled for an exercise and a contingent of communication NCO’s were needed to schlep field radios for an officer from the brigade assigned to observe the festivities. We would be four soldiers dis-attached from our unit and on our own. Good luck and fend for yourselves.
We got to our feet and greeted “our” officer. Honor and suspect. In the reserve paratroop units, the officers are usually a good crowd and yet a bit gung ho. The first inclination of soldiers is to do the least and go home. Being with an officer who has something to prove becomes a problem of motivation. And we just were not motivated. Still, a job is job.
First thing first, we needed transport so we could go and sign on equipment. After a bit of running around, Nir found a truck and we hopped over to sign on guns, combat gear and radios. The radios posed a slight problem. Avi warned us not to sign on radios but rather to force the officer to sign for us in case there were problems when we returned them to the base. No way, said Nir, you are going to use them and you are going to sign. It was a Mexican standoff and was resolved fairly quickly: I shrugged, said a prayer and signed on four field radios.
Nir’s first goal would be to observe the control and command of the battalion commander in the exercising unit. Observing meant monitoring the radio traffic between the command and the various companies while they accomplished their various objectives of shooting up the targets and throwing up dust in the middle of the night when everyone sane should have been in bed with their wives. The second goal was not to become a target ourselves and to stay out of the line of fire, staying close enough to see the cannons a blare and the bombs bursting mid air.
Since we were observing an infantry exercise the best way to do it was on foot, following the various units or walking in parallel to them. We would be a small group: Nir and another officer would observe and the radiomen would closely follow. One radio was tuned to the operations channel of the base (so our location could be reported and tracked). The other radios would be listening to the various operation channels of the exercising unit. I would be Nir’s main radioman and would closely follow Nir, usually while Nir would be walking while holding the hand set. I would be like a small dog on a leash being dragged out for an evening jog.
The night of the exercise was dark. Infantry learn to feel the ground with their feet, and the terrain I was feeling was like a moonscape. We navigated through waadis and hills, steadily progressing towards the main objective, which in this case was a “Syrian pita” or a series of fortified positions that simulate the in depth fortifications that the Syrians used. After a couple hours of walking we found some higher ground and waited.
At this stage something unusual occurred: a long distance phone call to Texas. Nir, who at this time was at the beginning of his high tech career, had to seal a deal with a publisher of a computer magazine to have a version of his anti-virus program included in the next issue. Details had to be closed and reserve duty or not Nir had to get it done. So there I was following Nir around with a field radio while Nir was busy trying to get some connection. Cell phone service today isn’t the best in the wilderness; then it was near non existent. Finally Nir got a dial tone and made the call, wandering here and there to get a clearer conversation. That is, until Nir disappeared.
I saw, or to be accurate, noticed the trench too late. Besides, since Nir fell in first and was holding the handset, I was bound to follow. And follow I did with all the momentum that 15 kilos of equipment lends to such occasions. Luckily I didn’t kill myself nor did I land on Nir. I didn’t even break anything. Except the phone. Not really break it, but where was the damn battery? For all our efforts it was lost. Luckily, Nir came prepared and had an extra battery in his combat web. Extracting ourselves from the ditch, Nir calmly re-made the call and the rest is history.
Not for one moment of the exercise did Nir loose his temper or raise his voice. Even when he fell in the trench and Nir was in danger of missing his conversation he did not show anger. Considering what was at stake, I can hardly understand why he came to reserve duty at all. Riding back to Jerusalem in Nir’s car we joked about the previous night’s adventure, switching conversation between army, work and aliya. He dropped me off at my apartment and we wished each other the best.
Years went by and I didn’t see Nir until Naomi Tzur reconnected us for a short briefing on the Jerusalem light rail. [ Nir was having doubts about the project and my advice was to stick through with it because the Ministry of Transportation was too heavily invested in the project to have it abandoned.] Nir remembered our reserve duty “adventure” right away and we had a nice little laugh about it.
Since I no longer live in Jerusalem I will not be voting on October 22. Still, I work in downtown Jerusalem and I have seen that the city, steadily and noticeably, is becoming better and better by the day. I also notice that no one ever talks any more about the mayor’s constant trips to New York, his real estate dealings or other petty gossip, partly because there evidently isn’t much to gossip about. Perhaps being a mensch doesn’t qualify some one to be a great mayor, but it definitely is a good place to start. Nir Barkat is first and foremost a mensch, after that a dedicated officer, a high – tech entrepreneur, and now a successful, hard working mayor. Given another term he will achieve even more for Jerusalem and her citizens.
So if you ask: I’m with Nir Barkat.