Clack, clack goes the ancient M16 against my hip as we hump it down the airstrip. My colossal green pack tries to grind me into the asphalt like a boot on a cigarette butt. I readjust the straps – one shoulder, now the other – with two deep shrugs and a wince. Hundreds of other Special Forces operatives form a channel in my wake. We’re like clones, marching one by one from some Orwellian Xerox machine. Hold on. Wasn’t I just at my favorite café in Brooklyn?
Just a blink or three earlier, I am reaching the counter – one thought on my mind. “Soy iced latte,” the barista shouts over her shoulder, beating me to the punch. “Thanks,” I offer, taking a seat at “the office,” my customary table. Five bucks worth of caffeine pays a day’s rent in this fantastic hipster establishment. Brooklyn is home 90 percent of the year.
A string of IAF Blackhawks idles to my right – a row of absurdly long propellers as far as the eye can see. “ISIS be damned,” I mumble; even with 20/15 vision, I can’t see an end to this fleet. “Totally damned, they be.”
Our squad reaches its checkpoint – the first of many in this weeklong exercise. Eighteen warriors form a semi-circle now facing the lead chopper.
“Remember,” the bubbly blonde teacher is saying, her back to the whiteboard. “They love to use the word ‘escheat’ on the State test. Here’s a hint: It’s always the wrong answer!” She repeats this little nugget twice each class, never finding it old. I’ve sat through 75 hours of this hullabaloo, constantly fighting the urge to scroll through Facebook. I’m this close to getting my New York State broker’s license—this is the final push.
“If the bird goes down over water,” explains the copilot. “I’ll release the doors well before we hit. You should have plenty of time to jump. You just might survive, too.” How comforting. Only half of my compatriots even pretend to listen, as though the pilot’s just another annoying flight attendant. How we – along with all our gear – are supposed to fit inside this beast’s gutted interior, is beyond me. The co-pilot isn’t done: “Now, don’t forget to wait for the chopper to go belly up before you swim back to grab hold.” His words lack even a trace of humor or irony. No one seems to find this troublesome.
“Israel has multiple defensive fronts,” I am sharing with an attractive, young audience, 300 strong. I balance on a chair in a packed bar in midtown Manhattan. Despite the obvious intoxication in the room, I hear only silence. “Your advocacy on campus and in the workplace is just as important as defending Israel’s borders with sword and shield!” My remarks exhausted, I exit stage right – slipping off into the night, the applause directed at Israel still in my ears.
It’s echoing in the chopper where we’ve all managed to fit, just barely—a jumble of rifles, packs, and limbs. The ground falls away in one smooth motion. Our pilot’s lifted off as soon as the sun’s dipped out of sight, and now we’re chasing the orange-pink tint on the horizon like a child afraid of the dark. The bird quickly loses that race, and the only remaining glow radiates off the cockpit console, an eerie, green.
“Just because I vote Left, doesn’t mean I won’t be first in line to defend my country,” Niv, my squad mate, is shouting over the roar of the engine. He’s studying agriculture at a Tel Aviv University, and manages an upscale restaurant most nights to cover his tuition. “Do you have any gum, achi?”
Beside him, Shachi, a father of three unruly boys, just celebrated his 40th last week. “Izzy, kapara, I’ll keep showing up here just as long as you do!” he told me yesterday. His class of 30 middle school students loves to surprise him the day prior to his reserve deployment. “A basket full of nosh—every time. And every time I pretend to act shocked.” He winks.
Aaron, AKA “Monologue,” is a part time yacht captain and a full time social worker for troubled teens. His shaggy beard and long curly hair, which he likes to keep tied back in a ponytail, accurately suggest his greatest love: “California Kush, baby. All day. All night.” He spent a year after the army surfing beaches around the globe, doing we all know what, returning to Israel just in time to join our family of reservists.
The soothing woomph-whoomph of rotors beats the air into submission. The effect works like a handful of sleeping pills knocked back with two shots of whisky. Helmeted heads begin dipping forward into the shadow. Our week has just begun.