Boots and Belts

While I was clearing out my wardrobe, in characteristic capitulation to my wife’s Pesach dictates, I came across my old army boots. I debated whether I should throw them away, as it has been about twelve years since I last wore them, or should I keep them for sentimental reasons. There they stood on the floor, gnarled and lopsided, the heels unevenly worn to betray the way I walk. Stuffed in the neck of the left boot, rolled up, was my army belt, slightly frayed and with dark stains of sweat, the buckle scratched and slightly out of shape. Boots and belt. And, as I looked at them, I remembered when they were stiff and new…

“Bloody typical”, whispered Robert, as we stood in formation, waiting to be dismissed. We were outside our tents, squinting through the rain, shivering. They could have been a mile away for all the shelter they were giving us.
“What?” I whispered back.

“That they would find a Jew to do the graveyard shift for guard duty”, he answered. First night in the IDF and we were as nervous as anything. This little wisecrack broke the tension. Well, a bit.

It was towards the end of a hectic and chaotic day, which started at seven o’ clock in the morning, when we boarded the buses to “Bakum”, Israel’s famous military induction center. We were exhausted, emotionally raw and not a little apprehensive.

Every combat soldier has stories to tell. Most of them will never be told, the memories are too traumatic. We don’t want to remember them. These are experiences I feel comfortable sharing.

Two years after making Aliya, I volunteered for the army. I was determined to be a combat soldier – which it turned out – was not a foregone conclusion. At the time I volunteered, I was a vegetarian and weighed a mere 46 kg. At the medical, I was told that if I did not get to 52 kg, I would not be approved for combat service. When I got home, I started eating meat and at the next medical two months later, I scraped past, with 200g to spare.

Back to Bakum: That day at Bakum was almost exactly as described by Arlo Guthrie in “Alice’s Restaurant”. By the time we came out the other end, we were dressed in starched green uniforms and felt like we were having an out of body experience. It was us, but it didn’t feel like us from just four hours ago. At some time during all that, my name was called on a loudspeaker and I was told to report to some room. I was shown into the room and there were two air force officers standing behind a desk. They told me that my aptitude tests qualified me to do a pilot’s course and did I want to do it? Facing the prospect of seven years in the army on the very day of my induction, I said no after seriously thinking about it for about half a second. They told me I had to sign a waiver. A waiver? I didn’t want to do it I the first place! That was my first brush with military logic.

I returned to my unit. Then the shouting started. Two minutes to the bus, zuzz! Three minutes to be all seated, zuzz! When we reached boot camp, we started running. A lot. To and fro, back and forth. And then if we didn’t return to formation on time, we ran some more. Come night time, standing in front of our tents, we were drained. Like deer caught in the headlights.

In infantry we spent a lot of time in the field, learning combat skills. First as a pod of three, then as a squad, then in a platoon, and finally four platoons in a company. We spent weeks drilling and training.

I learned to dread “masa alunkot”. Masa alunkot is a forced march with stretchers open. Every week we would do a forced march, the last of which culminated in a night-long march of 60km, to “earn” our black berets. When the sergeant would announce “masa alunkot”, all heads turned to me. Weighing 52 kg and standing at 5’2”, it’s understandable, but a man of weaker character could develop a complex. I will say just this: lying on a stretcher is not fun. You get jostled and poked by rifle butts and sometimes you get dropped. And, when that happens, everyone runs some more for dropping me. Masa alunkot, not my favorite memory.

I must have done something right, because at the end of basic training I was first draft to go to NCO course. At NCO course, we learned to command soldiers and deepened our knowledge about tactics and weaponry. However, I never really got the hang of navigation. Luckily my partner knew what he was doing, and I passed the course with a fairly good rating. At the end of the course, I found myself in the top 10%. When I entered the tent for posting, there was an officer with a red beret, from the paratrooper unit. I was told that as a reward for doing so well in the course, I had the opportunity to do a crash course and become a paratrooper – and a sergeant to boot. Remember when I declined pilot’s course? Now they were asking me to jump out of planes! As a “reward”! My second brush with military logic. I looked at my commander and said, “Sir, usually when I get on a plane, first thing I do is fasten my seat belt”. He smiled wryly, and said “Understood”. Next thing I knew, I was on my way to Lebanon.

Sometimes I think that my posting to Lebanon was punishment for not agreeing to go to Paratrooper’s course. Regardless, serving in Lebanon was purgatory. I was posted in the Shouf Mountains, on a military outpost about one km from a corresponding Syrian position. The daily routine started with clearing the access road. It was nerve wracking. For the hour it took to clear the road, the hairs on the back of your neck tingle, your mouth is constantly dry from nerves and every step you take, you pray will not be your last. All this under the telescopic eye of a Syrian pillbox with a sub-machine gun trained on you. You may have gotten up only an hour previously, but by the time you have finished, you are exhausted. In truth, I was tired all the time I was in Lebanon. Your body runs on adrenalin all day, every day. You sleep, but you don’t rest. You wake up tired. The crisp winter cold, mountain air sinks into your bones. Your fingertips burn with numbness constantly from the cold. As do your feet, the cold penetrating through the rubber soles of your boots. Your cheeks chafe and your nose is never dry.

There are stories I will never tell of things that happened to us in Lebanon, but I will tell you how once we captured a terrorist. One night we went out on a planned ambush, at the bottom of the mountain where our outpost was, in a valley not far from a village called Meducha. On the maps it was spelt מדוכה, which in Hebrew is almost the way you spell “depressed”. We used to joke about that. We had a tank with infra-red to warn us of movements. Lying on the ground, your shirt, drenched with sweat becomes uncomfortably cold and stiff. Your knuckles ache, because you can’t wear gloves, because your finger doesn’t fit through the trigger guard. You wait, enduring every second. Then we got a whisper on the radio that they spotted three people walking past us in the direction of the village. We prepared to engage them, but it was so dark, they must have walked right past us and we didn’t even see them. The next day, our regimental commander ordered a sweep of the entire village, going house to house. There were three of us, covering the western side of the village, entering the houses, moving the mattresses piled against the walls, ignoring the hysterical complaints of the women as we searched. Then in one house, I left one soldier to guard the woman and entered the kitchen. I saw on the kitchen table two empty cups of coffee. Two cups! With my heart thumping in my throat I ordered her to open the cupboards under the sink – and there was a man, contorted like Houdini, hiding in a tiny space. He was so cramped, he could hardly move, so he posed no immediate danger. Me? I felt like I was shaking like a leaf throughout it all. We arrested him and turned him over for questioning. Later we heard they ripped up the floor and found an Israeli army radio. For the next two weeks we were not allowed to communicate on the radio, only field telephone.

Kafe Egzoz. On a visit to a liquor distillery once, I was told how Russian soldiers on the front lines in the First World War made vodka from rusty nails. We had Kafe Egzoz. Our outpost was responsible for a lookout post on a mountain top, with a view of the entire valley. We had three soldiers who would camp there for three days at a time. One week, when I was in charge of bringing the soldiers supplies, we set off in an APC and started the tortuous climb to the lookout post. Halfway up, the APC groaned and slewed and came to a stop. One of the tracks had come off. I reported what happened and they told us to hold tight. We waited, watching with concern as the sky grew darker and the afternoon turned to dusk. Finally, as the sun dipped behind the mountains, they informed us that we would have to hold out until the morning, because there was a standing order that no army vehicles were allowed to travel at night. There we were, stuck on a mountainside opposite a Syrian position, completely exposed and nobody was coming for us. And we were freezing. The driver of the APC started the engine. I asked him what he was doing. He said he was going to make coffee. He filled the “finjan” with water, put two big spoons of Turkish coffee in it and placed the finjan on top of the exhaust pipe. In twenty minutes, we were sipping hot coffee, feeling the warm liquid spread through our bodies. We called it Kafe Egzoz, and it was a delicious. The three of us spent the night taking turns to nap while the other two manned the radio and the machine gun. The next morning, I remember standing by the APC, relieving myself and watching how it steamed, feeling the ice-mud crunch under my boots. I remember thinking “What am I doing here”? What could be more futile than to die stuck on a lonely mountainside in a godforsaken country, more concerned with my own personal safety than guarding Israel? We shouldn’t even be here! By mid-morning we were rescued, but that experience has stayed with me like a vivid memory ever since.

Time stands still for no man. This thought gets you through virtually everything you go through. When you finish the army, once again you visit Bakum and give everything back. Except for your boots and your belt. And your memories.

About the Author
Paul Mirbach made aliya from South Africa to kibbutz Tuval in 1982 with a garin of Habonim members. Together they built a new kibbutz transforming rocks and mud to a green oasis in the Gallilee. He served in infantry during his army service, serving in both Lebanon and the West Bank, including on reserve duty during the first intifada. Paul still lives on Tuval with his wife and two sons.
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