Kawkaba Outpost, Southern Lebanon, second week of October 1987.
I insisted on sleeping in the Sukkah, my commanders didn’t even bother to say no. Okay Harrison, if you want to die knock yourself out. Everyone else on the outpost slept in the locked bunker below. We were on the side of a mountain in Southern Lebanon in the middle of nowhere. We were within eyesight of Iranian positions in the Beqaa. I’m a JewBilly from Appalachia, I was a Lone Soldier. What could go wrong?
During our “Kav”, our deployment, in the fall of 1987 our tank crew was assigned to the Beaufort, the magnificent Crusader castle on the mountain overlooking the Litani River. On a nice day and without borders it is maybe a 15–20-minute drive from Metulla.
I brought two things from my apartment with me to Lebanon, my radio and my camera. I couldn’t stand the guys I was with, listening to baseball games on US Armed Forces Radio was my escape, that and taking pictures. It was surreal, there was nobody within a million miles who knew what sitting on a Merkava tank and listening to a ballgame can mean to a guy.
My radio was on the small side, I went into the kitchen we had on the outpost and helped myself to some Styrofoam and duct tape. I could drop it from anywhere and not worry about it shattering. It also looked like a large handheld explosive, given the circumstances, was not the brightest thing I’ve ever MacGyver’ed.
During the holiday of Sukkot our crew was reassigned to another outpost. We set out in our convoy from a meeting spot near the village of Arnoun at the foot of the Beaufort. We were sitting in the back of one of those old tarp covered trucks they used to haul the soldiers around. The flap in the back was raised, we could enjoy the view and try not to get everyone killed if we were attacked from the rear of the convoy.
The ride made me feel right at home and reminded me of Appalachia on these narrow country roads, the hill side to the left and a steep drop to the right. Back home we had trees and everything seemed green in the summer or white in the winter. In Southern Lebanon I never knew so there were so many shades of brown. Dirty brown when you were exhausted, dusty brown at sunset, wet brown after the rain and that barren dry get me out of here brown that the rocks seem to be saying to each other.
Our first stop was Marjaayoun, the main village in the area. There were little shops and restaurants. Our convoy stopped and one of the Tzadalnikim (Southern Lebanese Army Soldiers) that was escorting us got out and offered to buy food for anyone who wanted. Part of me wanted to get out and walk around a bit, I played the banjo, how bad could it be.
The middle of nowhere. Up the road some was the village of Hasbaiyya where we dropped some guys off. They went on to the north and west to Aaichiyeh. We continued north and east to the Kawkaba outpost while the rest continued to the Hasbaiyya outpost further up the road.
In Appalachia you know where the middle of nowhere is. My tank commander at Kawkaba was this fat kibbutznik whose name I could never remember even when he got shot in the elbow a few weeks later on some other outpost. FK, fat kibbutznik, took us out with our tank on the afternoon patrol and then genius decides to go straight up something that was between a large hill and a mountain.
We slowly made our way up Southern Lebanon’s Mount Everest, FK was determined I’ll give him that. The more we climbed the more the angle got steeper, the louder the engine got and the slower we went. I wasn’t scared being in Lebanon but I was petrified being in a tank with a commander that had a death wish.
There was that point where I knew if we didn’t stop in the next 30 seconds we were going to tip over backwards and roll over top over bottom all the way to the bottom of that valley in our 60 ton tank. “Naphal Ha’asimon” FK suddenly realized he was going to get us all killed and changed directions. I’m not snobby, I grew up with folks who also didn’t finish the eighth grade, the difference until that day was my life was never in their hands.
The IDF armored corps won the war in 1967 and saved the country in 1973. All the respect to the best and the brightest who get the red berets and the pilot’s wings. You may get the girls but we win the wars. In basic training when we are given our berets they are actually white. Over time our berets turn black from the tank grease which also stains the skin on our hands for life. We may not be the sharpest tools in the shed but like they say back home “y’ain’t go’in nowhere if your car don’t run.”
I could also be determined. Thinking back, if there ever was a time to say maybe this isn’t a good idea, this would have been it. I had a sleeping bag, a blanket and a concrete slab, everything I needed for a good night’s sleep in that IDF issued green Sukkah. We had Hesder guys in our unit. Religious guys that split time between Talmudic studies in Yeshiva and army service. It is a mitzva, a commandment to sleep in the Sukkah. They stayed in the bunker.
I slept in the sukkah in Kawkaba. I’d never seen a sky like I did that night, I didn’t want to fall asleep. “Ain Milim” no words, all I can say is I’ve never seen anything like it since. Two days later I left the outpost and was given a much needed few days leave. The World Series was coming up and I was worried, I’d dropped 25 kilo in six weeks, something was wrong.
Back home guys wouldn’t shoot a squirrel, a possum or a deer if they could tell if it were sick, you couldn’t eat ‘em. I was that kind of sick and was hoping I wouldn’t get shot at in Lebanon at least until I got time off to get myself right. When I got back to my place I saw the doctor, he told me he thinks I have cancer. Soldiering didn’t scare me none. This was different.