Friday, February 19, 2016

That One Time, At a Checkpoint

It is Thursday morning in mid-July, the peak of Israel’s sticky, summer heat. I head out of base especially early—around 6:30 am—to complete an assignment for my officer.

The mission: design a flyer for some “Big Army Event” at the Central Command base in Jerusalem before attending a conference for Education NCO’s (like myself), located conveniently at the same base.

I am thrilled to be getting out of base early, though I predict a long day ahead of me and I’m running on 3 hours of sleep. I bid my friend guarding the front gate goodbye and confidently strut out, my oversized backpack causing me to sway slightly with each stride.

Let’s do this.

The walk down hill is longer than I expected, and the sun is beating persistently on my neck. I’m about halfway down the hill when my phone slips out of my swinging hand and lands in a pile of rocks and sand.

I reach down to see that my phone is in perfect condition, and am relieved until I hear a terrifying ripping sound coming from my pants.

My one pair of army pants.

With a deer-in-the-headlights expression plastered to my face, I assure myself that there’s no way my pants just split down the middle. But as soon as I feel a breeze in a place where there should be no breeze, I realize I am in trouble.

I weigh my options: turn around and borrow someone’s pants, run back to the bus stop and most likely miss my flyer-making appointment, or keep going.

Like a good soldier, I choose the latter. I take a deep yoga-breath and keep on down the hill. No ripped pants are stopping me. Plus, I have a huge bag that covers my butt.

For the first time ever, I am grateful for my colossal backpack.

10 minutes later, I arrive at the bottom of the hill. I scan my surroundings and contemplate my next move. Well, now all I have to do is pass through this huge group of Palestinian men, cross a 6 lane highway, find an unmarked bus stop and make it there in 7 minutes.

Right.

While I had been informed that large groups of Palestinians pass through this checkpoint in the morning to get to work in Israel, I am in shock as I approach the group. I reach my hand into my purse and grip onto my weapon: a pocket sized pepper spray.

Though IDF soldiers with real weapons (my friends with m-16’s) guard 50 meters to my right and left at the checkpoint, I feel very exposed. I hear only Arabic and see every Palestinian head turn as I walk by. I don’t really know where to go, or how to cross this damn highway. It is my first time leaving this new base on my own, and I try my hardest to keep my cool.  

I start what looks like a real-life Frogger game as I attempt to cross the highway. When I reach the median successfully, I notice my friend in the guarding booth motioning me to look up, his arms flailing.

He tells me I need to cross over the footbridge. I look up to see hoards of Palestinian workers crossing this bridge. No. Chance.

I realize I don’t have another option, and my time is running out. I get back to the other side of the highway and begin climbing the stairs to the footbridge. I get to the top to see about 50 Palestinian men walking toward me. I feel like a goldfish swimming downstream against 30 sharks. Though I 'm sure these people just want to get to work, are probably completely innocent and don’t want to stab me, I am nervous. My heart races. I keep my head down, walk quickly, and grip my pepper spray as tight as I can. I am shocked that the army allows this to happen, and tell myself that I’m never doing this journey alone EVER again.

I make it to the bottom of the bridge and begin walking into what feels like a mouse-maze cage. This feels wrong. More and more Palestinian workers pass me and stare and whisper at one another. I look up and see a sign that reads: “You are now entering a Palestinian village. Dangerous for Israelis. Do not enter.”

Holy crap. I quickly head back to the bottom of the stairs to find a small opening in the maze-trap. I shimmy through it and continue to head down the side of the highway. No bus stop in sight. I walk back and forth, feeling confused, sweaty, and convinced that all the Palestinians sense my confusion.

I look down the highway, squint, and see my bus pulling out of a small indent on the side of the highway about 200 meters in front of me. Awesome.

At this point, I can’t hold it in. I shed a tear and then laugh at myself because it’s not even 7:00 am and I have already ripped my pants, escaped near-death, crossed a 6-lane highway, walked into a Palestinian village, and now missed my bus.

I feel pretty hopeless until a soldier from a different Battalion approaches. I’m so happy I want to hug him. My hero has arrived! I’m still shaky and teary when he stands next to me. I tell him everything that has happened and he shrugs indifferently, giving me a half smile that seems to say: what’s the big deal.

I wait for about 15 minutes—enough time to calm the eff down. When the bus arrives, I instinctively go to the trunk to throw in my bag. I take my bag off and quickly remember the pants situation. Welp, guess the bags’ coming on the bus with me. I find myself a spot in the back and carefully take a seat.  

Once I begin to calm down, my instincts tell me to take out my phone and text all of my loved ones.  Am I overreacting? I wonder. My pulse is still relatively fast as I realize that for the first time in my service, I had felt “the conflict” up close and personal. I am shaken up, but I am O.K.

The day must go on.

I even manage to crack a smile when the bus pulls in front of the familiar Jerusalem Central Bus Station. I am happy to be in this city, even for a brief moment.

My smile fades when I see my second bus – the last direct bus to the Central Command base – pull out a few meters in front of me. I hopelessly chase the bus, feeling like a luckless character in some sad comedy. I cock my head as if expecting the bus to turn around, like willing a bowling ball (that’s heading straight to the gutter) to perform a miracle and head down the middle. Or at least move a bit to hit one pin.

I just want to hit one pin. Just one thing to go right today, I think, as I feel the throat-knot forming again. 

Ooooooooof, I groan (the Hebrew arghhhhh). I seek a compassionate face to which I can cry. To my right, I see another green-clad woman about my age, also disappointed. She missed the bus, too.

“Don’t worry, there’s another way to get to Central Command. It’s where I serve. Come with me.”

My second angel of the day! Hooray! I want to hug her too, but I remember to keep my cool. I end up telling her about my day, and she is far more compassionate than bus-stop man. This girl is a friend, I think.

On the bus, we get so lost in conversation that we almost miss our stop. We yell at the driver not to close the doors, and we just barely make it out. That is, of course, after the doors close on my body. At that moment I don’t know if I’m lucky that my body helped us make our stop or unlucky that I was almost sliced in half by public transportation. Perhaps a bit of both, I conclude.

I shrug off this minor incident and continue talking to my new friend. We finally make it to the new base and begin trekking up the giant hill to the offices. I am huffing and puffing, remembering how out of shape I am, and wondering where the hell I need to go within this colossal base.

My “friend” suggests we change into my uniform “bet” (the uniform you wear only inside of bases) in her office, where she can also make me a cup of coffee. This time I actually hug her. I quickly find a bathroom, tear off my sweaty, ripped, uniform, and put on my more comfortable uniform. Though I know I’m not allowed to wear my uniform “bet” with sandals (which are allowed with uniform “aleph”) the rules are the last thing on my mind. I’m just happy be in non-ripped pants and safely at my final destination.

I drink a cup of coffee, bid my new friend farewell, and head off to complete my mission. After wandering the base for some time, I find the graphic design office and complete my flyer mission with relatively few obstacles.

Next step: find the Education Conference. I am feeling more optimistic about the Day From Hell. With one mission complete, I feel accomplished. I am getting back to my normal, successful self.

And then I meet Him.

 “Soldier, what do you think you’re doing wearing uniform “bet” and sandals?” asks the short, chubby, scary man in a threatening tone.

I am surprised to see the discipline-commander staring back at me, his brow deeply furrowed. I recognize his army position by the blue-and-white lace around his arm and his overly shined shoes.

“Soldier, what’s your name? Identity number?” He demands.

I am in shock. I stutter in muffled Hebrew “but…pants ripped…going to change shoes soon (I had no other shoes)…conference now…pants…”

“Soldier, you must leave this base,” he interrupts.

I don’t believe he is actually kicking me out of base because of my sandals. I genuinely think he is joking, so I let out a nervous chuckle.

He is not kidding, and apparently does not like being laughed at. 

“Leave at once!!! Or I’ll take you to army court!!!”  He yells right into my face.

I don’t know what to do, so I call my officer. I try not to choke up while the words pour out: “Shir, I ripped my pants and got kicked off base.” She is more confused than helpful, so I start walking toward the base entrance.

As I approach the front gate, the throat-knot forms again. I see the Terrible Man turn around and walk in the opposite direction.  

No. I am not letting this terrible person tell me what to do.

I turn right around and head to my conference, hoping I won’t run into Dr. Evil on the way.

After more wandering, I find the conference. I arrive and tell the officer about my day and ask her about Dr. Evil. She mentions that he is known for being particularly cruel, and that the unit is trying to kick him out of his job. I relax a little, feeling assured that other soldiers having bad days will not suffer his wrath as I did.

And so after 3 slow hours, I leave the conference—after nearly falling asleep on multiple occasions—utterly relieved to be heading home.

On the bus heading home, I send my roommate at text. Can’t wait to see you. Had an awful day.

I get off at Ra’anana, walk sluggishly to the Absorption Center, drop my bag on the floor, and plop on my roommates’ bed. I get a whiff of something delicious and realize that my roommate had made me dinner.

Over white wine, fish, pasta and veggies I tell her about the misadventures of the day.

And although I came home to a shabby apartment in the Raanana Absorption Center, after the worst day of my army career, after crying into cheap wine inside a free plastic wine glass, after eating off plates of past lone soldiers, I felt such joy to come back to the arms of someone who understood me. 

Someone who hugged me, fed me, and told me “yihiyeh b’seder” – it’s going to be O.K— “and maybe one day you’ll even laugh about it.