Tuesday, January 18, 2011

On the 20th anniversary of the First Gulf War - Memories of an Un-sealed Room

I had completely forgotten the date today until a friend posted this on Facebook this evening.

It was 20 years ago yesterday – January 17, 1991 that the first Gulf War started.

I was in the IDF at the time, in the second month of the first phase of my Basic Training (I was a tank driver in the Armored Corps – whose basic training is broken down into three phases, approximately 2-3 months each). Our company had been brought from our training base in the south to various Arab villages in the central part of Israel, I was with 5 other trainees and a drill sergeant (all of whom were 18-19 years old, except for the sergeant who was 20, while I was an Old Fart of 26) in a small village right near the large Arab city of Ramallah. We were based in an old house which the IDF had taken over years earlier as a base of operations.

For the most part our job was to go on occasional foot patrols through the village (usually 3 of us plus the sergeant) and taking turns sitting on the roof of the house where we were based, watching for any trouble and listening for instructions over the Short-Wave radio.

We got to the village a couple of days before the war started, and fell into the routine pretty quickly. On the afternoon of January 16, the word came down from Army Command – in order to wear gas masks and to be able to seal them completely against our faces, civilians were strongly urged to shave off their beards and any soldiers with beards were ordered to do so.

Of course I wore a full beard at the time. Not necessarily for religious reasons (although I was one of the few religiously observant guys in my unit), but more because not having to shave daily saved me a few much-needed minutes every morning (army rules state that a soldier with a beard is allowed to keep it, otherwise a soldier must be clean-shaven every morning).

This was 1991 – electric razors weren’t as wide-spread as they are now, and while religiously observant Jews did use them (it is a violation of Jewish law to use a hand razor on our face) none of the guys with me in this little village had an electric razor. One of the guys was newly religious, but he was still using a hand razor (many newly observant Jews take on various laws and practices gradually rather than all at once) and besides, he had so little peach fuzz growing that he probably only shaved once a week or so.

Here I was – with no electric razor, a respectably full (not long, but full beard), an order from the IDF that the beard had to go, and a pending war with Iraq in which we had no idea whether or not they were going to be lobbing chemical warheads at us and whether I would need the gas mask or not (and no idea if the mask would make a difference anyway).

The sergeant made things very clear to me. He said “I’m going on patrol with “x”, “y” and “z” (the names of the soldiers have been changed to hide the fact that I cannot for the life of me remember who they were). When I get back in 3 hours – that beard is gone. I don’t care how”.

Not a lot of grey area in that command.

There were 2 of us left there with “free” time - another immigrant (nice guy from Canada) and me. 3 guys (x, y and z – remember them?) had gone out to patrol the village, and one guy was on guard duty up on the roof (it wasn’t nearly as romantic or as peaceful as James Taylor makes it sound).

So my Canadian friend, Jonathan and I needed to find a solution to my beard, and fast. The only thing we found is what they call in Hebrew a “Japanese knife (sakin yapani). You know the kind – it is a thin, retractable blade in a plastic casing, and is often used for cutting the tape on boxes, or cutting the boxes themselves.(see picture)

Almost every soldier in the IDF keeps one handy at all times, and I suppose in retrospect it’s a good thing. But at the time I had my doubts.

It took us over 2 hours and about 6 blades of the Japanese knife to get the beard off.

Imagine a giant scale, with the sign underneath reading “Things to be scared shit-less of”. Now put on one side of the scale the pending war with Iraq, scud missiles, the possibility of chemical warfare, and us being 7 young, minimally experienced soldiers in smack-dab in the middle of a Palestinian village, the majority of whose residents were hostile to us.

On the other side of the scale – and outweighing the first side, would be spending more than two hours with a very young, very well-meaning-but-nervous army buddy shaving my face with that damn Japanese knife.

Other the time I was pulled over by a Good Old Boy Southern cop in Andersonville, SC (a very funny story for another blog) this was probably the scariest couple of hours of my life.

But it worked. And I was now clean shaven. Lucky me – I could put on my gas mask!

And we got to put them on that very night.

The siren alerting us to a Scud attack came at about 1:30 in the morning. I had been on guard duty on the roof, but I was ordered to come inside with everyone else.

Pretty much every home in Israel had a “sealed room” for people to go to during every missile attack. We didn’t know if the attacks would involve chemical warfare, but it was good to have one room in every home to protect us from the possibility.

This house where we were based near Ramallah not only was without a sealed room, the entire house was basically open to the elements. It had a huge main living room, with windows that were empty (yes, it was always cold as hell in that house). All of the bedrooms and the kitchen had windows with some sort of plexiglas in them to keep the worst of the weather out, but they were far from air tight.

So, the siren goes off at about 1:30, and because Murphy is alive and well and basically stalks me personally, that night the generator which we used every night for the handful of lights in the house wasn’t working.

Picture 7 young soldiers (I count myself as young at the time) sitting around a table for about 4 hours, wearing gas masks, using Shabbat candles for the little bit of light that we have and focused on a transistor radio listening to the announcements and updates given throughout the night in Hebrew, English, Arabic, Russian and Amharic. Not knowing exactly what was happening in the rest of the country, and knowing that if the local residents decided that this was the time to attack the house where we were sitting, there wasn’t a thing that we could do about it.

Today – 20 years later, I can look back at that day and that night and even laugh at the absurdity of it all. It’s easy now – the residents of the village did not attack us at all. None of the warheads thrown at Israel that night or in the subsequent 2 months of the war contained any ABC (Atomic, Biological, and Chemical) weapons, and Israel suffered an amazingly small number of casualties throughout the war.

Even more incredible was that I personally survived the facial attack of a Japanese knife, with no real scrapes or scratches to show for it. And in some small way, as a young, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, idealistic American immigrant, I played a part, however small it may have been, in the defense of my then-newly-adopted home.

Tomorrow I hope to post a continuation blog on what I experienced later in that war.

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