As I lay dying (or at least I thought I might be), as the blood, spurting upward, splattered the green tunics of my surgeons—I was fully conscious throughout—the image of the small brown puppy flitted across my mind.
That’s where it had started. The puppy had wandered, perhaps looking for a kindness, into our Pi-shaped hut compound in Kibbutz Kinneret, a lush green spread on a slope overlooking the Sea of Galilee. I set out a bowl of milk. The puppy stayed.
My three roommates only reluctantly acquiesced in the adoption; the mutt was not exactly toilet-trained. Often, I was on time and managed the clean-up before the others came home. But occasionally, there to greet them after a day in the fields were little yellow puddles, or worse.
One day I returned from work to find my bed overturned and no dog. My roommate, L, always taciturn and no animal lover, had had enough. No forewarning, no negotiation. The dog was nowhere to be found.
By then, we had been together for about 18 months in the garin—a group of about 50 boys and girls 18 to 20 years old doing their army service in the Nahal Corps of the Israel Defense Forces and destined for eventual settlement in another kibbutz (Kibbutz Urim in the northern Negev). I never spoke to L again (it’s now been close on 40 years).
Soon, in one of the weekly meetings, in late 1968, in which the garin mulled over the number of cigarettes the members were allowed to smoke per week or whether to subsidize Dubi’s clarinet lessons (the garin approved), L tabled a motion to expel me. He argued that as I had declared that I had no intention of staying on in the kibbutz at the end of our three-year conscript service, it would be best if I left now. It was known there were other garin members who were similarly inclined but less candid and still others who had not yet made up their minds. So the assembly (narrowly) voted against, and I stayed.
But the matter was far from over. Within weeks, the garin, as scheduled, dispersed. The girls went off to Urim to work in the infant nurseries, laundry room, and kitchen, and the boys, most of them, headed for half a year of advanced training in the Nahal’s 50th Paratroop Battalion. It was grueling: Dawn runs, forced marches in the mud and rain with full kit, live-fire exercises up steep hillsides, sleepless nights, unforgiving (and one or two sadistic) NCOs, and frequent punishments (such as digging meter-by-meter holes in the ground and then filling them up).
The training over, the boys rejoined the girls at Urim. There were six months left of the three-year service to be spent out of uniform (save a world war) in the relative comfort of kibbutz work and play.
But not for me and two other garin members, Aryeh and Ezra. Aryeh had announced his intention to leave Urim and become a bus driver; Ezra was not particularly liked. It was the summer of 1969, and the War of Attrition (in which the chief combatants of the Six-Day War continued to engage militarily) was raging. It was a static duel. The IDF and the Egyptian army slogged it out along the Suez Canal—artillery salvos, snipers, and commando raids. The army needed hands and mandated that every garin allot 5 percent of its members for an additional three-month operational tour of duty. Through some obscure process—I have been unable to trace its mechanics, though I have no doubt it involved L, a member of the garin secretariat—our three names reached Nahal HQ, which duly issued the summons, and off we went, to be kitted out and trucked down to the canal.
I went not without protest. A complaint to the association of kibbutzim of which Urim was a member resulted in a meeting with a crusty old Labor Party apparatchik and Knesset member, Senta Yoseftal. The selection should have been by lottery, not in a settling of scores or because of ideological deviancy, I argued. She subsequently wrote that I had said, “Not only the two [sic] ousted from the [garin] but most of the boys had already decided to leave the kibbutz as soon as their conscript service was over, and so not only these two should go down to the canal.” The secretary of Kibbutz Urim, Oded Shapira, responded, denying that the kibbutz had had a hand in the selection. He added: “From my conversations with the boys of the garin I cannot endorse Benjamin’s assertion that most of the boys have already decided to leave the kibbutz at the end of their service. But it is possible that this might happen and then ‘we will, in retrospect, have lent our hand to malingering and given cover to hypocrisy,’” as Yoseftal had phrased it in her letter.
But all of this was strictly for the record. I was off to the canal, as was Aryeh, a popular garin member, on whose behalf Shapira actually wrote a letter at the last minute asking that he be sent back to Urim, an appeal turned down by the Defense Ministry, which had been advised, it said, that “the soldier did not intend to stay in the kibbutz.”
Ezra, who was not all there (and should never have been conscripted by the IDF in the first place), died a few days later. An Egyptian mortar bomb, so the story went, had landed beside him as he was making his way across the courtyard of the IDF canal-side fort (ma’oz) where he was stationed, carrying two water-filled jerrycans. He probably heard the incoming whistle but failed to react properly, that is, to let go of the jerrycans and fall flat on the ground—and pray. It happened a week or two before I myself was hit.
Shortly after I reached Zahava Darom, the codename of my square-shaped ma’oz at the meeting place of the Suez Canal and the Small Bitter Lake about 20 miles north of Suez City, I was out on daytime patrol. We were a jeep and an armored half-track reconnoitering the dirt tracks between the fort and the north-south road running parallel to the canal that extended a few miles to the east. Perhaps I had volunteered. There was always the possibility of a mine or a commando ambush. But the ma’oz was boring and chore-filled. It smelled of the detritus of the hundreds of rotating conscripts, and the rats scurried across my sleeping bag—their nails loudly scratching its plastic surface—as I lay in my cubbyhole next to one of the machine-gun slits overlooking the waterway and the Egyptian trenchworks beyond.
It was a clear and bright June day. Our vehicles slowly wended their way back to the fort through a landscape of yellow dunes dotted with tufts of scrub. Suddenly mortar bombs began to fall all around. The Egyptians couldn’t see us because there was a seven-yard high earthen bank the length of the canal along the water’s edge. But they could dimly hear the roar of the half-track’s V-8 engine and ranged in as best they could. We piled out, rushing for the safety of a hollow a few dozen yards away.
The bombs kept falling, lackadaisically. The Egyptian gunners failed to “find” us. Time passed. The patrol commander wanted to call in, perhaps to summon counterfire. But, in the rush to safety, the mobile-communications set had been left in the half-track. He asked for a volunteer. There were no takers. He said nothing, made a face, and then jumped up and dashed across the open space to the half-track and sprinted back. Eventually, the Egyptian fire died down and we ran to the vehicles and drove off.
Though the Egyptians enjoyed a 10:1 or maybe a 100:1 advantage in guns along the canal (it was only the following month that Israel changed the rules of engagement and sent in its air force to offset the Egyptian artillery edge), a local commander decided to retaliate for the artillery ambush—and a few mornings later, at eight on the dot, the ma’oz’s brace of 120-millimeter mortars and some pieces from nearby opened up on the Egyptian trenches across the waterway.
We might not have hit anything, but the Egyptians were not amused. The following day, they responded. It was just after lunch and most of us were lazing about in the courtyard, shirts off, working on crossword puzzles or dozing in the sun. All hell broke loose as dozens of Egyptian guns opened up simultaneously. The incoming shells shrieked through the air, the ground shook with detonations, the shrapnel pattered the ground and clanged as it struck metal. The air filled with cordite and smoke. Curiously, and luckily, the initial salvos fell just outside the fort. By the time the Egyptians had zeroed in, we had all scurried to safety in the rail-plated, stone-encrusted concrete bunkers in the fort’s four corners. No one was hit, though all our vehicles, parked in the courtyard, were on fire, ammunition belts popping.
After a time, the rate of fire dropped off. But the Egyptians kept up a smattering of shells, two or three a minute. We stayed indoors, listening, trying to make out what was happening outside, a few of us vaguely reading old newspapers in the dim light. The bunker shook with each explosion. Soon it was evening. The sergeant major appeared at the entrance to our bunker and asked for two volunteers to man the machine-gun post overlooking the ma’oz entrance gate on the eastern flank of the square. Shells were still intermittently falling outside. But the commanders feared that, under cover of night and the shelling, the Egyptians would send over a commando squad.
By chance two soldiers from Urim were in my bunker. They belonged to a hevrat no’ar (youth group), most of them Sephardim from poor development towns. They had either fled inhospitable homes, or their parents had sent them to the kibbutz in the hope of improving their lives and giving them a better education. For its part, the kibbutz benefited from their labor and was doing something for “society.”
One of the two, Shalom, from a Yemenite family, said okay and turned to D: “Let’s go.” But D wasn’t biting: “I just got married. Find someone else.”
There was an embarrassed silence. The sergeant major looked from face to face. There were a dozen of us in the bunker. I was still feeling guilt over the incident with the communications set. I said, “All right.”
Shalom and I geared up and gingerly made our way out, past the smoldering wrecks of the half-track and jeeps, and up the fort’s eastern slope into the machine-gun post set in a trench overlooking the gate.
We stood and smoked, and stared into the darkness. Every so often a shell would whistle by—we would duck—and explode harmlessly in the dunes beyond. We talked a bit. A shell whistled by and we ducked. Then I stood up—and a shell exploded several dozen yards behind me, on the rim of the fort’s western rampart, which abutted on the canal. I felt a blow to my back and plopped down in the trench. It was difficult to breathe.
Shalom hoisted me out of the trench, clambered out, and lifted me up on his back. He shuffled heavily down the slope toward the bunker. His helmet and shoulders pressed into my chest. My legs banged against the metal casing of the passageway as Shalom maneuvered us into the bunker. I was lowered onto a bed. There was no pain, but I was short of breath. I was fully conscious. It was very dim. Soldiers stood around; a medic looked at me, took off my helmet and shirt, checked my pulse.
He phoned the fort CO, who was in the command bunker, and I heard the word medevac. It was clear that, with the Egyptians close by, a helicopter couldn’t land in or near the fort, and the fort’s own vehicles, smoldering in the courtyard, were of no use.
Time passed. “They’re working on it,” the medic said. I heard him arguing with the commanders of a reserves paratroop unit lying in ambush along the canal in the stretches north and south of Zahava Darom. There was a protracted negotiation. They had a half-track—but were refusing to send it lest they have sudden need of it to evacuate their own. Time passed. The shrapnel had cut into my chest and lodged in my right lung. My breathing grew more labored as air and blood seeped into the chest cavity, compressing the lung. The medic muttered into the field telephone something about my “other lung.” He apparently feared that it, too, would eventually collapse. He started shouting. Time passed, perhaps hours (it felt like hours).
Eventually, the paratroops agreed to briefly lend us their half-track: It would convey me from the fort to a spot at the rear where a half-track supplied by one of my battalion’s other forts would meet it. The second half-track would take me to a point farther east where a helicopter could pick me up.
I remember the surrounding dark and the hard deck of the half-track as it extracted me from the fort and, along the path eastward, struck jarring objects (probably pebbles). I remember the medic above me, holding a plastic infusion drip, and the roar of the engine and the clang of metal parts striking the half-track’s sides. And then stopping. There was a flood of lights, and the stretcher was carried from half-track to half-track. I remember Dedi Zucker, a fellow Nahlawi whom I vaguely knew from the 50th Battalion, holding one of the stretcher’s handles. (Many years later, when he was a left-wing Knesset member, he handed me, over lunch, a batch of photocopies of documents relating to the Palestinian refugees in the 1948 War.)
I remember the roar of the helicopter as it ferried me to the emergency field hospital in Bir Gafgafa, deeper in Sinai, where a doctor (or at least someone in white) pushed a large needle into my side and extracted it, the large syringe filled with blood, and said “he’ll make it”—meaning I would make it to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, where I would be operated on.
A propeller-driven transport plane flew me to Israel. I lay on a stretcher on the floor of the fuselage. The plane shuddered. Breathing remained difficult. A female medic wet my lips but refused to give me water. She mumbled reassurances that were lost on me in the engines’ thrum.
At Soroka, which handled most of the War of Attrition casualties, I was carted into a well-lit operating theater. A team of doctors and nurses in green tunics crowded around. Strangely, and I registered this, they were all speaking English, some of it broken. I was later told that only one of the five doctors who dealt with me was Israeli; the others were volunteers from abroad—the United States, Belgium, France—who had come to help. The head surgeon was a squat, round-faced Iranian Jew whose name I no longer remember. He had brown hands and stubby fingers covered with black hairs.
They used what appeared to be a small electric hand drill to cut two holes into my chest cavity, one in front, just below the collar bone, the other in my side, between two ribs. If they gave me any sort of anesthetic, it left no impression. Instead, there were two rounds of agonizing pain, the blood spurting out of the holes in a jet splattering the doctors’ tunics and darkening the plastic eyepiece of the oxygen mask covering my face. I remember screaming throughout. The pain was beyond endurance. Perhaps, too, the sight of my depleting blood was unnerving. The operation seemed to go on forever.
The doctors inserted two brown rubber tubes, each about two-thirds of an inch in diameter, into the holes, attaching to their other ends suction machines. The tubes—hemo- and pneumo-thoraculars—sucked out blood and air from my chest cavity to allow the collapsed lung to expand and re-inflate. For days, in the recovery ward, the suction machines intermittently purred beside my bed, causing a dull, constant pain, though I barely gave it a thought: It was nothing like the trauma on the operating table.
I spent only 10 days in the hospital. The injury may have been life-threatening, but the surgery and the tubes put me right in a jiffy. The doctors didn’t even bother to take out the shrapnel, which had lodged at the bottom of my right lung. “It shouldn’t be a problem,” they said.
After a day or two, I was moved to a room with other patients, most of them with more lasting damage. One had lost both hands when a mortar tube exploded after a double feeding; another, I remember, thin as a stick and deathly pale, slowly shuffled up and down the corridor pulling along a wheeled metal stand with a sack of drip. He had been hit by a shell in the stomach and had lost most or all of his intestines. They said he had been at Soroka for months. The doctors couldn’t do anything more for him. I heard that he died shortly after my release.
I spent a few weeks in an IDF recuperation camp near Haifa—institutional food, nurses, and deck chairs in the sunny courtyard—and received an early discharge from the army, having served 32 months of my 36-month stint. The gods had smiled on me and I was able to start university in October 1969. Had it not been for the Egyptians, I would have missed the academic year.
Eight years later I was sitting in the living room of my parents’ house in Wellington, New Zealand, when I felt an itch at the back of my throat. I gave a cough and the shell splinter popped out into my hand, a rectangular sliver of steel about an inch long and a quarter of an inch by a quarter of an inch encrusted in thick black soot (I had smoked fairly heavily during the previous 10 years.)
Over the following decades I occasionally attended garin reunions, though L and I have never spoken. On the brighter side, I’ve had two dogs for almost as long as I can remember. We take long walks in the woods, among the pine trees and the ruins of Second Temple Judean settlements. Occasionally we stumble across an old coin or arrowhead.