Camp Cesspool - Reserve duty in the Israeli Army

    August 1998          
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Recollections of Israeli Reserve Duty in Camp Cesspool

By Steven Plaut

Who put it there? Surely it was not the Munchkins. Mother Hen would never have thought of it. The officers never come in here. Was it to be a joke? A protest? An act of desperation?

* * * * * * *

The sun is rising over Camp Cesspool. A large Israeli army base. I am waiting for a Munchkin to relieve me from guard duty. It has been a cold quiet night. It is supposed to rain today. Do I go to sleep now or stay awake for an hour until the mess hall opens for breakfast? Decisions, Decisions.

Cesspool is the filthiest army base I have ever seen, on either side of the "green line". It is an "urban" base, located within a city. In a sense this makes things all the more frustrating, knowing that civilization, clean sheets and decent food are all just a few meters away on the other side of the barbed wire perimeter. 'Twas a time when Cesspool was the model military base, with spic and span facilities, spotless mess halls, and a Head to inspire pride in the heart of all soldiers. But when the commandant was changed a few years back, everything fell apart and into its current state of filth.

Anyone suspecting that Israelis are "militarists" has never observed the despair and outrage by someone receiving a reserve order to report for active duty. No Brooklyn longshoreman could produce similar expletives.

Reserve duty is based upon a reversal of the quantum principle, proving that in fact time slows down when the speed of a body approaches zero. It has also been described as an inversion of Descartes: I do NOT think, therefore I am a reservist.

The stench of gun grease is the first part of the initiation into a reserve tour of duty. At the armory I ask for my equipment, addressing the soldier on duty with politeness to which he is unaccustomed. "How come you are speaking Old?" he asks me. One "signs" for the rifle, coated with grease, which gets into one's hair, clothes, fingers. It stays with one even after showering, like a bad memory. For weeks everything will taste and smell of it. The food in Cesspool is so awful that the gun grease is somewhat of an improvement. The Munchkins do not complain about it. The Munchkins are a strange group of regular soldiers, Sadirniks, aged 19-20. They are the anomalies of the Jewish state, the forgotten slow ones, the exceptions to the stereotype of Jews being great scholars and intellectuals and academics in high-tech Israel.

The Munchkins are all D students, dropouts, borderline literate. They are just at the cut-off, the bottom minimal standard for what the Israeli army will accept as soldier material. A few less IQ points and they'd be classified as retarded or learning disabled and never conscripted, condemned to joblessness and failure in life.

For them, the army is their last, best chance. They will emerge eventually with an honorable discharge, a passport into employment and blue-collar opportunity in the Israel of the 21st century.

They are a mixed batch, about half Russian and Georgian, the rest sabra Israelis. Even the army understands that they cannot be made into mechanics and technicians, let alone officers or operators of high-tech military equipment. They do endless guard duty, the one and only thing they appear capable of performing. For them, it is a sort of preparation for life. They are ordered about, fulfill instructions as well as they can.

I lucked out and have become one of the reservists called up to supplement the Munchkins in guarding Cesspool. Yanked out of my economics classroom, away from research and data crunching, to play soldier here in Cesspool. The Munchkins crowd about, staring at my ruby slippers (beat-up smelly army boots), in awe. They have never met a university professor before. I am nicknamed "The Professor" by a Munchkin I name Gilligan, but he has never seen the show.

The Munchkins sleep on and off during the days, guard most of the night, seemingly used to this regime. A four-hour guard detail of inactivity drives me to the brink of insanity, but the Munchkins take it in stride, and sometimes even hang out for a while after being relieved, just to chat.

Reservists take a less literal attitude towards military orders and officers than do regular soldiers. We are all under orders to sleep with our army boots on, as Cesspool is in a state of permanent alert. When pigs are kosher, I chuckle. But the Munchkins, I later observe, actually obey this order. They badmouth officers during briefings, out of a sort of pathetic Munchkin bravado, and receive repeated petty punishments for it, but are obedient and well-behaved otherwise.

The Munchkins are really not a bad group, just slow. Alex, a Russian Munchkin, likes to hang out with me during his off-duty time and ask questions. Did I leave America because the Mafia was trying to kill me? Could I please explain to him how exactly he could get rich? He asks me to read and translate for him the inscription by the manufacturer on my M-16. He has gotten quite good at smuggling a large old Russian radio into the guard post with him, and has never been apprehended, so he has hope in later life.

Twice a day the Munchkins are assembled for their daily briefings, and we reservists have to tag along. The briefings are pretty much the same every day. The usual reminders of proper procedures, warnings to be on the lookout for this or that, ammunition belts and weapons checked. By the third day I can recite the briefing in my sleep. That is, if I were getting any. As a reservist, I only have to listen to this for a couple of weeks, and I am already going nuts from the repetition; the Munchkins do not seem to mind, and indeed keep answering some of the questions wrongly, even though they have heard them asked and answered over and over again for a year or more.

At night the briefing is followed by a fire drill. The Munchkins do all the work, with the reservists admiring, off to the side. The Munchkins have done the drill each night since they came to Cesspool. And they still cannot get it right. They trip over one another, attach the hoses incorrectly, spritz water all over one another. Sleeplessness is getting to me. Watching them, I am getting a flashback from the Disney Dumbo movie, where the clowns with floppy long shoes come out dressed as firemen, fall all over one another, and eventually spritz all over Dumbo.

Reserve duty is about killing time, not killing people. I have brought along some English books and bluegrass tapes, this choice - to insure they will not be stolen. Most of the other reservists have brought along cellular phones, and chat nonstop. A reservist, Wassily, is the regiment clown and has everyone rolling in laughter.

Another, Moti, is awaiting his first baby in a few weeks. To kill time, I run a private La Maze course for him.

Everything in the army is an acronym. Like that Robin Williams routine where he makes an entire speech composed of military acronyms. Some wiseass has posted a recent news clipping on the wall near our barracks saying that 70% of Israeli men have not done reserve duty in a year, just the thing to make the reservists doubly irritable.

Since its moral decline into studied abandon, the greatest asset in Cesspool is having a key to one of the hidden private bathrooms. Like executives in a Madison Avenue office, you know when you have made it when you get your own washroom key. I have not made it. The private facilities are kept locked against all invaders. Including reservists.

The rest of the world, and this includes the reservists, must use the fearsome Head. A dismal grotto of a bathroom, caked with ancient filth. Where one dare not allow one's flesh to make contact with any stationary object. A scene out of Dante. Dark and gloomy.

And it is here, of all places, where the mystery was revealed.

* * * * * * *

Oleanders are a common decorative shrub used in Israel, like California and Florida. Pink and white flowers. No fragrance. Only one thing, though. They are poisonous. Lethally poisonous.

Every last bit of them. The flowers, leaves, stems. Everything.

"Bootka" is a Russian word. One of many that have entered modern Hebrew. The Bootka is a small guardhouse, about 5 feet by 5 feet, and 7 feet high. More of a guardshack. Windows in all sides. Guards must man it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It strategically covers and provides fire backing for the gate guard, so that if an intruder were to force the gate, the guard in the Bootka would call him to order. With an M-16. The Bootka is stifling hot during the day and freezing cold duringthe night. Guards therein are prohibited from listening to the radio while on guard duty, as it might cause one to remain awake.

Yet I have fashioned a hidden line under the uniform and ammunition belt that connects to the hidden walkman, and Garth Brooks is keeping me warm. It is night and Mother Hen is asleep.

Mother Hen is the camp's Sergeant Major, in charge of making sure all army boots are shined. He does not care about the filth and the awful food and - having a blessed key of his own - I doubt he has ever entered the fearsome Head. He stops regular soldiers who walk by his office and makes them shine their boots. It is his calling in life and he takes his sacred mission seriously. He knows better than to order reservists to shine their boots, and mine have not seen shinola since the mid-1980s. Mother Hen has only addressed himself to me once. I am wearing a Senegalese army sun cap, one I picked up for pennies in a Berkeley secondhand shop, probably left over from the sixties and the "Diggers". You are out of uniform, snarls the Hen, why are you not wearing an army cap? This is an army cap, I insist, just not OUR army. Mother walks away shaking his head in disbelief.

A Brigadier General has driven into Cesspool and asks me if it s ok if he parks near the Bootka in which I am ensconced. Sure, I reply, would you like the car waxed? He chuckles. He walks off and, dear G-d, he has entered the Head. Was he not warned? Will he ever be heard from again?

* * * * * * *

A new book of short stories has just been published in Israel. By one Leah Aini. It is called Oleanders. It is a collection of bizarre love stories. One story in the book Oleanders is itself called Oleanders. It is about (I am not making this up) a woman student at the university in the economics department and an officer in the military who serves in Camp Cesspool. Once the guy gets out of Cesspool, can he help but live happily ever after?

On one of my first evenings in the Bootka, a lieutenant has come by and struck up a conversation. He is as surprised to find a college teacher in the Bootka as I am to be in it. We get to talking. He tells me that his girlfriend is doing a seminar paper in Beer Sheba in econometrics and she is stuck, unable to resolve a data problem for weeks now. Tell me all about it, I insist, I have nowhere to go. Ten minutes later the problem is resolved.

Next night, his friend, a young captain, comes by. He is doing an MBA and wanted to ask a few questions in finance. When we finish, I ask him to pass on my regards to his Dean. But who should I say is sending regards, he asks. Just tell him Private Steve of the Bootka. How come a college professor is doing this awful job, he asks. Well, all the generals slots were taken when I signed up, I explain.

Word has gotten out among Cesspool's officer corps that technical help is available for students at the Bootka. Many of the officers are part-time students. They come by with questions about business courses, economics problems, the internet, even mortgage shopping. I feel like Lucy in the old Peanuts comic strip, sitting at her booth with the sign offering psychiatric advice for 25 cents a pop. I am considering dispensing numbers for service at the beginning of each watch. I offer the officers a deal: get me off a watch or two and I will come give the whole officer's barracks a talk on MBA studies in Israel and abroad. A major walks by the Bootka, and sees the group of officers lining up, including one colonel, standing outside the Bootka, trying to figure out who the important military personality is inside whom everyone is trying to come see, but only seeing a middle-aged private. What was the name of the private in Catch 22 who ran the whole army?

Toilet paper theft is a major problem at Cesspool. It is in a state of perpetual scarcity, and the soldiers steal from one another. The ingenuity they display is what allows the Israeli army to win wars. I have come equipped with a lock and keep my private stock well secured, except for ventures into the Head.

At lunch I join some Munchkins. I demand an investigation, I tell them, the bread today is fresh, which means that the kitchen staff has neglected to carry out its duty and store it until hard and stale. The Munchkins are not sure if I am serious or joking.

Alex comes by the Bootka, and peels some oranges with the sharp tip of a bullet, for us to munch. He has gotten grounded, denied leave for two weeks, because he left his rifle behind in his barracks room when going for a walk, and got caught. One is expected to have it on one at all times. Even in the Head.

On my hidden radio it is announced that the army has decided that college students will not be called up for more than 21 days of reserve duty this year. As for professors, apparently the limit does not apply.

* * * * * *

Moti has developed a skin infection, and the cream the army medic gave him is not working. Have you been going into the Head without your Space Walk uniform, I ask. I m a walking pharmacy, having learned in past reserve stints to bring along creams for every conceivable skin affliction known to mankind. I fix him up and within days he is back to normal. Who says PhD's are not REALdoctors?

It is 4:00 in the morning. Shivering in the Bootka. I ask some Munchkins on the patrol to take over for me for a bit to allow me to visit the Head. I stumble in. The fumes and filth attack every sensory organ.

And suddenly, there it is. The grand mystery. Cesspool's answer to Stonehenge. Looking up, for the first time - it must be - since coming to Cesspool's Head. White lights seem to be flashing. I try to make sense of it.

On the wall of the paperless booth, staring out at me, someone has composed a lyric poem and written it here in careful letters. It is entitled Oleanders. It covers the whole stall. It is lovely, although loses everything in translation. Here in this G-d-forsaken place, amid the stench and the squalor, the bowels of Camp Cesspool, someone has decorated the wall with a poem. A work of indescribable beauty. About Oleanders.

Who put it there? Surely it was not the Munchkins. Mother Hen would never have thought of it. The officers never come in here. Was it to be a joke? A protest? An act of desperation?

I will never know.

Steven Plaut teaches business and the University of Haifa and at the University of California.


from the August 1998 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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