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Jan/Feb 2000 Fiction

Checkpoint

by Ezra Olman


A light tap on the toe of my boot was all I needed to wake up. Propped on one elbow, I squinted into the darkness. I sat up, buttoned my shirt, and slung a combat vest over my back. Gun strap around the neck. Magazine in the M-16. A handful of Pringles from the canister sent in a care package from my folks in the States. It was automatic. At 1:45 a.m. my day had begun.

 

Under different circumstances, Gaza could have been marketed as a Mideastern paradise, an unspoiled tropical wonderland of palm trees and sandy beaches. As it stood, a stultifying heat rose each morning from the asphalt roads and life moved at the pace of clopping donkeys, clattering wagons, and sputtering Peugeots with eight people shoved into sedans built for four. But by afternoon a gentle breeze from the sea would push out the hot and revive the spirits of Jew and Arab alike. I watched this cycle for days and weeks and months as the sun set over the Mediterranean in radiant orange and pink, wide as the horizon.

Gradually and near imperceptibly, the glorious backdrop would fade to black, to nights balmy, clear and still. For all its vastness Gaza City didn't seem to offer much in the evening, as least as far as I could tell. Once the sun went down, the traffic petered out. By eight the checkpoint was visited by only a trickle of cars, and by midnight hardly any at all.

Occasionally in hours like these, when everyone else I knew was happily asleep, I would, in spite of my better instincts, allow a simmering resentment to build. My knees were gimpy, my fingers misshapen, and the same feet that had once "Walked for Israel" down Hunter Avenue on Israeli Independence Day were now flattened and sore. While my fellow marchers were off developing their minds at college, I was developing shin splints. Everything I had been taught, my entire life - had been predicated on playing a part in the greatest Jewish drama, but when the curtains opened, I was the only one on stage. Many soldiers felt the same burn, and half-seriously referred to themselves as frierim, the dreaded suckers of Israeli society who give without getting. Everyone had friends or cousins who had air-conditioned army day jobs and in the evenings studied or earned money. Many swore that they would leave combat for good, but I doubted that if given the opportunity they would follow through on the threat. Something, if only a dulled, inarticulate patriotism, set them apart. For me, there was a connection to the land. I had arrived a tourist and a stranger, but as I traversed the country in uniform, sleeping on its ground, finding protection behind its boulders, guarding its inhabitants--somewhere along the line I had made the desert and the stones and the hardened people my own, and they had become home as surely as the world I left behind.

But while I loved the land and its people enough to soldier on its behalf, a military life held no joy. I pined to leave Gaza behind, not moment to moment like some of the others but rather like a low, constant flame, somewhere not in the front or back of my mind but always hovering about the middle. In wistful memories I would recall civilian life and wish I were anywhere else. Given as I was to idle dreams and what-if speculations, I was, above all, well-trained, and occasionally even still motivated by a sense of duty, and so I placidly obeyed orders given by officers no older than myself--20-year-olds straining to make their voices as deep and authoritative as possible--and on this night dutifully took my place at the checkpoint at the appointed time. The soldier I replaced was elated to see me approach and, after providing a cursory debriefing, made a weary beeline for the tent.

Several minutes later, my guarding partner, Eisenbach, trudged forth from the tents like a small child reluctant to go to school. He relieved a scrawny, olive-complexioned soldier named Baruch, whose wrinkled brows met above the nose as he cursed and snarled at my partner for being late. After eight hours on one's feet, any additional delay was a particularly cruel breach of soldiering etiquette. Easily outraged even in causes far less just, Baruch gathered angry momentum by the second. Expletives flew from his mouth at a rapid-fire pace. He might even have attacked Eisenbach physically if he'd felt he had a chance; Baruch professed to be a fighter. He once claimed to have stabbed a classmate who had offended his girlfriend. The army was good for him. Elsewhere in the world, a guy like him--from a disadvantaged neighborhood, utterly without direction or guidance--would be on the street corner. But here he learned to take orders without considering it an affront to his pride. It took some breaking in. There were some wild scenes in the beginning of basic training: attempts to run away, outbursts of rage, while Baruch was made to understand the concept of obeying an order. Some guys never figured it out and ended up back on the streets. But Baruch was a success story. A crude, vulgar success, but a success nonetheless. He could still be unpleasant, but now that we were 12 months into our service, the rage with which he arrived had dissipated amidst a world of circumscription. Lingering a brief while longer to pay a last volley of tribute to Eisenbach's mother, the righteously aggrieved Baruch finally hustled away.

Eisenbach had let the words wash over him without offering a defense. He sniffed and twisted his face as if he'd inhaled something particularly pungent, then gave me a wink. The soccer game Maccabi Tel Aviv had played against a French team that evening was on his mind to the exclusion of all else. Three minutes before defending his country, he had been deftly working his neon green cellular phone to find a friend who could provide a final score. But there was no explaining this to a guy like Baruch, who came from a gritty little town so deep in the Negev desert it was said that he found traffic lights dazzling. So Eisenbach had said nothing.

Still pumped and flushed from his unsuccessful efforts to find a score, Eisenbach explained to me in passionate tones the significance of this missing piece of information. I nodded and halfheartedly grunted at appropriate intervals. Eisenbach had the innocent flaw of being overly excitable, but I liked him well enough. He had lost his first name early in basic training and no one had bothered to find it. Tall, barrel-chested and broad-shouldered, with a blond crewcut and a complexion even lighter than my own, he looked to me like someone with whom I could have played basketball back at the Jewish Community Center. The similarity of the gene pool was unmistakable, though his great-grandparents had zigged to Israel while mine zagged to the States. Eisenbach's family was what passed for landed gentry in this country, descendants of German Jews who escaped in the 30s and in their orderly way forged businesses out of the sand and stones and became the ruling class, living in high-rises overlooking the sea.

Eisenbach was oblivious to his distinguished pedigree. Still lost in a world of sports, he leaned against a waist-high concrete block and silently joined me in the exercise of staring out into the nothing of a quiet, pockmarked two-lane road.

In the year our troop had been together, I'd learned to get along with everyone at some level. The realities of army life demanded this. But Eisenbach was one of the few I liked. Besides what I imagined to be our common ancestry, we had little in common, but he never teased me about my accent and never asked incredulously why I had left America. Moreover, as a soldier he was adequate, which appealed to my sense of both personal and national security. If Eisenbach did not stand out by any of the barometers by which soldiers are judged, it was due to a lack of interest rather than capability. I had witnessed firsthand that he could be smooth and powerful on the basketball court. The nuances of soldiering, however, seemed simply to bore him. I could see why. No rush of competition could be derived from a military life. Winning meant lasting the three-year hitch without coming to irreversible bodily harm.

 

It was time to get comfortable. I started my routine of settling in for an eight-hour shift. First I cracked every joint in my body, from neck to toe. Then I cleaned up the candy wrappers left by the previous shift. I've always liked order. Though I anticipated no danger, I offered a hasty prayer, as I always did, that my shift be uneventful and safe. More than most soldiers, I felt certain, I was deeply and shamefully terrified of the idea of an unplanned death. Not the dying part. I told myself that whether or not I died was out of my control. This matter I was resigned to leave to the hands of God. The real problem was that my nerves were shot from not knowing when my moment of death might arrive.

This uncertainty gave me no peace. If I was going, I needed to know when. I wanted to be thinking the right thoughts, making peace with the world I would leave behind. Thinking that this might not happen caused my palms to sweat and my stomach to churn at the slightest hint of conflict. It was somehow very important to me to leave on good terms. I worried that I would die without being ready, and even more seriously, that my martial ideological moorings were weak, that the willingness that had been burned into me to sacrifice my life for a higher cause was a transparent hoax.

Of course, I spoke of this with no one. Talk of death was impossible, it was far beyond all bounds of soldierly discourse. Yet death was always present. In Lebanon, it had hung in the air all winter, a whisper that mingled uneasily with the long hours spent staring out at stunningly beautiful hills from behind a reinforced fiberglass guard post. Our unit had been spared casualties then, but the unit that replaced us lost three to mortar fire in its first week. I took this as a sign that our unit was being looked out for, and reasoned that if I could make it through the Hizbollah-heavy north, Gaza would be less frightening.

On most nights, this seemed true. There wouldn't be much to do that evening; raffic would be sparse, mostly young men out to find a bar or restaurant on a different part of the Strip. These groups had the misfortune of belonging to a demographic sector of which the army was wary. When stopped at the checkpoint, they would smile and joke, even half-seriously invite me along on their adventures ("Sure," I would say, "just a second, let me go put down my gun.") but I never knew what they were thinking, and my job was to assume the worst. Some would be friendly, others would at least smile but always one sat in stony silence. Was one of them an aspiring terrorist? The friendly one? The stern one? Neither? Every car triggered a hundred subtle evaluations. It was an awesome responsibility that in time grew routine. On a still night it was easier to sniff out trouble. Days were harder. Daytime in Gaza meant pies of donkey dung steaming on the highway and blue trails of exhaust from cheap cars. It was a blur of honking horns and volatile strangers, punctuated by the consumption of several liters of tepid plastic canteen water. In the oppressive heat of day the struggle to stay sharp and hard presented a substantial challenge.

The night, on the other hand, was peaceful and resplendent in its stillness. I could hear the soothing sound of Mediterranean waves timidly breaking on the soft sand. Scanning the road in front of me about a football field away, I saw the three Palestinian police on duty. Two were playing backgammon while a third spoke loudly and occasionally rocked his head back in laughter. My eyes impatiently flitted from shadow to shadow, like a fly looking to land. I grew tired, my shoulders slouched and my head became numb with exhaustion. I wafted into a state of half-consciousness, a state of selective alertness that often mercifully appeared to shepherd me through the small hours.

I heard a rattling engine, and consciousness scrambled back into my body. The sight of approaching cars made me spring upright. The first car, a Peugeot holding three middle-aged men, conscientiously turned off its headlights as it neared, and Eisenbach and I let them through with only perfunctory questioning. The next car, a battered white Subaru, held a man and a small child. Probably okay, but sometimes people used little kids to get around the restriction on driving alone. Sometimes you'd see the same kid going back and forth for hours, each time in a different car. Upon questioning the man asserted that he and his nephew were returning from a visit to relatives. Though he seemed pleasant enough, when I asked him to get out and open his trunk he did so with a suddenness and briskness that made my heart well up for just a moment with fear. But the trunk was empty, and as the man pulled away I cursed myself for not being able to control my emotions.

A few minutes later an army patrol jeep pulled up from behind, tires snapping the loose gravel. A life-sized plastic turtle dangled from a string tied to the rear-view mirror, bobbing and staring defiantly as it twirled. Four reservists piled out: an Ethiopian, a Druse tracker and two Russians: a squat, muscular driver with a huge squashed nose and a tall, balding man who made loud stretching noises, farted with gusto, and pulled elbows behind his head one by one. The tracker cursed the cold in Arabic-flavored Hebrew. He pulled out a thermos and began serving coffee: nasty, bitter stuff that kept one awake more from its aftertaste than its caffeine. Meanwhile, the two Russians spoke animatedly amongst themselves, then abruptly addressed me.

"How old do you think he is?" asked the driver from under a woolen Chicago Bulls hat, gesturing toward the Ethiopian.

I narrowed my eyes and scratched the prickly back of my head. I looked to where Eisenbach had been standing. He was off eating cookies and talking soccer with the Druse in the back of the jeep.

"Around 40," I guessed, though I would have believed 30 or 50. The Russians laughed.

"So how old is he?" I asked.

"He doesn't know."

I turned to the Ethiopian, who flashed a broad, peaceful smile, and asked him how that came to pass.

"Do you know your age?" he responded.

"Yes."

"Cause your parents told you, right? Well, my parents never told me."

"Didn't you ask?"

"It never occurred to me to ask," he said with an even broader smile. "It's not important anyway. You live as long as you can, and then God takes you, nothing you can do. Doesn't matter to Him how many years you have."

Not knowing how to argue, I let it go. The patrol jeep sped off, the Russians hooting and riding the ageless Ethiopian. I returned to my post, leaning against a concrete slab, and tried to discern movement from the edges of town. I glanced at my watch, not at the time but the date. September, I decided, was moving much too slow. Even my next furlough, tenuously slated for a week from Thursday, brought me no comfort. In the beer commercials I'd watched growing up, the Marine arriving home for the holidays would swagger up to the front porch of his boyhood home fresh from some swampy boot camp, gleaming and decked out in his finest. Casually he would lower his bag onto the front lawn and run to the porch for a bear-hug from his tearful mother while a wide-eyed little brother and family dog circled at their heels. When I went home I was met, if I was met at all, by a pre-med student roommate from Argentina who never did dishes and stole my food. I grimaced at the thought of it all, and then, addled by sleeplessness, I began to drift off.

I slipped into a hallucinatory state. Juvenile thoughts of revenge for long-ago slights, scathing reprimands to hated enemies, moments of imagined triumph and faint memories of grade-school friends - all looped again and again, jostling for air time. All the names and faces of childhood danced before me. There was the grass-streaked and lumpy third base I'd patrolled in Yiddel League (the Sunday answer to its gentile counterpart). Then I saw my black neighbors who lived in a house whose lawn was cluttered with old furniture but inside held delightful, forbidden aromas. There I'd go to trade baseball cards with Kenny on a lazy Saturday afternoon, greeted as I approached by Kenny's gray-haired father who never failed to look up from the car he washed religiously to wish me a "Good Shabbes". Then, I was on the Blue Line, staring out a grimy, dirt-streaked subway car window on the way downtown. I knew the station names by heart, and at each stop I would see the predominant ethnic group board and fleetingly entertain a supposition that I knew what it was like to live in their neighborhood and share their daily routine. Next I was at a weekend in the mountains with the local synagogue youth group, suffering miserable food and over-spirited counselors for the privilege of feebly courting Deborah Wassermann, who shot me looks of such unmistakable apathy, perhaps even loathing, that just thinking about it made me wince and want to disappear all over again.

I wondered whether these daydreams - the whole crazy sequence of inputs - were somehow necessary for me to reach this point - lord of a pitted Gazan road. Something had propelled me far away, yet even here I was still finding myself propelled by a strange brew of idealism, fear-masking machismo and a dread of ending up like my uncle. Artie was a lawyer who made bundles on medical malpractice. I didn't begrudge him his wealth, but I couldn't understand how Artie could sit in the same seat in synagogue ever since I was a kid and tell the same dirty jokes to every bar mitzvah boy for the next 30 years as he had for the last 30 years and never seem to be the slightest bit alarmed at the prospect of living and dying in Teaneck, New Jersey.

"I hope I get out for Yom Kippur", Eisenbach volunteered.

His voice jolted me out of my reverie. "Why?" Eisenbach was secular to the core.

Eisenbach explained how all his friends congregated at a well-known Tel Aviv bridge each year on that day to sing, play guitar and be mellow. "No food, of course," he added with a grin.

"Do you ever go to synagogue?" I asked.

"My dad would take my brother and I when we were kids, but now he doesn't bother. Anyway, that kind of stuff doesn't interest me now. Maybe later, when I'm old."

When I'm old. We were twenty, tough and indestructible. We'd been trained to view ten minutes as an eternity, and to that end had spent months performing nearly every conceivable activity, from showers to meals, in increments of 10 seconds. Old age was 30, married with children, a concept as abstract as death.

 

Around 4 a.m. the chilly autumn night turned cooler, beating down from a cloudless sky. It was the cold of the desert, the cold of outer space, unfiltered and raw. Though a year of open-air living had made me near impervious to the chill, I deferentially rolled down my sleeves. The quiet was broken by the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, but Gaza City lay motionless, not yet stirring, not yet humming. It was the uneasy peace of watching a sleeping child who was a rambunctious terror when awake.

Just as the muezzin died down and the lull of night began to re-stake its claim, a roar arose from up the road. Out of the night appeared a gray Mercedes, moving quickly toward us, much too quickly, ignoring the checkpost warning line a hundred feet ahead. As bright headlights bore down on me, I instinctively flicked my gun's setting off "safety". My elbows locked and my palms began to sweat.

Everything about the car, from its disregard for the iron rules of military checkpoint law to its defiantly smooth engine, screamed trouble and made me nervous. In the ensuing seconds, I tried to formulate a plan as to what I'd do if the car didn't stop. I wondered if this was the suicide bomber I'd been warned about, and if this was what it was like to die at random on a singularly unexceptional night. My parents, brushing their teeth before bedding down back in Teaneck: would they feel a mysterious twinge? My sister, spending a year at a seminary in Jerusalem: would she bolt upright in her dorm room bed, screaming, as if waking from a horrific dream? Was I going to learn the secret? Was there a special reward for going out like this? Zionist mythology said it was good to die for your country. Hardly anyone believed that now. I had thought myself fortunate, perhaps more fortunate than the others, in that my outlook did not hinge on Zionism, but what I hoped was an overarching love for my people than transcended nationalism and sectarianism. But at that moment there was nothing, no ideas and no isms, just watching the situation develop and feebly hoping that this was not It.

As the car grew nearer, however, my paralysis was outranked by rote training, and I assumed a shoot-to-kill stance, Eisenbach and I menacingly pointing our guns. The car stopped with a reluctant screech less than two meters in front of us. In the driver's seat sat a bare-headed, middle-aged Arab man with a thick mustache and a gold watch. In the passenger seat sat a bored-looking woman, stiffly staring straight ahead as if stopped at a traffic light about to turn green. She had sleek black eyes, candy red lips and was all the more striking for having her hair uncovered in a town where few did so. I positioned myself outside her open car door window and watched her pretend not to notice me.

Eisenbach approached the driver with an upturned palm and an outraged expression that asked "What the hell did you think you were doing?" His left hand clenched his gun handle and his right index finger wagged at the driver.

"It's okay," the driver said stiffly. "I'm going back to Khan Yunis."

Eisenbach demanded to see ID. The Arab avoided eye contact with him and instead sneaked a glance at his passenger, who seemed to be ignoring both him and the current situation. He pulled out his wallet and handed Eisenbach a laminated sheet. Eisenbach glanced at it and handed it back.

"Mustafa," he pronounced gingerly. He tried to think of what to say next. After a few false starts he continued. "You come flying in here like you're on the highway. You're lucky we didn't shoot you," he said, his voice rising with every word.

At this, the man clenched the steering wheel and bolted upright in his seat, as if suddenly recognizing his predicament.

"I'm lucky?" he said, seething. "You bastard kids. You're nothing. Who are you? You have guns, you think that makes you something. You're donkey dung." With a smirk he settled back in his seat. The driver-side window was shut in Eisenbach's face with a smooth hum. He seemed ready to wait us out.

I tensed, anticipating a fight. As was often the case in these parts, confrontation often seemed more like bravado-laced brawls than the stuff of war. This one I sensed we were losing. Eisenbach and I were younger, less patient, and to my mind, more scared. Surprising even myself, I slammed my hand on the hood. With an index finger I indicated that a U-turn to Gaza City was in order, and tried unconvincingly to say as much in pathetic barked Arabic. Mustafa raised his eyebrows and shook his head like a man who had seen something he couldn't quite believe, but made no other gesture. Twenty tense seconds passed.

"Yalla, turn around" I said, and tapped on the hood. No way could we let him through now, thinking he'd mouthed off to an Israeli soldier and gotten away with it. I rapped on his windshield. "Turn around," I repeated slowly, in English this time in hopes of drawing his attention.

Mustafa seemed not to notice. Nothing was breaking the deadlock, and the quiet was just making things worse. In an attempt to reassert authority, Eisenbach forced Mustafa to roll back down his window. He began to recount to the driver the wrongdoings of the past few minutes. Mustafa said nothing but tensed his arms against the steering wheel. As Eisenbach spoke, the driver's eyes darted about and his mouth tensed on one side as he emitted a growl that metamorphosed into a shout.

"Go to hell, you bastards!" Mustafa's look had grown wilder, and even the woman put a restraining hand on his shoulder. He tried to push open his door, and Eisenbach, suddenly deadly serious for the first time since I'd known him, immediately kicked it shut with a thick black boot.

"Bastards!" He lurched forward and groped under his seat. I cocked my weapon, the woman opened her mouth to scream and Eisenbach speared the butt of his M-16 through the open window squarely into Mustafa's jaw.

 

The woman's scream never emerged. Instead she cradled Mustafa's bloodied head in her lap and whimpered. For a minute, they huddled together, Mustafa buried in her embrace, the woman never taking her eyes off Eisenbach. Her glare was hate and fury. Sobbing and fumbling, she turned on the ignition and straddled her leg around the front seat hump, straining to reach the gas pedal. From the passenger seat she performed an awkward U-turn, heading back toward Gaza City. Eisenbach was scowling, seething. His massive frame had narrowed into nearly nothing as he crouched in the middle of the street, face buried in his hands, his gun carelessly slung behind his back, pointed at the ground. He appeared hopelessly distant, overwhelmed and alone behind a transparent wall. I had nothing on which to anchor my spinning mind. I imagined I could feel my brain pulsating. I finally fixed on my grandmother's TV. When the electrical storms intensified on Florida summer evenings, my grandmother and I would often walk into the house after a backyard picnic to find the TV had turned on by itself and was endlessly ripping through dozens of channels in a ceaseless cycle. Seeing that used to frighten me when I was younger, and I was always secretly grateful when my grandmother would laugh and turn it off.

As rattled as I was, and despite not knowing what to say, I felt an urge to do something--anything--to break the quiet and wrestle the situation back into normalcy.

"You all right?" I finally asked.

He nodded. He wasn't all right at all, in ten minutes he hadn't moved from his crouch. I went with the reassuring mode. "Look," I said, "who knows what he could have done? He was pissed." Eisenbach rose to his full height and slammed a fist into a palm. Looking me dead in the eye he asked, "Why did he have to pull that crap?"

I had no answers, for him or for myself. Nothing about this fighting made sense. In the space of 30 minutes, my reality had become unhinged by fear, leaving only a primeval confusion and doubt. I imagined the woe of God's first sinners, punished with the realization that life could have been essentially simple and pure but would be no longer. Maybe Eisenbach had saved our lives, maybe he'd overreacted horribly. It occurred to me that in our shock, neither of us had bothered to verify what Mustafa had been reaching for. Silence droned on a while longer. Finally an altogether new voice answered from somewhere within me, as if detached from its source. "I don't know. I really don't."

 

We stared over the horizon. Night was giving way to day. Tendrils of light blue streaked the eastern sky. Soon it would be light, and I knew that the day would be tense all over the country once the Palestinian police took a look at Mustafa's face. Word would spread. Newspapers would report that Israeli soldiers bloodied a pillar of the community on his way home. And maybe this would be the event to trigger the gunfight that always seemed around the corner, the bloody war that would kill those who at this hour were still sleeping soundly, limp and unaware that they were waking for their final day.

Or maybe it would be just another morning, with wagon drivers rumbling past in rickety carriages and the local kids heading out early to fish in the sea and trap birds, while weary soldiers watched the day break one more time over the anguished land, knowing full well that there would be nothing new under the rising sun.

 

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