What’s between ‘Heidi, Girl of the Alps’ and an Army Platoon Brotherhood?
In 2018 I traveled to northern Greece to meet my army platoon brothers for our 40th-year reunion. We spent eight days driving a convoy of SUVs up in the mountains. I was curious to meet them, 40 years is a good chunk in people’s lives, and I have not witnessed many of them from close-up, as I have been mostly away.
In August 1978, we joined the IDF – Israel Defense Forces. We volunteered to become paratroopers. There were 20 soldiers that initially formed our platoon; a few dropped or got kicked out. We believed in what Israel stood for, and thus we had a tremendous ambition to excel. Paratroopers are trained to be fighters, to master, and successfully execute combat missions. We learned how to jump from airplanes with heavy equipment, how to set up night ambushes, and as a medic, I learned how to stay steady while treating fellow soldiers under fire. It was and still is a source of great pride and honor to have partaken in this elite combat unit. I vividly remember wearing the red beret and the Paratrooper’s unique class A uniform, feeling like a peacock – the king of the world.
Our convoy stopped for a break, somewhere high in the mountains, facing a breathtaking scenery of uninterrupted horizon line, and far away lays a body of water; the colors were a mix of gray-blue and green. I looked at this bunch of guys and wondered about our bond. A pot of water was placed on a small camping stove; someone had matches, and holla, coffee was brewing. Of course, only a few are certified experts to be in charge of this highly culinary pursuit. I was left to think as we sat around on the ground or rocks and waited. Is it love? I thought, yaa, but love is easy with these guys. We all changed and mellowed. The interior thickness is mostly gone; we smile more; each one of us is on some kind of a spiritual path. I looked at them; 40 years ago, we looked alike in our kaki uniforms; we were fit and agile. I was never the strongest nor the fastest, more like a cat. I was an outsider among these earthy farm boys, a city boy who loved to read and had a heavier toiletry bag. I was not liked by all of them, but I learned that you could never be. Now, look at them, each in his own outfit’s color; they are like big old bears, overweight and bald. Life takes its toll. I just ended a three-year-long dance with cancer. Must be something more than just love. The coffee was ready; the scent was tempting; small espresso caps appeared from nowhere. I took a sip. It was bitter, thick, and muddy; I am not a fan. And as it goes, on occasion such as this, the good storytellers start talking, and the rest listened and laughed.
A children’s book, written over 100 years ago, named Heidi, Girl of the Alps, is a novel about an orphan girl raised by her grandfather in the Swiss Alps. Heidi was friendly and loved by all. She was attached to her mountain surroundings, and her cheerful attitude helped heal her disabled, sick friend Clara.
One night, 40 years ago, during our grueling training to become paratroopers, our brutal platoon sergeant commanded us to venture on a night march in search of Heidi while engaging in the Fireman’s Carry Position. This technique allows one person to carry another without assistance by placing the carried person across the carrier’s shoulders. We searched and looked for Heidi, walking and carrying each other, but she was nowhere to be found. Needless to say, this ordeal was physically exhausting and emotionally draining.
At some point, one of us, who is a brilliant joker to this day, started shouting: “Heidi, you mother fucker, where are you? C’mon show up, you whore, daughter of a whore…” and so it went on and on. For which we were punished and had to march even further into the night. When the story was told, I was rolling with laughter; you know, the kind of loud, uncontrollable laughter that makes your belly hurt. Some of my bodies grind their teeth; others muttered some foul language. Underneath, we all shared a deep, untreated pain of being humiliated.
Sometimes, I find myself thinking about this and other episodes, and a deep sense of anger flushes through me. I am grateful I was not the man I am today because my reaction would have been devastating. I would refuse, say no, punch him in the face; I don’t know, one can’t tell. We were such good kids, eager and motivated. We just took it all in. Some say that overcoming this sergeant made us the excellent soldiers we were and maybe the men we became. I won’t argue with that, but I will say that there is a gap between proper training and hazing.
At the end of the trip, our veteran tour guide reflected that in over 20 years, he has never witnessed a similar group dynamic that we exhibited and that he hoped we come out of this trip lighter. I don’t know if we healed, but for me, sharing the pain, finding that I was not alone, and the laughter makes it a bit more tolerable. Maybe, at last, we found Heidi.
Four decades later, these are still some of my best friends. The kind of friends that will take your call any time of the day and say, here I am!