“Heidi, Girl of the Alps” and My Platoon Brotherhood: A Story of Enduring Bonds
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 long time in people’s lives, and I hadn’t seen many of them up close since I had been mostly away.
In August 1978, we joined the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as volunteers to become paratroopers. Initially, our platoon consisted of twenty soldiers, a few of whom dropped out or were kicked out along the way. We had a tremendous ambition to excel as we believed in what Israel stood for. Paratroopers are trained to be fighters and 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 view of an uninterrupted horizon line and, far in the distance, a body of water; the colors were a mix of gray-blue and green. I looked at this group of guys and wondered about our bond. Our tour guide placed a pot of water on a small camping stove; someone had matches, and the coffee was brewing. Of course, only a few were certified experts to handle this highly culinary pursuit of making black coffee because it has to be done “correctly.” I was left to my thoughts as we sat around on the ground or rocks and waited. Is it love? I thought, yes, but love comes easily with these guys. We had all changed and mellowed. The interior thickness was mostly gone; we smiled more, and each of us was on some spiritual path. I looked at them; 40 years ago, we had looked alike in our kaki uniforms; we were fit and agile. I had never been the strongest or the fastest, more like a cat. I had been an outsider among these earthy farm boys, a city boy who loved to read and had a heavier toiletry bag. Not all of them liked me, but I learned that you could never be. Now, look at them, each in his own outfit color; they looked like big old bears, overweight and bald. Life takes its toll. I had just ended a three-year-long dance with cancer. It must be something more than just love. The coffee was ready; the scent was seductive. Our tour guide offered small cups; I took a sip; it was bitter, thick, and muddy; I am not a big fan of black coffee. And as it goes, on occasions such as this, the good storytellers began talking, and we all listened.
A century-old children’s book titled “Heidi, Girl of the Alps,” is a novel about an orphaned girl raised by her grandfather in the Swiss Alps. Heidi was warm and well-liked by everyone around her. She was deeply attached to her alpine environment, and her sunny disposition aided in the recovery of her ill and disabled 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, 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 comrades ground their teeth; others muttered some foul language. Underneath, we all shared a deep, untreated pain of being humiliated.
Sometimes, I think about this and other episodes, and a deep sense of anger wells up inside me. I am grateful that I was not the man I am today because my reaction would have been devastating. I would have refused, said no, or even punched our sergeant in the face; I don’t know; one can never 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 even the men we became. I won’t argue with that, but I will say that there is a vast difference between proper training and hazing.
At the end of the trip, our veteran tour guide reflected that, in over 20 years, he had never witnessed a group dynamic like the one we exhibited. He hoped that we would come out of this trip feeling lighter. I don’t know if we managed to heal, but for me, sharing our pain, realizing that we were not alone, and the laughter made it a bit more tolerable. Maybe we found some solace, and maybe, at last, we found Heidi.
Over four decades later, these are still some of my closest friends. The kind of friends who are always there for you and will answer your call any time of day and say, “Here I am!”