Monday, November 16, 2009

Cat in the Water: Pool Test for Search & Rescue Unit

After persevering through a week of pain with the ocean only a sand-dune away, the IDF granted me the chance to finally get into the water. "Consider this day six of Gibush Matkal," a grizzled veteran of the IDF's elite search and rescue unit instructed me and sixty other survivors of last week's grueling tryout. "Today decides whether you make it to Unit 669. Those who want it better give their all in and out of the water."

Candidates selected for Unit 669, the IDF's elite search and rescue unit, at the conclusion of Gibush Matkal must pass an additional one-day tryout in order to make the unit. Since 669 performs a similar function as the US Coast Guard's elite airborne rescue swimmers (ala The Guardian), the extra tryout is designed to check the water based capabilities of candidates. Contrary to expectations, the extra day involves a lot more than channeling your inner Michael Phelps. With only an hour of frantic physical drills in the water, most of the day consists of mental exercises familiar to any veteran of last week's tryout.

My group of twelve guys had little trouble building a rescue device (not that we ever succeeded in doing so in the impossible time limits assigned by our instructors) and speaking extemporaneously about a range of sociopolitical issues. I was really impressed, in fact, by one guy's sophisticated grasp of the Iranian nuclear crisis and by the arguments raised during a group debate about the merits of capital punishment. I was asked to speak about antisemitism, easy enough except for my disastrous attempts to pronounce the Hebrew term, antismi'oot! I was even worse at two knot-tying exercises, where an instructor would quickly show us how to tie a complicated knot and then see how fast we could do the same. In my case, how fast was not at all, though I was far from the only one without a knot after the exercise came to a blessed end. My interview with the unit psychologist was far more successful. Interviews are the one big advantage that older, foreign born soldiers like myself have in the army. We simply have so much more to speak about, and our sacrifice and hopefully interview skills put us in another league from most eighteen year old Israelis.

My group was the final one to get in the pool. Once we did, the action came fast and furious. The first exercise was the most complicated: As an instructor in full scuba gear watched, I was tasked with swimming a short distance to a weighted belt that lay on the bottom of the pool. The goal was to unlatch the belt and remove as many of the weights before my breath gave out and I returned to the surface with the belt and any weights I had succeeded in removing. I did not have a choice but to keep my eyes open underwater during the whole drill. The hardest part, harder even than unraveling the weights underwater, was ensuring I properly understood the Hebrew instructions. Before I dove in, the instructor asked if I knew what to do. "I sure hope so," I answered with a smile. Unraveling Hebrew instructions, I quickly learned, is much more critical when a drill takes place on your own and underwater rather than amid a crowd on a sand-dune.

Hebrew was also nearly my undoing on the next exercise. With three other guys, I was ordered in the water and told we would be swimming to the far side of the pool and back. So far, so good. But when the instructor barked out "Chazeh, GO!" I was left holding the wall, failing to translate chazeh as 'chest' and use breaststroke like the other guys. The next time around, the instructor looked my way and made a point of waving his arms to demonstrate that front-crawl would be used! Both laps were more akin to an all out sprint than the smooth grace I associate with Olympic swimmers. Although I swam faster than I ever have in my life, my inability to swim in a straight line without goggles left me bouncing off the lane markers during the frantic front-crawl lap.

After two straightforward exercises testing our ability to breathe with a snorkel and to clear the water out of a mask while underwater, one crazy drill remained. Everyone donned heavy rubber orange masks as the instructor explained we would be treading water in a circle, with our hands planted firmly on the shoulders of the guy ahead of us. While I like swimming laps, I am not quite Houdini at holding my breath and taking apart belts underwater. But put me in a group exercise with some random physical challenge and I am in my element. Keeping your head above the water while a pair of hands pull desperately at your shoulders is far messier than it sounds. One by one the guys in my group let go and went under until only half of us were left in the water. I almost let go in the middle, when a pair of thrashing legs opened the ghastly blister Gibush Matkal had bequeathed to my left heel. As legs continued to thrash the now open wound, I reminder myself that quitting was not an option and with a shout of "blood in the water" kept going till time was called.

Maybe the speedos were to blame. Or perhaps fault lies with the awesome guys in my squad, one of whom started rapping "go shawty, its yo birthday" when I was assigned number fifty at the start of the tryout. Or blame the very chill instructors who insisted we call them by their first names. Even the bus driver may have had a hand in making today's "pool tryout" far more relaxed than Gibush Matkal. Before we arrived at the right location in the morning, the bus driver stopped several times to ask members of Moshav Gderot how to get to the swimming pool.

Today was so relaxed, in fact, that it was challenging to take the instructor's opening words to heart and stay focused and give the same level of effort as at Gibush Matkal. Whenever I sensed my own attention drifting, however, I knew I merely had to look around for inspiration at the dozens of cats that, for reasons no one could explain, covered the grounds of the tryout, green orbs focused on the mere mortals that aspired to join their fraternity in Unit 669.


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