Going home for the weekend is at once the most feared and desired part of basic training. Thanks to the Nachal Brigade's relatively low overhead (Golani and Paratroopers are said to be the two brigades with money), most weekends in basic training are spent at home. Getting home, a goal that soldiers fantasize over all week, means ensuring that all our gear is safely locked away on base. Sounds reasonable. Except for reasons that no grunt could possibly understand, our commanders succeed in transforming packing up our gear into the most dreaded of weekly rituals.
The terror to come begins with the most disarming of gifts. On Thursday evening we are sent to bed before nine o'clock. Army rules require seven hours of sleep before weekend leaves, one hour more than the usual six to ensure that sleep deprived soldiers do not get into driving accidents on their first night back. Everyone goes to sleep with a content smile on their face. Tomorrow we will be at home. And tonight we are already slipping into our sleeping bags, the activity soldiers cherish more than anything else. (When friends ask what I like most about the army, the answer is easy: going to sleep in my thick IDF issue American Army sleeping bag).
Suddenly it is three am. The wake-up cry is sounded. No, insists the terrible cold, the wet darkness and the unrequited love of my sleeping bag. And yet we are already moving, rushing to stand attention in our flimsy green uniforms. Our officers wear their tan dress uniforms, mocking the fact that us grunts have hours of sweaty work before we too switch colors ("switch colors" is Air Force slang for switching from tan dress to green field uniforms, a phrase that plays up the fact that our dress uniforms--unlike the rest of the IDF sans the navy-- are a separate color).
As we stand there shivering in the predawn chill, our commanders facetiously insist that if only we give our all and work with our heads, all our gear can be packed away in under an hour. We know that the work really should only take an hour. Yet we also know that the buses will not arrive until eight AM. And so we know that our commanders will find the necessary excuses to keep us repeating the same senseless tasks for hours. The standard routine is to have us move, say our mattresses, from one point to another in an impossibly limited period of time. If the mattresses are not perfectly lined up at the end of the given time, then boom, the whole routine starts from the beginning. Over and over and over.
Changing into our dress uniforms, after the last storage bin has been emptied and organized for the tenth time, is small reason to rejoice. IDF tradition places some bizarre merit in quickly switching in and out of military uniform. And so the simple act of switching from our field greens to our dress tans is repeated endlessly under crazy time allowances. Few guys can un/dress fast enough, meaning when the allotted time runs out (respecting time, remember, comes before anything else), half the guys are usually standing at attention in socks or with their pants around their legs.
The Friday morning charade is really only so terrible because the wonderland of civilian life is so close we can almost taste it. As Harvey Dent said, the night is always darkest just before the dawn. Watching an endless line of coach buses arrive on base is euphoric. Stepping inside them is bliss. And waving shabbat shalom to my guys as I wade through the swarm of soldiers trying to board buses at the Beer-Sheva bus station is a taste of heaven.
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