Saturday, August 14, 2010

American Eagle is Down!

The night began with a toast. Two dozen glasses were raised at the foot of Mount Carmel as each member of my squad was granted the name of a Haganah legend. My radio call-sign for all future navigation exercises would be Gandhi, the nom de guerre for the slain Israeli minister and former military icon Rehavam Ze'evi. The naming was our unit's way of commemorating the start of the solo-navigation exercises that my squad had begun earlier in the week. With more than twenty weeks of solo-navigating to go, our toast was a small testament to the importance the unit places on insuring its commandos know the lay of the land.

Toast complete, the real commemorative work began in earnest. While tonight's navigation exercises was to test my ability to navigate across the Carmel mountain range, I would first have to get to the planned start location atop the mountain. In a surprise announcement, my officer declared that per tradition everyone had less than two hours to get to the top. Footpaths of any kind were forbidden. One look at the thick undergrowth that blanketed the steep ascent gave me a good idea of what to expect. So much for lessons learned, I thought, as I tugged my fifty pound pack close and set off up the mountain.

Scaling the Carmel in less than two hours was epic. The real drama came hours later when calamities of every kind forced the supervising staff to finally suspend the all-night exercise. While the abrupt end of the final navigation of the week left everyone disappointed, my distress was nothing compared to what I felt five nights earlier at the tragic fall from grace of the American Eagle.

No one in my squad could match the enthusiasm I felt when our first week of solo navigation finally arrived. Despite an uneven performance in prior navigation exercises, my natural self-confidence and passion for the art of navigation left me convinced I had the potential to now excel. My conviction was rewarded early when I aced the obligatory oral walk-through everyone must pass before a navigation exercise. As the night-long navigation got underway, the sight of two dozen radio antennas bobbing off into the Galilee hillsides gave me a final surge of excitement. American Eagle is good to go, I radioed in, trying out my new call sign for the first time as I ascended into the darkness.

All was well as I neared the halfway point several hours later. Then disaster struck. The halfway marker, a jug of water with a glowing stick-light, was nowhere to be seen. Hours later I finally discovered the missing marker some fifty yards from where I had first realized I was in trouble. With little time left to collect the remaining points (confused? check this out), I slipped into navigation crisis mode. One thing led to another and a short time later I decided to take a shortcut through a dark slice of undergrowth in the hollow of a sharp valley.

Big mistake. Trapped in complete darkness, breaking through the rope like vines and their inch long thorns became an apocalyptic struggle. The vines and branches within the hollow tore me up in their vise-like grip. I crawled on all fours. I fell from trees. My reality became a sea of thorns reaching out from the darkness, refusing to let me go. My own private Fire Swamp, except with no Buttercup (or maybe I was the princess bride?!) at my side to stave off the nightmare.

Online image that gives a sense of where I was

Worse news greeted me on the other side of the undergrowth. Equipment was missing from my vest (the ripped cords that had secured the equipment to my vest testified to the violence of the vines), ten-foot high thorned bushes blocked any forward progress, and my radio could not work from this low vantage point. Needing desperately to radio in a status report, I was forced to turn back and make a second go through the dreaded hollow.

By the time I succeeded in raising my commander on the radio, my skin and gear were in a sorry state. My arms, hands and face were covered in angry red lines, criss-crossing every which way like Ishmael's cannibal friend. All of my missing gear was quickly recovered after a brief search in the early morning. One of the guys who swung by to help in the search sized up the ground I had covered and declared it was without a doubt the meanest looking undergrowth in northern Israel.

My commander wasted no time in ripping me apart over my decision to enter the undergrowth. What he could not understand, and what I could not find the words to explain, is why I did not immediately turn back after realizing the enormity of the challenge that breaking through the vines entailed. The gloom played a role in convincing me the hollow was not as bad as it was. Yet my own pride, a mix of stubbornness and curiosity, is really what drove me on. I felt fated to test myself against the darkness.

My commander's rebuke barely touched my own devastation. I was torn by the knowledge that I had bungled a navigation that had been in the palm of my hand. One slip up by the halfway point, a fateful decision to enter the undergrowth, and the golden chance of having a stellar week was forever lost.

My loss was put into concrete terms the next day. For the rest of the week, I would not be allowed to navigate alone. Keeping me company would be a guy from our squad whose slow return from injury prevented him from navigation by himself. Any chance at proving myself in solo-navigating would have to await the future.

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