May 27, 2024
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Border patrol at Ramat Golan. Watching the Syrians watching us.

Luxury accommodations at Ramat Golan.

It was in 1982, at the time when PB was decentralizing the traffic department, and before I started working in the steel department, that my wife and I were relaxing at a hotel in the mountains for a vacation.

A group of Israeli army officers, part of a program called “Volunteers for Israel,” had been invited by the hotel owners to talk to the guests about volunteering for a month in Israel, specifically in the Golan Heights area, to temporarily replace men and women in the Israel Defense Forces who had been mobilized for the invasion of Lebanon. Their pitch interested me very much, and with my wife’s consent to my going, I decided to apply, if they would have me. Specifically, they were looking for able-bodied young people, 18 to 35 years old (I was only slightly older—namely, 55), who could either do harvesting on the farms, or if found suitable, serve with the Israeli Army Border Patrol guarding the Syrian front.

I contacted their recruiting office in New York and was turned down for being too old for that type of work. Since I wouldn’t take no for an answer, I did not take this rejection as a final answer. After being turned down on the phone a second time, they finally agreed to meet with me, so that I could convince them that I could be of value to them, despite my age.

I was asked to get a physical by my own doctor and was warned that if accepted, I would need another physical by an army doctor once I arrived in Israel. Based on my doctor’s report, I was accepted and given the discounted airline tickets to Israel. There were about 30 of us from the New York area, to be joined later by others from the Midwest and western US as well as from Europe. In total we were over 100 “boys and girls.” At age 55, I was more than twice the average age of the others.

We were met at the airport in Tel Aviv by General Aharon Davidi, founder of the Parachute Corps of the Israeli Army, who gave us a pep talk about the importance of what we were about to undertake. We were given the choice to either do agricultural work or military duty. The volunteers were needed to harvest the ripening crop and to protect the border, with the regular farm workers and soldiers having been mobilized. The majority, including all of the few other “older” people (in their 40s) chose agricultural work. I chose the military assignment, which depended upon my first passing the army doctor’s physical.

The next day I had a thorough physical examination lasting over two hours. I passed with flying colors, which I had never doubted. The doctor only cautioned me to remember my age, and that I was a volunteer, and that I did not necessarily have to feel that I must keep up with all the youngsters. I thanked him for passing me and then and there made up my mind that whatever the others would be able to do, I would at least try to do as well. I was able to accomplish at least 90 percent of what I had set out to do, only skipping very heavy physical activities, such as running uphill with a full field pack, helmet and rifle, etc.

In view of the fact that I had been in the US Army, I knew from which end of the rifle the bullet would come out and was therefore allowed to help train the other military volunteers in the handling of rifles, machine guns and hand grenades.

We were stationed initially in a tent camp near Hispin in the Golan Heights. Another fellow and I were then assigned to a team of six Israeli soldiers, who lived in a cave dug into the side of a hill a half kilometer from the border, which contained full living quarters and a kitchen for all of us. There were trenches dug into the other side of the hill facing the Syrian Army. It was in those trenches that we spent every waking hour, watching the Syrians and their troop movements for any aggressive intention. In fact, often we would watch them through huge binoculars, only to see them on the other side of the border, watching us with the same type of binoculars (Zeiss, Made in Germany).

None of the Israeli soldiers spoke English. Neither of us spoke Hebrew. But we managed somehow to make ourselves understood and learned to follow instructions. Toward the end of our stay there, the emergency that had been caused by the invasion into Lebanon was declared over, and we were able to assist the crew in dismantling the station, packing up rifles, machine guns, cases of hand grenades, binoculars and kitchen gear, while at the same time always being on the lookout for tarantulas. Tarantulas love hand grenades. They were always hiding underneath cases filled with hand grenades just waiting for one of us to pick up a case.

(To be continued next week)

By Norbert Strauss

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