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THE MEMORY OF HELICOPTERS 

    Translated from Hebrew by Alan Sacks


One morning late in 1984, I drove around Mt. Carmel through lower Haifa to meet a convoy for a long tour of reserve duty in South Lebanon. The sky was blue, the sea green and the mountain crags gray. The houses of Haifa gleamed in their whiteness while the late summer flowers made borders of intense colors along the roads. It was impossible to believe a war was going on somewhere. A small, cruel war raging not far from the fragrant Carmel. Close by, across the gorgeous Bay of Acre, below the Sulam-Tyre ridge shimmering on the horizon. 

Like a band of messengers bearing fateful news, a flock of pelicans flew past the lighthouse at Stella Maris. The flapping of their wings was slow and heavy in the still, thick air. Led northward by their trailblazer,  the birds flew tirelessly in V-formation towards their destination. As I drove beneath the flock of pelicans, I felt myself one of them. I, too, was the bearer of evil news. Perhaps I, too, was a pelican, forced by injured wings to race on the roads below in hope of keeping up with them. Although the roof of my car sometimes hide the pelicans from me, I knew that I was flying with them, soaring as they did in a bubble of warm air. I am both the bearer and receiver of tidings. Like them, I look down on anything approaching. In an instant, I can even see my own fate, just as the poet succinctly put it: 

     "Two hundred pelicans fly Over the Stella Maris lighthouse,
     Slowly beating their wings in the day's thick air..."

Suddenly, a streaking, shrieking helicopter roared down out of the deep blue summer sky. Cruelly, savagely, heedless of everything, it tore through the flock of pelicans. The helicopter came from the north, its metal belly loaded with casualties from Lebanon, wounded men facing imminent death, none of them sure he would live another hour or survive the operating table. 

Just as in those distant verses, poems that linger like refugees from other, faraway wars. Poems of lamentation borne within us since we heard them as children many years before. Melancholy poems whose lines long ago sealed a young soldier's fate. This is the poem's hero and its raison d'etre. The poet already knows the bitter news. The musicians who play the song also know it. Those who hear it by campfire around the country know it, too. All of them know what he still does not: that his fate has been determined. Only he alone still stands in the poem, a living, innocent, unblemished lad who knows nothing of what the far-seeing, observe and proclaim. Nor can he guess what the bearers of ill news see, the soaring flock of pelicans above, or what the anonymous poet already suspects at the end of the poem:

"Suddenly, their line is broken.
The terrifying, whirling helicopter
Scatters their feathers to the winds..."
On my way to the bus parking lot bustling with reserve troops at the battalion departure point, with the helicopter still in view and the swirling pelican feathers slowly floating earthward around me, I recalled something a friend had told me some years earlier. He was studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem at the time, during the War of Attrition of 1968-1970. His small apartment on the fringe of the Givat-Ram student dormitories seemed to be an indispensable landmark for helicopters ferrying casualties from the Jordan Valley. They would burst across the Jordan, the barrier between us and the search operations in the hostile Samarian desert. Day and night, during and after classes, the helicopters zoomed over his apartment, rattling windows and jolting the ever-compassionate hearts of those souls rushing to the emergency landing pads at the huge Hadassah Hospital in Ein-Kerem. 

The thunder of helicopters passing over the Givat-Ram campus greatly disturbed him. Some days, he resolved to quit his studies in Jerusalem and go back down to the coastal plain where no such frightful racket agitated normal life. There, one could live totally oblivious to the brutal War of Attrition being fought on the borders. One could pray there without needing to look up at a helicopter or to wonder, heart in moth, whether a dear friend lay among the airborne casualties. 

"In fear of the whirling helicopter
Desperately, frantically seeking
The bright center of the square,
The compact landing zone
At "Rambam" Hospital on the sea...."
I had served in Lebanon. I'd seen the things that soldiers see in and after war. I'd escorted endless convoys around the clock across the wicked roads of southern Lebanon. I'd certainly had the same feelings felt by every previous convoy escort. And yet, I couldn't shake off the memory of those disparate helicopters picking a path like terrified blind men, groping in panic for a route to the tightly-drawn landing zone outside Rambam Hospital, where low summer waves serenely rolled in over the deep blue sea. The memory of those helicopters suddenly smashing into the exquisitely shaped arrowhead of the roaming pelicans, over the Stella Maris lighthouse and the green Carmel ridge, just won't leave me. It doesn't want to be forgotten. 

Like my friend the student in Jerusalem, I have days when I consider where I can flee to hide from that terrible sound, the clatter of helicopters, dogging me wherever I go. It's as though the pilots on those casualty-laden helicopters need every house in the country as a landmark, as though everyone in Israel must skip a heart beat as they pass overhead like rumbling birds in flight scattering feathers of terror in every direction. 

I remember them now, this long and glorious spring of 1986. I feel again the pain that beset me back then, during the War of Attrition. Just as in the heartfelt lines I suddenly heard late in 1984 as I drove beneath the dense flock of pelicans while hurrying to the departure point for my reserve duty in Lebanon. 

It's unbelievable, simply unbelievable - such a short time ago. Right here, under the glowing, orange wind gauge fluttering on the shore to mark the center of the bright square; the compact helicopter landing pad. It suddenly seems to me that all my life has been squeezed into this landing zone. All my experiences are folded in it between one war and another. There, on the emergency landing zone across from the special doors quickly opening, among the stretcher bearers running like madmen for the ER entrance. Yes, right here: the major medical center of the north known as Rambam, below the Carmel ridge at the water's edge. Haifa, israel, and never-ending war. Unbelievable, I say to myself, as though I were a gliding pelican, a big, roving bird passing over agonizing sights en route to its destination. 
 

Translator's note: Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, named after Rabbi Moses Ben Maimonides, a medieval scholar known as the "Rambam", receives army casualties in the north of Israel.

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