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The Silent Liutenant

by Elisha Porat
 

translated from Hebrew by Alan Sacks

    As the Yom Kippur war entered its third week, our platoon deployed along the old border through which the Syrian divisions had burst in their surprise attack. Our mission was to block the Syrian armored groups which, despite losing their tanks, were continuing their attempts to slip into Syrian-controlled territory. We set out towards evening. It was already late October and shadows were falling early. The days were warm and clear, the winds dry and the nights chilly. The fleeing Syrians were making their way all across the sector held by our battalion. Although well-armed and supplied, they were utterly exhausted from the long days of keeping out of sight. Yet hungry and thirsty as they were, for some reason they wouldn't lay down their arms. In disarray, they broke all the rules of moving safely at night and maintaining battle order.

    Our orders from battalion HQ were particularly strict: to cut off every avenue of retreat and prevent any of them from getting back across the breached border. We understood that we were to wipe them out and avoid capturing them. Now that the front had widened, we had no use for their information. We'd also heard reports that the rear echelon units were swamped with prisoners. Reinforced with troops from battalion HQ, our platoon wove a network of ambushes so dense that it posed a threat even to its creators. An officer commanded each trap, and since our unit didn't have enough officers, several young ones were assigned to us from those who had joined the battalion early in the war. They were fine young fellows, excellent officers who had escaped reserve duty at some rear-line training base. In their own car, they had driven to Ein Gev, then headed for the highway intent on joining one of the battalions climbing the Golan Heights to block the surprise Syrian offensive.

    For Nir, our CO, I forget his last name, this was his first real war.  He was younger than our veterans by at least a decade, and I was troubled by the thought that generation after generation of such splendid boys had been compelled to undergo fire as though all our previous battles had served no purpose, as though all our earlier wars and all our long months of reserve duty had been for naught.

    He said a few words to us to introduce himself, inspected the unit and arranged an ambush site facing west, towards the blasted, smoking Golan settlements that had begun rebuilding from their ruins. In all the years in which I had lain in ambush, the position had always faced east. East - towards the Jordan River and its dark surrounding thickets. East - towards deep Nahal Rukad and sheer cliffs beyond. Always east - towards the small towns hidden among the scattered mounds of basalt; towards the army camps and frightful enemy formations beyond our forward outposts.

    Adding a few words to the firm orders from battalion HQ, Nir called out the guard shifts. But his comments made little impression on the weary, jaded men. "It'll be alright, Lieutenant. Don't worry. And if you're tired or edgy, you can lie down and rest." Their voices trailed off and now the waiting, that maddening period of anticipation that fills most of your time in ambush, began. We lay slightly west of the army road plowed up by the tanks. Behind us lay the defense fence, shattered and crushed during the fighting by rampaging tanks. The Syrian army behind us was beaten, licking its wounds and digging into its bunkers. Its troops were denied all movement. We'd never had this strange feeling before, a feeling of safety behind us, from the Syrian border, while gazing in fearful expectation towards our own towns.

   In the distance, Israeli cities gaily glowed again after nights of blackout. Safad shone far off in the hills while the upper neighborhoods of Tiberias twinkled in the translucent night. None of us had been on leave in the three weeks since that ill-fated Yom kippur. Some men in a unit nearby had received their first, brief passes, and although on returning they had warned others to stay at the front, so oppressive was the gloom in Israel, still every heart trembled for our families back home. We sank into that slumber of waiting, a necessary skill for passing endless nights of ambush. Reality and imagination together paraded before our tired eyes and eerie sounds pierced our straining ears.

    And then, suddenly, we heard heavy steps close by. Someone stumbled, basalt stones tumbled out of the ditch and guns rattled on belts. Nir opened fire first, followed by all the men in the ambush and then those farther back. For several long minutes, nothing could be seen or heard but the ceaseless roar of gunfire on every side and the streaks of the tracer rounds. In the starting silence following the shooting, Nir sent out a scouting party. His hoarse voice quivered with excitement.

    The Syrian squad had been wiped out. All four men lay on the rocks poised for battle. Even before battalion HQ was notified, the results of the ambush were clear enough. The men congratulated Nir as they collected the dead Syrian's guns, as did the officers who arrived in jeep from battalion HQ. While Nir huddled with the battalion officers, a radio message directed the unit to clean up the ambush. Then the ambush troops boarded a vehicle and drove to the hill nearby where the battalion had made camp. Amidst the sleeping bags strewn near a small bunker, a small campfire blazed in our platoon's parking zone. A kettle of soup simmered, the drowsy platoon troops gathered around the fire. Perhaps now, the men hoped, they would receive the first round of passes. The hungry sipped soup while the weary yawned. There was a sense that we were invincible. Then the men crawled into their sleeping bags.

    Nir seemed all worn out when he returned from battalion HQ. Someone offered him a mug of soup but he refused it. He pulled off his harness, threw down his gun and opened his sleeping bag, but he was much too wound up to close his eyes that night.   An officer approached him. "How did the debriefing go?"
   "Fine," answered Nir.  "Just fine."
   "Complete success, eh?" the officer continued. "You wiped them all out."
    Nir lay uncovered on his sleeping bag, having neither changed his clothes nor yanked off his boots. Moments later, he turned aside and threw up on the basalt gravel. The officer beside him got up, opened his canteen and silently offered him the water.
   "This'll pass," Nir gasped between retches. "Soon."
   "First time you killed someone?" the officer inquired.
   "Yeah," said Nir, and went to vomiting for a few minutes.
   "It's always like this the first time," said the officer.
   "Sure," replied Nir. "But not everyone throws up." Then he lay down again. He didn't even bother to unzip the sleeping bag.

    A courier from battalion HQ arrived at dawn. He picked his way through the sleeping men. "Which one of you is Nir the officer?" he shouted.
   "Over here," Nir called back. "What is it?"
   The runner sat down beside him. Even though he lowered his voice, I could hear every word. "We've just received a telegram from you soldier's welfare officer," he announced. "You need to get home this morning. It's urgent."
    "What's happened?" asked Nir, as though he hadn't heard what the courier was saying.
    "I don't know, the telegram doesn't exactly say," said the messenger. "But we have orders to release you and send you home right away. You can leave right after the morning patrol. And you can bring along anyone from your platoon who's going on leave."
    "But you need confirmation and replacement for me," protested Nir.
    "You're leaving," the runner replied. "That's an order from battalion HQ."  He stood up. "It's crazy," he said. "I couldn't sleep a wink last night. You're ambush made a racket all across the sector. They're proud of you at battalion HQ. How can you keep going without sleep?"

    I drove with Nir on the first issued leave. I'd been fantastically lucky in drawing the pass. It was sweet revenge for the thousands of times I'd been the last to go. We went down with the morning patrol as far as the gate to kibbutz Ein Gev.   "Have fun, guys. For us, too. And don't forget to come back."  The war still on and the patrol half-tracks were moving back and forth along the dusty basalt road. Nir's car awaited us at Ein Gev's parking lot, just as he had left it the night he went up to the Golan. All four tires had been punctured and it now sagged on its wheels. Several shells, one of which had exploded not far from the parking lot, had landed on Ein Gev. It was pure luck that the car hadn't been hit. I helped Nir change the tires. Workmen from Ein Gev's garage lent a hand and brought out new tires when they saw us. Everything was fixed in jiffy. "Come on, tell us, what's going on up there?" they badgered us. "Is the war really over? Is it true, the Syrians have be pushed back?"
   "Not yet," Nir told them. "We're still laying ambushes at night and shooting it out. People are still being killed there during the nights."

    We headed south in Nir's car. The harvest had already begun in the grapefruit orchards along the road. Shapely girls who had volunteered to help out on the kibbutz settlements mounted short ladders. For a moment, their bare legs flashed before us. "Nothing's changed here," said Nir, his hands gripping the steering wheel. "You'd think we weren't fighting that damned war up there." At the junction for Dovrat, we stopped at the road stand and went up to the counter to order sandwiches and coffee. Nir hadn't eaten anything since throwing up. The food stand was jammed with soldiers and tourists who come off luxury buses parked outside. Nir told me he needed to make a quick call home. Meanwhile, I'd make sure the noisy tourists didn't push ahead of us in line.

    I was both tired and thrilled to be on my first leave since the fighting began. Some of the tourists who noticed me tried to be friendly and start a conversation. But I wouldn't have any of that. I scowled at them and ignored their questions. Although their concern for me was genuine and they meant well in trying to befriend me, I had come down only that morning from another world, from a place in which no one would understand unless he'd been there. And I just didn't have the strength that morning to try to explain to them what it really was like up there.

    Nir returned from the telephone looking pale. "What's up at home?" I asked.
   "Shit," he said. "Dad seems to have had a heart attack. The welfare officer has brought our neighborhood too many reports of dead boys recently. He couldn't stand it and had an attack."
   "Go back, he'll calm down, everything will be alright," I said. But Nir wasn't listening. A pretty girl from Dovrat, in tight shorts revealing a great pair of legs, stood across the counter. She poured coffee into cups and hurriedly made sandwiches while bantering with the tourists. Nir couldn't take his eyes off her. He leaned on the counter, his hands clenched into fists. "What's with you, Lieutenant?" the girl smiled brightly at Nir. "Haven't you seen a girl for three weeks?" She moved towards us. As I reminded her that we had ordered coffee, I told her that the lieutenant had fallen for her, head over heels. She looked at us, "What can't he speak? Can't your handsome lieutenant speak for himself?"

    Nir's face turned even paler. He thrust his palms through the counter's smooth wooden slats. His knuckles stiffened and I could see his fingertips digging into the hard wood.

    Heedless of the pestering tourists, the girl moved even closer to Nir and looked straight into his eyes. As still as stone, he returned her gaze. "What's wrong, Lieutenant? have you come back from the war? Was it so bad?" Smoothing her shorts and tugging at the edges, she put the damp rag she was holding on Nir's rigid fingers. Nir said nothing, unable to speak. He couldn't utter even a word. But his eyes spoke to her. The sudden attraction between them electrified me. I was riveted to the spot, my eyes drinking in the sight.

    The tourists clamoring behind us were drinking coffee and gobbling sandwiches. Their drivers were already urging them back onto the buses. They couldn't see what I saw. Suddenly, everything was forgotten: the ambush, the first man he'd killed, the guilt-racked retching, his father's heart attack, everything. Only she stood before him, in tight shorts showing glorious legs, gently flicking the rag across his knuckles. The image was etched into my memory: the Dovrat cafe as the war wound down late in October, my first leave, the invigorating aroma of coffee, and the young lieutenant mute before the girl's gaze.

   "Get your silent lieutenant out of here," she suddenly laughed at me, "and bring him back when he's able to talk." Then she turned around, tore her eyes from Nir and went back to serving the last of the tourists waiting for their orders. In utter silence, we drank our coffee and ate the sandwiches. Nir remained silent even when I helped him up from the chair and guided him to the car parked outside. He even drove silently. I was afraid for a moment that his mind wasn't on driving. But he kept control of the wheel and the car responded beautifully. Passing through Afula, we saw a large crowd outside the hospital. We went on to Hadera, where we turned off for my kibbutz. Nir insisted on dropping me at the entrance. Unfortunately, he couldn't drive me back to the platoon parking lot on the Golan Heights. Unsure of the situation at home, he didn't want to make any promises. "That's OK," I assured him, "Just so long as your father is alright. You don't have to worry about me. I'm an old soldier. I'll survive this war, too."  We shook hands. "Go on, Nir, get going," I yelled as I crossed the intersection. "They're waiting for you at home."

    I never saw him again after he drove away. He didn't return to our platoon or the battalion. I don't know what became of him after he visited his parents. The platoon office had information that his father had suffered a severe heart attack but lived. Nir stayed with him at the hospital until he recovered. After that, he had no contact with the battalion. Anyway, he'd been a volunteer for the war, one of those young officers who had hopped onto the battalion half-tracks on their way up to the Golan. He wasn't assigned to the battalion and I doubt whether anyone in the personnel branch made a detailed record for his few days with us during those first three weeks. I happened  to be at the Dovrat food stand several times later on. I think the pretty girl in the enticing shorts still worked there. But I'm not sure. Winter eventually came and she must have put on warmer clothes. I even went up to the counter once or twice and stared at the thin wooden slats beneath the coffee cups searing for Lieutenant Nir's fingerprints in the stained wood grain. But the wood hadn't preserved any marks, and when I looked into the girl's eyes, they evaded me like strangers. Nor did she ask me as she had then, "Where have you left the silent Lieutenant?" She didn't even ask why we hadn't come back when my lieutenant regained his speech.

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