Unhappening

After work, the happy volunteers gathered on top of the tower.   Quite. Some nights, anyway.
After work, the happy volunteers gathered on top of the tower. Quite. Some nights, anyway.

Long, long ago when if not the world then at least I was young, or younger, anyway, I lived on a kibbutz. You sort of had to at my school if you’d been on the sailing team.

Yes, I know how that sounds. Thanks.

It wasn’t that posh. We had two Enterprises and two Mirrors, both types wooden dinghies that might have been made in someone’s garage and many of them were. We sailed on a lake that had been a gravel pit next to Westbury railway station. We had two teachers looking after us, both of them a bit like the kids who ended-up sailing, nice, but none of us really fitted in with the school. The female teacher had been through a divorce from another member of staff. We knew something wasn’t right when we saw the obviously not happy couple arrive at school one morning in their (probably his, in those  days) Escort Mexico or whatever it was that blokes having second thoughts went and bought on HP after they’d grown a Zapata moustache. They parked and got out and kissed briefly before they each went their separate ways to their different classes.

Just as a tip, if you want to convince IIIa everything is fine and dandy in your marriage, maybe not both wipe your lips simultaneously as you turn away. It stays with me still, that symbol of a gritted teeth let’s-keep-this-civilised break-up in progress. Hanging on in quiet desperation might have been the English way once. Times were changing.

The other teacher was another misfit, one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. Someone you could trust completely. When one of the other pupils’ father keeled over dead it was this teacher who stepped in quietly as someone who was always there. You didn’t mess him about. You didn’t even want to, because he was totally fair. Unlike the other PE teacher, who was such an utter arse that he spent his lunchtime driving around the town looking through pub windows to see who was where and who shouldn’t be (some of us were eighteen and there wasn’t a school rule about not going to pubs), the sailing PE teacher was just straight down the line. He was usually smiling and quiet. I think I saw him smoking a couple of times. Certainly he didn’t bother asking stupid questions about why when the dinghies went the other side of the island they apparently all hit a headwind and huge clouds of Old Holborn rolled over the lake. At least. But then, he didn’t need to prove anything. He’d been a paratrooper in The War.

Sorry, I’ll type that again. The good PE teacher, the un-ostentatious non-arse one, the one who smiled, had been a paratrooper in the war. Not Northern Ireland Parachute Regiment beating up kids with sticks. Arnhem. D-Day. Unimaginably out in front. You don’t get much more rock than that, really. He probably gave the other one an inferiority complex just by turning up.

So anyway, as nominal Captain of the sailing team it was my sacred duty to go to kibbutz after school. After I left, you understand. It would have been too far to get back every morning, in those days.

I went out with Project 67. I went up to that London for the interview and found people with Walther PPKs stuck down their belt in an office in St Johns Wood hidden behind what looked like a brick wall and clearly wasn’t, all covered by CCTV. It wasn’t now. They only had CCTV on James Bond films back then. James Bond films and spook cover offices in St Johns Wood.  It was my first taste of ‘we can do what we like.’ I got more familiar with that as the next few months rolled on. I didn’t know then that the .22 Walther PPK was a favourite Mossad tool for when words just weren’t enough.

I went out there for about two months. I was 19. It seemed a lot longer, but things do when a month is a much bigger proportion of the life you’ve had so far. Revivim was a pile of nothing in the middle of the Sinai desert. It was nothing like the catalogue of lies we’d been told to get us out there. In writing in my brochure was stuff about how you could all get together and borrow a kibbutz car and go into town. There were no kibbutz cars. ‘Town’ was Be’er Sheba, 36 km away and apart from the bar at the bus station there wasn’t anything to do there except not buy the green tobacco that looked like dope but wasn’t in the market and look at the beggars with twisted legs where they sold the live chickens. It wasn’t much like Trowbridge at all, somehow.

They saved the biggest lie for the night the kibbutz was attacked. We knew there were armed guards around every night. Because of TV we pretty much knew what a full magazine of 9mm going off sounded like, but it wasn’t a sound we’d expected to hear as we didn’t have a TV. We all stopped what we were doing and piled out of our huts to stand there illuminated in the parachute flares that were drifting down. Our PE teacher would have told us to get back inside and lie on the floor, the same way I’d tell people now, but he wasn’t there.

There wasn’t any more gunfire. Some older people from the kibbutz self-importantly turned up with Uzi sub-machine guns in their hands, rounded us up and marched us off without any explanation. What’s happening? Nothing. Where are we going? The shelter. What shelter?

Good question, as it turned out. We were all marched down some steps behind a locked steel door on the tennis court, where it turned out the brick hut wasn’t a toolshed after all, but the top of a flight of steep stairs. We all sat there for about an hour. What’s happening? Still nothing.

Eventually we were sent back to our huts. What’s happening? Nothing. Everyone wasn’t talking about it at breakfast. The volunteers were. The people who lived on the kibbutz weren’t. Even when you asked them directly.

So what happened last night?

What do you mean?

We all had to go to the shelter.

There is no shelter.

The gunfire.

There was no gunfire.

The parachute flares? The lights in the sky?

You were dreaming. Nothing happened.

After about an hour we were all sent back to bed. It’s safe. What is? Nothing.

After about two weeks someone found out what had happened. The kibbutz guards that night were fifteen years old. Apparently it was a really good idea to give fifteen year olds loaded sub-machine guns to stick in the front basket on their bicycles. It was night-time, nothing was happening because it never did unless you went spying on who was using the old huts who shouldn’t have been but hey, you’re fifteen and you’ve got an Uzi. Obviously the best thing to do is check the safety catch is on. Not by feeling it with your thumb. Not by taking your hand off the pistol-grip and making sure the web of your fingers isn’t pressing into the back of the handle. No. You’re fifteen.  So you hold the thing firmly, (disengaging the grip safety) and pull the trigger. And before you can get your finger off the trigger, because who would have thought that would happen, 30 rounds of 9mm have streaked across the sky at 1200 feet per second.

But luckily, nobody thought it. Because they were kibbutz people. And kibbutz people don’t make mistakes. So luckily it never happened at all. Except it did. Just like the two Arab villages which were bulldozed to make way for the kibbutz.

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