It was in the midst of the Yom Kippur War. On October 16th, 1979, to be precise. Just another fighting day for the 201 Phantom squadron known as “The One.”
The squadron’s operational log simply said: “Most of the activity for today: In-depth, radar and Port Said missiles raids.” The log failed to express what really went on during those days in the IAF's elite squadron.
It was 10 days after non-stop aerial activity; planes were dropping like flies. Four planes were shot down on the second day alone, leaving seven crew members in Syrian territory, thier fate unknown to this day. More planes were shot down later that week in the north and south, and the squadron was losing its pilots and planes.
At night, mattresses were laid down on the orange carpet at the squadron’s club. Side by side, the pilots spent sleepless nights, telling morbid jokes about those who didn't make it and trying to guess who was next. Men of 20-something years, who were gambling their lives away on every flight, whose eyes spoke what their hearts felt every time they left the: This may be the last time.
October 16th is my birthday. I was the squadron’s operations NCO. Old enough to erase the names of the dead pilots off the roster and bury them deep down in the drawer; but childish enough to insist on celebrating my birthday. And so that very morning, in the height of war, I traveled from Hatzor (IAF base) to Tel-Aviv to buy a birthday cake to celebrate with what had remained from my squadron.
The sun set early that day, as it does during the fall. The last sun rays painted the runways red, a light breeze blew, causing the trees to tremble and making the military base seem almost normal. It was dark on the base, and the squadron area was blacked out as instructed. The women and children were evacuated from the housing quarters when the war had begun, and even the pilots who were family men chose to stay at the club rather than go back to their empty homes.
Words fail to express the atmosphere that night. Dark humor blended in with profound angst. Silence riddled with uncontrollable chatter. Compulsive eating versus on-going loss of appetite. Insomnia interrupted by spells of draining sleep. Each one according to his nature and character. And in the backdrop, between airstrikes – the shock. The surprise. The falling from grace of a group who considered its members the best pilots in the Middle East and possibly in the whole wide world.
These men who were so carefully selected, one by one, for this glorified squadron, who turned from the IAF's best troops into its most battered force.
That night, Kaveret (one of the most popular bands in Israel in the 1970s) was performing at the club. It was coincidental, of course, unrelated to my bizarre birthday; just another band touring through army bases, entertaining the troops. K
averet was just starting out back then. Four months before the wars started, they had premiered with their show, “Poogy Tales”; and so, on the tenth day of the war, the night when the paratroopers crossed the channel and dozens of soldiers died in the Battle of the Chinese Farm, Danny Sanderson, Gidi Gov and the rest of the band showed up in the most vibrant yet most deadly of places. The place in which I discovered for the first time how fragile life is: One moment you’re alive, a second later you’re gone.
I believe it was Gidi Gov who took one look at that incomplete group of pilots and said ‘wow, you’re a big bunch.’ Every one burst out laughing. A laughter only young people – who had suddenly lost so many of their friends, and may join them in a matter of hours, maybe minutes – are entitled to.
Until today, whenever I celebrate my birthday, my memory takes me back there. To the darkened squadron club. To the candles glowing on the birthday cake. To the eyes of those who were there and have survived, and to those who haven’t. And to Kaveret standing there on the orange carpet, singing about Baruch’s Boots.