During basic training, two other guys, Nimrod and Elai, and I were sent to take a course on driving a vehicle called a Zelda or NAGMASH, which in Hebrew was an acronym for armored personnel carrier. The course was in a base called BISLACH, in the south of Israel. BISLACH was another acronym which stood for infantry school. We arrived at a huge base in the middle of the desert with dozens of batteries of tents arranged in neat rows. Each battery represented a different course. Withing each battery were perhaps fifty of sixty tents each housing about twelve soldiers. There were tents sprawled over this huge, barren area, as far as the eye could see. There was a constant wind, and with it, a constant fine mist of sand. Everyone was covered in sand. The nostalgic feeling is washing over me now. To me, now, it seems like a scene out of an epic movie like Dr. Zhivago or, more appropriately, Lawrence of Arabia. That was a different life. I know it was my life, because I still feel it living in my insides, but certainly not the life I’m living now.
The first few days were spent in classrooms. In typical IDF fashion, they tried to teach us everything about the NAGMASH, its history, how its engine works, how to repair it when it broke down. They showed us diagrams of its electrical system, laid out its safety features, and explained its strategic purpose in the infantry arsenal. Most of us had come from serious infantry units. A large portion were from elite units. At first, everyone took the classes very seriously, but eventually, the enormity of the information they were throwing at us, made a complete understanding impossible. We had to start picking and choosing information to retain. I’ve been in many classes like that since. There was also a constant struggle to stay awake. This was the first time since high school that we had spent long periods in a heated room. We got full nights of sleep. There was no emphasis on discipline and obedience. We were all happy to be there. We all had the same “intellectual” goals in mind, and the physical requirements were not demanding. Nobody needed to force us to be there. Also, there was this tremendous pressure to actually pass the test and get your license otherwise your entire unit would suffer without enough drivers for their exercises.
There was one lesson, on the fire safety equipment within the NAGMASH, which I remember specifically. The system which detected fires and activated extinguishers all over the inside of the vehicle was called Spectronics. I liked that. It was en english word, which the Israelis all pronounced funny–SPACTRAWNEEKS. Many years later on another continent, in another life, on my daily commute to work as an emergency vet, I would drive by the Spectronics factory. Spectronics: Tracer Products. I think I was the only person who drove by that actually knew what that meant.
Towards the end of the classroom work, they began to show us diagrams and protocols for drills in the NAGMASH. They looked very much like football plays, and everyone paid close attention to these. There were safety drills, maintenance drills, and combat drills. Naturally, the combat drills were the most glamorous. They had glamorous code names and all required that you shout all sorts of bizarre commands during their execution. For example, there was the YAHALOM which means diamond in Hebrew. While driving, the commander of the NAGMASH would shout, “YAHALOM, YAHALOM PAL,” at which point the driver would lower the rear ramp while continuing to drive forward. The soldiers within would virtually role out into combat-ready position. This would effectively distribute soldiers in a row along the sides of a road. Very glamorous.
Finally, after several days of classroom work, we began the “hands-on” portion of the course. The first day was spent going over the NAGMASH from top to bottom. We practically took apart the engine, learned about every little compartment and wire. We got to know the vehicle intimately. This was definitely more interesting than the classroom work, but we were eager to start driving the things.
After about a week, they put us in the driver’s seat and let us loose. Our instructors, as they had been in the classroom portion of the course, were young girls. They were all incredibly cute in their oversized IDF snow suits. The desert, as many people are surprised to hear, is often painfully cold–especially during the winter. Any girl who ended up with a job as highly desirable as infantry instructor, was undoubtedly intelligent and capable. The presence of the instructors represented a significant distraction as well as an effective motivational tool.
The most effective way to practice driving an eleven ton armored vehicle in a huge expanse of open desert is to pack all the trainees into the back, have the instructor function as the commander, and rotate each trainee, one by one, through the drivers’ drills. As you might imagine, this would be very inefficient with only a few vehicles. Luckily, the IDF has around 5,000 such vehicles, and sparing a dozen or so for training just makes sense. So, while a NAGMASH can hold 11 soldiers plus a driver and commander, we divided up into smaller groups of three to five trainees.
While one person would practice driving, the other three or four would knock around in the belly of this beast like rocks. There was no cushioning, and virtually nothing to hold on to. Despite the freezing temperatures outside, inside, it was hot, stuffy, and definitely stinky. The instructors stood with their heads sticking out of the tops of the vehicles, as much to escape the stench as to see where we were going. They would only duck into the main compartment during safety drills with which they would try and surprise us intermittently. These became less and less frequent as the day went on and the trainees became more and more sweaty.
The safety drills were humorous especially if you were not the driver. The commander would suddenly scream “HITAPACHTA!” which means, “You’ve flipped over!” This was the driver’s cue to scream into the microphone “get ready to flip over!” There were series of actions which then needed to be taken. Everyone had a job. The driver slammed on the breaks, lowered his seat, shut off the engine, and got into fetal position. The soldiers within, besides bracing themselves on anything they could find, quickly lowered the commander’s stool which brought her crashing down into the main compartment. On her way down, she would pull the lid closed over her. In order to simulate real-life fear and stress during one of these drills, the instructors would continue to shout into the microphone and rush you. If you happened to be driving with your head sticking out of the driver’s compartment during one of these drills, they would start beating you over the head while repeatedly screaming, “C’mon let’s go! Let’s go! You’ve flipped over! You’ve flipped over.”