Musings, Thoughts & Commentaries
Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and has been for 3,000 years.
I may have been the only American Catholic wearing the uniform of the IDF, the Israeli Defense Force, during the summer of 1989. It is quite a story, especially since I also once wore the uniform of the US Army and was integrated into the German army (Bundeswehr) at another time. I am the only person I know who was in all three.
With the IDF, I was a civilian contractor working for a US company to flat-proof tires for combat vehicles. The Synair Corporation of Chattanooga, Tennessee, had the technology and my company was a dealer in the US. I tried to sell it to the US military but they would only put the concept into testing. I met with the Israeli defense mission in New York and presented my offer, explaining that their brothers were dying when their tires would be shot out in Gaza and another vehicle would have to go there to rescue—and get their tires shot out in turn. My counterpart was skeptical of my small company competing with big corporations for the deal. When they asked me how long it would take to put into operation, I answered “a thousand years” using the only Hebrew word I had learned for the presentation, meaning a thousand years…If you do not sign the deal. He asked me who would go to Israel and supervise the turn-key operation, and when I said I would do it personally, he paused, went to discuss with someone, returned and said, “We will open the letter of credit to start the transfer of the technology.”
I arranged for Synair to ship the equipment and materials to Haifa and bought a one way ticket on El Al from Montreal to Tel Aviv departing a few weeks later, allowing time for the shipment to arrive by air from Newark. I had some business to do in Canada and did not know how long I would stay in Israel. I could always buy a return ticket there, maybe Swiss Air, and spend some time in Europe before going back to Reno where I then lived.
I had trouble with the El Al security team in Montreal. I was suspiciously travelling on a one-way ticket, and when they inspected my baggage and found pressure gauges, rubber hoses and strange, sharp metal tools they put me through a detailed screening several times by different agents until I said, “I am going to Israel to work with the IDF! If you do not believe me, call the Israeli Defense Mission to the USA in New York!”
I arrived in Tel Aviv in the late evening and was greeted by the Captain in the IDF who would be my point of contact. He took me downtown for dinner and a bottle of wine. We talked about the mission and the equipment involved, which he informed me had arrived and was secured in a nearby air force base. He had inspected it and as we talked, I became confused—what he was describing did not meet the description of what I had shipped. The next day, now a few hours away, I was supposed to set up the equipment. I asked that we go immediately to inspect.
The Air Force base was locked down for the night, but my escort officer explained I was an American here on a special project and we had to get into a warehouse. The warehouse was locked; we broke in through a back window assisted by the armed guard after we explained the situation.
The equipment was not what I expected. In an error in logistics, a competing Goodyear system had been shipped. Goodyear had also bid on the job, won it at first, but then lost it when I agreed to fly immediately to Tel Aviv to set up my equipment. But somebody had shipped the wrong container.
We opened the container and laid out the equipment. The Goodyear flat-proofing process was similar in theory to Synair’s, but different enough to confuse me. I made calls to Chattanooga, made notes and decided to teach classes on safety the first day to the technicians who were now arriving in from their field units. After this day of procrastination, I got help from chemists and engineers in the IDF.
In the next days some things went wrong. There was a high pressure burst and alcohol was sprayed into the eyes of some technicians. I tackled one soldier jumping around in pain and poured water into his eyes. It was a big mess.
Over the course of the week, we figured out the Goodyear equipment and used our materials to bullet- proof tires. Dusty jeeps drove in from combat in Gaza for emergency installations.
Over the next few weeks I connected with my comrades. I recalled with them the history of Mickey Marcus, another West Pointer (like me), who left New York to establish the IDF in 1948 under Ben-Gurion. He had died there, accidentally shot by one of his own men. I was taught to say “Jews” and not “Jewish” and met Jews from several countries who were in Israel to serve. On the air base, aircraft had their engines running all the time because they had only seven minutes to take off and intercept an enemy bomber coming in from Syria.
Toward the end of my stay the IDF General who was in charge of logistics in the 1967 war did a walk through. He knew the story of my problems with setting up the flat-proofing equipment—it was his engineers who helped me. He asked me what my rank had been in the US Army; I told him “Captain” and he said, ”Well, I guess that makes you a Captain in the IDF!” He handed me an IDF uniform with Captain’s insignia that I still have and although I have no documents for a battlefield commission and know I was not really an IDF officer, I feel like one.
I did not have much trouble with Israeli airport security on the return flight when they opened my bags and saw my uniform.
When I arrived at West Point in June 1960 I was issued a footlocker made by Long Manufacturing Company in Petersburg, Virginia. The footlocker, placed at the foot of my bed, was to store certain items of clothing, toiletries and specific military equipment.
It was also used as a tool of harassment. We plebes were sometimes ordered to pick up and handle the footlocker like a rifle and orders of “Right shoulder, Footlocker!” were shouted out and we had to comply. If it dropped onto the floor from shoulder height, locked footlockers would sometimes pop open and spill their contents.
Over the summers while we were on temporary assignments overseas or around the country, the footlockers stored personal items in the basements under the stoops until we returned to start the new academic year.
Upon graduation, my footlocker was shipped ahead to my first assignment with my personal stuff to Germany while I attended Ranger School in Fort Benning.
The footlocker was waiting for me when I reported to my unit in Kitzingen and I moved it in with me to my apartment in Mainstockheimer Schloss and I moved it with me when I moved to a new apartment on the Ringstrasse.
When I was re-assigned to Ft. Campbell in 1966, I left the footlocker with my friend, Wolfgang Raith. I had stored in it reams of paper, boxes of pencils, carbon paper, a typewriter with extra typewriter ribbons and other supplies for the business I knew I would someday start in Germany. Wolf kept it for me in his mother’s home in Wurzburg. Also stored in it was an empty Iphoefer Kalb Sylvaner, 1959 Bocksbeutel wine bottle, a tool for making Spaetzle, (an “Oestalgaeuischenspeatzlehobl”) and a cookbook in German for dishes like Hasenpfeffer.
All the time I was on this journey a song resonated with me: "Ich hab' noch einen Koffer in Berlin" the 1954 Marlene Dietrich song, “I still have a trunk in Berlin” meaning she was still connected to that place.
The footlocker remained in Wolfgang’s mother’s basement in Wurzburg while I was reassigned to Ft. Campbell, Viet Nam, Ft. Sill, and got my first job with Firestone in Akron. I still had a Koffer in Wurzburg and was connected to that place.
I returned to Germany in 1971 and picked up “Meinen Koffer” from Wolfgang and we renewed our friendship which continues to this day.
Tom Anthony is a West Point Graduate and combat veteran who spent his professional civilian career in global business all over the world. He has lived and worked in Austria, Italy, Spain, England, Iraq, Israel, and throughout Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Anthony also lived in Mindanao for seven years.
Copyright 2017 Tom Anthony.