Dear United States Customs and Border Protection, I was honored to receive your invitation to apply to the Border Patrol.
Not at first: at first I was bemused, and joked about this being the most mistargeted targeted ad in the history of the internet. After all, I represent a dramatic failure of your agency: an immigrant from the Middle East who infiltrated your nation, took your jobs, seduced your women, and undermined your democracy. But perhaps that is your strategy — if I could beat you, let me join you.
But then I remembered: half a lifetime ago I did wear a uniform that gave me a purpose. I spent a good deal in that uniform patrolling a border. Perhaps I went beyond. You must be familiar with that time since your ad found me, but allow me to share some details anyway. A young man sees and learns many things while on guard duty.
My country is small, shaped like a long chef’s knife, and surrounded by hostile neighbors. It has a very high ratio of miles-of-border-that-need-to-be-watched to teenagers. So on any given day many of its teenagers are employed by watching its borders. Demand creates its own supply, as they say.
I just turned 18 when they gave me a rifle and two sets of uniforms. One crisp and clean that I would almost never wear, one grimy and rough and suitable for the work of infantry boot camp: running, push-ups, shooting, washing toilets, catching naps, guard duty.
Guard duty is no one’s main job in the army, but almost everyone has to do a lot of it throughout their service. It has a lot in common with Vipassana meditation — a quiet, solitary affair whose ultimate goal is “seeing”. One’s practice starts in boot camp doing 30 minute stints, then one graduates to practicing for 4 or 8 hours in a row and going on retreats.
I wish I knew about Vipassana when I enlisted, I surely would have been enlightened twice over for all the hours I spent standing guard. Instead, I mostly entertained myself by singing Russian pop songs in my head. I learned the lyrics to hundreds of those, along with the entire Marshall Mathers LP and an eclectic selection of French hip hop and German metal. It has always been my gift and curse: I have a perfect memory for song lyrics in any language, but I can’t carry a tune to save my life. I sing often to myself, but at karaoke I’m resigned to cringing as my vocally talented friends butcher the lyrics to what are supposedly their favorite tracks.
One night the list of shifts came out; I had the terrible fourth slot: 12:30-1:00 AM. It meant that I would just be falling asleep when the third shift would wake me to stand guard groggily, and afterward I wouldn’t have enough time to get a full night’s sleep before reveille at 5 AM. I climbed onto my field bed at 11 PM, sullen. I woke up at 5, confused.
The third shift never woke me up because the second shift guy never woke him up. Instead, the second shift got up at 11:30, went to the guard post, put his his uniform and rifle in a neat pile, climbed the fence, and set off in his boxers toward the southwest. Military police picked him up at sunrise, parched and exhausted, a couple of miles from the border with Egypt.
I never saw that guy again. I assume he was sent to military prison for a month or two until the cell had to be vacated for fresh offenders. Then he was discharged and let loose, having demonstrated to the army’s satisfaction that he is not fit to be a GI. Today he is probably eating falafel somewhere in Tel Aviv, reminiscing about the night he ran through the desert to allow me to a get a good night’s sleep.
Four years later, I was back at the Egyptian border for my final week-long guard retreat. No longer a fresh-faced recruit, I was a fresh-faced Sergeant First Class with a degree in mathematics. But guard duty doesn’t care about honorifics and academics, the border still needs watching.
This particular outpost consists of a small barracks with a bed and six bunks, a toilet, a fence, a gate in the fence, a tower. Around the fence the lone and level sands stretch far away, boundless and bare. The six soldiers are guarding 4/8: 4 hours at the gate, 8 hours to sleep, 4 hours at the tower, 8 hours to play cards or backgammon. Repeat x7 and you’re done. The officer is usually sleeping 12 hours a day and reading weeks-old magazines left by previous rotations of guards.
Aside from your six fellow men, the only living beings you’d see are one fox and twenty billion flies. The Egyptians guard towers and patrol routes are out of sight. The Bedouin smugglers, transporting drugs from Latin America and prostitutes from Eastern Europe and contraband from Asia, know exactly where the outposts are and easily avoid them. If you think you see someone while on tower duty, you can assume that you’re hallucinating from the heat.
The first five days passed uneventful. The officer was chill, and the daily inspection consisted of little more than making sure the number of soldiers and rifles stayed at six. I passed the 8 AM – noon slot at the gate solving math puzzles in my head. I spent the 8 PM – midnight tower watch listening to music in one earphone, the ear that wasn’t visible from the barracks.
At 1 AM on Friday I just tucked in to bed when the radio suddenly came alive.
– “Base, this is tower. I see three figures approaching from the west.”
– “Everyone up! Tower, do you see weapons?”
– “Negative, sir. I turned the spotlight on them and they froze and lay still.”
– “Stay on them and look for more hostiles. Everyone wake the fuck up and get your fucking gear!”
– “Base, they’re standing up.”
– “Take cover, soldier! What are they doing?”
– “Sir, the’re shouting and hugging each other. One of them is dancing. I think the other one is praying.”
It turned out that the three men were refugees from Darfur, having just walked the last mile of a 3,000 mile trek. The South Sudanese make their way north across Sudan to the Sudan-Egypt border, then they pay everything they own for smugglers to take them across Egypt to Israel.
But the Egyptian Army patrols the Israeli border, and the smugglers don’t want to get close to it. They drop the refugees ten miles from Israel and tell them: “Keep walking east, you’ll be fine. Unless the Egyptians see you, then they’ll probably shoot you. But if you don’t get shot, you’ll be in Israel before dawn. Inshallah!”
So when the three dudes got spotted but no one was shooting, they knew that they had made it to the promised land. As the other guys stood in a circle “guarding” the three thin men in ragged clothes, I went to the barracks to get them sandwiches and the cold bottle of Coke we were saving for Saturday. Half an hour later a military police jeep picked them up.
I don’t know what happened to them afterward. Most likely they were sent to a detention center for a week or two until the cell had to be vacated for fresh refugees. Then they were discharged and let loose. Today they are probably washing dishes at a falafel joint somewhere in Tel Aviv, reminiscing about the night they ran through the desert to prevent me from getting a good night’s sleep.
There are many other stories I could tell you, my dear United States Customs and Border Protection agency. The time I was guarding in the West Bank and spent the week smoking shisha with an Arab friend. The time I guarded the border with Lebanon during the war, when what kept me alert were the rockets and artillery instead of the usual threat of being written up by a stickler officer for slouching. The time I was guarding a checkpoint and saw first-hand that the politics of Israel and Palestine you read about in the New York Times have less than nothing to do with how Israelis and Palestinians actually live together and deal with each other in that small patch of land. The time that other guy went on guard duty and didn’t come back.
But I think I have made a strong enough case for my application. I spent four years watching the border, and the border was still there when I left. I never ran half-naked into the desert. I only dozed off once or twice, and was never caught. The one time people came across the border illegally we let them in and I gave them sandwiches, but in my defense it wasn’t my watch anyway and the looked real hungry.
I look forward to hearing back from you about my candidacy,
Afterword – Memoirs
I recently finished reading Sasha Chapin’s memoir All the Wrong Moves and realized that in five years of blogging I’ve shared few stories from my own life, which has been at least as eventful as Sasha’s. I’m somewhat tempted to write a memoir, probably focused on all the dates I went on and what I learned from them about men, women, and myself. I wrote this post in part to practice that style of writing: a narrative history with plenty of asides and jokes. I am curious to know if there is any appetite among my readers for this, given that if I start working on a memoir I will have less time to write regular Putanumonit updates.