When I was sixteen, I discovered a simple truth. If you want to make friends—friends who will stay with you for life—all you need is a landmine.
It is a rite of passage that Jewish children, when they turn sixteen, go on an Israel tour. They spend a few weeks there, hanging out with other Jewish children, discovering their roots, getting closer to their co-religionists and, although this is rarely made explicit, meeting Jews of the opposite sex, so that they are more likely to marry someone of their own faith.
The holiday was a reward from my parents for finishing my exams. Our group of forty would be spending four days in Jerusalem, followed by a week on a kibbutz and two weeks travelling around Israel, or ‘Eretz Yisrael,’ as some people described it.
My first encounter with the group was at Heathrow Airport, where they formed a noisy crowd next to one of the check-in desks. I remember being shy. Most of the group seemed to know each other through youth clubs or synagogues. It was a world I wasn’t part of and I felt I had little in common with these kids.
We arrived at the airport in Tel Aviv around 8:00 p.m. I was struck by how hot and humid it was, and how very foreign. Outside the airport was a bus station. Dozens of stalls sold food there; I saw the glow of charcoal fires emanating from a few of them as they cooked skewers of meat. Others fried falafel, minced chickpeas, or prepared flatbreads with salads, and everyone sold bottles of Sprite or Coca-Cola with Hebrew and English script on the side.
Jerusalem was nice. I loved the Old City and the Wailing Wall and the Stations of the Cross and the various museums. As for my time on the kibbutz, that was when I started to get sick of my fellow travelers. Two of the girls were absolute brats and refused to do any work. One of the boys refused to drink water—claiming he only drank Coke—and got a heatstroke. Everyone split up into cliques and bitched endlessly, and the sourest woman that I’d ever met led the group. If anyone did anything of which she disapproved, she put her hands on her hips, stuck her head into a strange angle and made a face that showed her disapproval. She did this about every five minutes, so after a couple of days we could all do a passable imitation of her stance.
One day, when we drove into town for a shopping trip, we had to sit in the bus for two hours because a couple of the girls had failed to return as arranged. We couldn’t leave them because—as we had been repeatedly warned—the girls in our party were young and vulnerable and could be kidnapped by local men. This was not a nice air-conditioned coach, but a kibbutz bus: an orange truck with benches along the side. When it was moving, a refreshing breeze came through the open windows, but sitting for two hours, it grew unbearably hot; and us kids, foul–tempered. Eventually, the girls turned up with some silly story about how they had been sitting in a café and lost track of time.
The two weeks’ touring was supposed to be the highlight of the month, but on the first day, around half of us came down with a stomach bug, myself included. I was still feeling pretty rough when we traveled through the center of Israel and visited a series of Crusader castles. In the west we went up to Jaffa and up north we came across an assortment of waterfalls. It was all very picturesque, but I was too weak to enjoy it properly.
During the tour, I found myself sitting next to a boy called Dan. There was nothing exceptional about him. He wasn’t a complete outsider, nor was he the most popular boy in town. Yet for some reason—probably the heat and the stomach bug—he got on my nerves. He would make constant jokes, and many at my expense. Nothing terrible, just poking fun of the way that I walked, at the fact that I tended to talk to myself. He would make puns, too, and after each joke, he would shout: “It’s the way I tell ‘em,” which happened to be the catchphrase of a popular comedian.
Three days before the end of the tour, we visited the border at Jordan. We stopped off on a country road in a local beauty spot near the River Jordan. Because we were so close to the border, there were coils of barbed wire along one side of the road, presumably to stop smugglers, trespassers, and terrorists from crossing into Israel at night. Entangled in the barbed wire were these tiny green metal boxes. They all had, in yellow, Hebrew writings on them, and they were all small enough to fit in the palm of a hand.
I don’t think the box nearest to us was designed to be hidden—it was probably just part of the border security—yet the obviousness of it was too much for Dan to resist. “I wonder what that is,” he joked, “I think someone has dropped their cigarettes.”
In that moment, I could’ve stopped him. I knew that the box was a landmine designed to blow up anyone trying to cross the border. I knew that any decent person would have shouted at him to leave it alone, they would have cried out a warning, pushed him out of harm’s way. But frankly, I was tired and bored and, just as importantly, curious.
I stood watching as his fingers moved closer to the green package, wondering if anyone else had noticed this act of folly. Only when it was all but inevitable that he would touch the mine did I throw myself to the ground and shout.
There was a bang, and there was blood. There was screaming in English and in Hebrew. There was a strange burning smell, and a crowd of shrieking children ran to take cover behind the bus. Soon enough, border patrols with blue lights surrounded us. I remember soldiers unpacking field dressings and one soldier who picked up Dan and ran with him in his arms toward an army truck. Our group leaders yelled and herded us back into the bus, so we wouldn’t see what was going on.
It was later that evening, while we were all sitting in the dining room of our cheap hotel, when we were told that Dan would survive.
When we got back to Britain, I learnt that this particular mine was designed to blow off feet. On this occasion, it had blown off the fingers of Dan’s right hand. He was able to survive without fingers, however, it was his eyes which would be more of a problem. The explosion had left him completely blind. He was flown back home and, over the next year, he was in and out of hospitals as doctors tried unsuccessfully to restore some level of sight.
I stayed in touch with him. He had been planning to go to university, but the incident put a stop to that. When his friends left, it was I who visited him regularly. I would drive him to the pub. Of course, that meant that I couldn’t really drink when I was in his company, but it was nice to feel wanted. We’d go for long walks and he’d take my arm when the path was uneven. We’d sit in his room listening to music, and late into the night there would be long discussions between us about God and fate and all the deep things.
His parents were abjectly grateful. “You’ve been so good to Dan,” they would say, tearful, “I don’t know what he’d do without you.” I was accepted as one of the family.
I’d never had a girlfriend before then, but I started seeing his sister. We dated for a year or so before deciding to break up.
A year after Dan got out of the hospital, I went to university but I visited Dan every three or four weeks. He was given a job by his uncle, who runs a large sportswear company. I started working as a graduate trainee at the local authority. Dan found a girlfriend—an attractive young woman—and they decided to get married. I was the best man at the wedding. During his speech, Dan made references to all the help and support that I’d given him over the years, and afterward strangers came up to me to tell me what a splendid person I was.
Should I feel guilty about what I did? I don’t think so. I did everyone a favour. Dan is happy, his family is happy. Plus, they have me—a friend they can rely on. Always.