I often think about how many twists and turns life throws at us. By the time I was 14 or so I knew that I would be going spend the Summer of 1985 in Israel. In part my father had pushed a little for it but it was also something that I wanted to do because I saw so many of my friends older siblings do it, not to mention the impetus of being relatively independent from my parents.
In order to be able to afford the trip I saved all of the money I received at my Bar-Mitzvah and then did what I could to add to it. My parents covered the rest helping to buy a backpack and providing me with $400 in cash to spend over the nine weeks I was to be gone.
It was an incredibly exciting time for me. Just a short time before we were to leave for Israel a TWA flight was hijacked in Athens. The terrorists made a number of demands including that Israel release a large number of prisoners.
I remember my father sitting me down to speak with me about terrorism, but more to offer advice on how to act and blend in overseas. He explained to me that as an American I would stick out in some situations and explained that it would be smarter to try not to do so. I remember bits and pieces of the conversation, including his telling me that I should remember that he loved me and to be safe.
In the world around me there was a fair amount of chaos and there were a number of people who told me that they thought I was stupid to go and that I could be killed, “just look at what happened in Athens.”
It didn’t faze me at all, which I can attribute in some respects to being young, dumb and male. Besides, I was going with a group of friends from camp and we even spent a little time discussing how we could stop a hijacking. That was the beauty of being a sixteen year-old boy, we couldn’t conceive of failure only how badly we would beat the crap out of anyone dumb enough to try and hijack our plane.
As part of our trip we went back to camp for a week long orientation. There were 38 of us on the trip, most of whom I knew from past summers at camp. During that initial week we spent time learning some key phrases such as where is the bathroom, were briefed upon some cultural differences and used the rest of our time to try and figure out who we thought the hottest girls on the trip were.
We also participated in a somewhat normal camp routine including waking up for Shacharit (morning service) daily as well as the rest of the Jewish liturgy and ritual of camp life. At that time i considered myself to be an atheist so I was less than pleased to be asked to daven, let alone do so after spending the majority of the evening screwing around with the boys.
About a day or so before we were supposed to leave camp and fly off to Israel we noticed a fire in the hills behind camp and joked around about what could happen if the wind changed direction. I remember it well, flames in the hills and ash floating in the air. Even though we could see the flames they were relatively far away from us.
Later that day the camp held a fire drill in which the director stood up and gave a speech that was supposed to reassure all of us. We didn’t care all that much because we were leaving and I can remember jokes about the camp burning down. They were tasteless, but we were 16 and who really believed it was possible.
That night when the sun set we noticed a few things. In the darkness we could see a number of different patches of flames in the hills, it wasn’t located in just one are any longer. The other thing that sticks out is that there was an exceptionally warm breeze. When I went to sleep I made sure that my shoes were beneath my bed.
And with good reason. At 3 am we were awakened by the sirens of the camp fire alarms. When we looked outside the tent it was evident that this was not a drill as the hills surrounding camp were in flames. That dry hot wind was blowing and there was a crackling noise in the air, even now just a few weeks short of 20 years a wind like that reminds me of the night we were evacuated from the fire that covered 118,000 acres and is referred to now as the Wheeler Fire.
By 3:30 AM we had been evacuated to Nordhoff High School and within a couple of hours I was well into an experience that would be part of making me a believer in G-d again.
Part 2 coming shortly.