A Dozen Baskets of Sand
by Elisha Porat
translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks
The summer after the Yom Kippur War, I was one of those called up to perform the immense task of transferring war dead from their temporary graves for final burial. At headquarters, I was issued a new uniform with shiny unit patches and gleaming stripes. I even received a beret the likes of which I hadn't worn since my discharge from regular service. our commanding officer gave me and the other five reservists in my emergency detail a short briefing emphasizing the important of success in our grim mission. Then, instead of taking military transportation, we boarded a vehicle from one of the units and set out for a large army camp in the center of the country from which the coffins of the fallen would make their final, melancholy journey to military internment.
We didn't hurry this time since there was no reason to rush. Those who had waited an entire miserable year in their temporary graves wouldn't begrudge us a few hours of delay, nor would those who had waited for them as though they might suddenly return. We didn't know the sergeant we were to accompany. he was a young fellow in the regular army, a tank commander I believe, who fell during the breakthrough. His armored battalion had been attached to our brigade during the fighting, and who'd had time then to get acquainted? When his unit had returned to its original formation once the fighting ended, none of us had remembered either the faces or the names of those young soldiers.
As we sat at the gas station just outside Haifa, the wind blowing from the west, mingled the pungent scent of the sea with the aroma of cooking from the little restaurant there and the acrid odor of spilled fuel.
At the big army camp in the center of the country that served as a transfer depot for the coffins, we were met by some reserve officers, busy men with serious, stern expressions on their faces. They already knew we were coming, who we were and who we were to escort. We following the officer in charge to a huge hangar where we sat in the shade under nets rigged up at the start of the operation. The hundreds of subdued escorts who crowded into the hangars spoke in hushed voices. Latter, during the long hours of lectures, briefings and drills, I realized that no one had bothered to tell us anything about the young sergeant, this tender, unknown youth whom we had been summoned to accompany on his final journey.
We set out the next afternoon. Our little convoy headed for the military section of a cemetery in one of the coastal towns. The drivers turned on their lights while we, the six reservist escorts, spread out on both sides of the casket. The drive, which began in low gear among the whitewashed lanes of the army base, gradually gained speed until we pulled into traffic on the main road. The entire highway paid us its respects. the flow of traffic parted before us. Some drivers not only pulled over but came out their low doors, stood straight as they watched us and joined the ceremony. Some, for whatever reason, even saluted our little convoy. Aside from the rhythmic purr of the command car's engine, not a sound was heard. the road, too, suddenly fell silent, and I felt a shiver ripple across my skin beneath my new uniform.
Just as we had been instructed, we stopped at the entrance to the cemetery for a breather. The thirsty drank while those who needed to went behind the bushes. The drivers got out to give their lights and gleaming metal fixtures one last polishing. The little honor guard smoothed the wrinkles in the flag draped over the coffin. The army chaplain and the local soldiers' welfare officer, who were charge of the burial, came foreword to make sure we'd brought the right coffin. I passed a few quick words with them. They were exhausted, their eyes red and their voices hoarse as though they'd spoken too much the past three days. The welfare officer, who knew the sergeant's family quite well, told the chaplain the family's address and the father's occupation. he was a broken man, the welfare officer assured me and the chaplain. This rock of a man, now a shadow of what he'd been, was crushed.
With special ropes, we lowered the casket into the ground. beside the pit, I heard one of the escorts whispering, yet all of us could hear him: "Don't get in my way, I'll cover it. Just move aside". Someone had told me before the interment that he did burial work at his Moshav. Apparently, he didn't care for how the army went about it. "Did you hear me? Get out of the way."
Slowly, we lowered the coffin, then pulled up the ropes and moved back so none of the many mourners would notice that our comrade was doing all the work. we left the grave to the army chaplain, the welfare officer and our burly companion who had volunteered to heap earth on the coffin by himself.
The military section was nothing but concrete and gravel, almost without earth. Beside the grave, however, lay a dozen baskets filled with sand. Old black rubber Public Works Department baskets, stacked up in two or three piles. Our Moshav man worked with consummate skill. His hands lifted the stacked of the baskets as though they contained fluffy insulation, not heavy sand. In a few silent moments of effort, he filled in the hole. There was exactly the right volume of fill. The grave was stuffed with sand, with enough left over to make a small mound at the edge. He suddenly broke into a sweat, damp streaks ran down the back of his army shirt. I felt uneasy at that moment. the other escorts also seemed to be roused from their torpor. We rushed to the empty baskets to help to him if only by lining them up so they wouldn't be left strewn about the grave.
The bereaved family knelt before the small marker planted by the welfare officer. On it had been etched the sergeant's name, his unit, and its number, his last assignment and his tender age. He hadn't reached even the age of 20. I recalled the words of a grieving father whom I'd heard on the radio before we'd started out that day. His son had been 21 and half when he fell. He'd mentioned this perhaps seven times during his brief, halting statement. The program's host hadn't dared interrupt him. And so his words had been heard as a kind of prose poem with a heartbreaking, recurring stanza: a 21 and half year-old boy when he died, 21 and half years-old, 21 and half. The sergeant we brought from the temporary cemetery for final burial hadn't been even 20.
In silence, we moved away from the grieving family and the crowd of mourners. Now that our job was done, we gathered around our command car, slurping cold water from a jerry can. As always, we wrung our hands while murmuring the usual phrases to avert the agony of death and ward off the evil eye. Someone complimented the fine professional work of our moshavnik. Just don't start telling your grave digging stories, I secretly prayed. Resist the urge to regale us with eerie funeral tales from the Moshav. He exhaled deeply, but, observing the decencies, said nothing. Yet under his breath, he muttered, "Such baskets of sand. Such DPW baskets of sand. I haven't seen those in ages. I didn't even know they still used those things".
Later, we climbed heavily into the command car and again sat three across on the benches. But now we had neither the coffin nor the flag draped over it. On the metal floor, only dusty furrows marked where we had dragged the box. We sat now free of the tension and gravity we had felt driving there. I glanced at the military section as the people left and at the flocks of swallows flitting through the tree tops. This, I thought, is the entire story: a dozen tattered, rubber DPW baskets of sand. twelve heavy baskets filled with sand. And the vague, violent arbitrariness of war. And this somber assemblage: six reservists, the lad from the tank battalion, the Moshavnik who threw himself on the grave to erase his grief, and I, imprinting this image into my memory.
I saw too many dead in that damn war, far too many. At the collection stations, at battalion aid posts and at makeshift field hospitals. And on the sooty hills, beneath the melting snow, at the parking lots of the temporary cemeteries. I didn't know this young sergeant. I'd never seen him anywhere. Just before we left, I cast a final glance at the fresh mound and the wooden marker, at the flowers and the black ribbons covering everything. And one last time to see the 12 DPW baskets of sand still standing behind us like a dozen silent witnesses forever fixed to the spot.
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Elisha Porat is an Israeli author.