Last Saturday night, 40 years after we graduated the Israel Air Force Flight Academy, the class of 1966 gathered for a reunion. We met near Herzliya, on the lawn of the spacious house belonging to one of our number, Kobi Richter. After graduation, this former kibbutznik had gone on to become one of the air force’s outstanding fighter pilots. When he retired from the military, together with his wife Judith he established Medinol, one of the world’s leading stent producers.
Kobi and I and our fellow graduates hugged each other warmly, admired the beautiful sunset and enjoyed the cold white wine. We had so much to catch up on, so many stories to be recycled, jokes to be retold, memories to be relived. Then we sat down on the grass, drank more wine and sang.
Suddenly, from the south, a formation of attack helicopters arrived. We watched these war machines crawling slowly up the coast, heading toward Lebanon, thinking about those flying the helicopters, who in 30 minutes would be in harm’s way.
We, the class of 1966, are too old now to put on our flying suits, take off and go kick butt. Our children have taken the torch from our hands.
I was sitting next to Hanoch, a laid-back kibbutznik, who was singing as off-tune as could be possible. Forty years ago he had impressed me with the meticulous and patient way in which he prepared huge sandwiches for breakfast. Now he told me calmly that as we spoke, his son Yahel was flying a reconnaissance aircraft in the most dangerous of missions.
We spoke fondly of our four comrades who had been killed in action. Yoni, the two Moshes and Mike. They kept looking at us from the photographs, forever young, while we were telling anecdotes about them. We reminisced about the most beautiful period of our lives, when we became men, reached the limits of our human endurance, and made friends for life. And yes, without ever bragging too much about it, when we just served our country.
Our wives joined in. They have been with us all these years, supporting, encouraging, raising our children when we were busy playing heroes, while at the same time pursuing their own lives. They probably heard our old stories hundreds of times, but they still laughed forgivingly. They seem more relaxed now, now that they don’t have to count anymore the hours and minutes until we return.
I turned around and looked at my friends. We have all gained weight and lost hair, and our best years are probably behind us. But we’re still alive and kicking.
Some of us became career officers in the air force; others are El Al captains, architects, hi-tech CEOs, successful businessmen or professors. We have all made it in life, and we are now ready to give back to our communities.
We made the whole world the arena for our ambitions, but Israel has always been our home; it’s where we raised our children and grandchildren. We’ve all seen worse situations than the present one, and in the chats we had that evening, no one had any doubt whatsoever: We will persevere.
We sang again the old, beloved songs of our youth. Suddenly, a distant noise came from over the hill. We turned our heads. The helicopters were back.
It’s the old habit of anxiously counting your comrades when they return from combat mission. One, two, three, and then, after an agonizing delay, four. We resumed the singing with renewed vigor.
“This summer you will dress in white,” we sang, “and pray for better days.”
Uri Dromi, director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, was chief spokesman for the Israeli government under Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.