The floor of Elie’s room has always been something of a mystery to me. It’s there – it has to be, and yet more often than not, it’s a bit of a chore to find it in any large quantity. I’m a firm believer in children keeping their own rooms tidy. I’ll ask them to clean it; I’ll beg them to clean it.
Occasionally, I’ll even help them clean it. But for the most part, a child’s room is the first world that belongs just to him, and I like to respect his right to use (and abuse) it. Every once in a while, the urge to clean it beats the “be a good mother and let them be” attitude.
Lately, since Elie has been in the army, the desire to have him come home to a clean room and fresh sheets on the bed is even stronger and I’ve given in to it more often than not. Interestingly enough, the other kids are jealous and want me to clean their rooms too…so there goes my great philosophy of life which said they’d like me to leave their rooms alone.
While Elie was away at yeshiva, I once spent 18 hours cleaning his room, amazed to find the amount of absolute garbage a child could tuck away in the most amazing places. He was 18 years old and I understood that he was on the brink of something. His floor contained a mixture of so many ages, toys and tools, water guns and computer or phone manuals.
As I was cleaning his room the other day before he got home from the army – doing a quick grab and chuck routine to get rid of the worst of it, a thought crossed my mind, but with the excitement of Elie coming home for a whole week, I let it slip away and didn’t write about it. Then, on Friday, as Elie was preparing to go away to spend the weekend as his yeshiva/pre-military academy (also known as a mechina), the thoughts crystallized again and I promised myself I’d take the time to write.
As he was packing his bag, on his bed, were several magazines – and I don’t mean the paper kind. He was taking his gun with him, naturally, including several magazines of bullets. He’s been instructed to have the magazine loaded into the gun at times when he isn’t on base or in our home. A few stray bullets were also on his bed. So there it is. As a very young child, Elie’s floor was littered with little toy figures, cars, and marbles.
As he got older, there were CDs and all sorts of wires, brochures for the latest phones, and tools. Pieces of phones and earphones and extension cords and screw drivers and nails. His childhood toys had long since been relegated to a box in the corner under his desk and recently, he called his youngest brother in and gave him a bunch of toys from the sacred box under the desk.
But Elie’s room is far from empty. Where once there were toys, now there are army boots and belts, green undershirts. Now, there are bullets on his bed. A spare belt for his gun and many packages of black shoe polish cover his desk. I could handle the shoe polish and the belts, but the bullets show me that he’s in a new place in his life and I’m reminded that it’s a place I’ve never been.
I came home late tonight and knocked on Elie’s door. He was watching a movie on his computer and tucked into the area between his bed and the wall was his M16. He’s wearing regular clothes, sprawled across his bed with empty bottles of ice tea on the floor. Barefoot, content…and a gun in the corner of his room. Elie was explaining to me the rules of engagement and how they are taught many Arabic phrases – “Stop or I’ll shoot”; “Don’t move”; “Pull your shirt up”. These are designed to save lives. The Palestinian’s life…and Elie’s life.
His officers have explained that Israeli soldiers are stuck in a quandry – choose, they tell them – and choose quickly. If you believe the person approaching you poses a threat, call to them and tell them to stop. If they continue to advance, don’t hesitate to shoot in the air. Call out again – Stop or I’ll shoot. If they continue to advance, aim for their legs. Stop them from advancing and then call in a robot that will check whether they have a bomb on them. If you can’t stop them, shoot to kill.
Does my son know what that means? I’m not sure that I know, and yet he understands what he must do. Elie told me that he’s seen news reports of Arabs lying on the floor in pain while the Israelis send in bomb detecting robots to find and dismantle explosive belts hidden under their shirts, “What they don’t show is how hard the soldiers tried to stop him before they had to shoot,”
Elie told me and I remembered the same broadcasts. It’s true. You don’t hear the voices calling out asking the man to stop, warning him that he is leaving them with no choice. Stop, or I will shoot because that is why I am here. To stand between you and innocent people. Stop. Don’t hesitate, Elie’s commanding officers tell him. If you believe you are in danger, you have to shoot. And yet, they tell the soldiers, if you are wrong, you will go to jail. It’s all a matter of making a decision.
For tonight, Elie has no decisions to make, but he’ll sleep with his gun by his bed and bullets close by. Not because he is in danger, but because he has learned that the gun is a part of him, an extension of the job he’s been given to do. Always he must know where it is, always it must be close by. Always, he must be prepared to use it.
As for me, in a few days (too few), Elie will go back to the army and I’ll go in and clean his room when I’m missing him most. I’ll probably find some stray bullets and wonder where my little boy put his cars and marbles and Power Ranger figures and I’ll mourn, just a little, a world that forces us into a position in which there are bullets in a boy’s room and an extra pair of army boots in his closet.