OK: no, I wasn’t a member of Triple AAA. Just getting that out of the way, because you’re going to ask. Everyone else did. And yes, I am now a member of Triple AAA. Happy?
Monday the 26th I went to Los Angeles for an event sponsored by the Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors group (which does marvelous work, and which sponsored the bloggers panel I sat on in May). Mondays are bad days to drive to LA in the afternoon, I’m finding. In a strange mishap on the way out of town, my necklace broke and spewed beads all over the front of the car, which I should perhaps have taken as an omen. The drive was relatively peaceful, but the myriad slowdowns were epic, and trying to get to a hotel on Sunset Boulevard, right where it crosses the 405, was a nightmare. (Team Obama is there this week, on its Improving America’s Highways So There Can Be Thousands Of Signs On Them kick. A plethora of orange cones meets the weary driver from every direction.)
So I missed the first 25 minutes or so of the presentation. But it was an excellent evening with two soldiers in the Israel Defense Force (IDF), members of Unit 646, a special forces group performing a mission that US Marines would call “force recon,” or force reconnaissance. These are the guys who, in the current incarnation of unconventional urban warfare, go house to house clearing an unsecured area that is likely to be full of hiding terrorists and booby-traps. The older officer, Guy, is the group’s commander. His younger comrade, Ariel, was born in North Carolina to a Jewish couple who immigrated there to homestead. He became an Eagle Scout during his American childhood and joined JROTC in high school, but ultimately decided to move to Israel and become a citizen there. Both men are married with children.
The two soldiers were there to talk about Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli response in Gaza in early 2009. Americans are never reminded by the MSM that this operation was mounted after Israel had suffered more than 4,000 short-range rocket attacks from Gaza. Nor are we often given a glimpse, through those MSM, of the human reality behind the fabled IDF: the families, the soldiers, the militia-like informality of the call-up process when the nation has to go to war. Conveying that picture was the thrust of the evening. (If you’re interested in seeing a video of the presentation, check back at this link. I don’t see a video link posted yet, but the event was recorded and for most of the CJHS events videos are posted online.)
Unit 646 had a video made of some of its operations, interwoven with what was going on back on the home front, during Cast Lead, and Guy and Ariel showed us that as part of their presentation. Several of the wives were interviewed during the operation, their emotions fresh and real because they didn’t know yet what the outcome would be, for nation, unit, or husband. They were young, as such wives always are, but articulate and direct, giving in very little to the tendency to ramble and exclaim.
The soldiers were the kind of motley crew Hollywood once delighted in packing into its depictions of military units: an old guy, a young guy, a free-spirited guy, a wisecracking guy, a studious guy with glasses. In the US military they would all have had the same haircut and been otherwise homogenized through uniform and grooming regulations. Not so Unit 646: there were rasta locks and full-grown beards interspersed with the stubble inevitable in combat. The men wore uniforms, of course, but I doubt any of them would have done more than laugh at the idea of a “gig line” (the straight line made by aligning the edge of the belt buckle with the trouser fly and, where applicable, the shirt’s buttoned front flap). They talked about the things soldiers usually talk about, including quite a bit about the families and girlfriends at home.
Ariel made a telling point late in the evening, responding to an audience question: that the reserves who make up most of the IDF are more like a militia than like the American armed forces reserves. It’s quite true, and evident not just from the informality of their call-up “procedure” – which consists of “Guy calling me on my cell phone” – but from the truest quality of a militia: being on-call to defend one’s home.
Americans who have lost touch with the original meaning of “militia” in our own heritage could not do better than to watch the Mel Gibson movie The Patriot, which depicts the operations of militia in South Carolina during the Revolutionary War. Gibson himself has gone ‘round the bend in some ways recently, but The Patriot is well worth seeing for the reminder it is of the role of militias in the formation of the United States. The current popular understanding of “militia” – self-appointed survivalist or vigilante groups, always on the edge of the wrong side of the law – is a modern pigeonhole that doesn’t reflect our historical reality. (Outside of NRA members, I wonder how many Americans today realize that each state has a militia, to which designated citizens – including women, in some of the states – are subject to call-up in a security emergency.)
Israeli reservists are a genuine militia. According to Ariel, who lives in Jerusalem, he suspected he was about to get that “call from Guy” when his wife noticed their windows rattling and asked what he thought it meant. “Well,” he remembers saying, “either there’s been an earthquake or we’re finally mounting a response in Gaza.” The call from Guy came that night. When Unit 646 saddled up, it was to take the fight to the attackers who had been coming after their homes, their wives, and their children.
Guy, the unit commander, was unequivocal that Cast Lead was conducted with a better sense of priorities than the 2006 war in Lebanon had been. It achieved a worthwhile effect – and more quickly – because it was governed by purpose and determination, as reflected in the preparatory bombing, the adequacy of air support, and the effective rules of engagement. From an analytical perspective over time, he is certainly correct about the difference in effectiveness between 2006 and 2009: the indeterminate outcome in Lebanon left a bad situation to fester, and much to Israel’s (and frankly Lebanon’s) disadvantage. Hezbollah has gathered territory and strength there, and is not only being armed at will by Syria and Iran but is able to operate from a base with “internal lines of communication” in eastern Lebanon. The only thing between Hezbollah and Israel is UNIFIL, which is thoroughly intimidated and will assuredly be simply extracted by NATO, if placed in extremis by an unconventional Hezbollah offensive. With the Scud missiles reportedly supplied by Syria, however, Hezbollah can also just bypass any confrontation with UNIFIL and hit most of Israel over UNIFIL heads directly from the Bekaa Valley.
After Cast Lead in 2009, by contrast, Hamas’ internal organization, territorial infrastructure, and arms caches had been fully disrupted. Israel’s purpose was not to reoccupy Gaza and remove Hamas from political power, but to render Hamas incapable of debilitating Israel with persistent rocket attacks and homicidal infiltrations. This objective the IDF achieved. What Hamas hates so much at the moment is that Cast Lead did, in fact, disarm its paramilitary infrastructure. The blockade of Gaza, by which Israel controls what is transported into it, is what keeps this disarmament in effect. The disarmament has not been perfect or absolute, of course: as I have outlined in previous posts, Hamas has been able to acquire arms and explosives in small amounts through its connection with Iran, with the transfers largely coming via small-scale “drops” at sea, retrieved from fishing boats, and via land convoys through Egypt.
But overall, Cast Lead achieved its purpose. Guy, the consummate force recon commander, eschewed commenting on politics (and rather obviously thought poorly of politics in general), but his insight on the reason for Cast Lead’s effectiveness was, in my view, spot on. Israel chose operational effectiveness in 2009, over seeking vainly to satisfy the MSM’s version of “world opinion.” Israel chose, in other words, to defend Israel and make Israelis safer.
I was invited to join a small group that had coffee and puu-puus after the presentation, which is where I learned about Ariel’s American rearing and his family in Israel. It’s always refreshing to just meet soldiers. One thing they are usually good at is fending off the overheated political discourse of eager interlocutors without exuding the supercilious, faintly disapproving air so common with politicians and celebrated pundits. Hey, live and let live, their attitude seems to say. It’s just words, and everybody’s entitled.
During the presentation, one man in the audience opined – in the declamatory speech he made at the microphone in lieu of “asking a question” – that we needed to figure out how to get younger people to come to events like this, and hear these things from inspiring speakers like Guy and Ariel. He looked around, he said, and it was all old people. (Well, people looked to me to be mostly in their 50s and 60s, which doesn’t look nearly as old to me as it used to. But this man was in his 70s, so he’s entitled to call people “old” if he wants.) How could we attract the young people?
My immediate thought was, “Don’t hold these on Monday night.” Young people have kids. Young people are in school, or working late. Who has time to drive around LA on Monday evening, not to mention paying and tipping for valet parking at an upscale hotel, other than old people?
But Guy’s strong answer was that the young people are engaged. He’s not worried about them. (He has three children, but the oldest seemed to be about 10, from the Cast Lead video.) And he made the further point that it’s never a waste to build up the knowledge base and confidence of the older generation, because they are the leaders anyway: the ones who have been through things, who have a template to apply when things go wrong, who know what to do.
It may not feel like we know what to do. But I think Guy was right – and that the younger generation learns the most from the older when the older is in the middle of handling problems, regardless of how unready, incompetent, and discouraged we may feel when it’s all right on top of us.
Which brings me to the $380 battery. Our small group broke up from the hotel’s restaurant late. In fact, having a long drive ahead of me, I was one of the first to depart the restaurant. I turned out, however, to be the very last one to leave the hotel – and by a long shot. As I stood at the valet lounge area, waiting for my car to be brought up, one of the attendants came running over, asking me if there was some trick to turning my car on, because it wouldn’t start. That seemed absurd to me, as I’d had no indication of trouble whatsoever on the drive over. But I accompanied him to where the car was parked, and tried turning it on myself, only to discover that – it wouldn’t start.
It was clearly the battery: each attempted crank left the dashboard lights coming on more and more faintly. Well, I thought, if we can jump it, I can get home. (Home is a 2-plus hour drive away, at that time of night when there’s no traffic.) I just wouldn’t be able to stop anywhere.
Famous last thoughts. My cables happened to be in the back of the car, so we hauled those out and the attendants brought a hotel van over. It was 11:00 PM and pitch black under the “marine-layer” cloud cover of the LA area; the only light in our immediate vicinity, out in the parking lot, was from the van’s headlights. So no one had a good view of the battery. We discovered only after several attempts at a jump-start, when the valet supervisor brought over a strong flashlight, that it was leaking like crazy and the leads were sopping wet. We immediately desisted from further attempts at blowing ourselves up, and I acknowledged at that point that the bleeding battery was well and truly dead, and the car wasn’t going anywhere on its own power.
The “Do you have Triple AAA?” questions began. Of course I didn’t. That would have been too easy. After all, I’ve been driving late-model, regularly-maintained cars bought new from dealers for 15 years now; when does my car ever break down? I don’t know if anyone could have come out to rescue me at midnight, in Brentwood, even if I had had Triple AAA coverage at that point. But I didn’t, and I didn’t know you could join over the phone and get service right away. So I pulled out the cell phone and sat down with a pen and paper.
The cell phone died turning on. This was becoming a night to remember. I realized I hadn’t charged it up since the last time I drove to LA; it had been sitting in my purse the whole time. Nor, of course, did I have a charger with me. Who takes the charger on a day trip? So I would have to do the rest of this the old-fashioned way.
Which felt really weird and primitive. When was the last time you tried to find a towing service or an all-night mobile battery service using a phone book, in an unfamiliar place? The front desk clerk had a hard time even finding a Yellow Pages book, and had to go to the back room for it. While I stood poring over the “Automobile Repair & Service” and “Towing – Automotive” entries, I heard the clerk tell someone on the phone that they were all full that night and had no more rooms. That definitely gave me a sinking feeling, as I was starting to suspect I would need a room for the night. I asked him about the hotel next door, and he said apologetically that he had already talked to them on behalf of another customer, and they were full too. If you know the area, you know there just aren’t any other hotels around there.
With a sigh, I started making calls from the front desk phone. The front desk personnel were very kind and accommodating about that, although – LA being LA – I had to make most of the calls across area codes. No, none of the towing companies knew of an all-night place to take my car to. None of them would come tow the car unless I had a place to take it to, although with one of the companies, I could pay a substantial overnight storage fee if I wanted to. It seemed almost humorous: if I were out in the middle of nowhere on I-40, I could find someone to tow the car and replace a battery at midnight – probably the same 24-hour travel stop/service station – but in residential north LA, fuhgeddaboudit.
I finally accepted that nothing would be happening until morning. So I began the process of finding a hotel room, using the primitive Yellow-Pages-and-landline-phone method. The thing about Yellow Pages now is that there are all these different ones, and I don’t know that any of them are comprehensive any more. I felt sure the list of hotels in this one was woefully unrepresentative of the number there actually are. But it was what it was. I didn’t want to have to take a $100 cab ride both ways, so I restricted my search to what I hoped was a reasonable radius. Everyone was full for the night. I started with the Best Westerns and had worked down to Comfort Inn and Motel 6, and every single one was full, until finally I gulped and tried the Vagabond Inn on Vine in Hollywood. If you know the area, that probably wouldn’t be your first choice either. But they had a room.
I should mention that Doris, the wonderful lady who runs Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, has offered to put me up for the night more than once when I’ve driven to LA for one of her events. I thought about calling her, but darn it, it was midnight, and then it was after midnight; there are just some lists I have to have known you for at least 20 years to put you on, and the list of people I’d call to get out on the LA freeways after midnight to come pick me up from a hotel parking lot is one of them. So I know she’ll swat me for not having called, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Eventually the taxi arrived to convey me to the Vagabond. It had taken the driver a while to figure out how to get across Sunset at the 405, because Team Obama had it closed entirely at that time on Monday night (more accurately, at that point, Tuesday morning). Fortunately, the cab driver was a chatty, soft-spoken young man from Ghana, so the drive was relatively pleasant. He assured me that the only right way to proceed would be to buy a battery myself, slip the hotel parking attendants a few bucks to install it, and then – if that didn’t make the car start – return the battery for a refund.
Since I was sure the problem was the battery – the car’s been working fine, and in fact, I had the dealer’s “major maintenance” done on it just a week ago – I thanked him for the advice, but didn’t plan to follow through on it. (What in the world would I do with the old battery, leaking all over the back end of my car?) Reflecting on it, it seems like the battery lasted a good long while – 8 years, nearly 70,000 miles – and I mainly wish the dealer’s mechanics had figured out it needed replacing when they had the car last week.
They were glad to see me at the Vagabond, in spite of the absence of luggage and the late hour. The cab driver was dubious as we approached, but I was thankful to see that the little hotel was clean and maintained, with a well-lit lobby and an alert night clerk. I resolved to pay no attention to what might be going on out on the sidewalks on Vine. At the Vagabond, I suspect you achieve “star customer” status by looking clean and honest and having a valid credit card. At any rate, I was awarded a key card in short order and was finally able to head for room 201, which turned out to be right next to the street, but was the only non-smoking room left.
It was cleaner than I expected. But I had read not too long ago of a problem with people contracting scabies after spending the night in LA’s moderately-priced hotels, so I didn’t plan to get under the covers. I couldn’t take my contact lenses out either, but still, I was very grateful to have a place to crash for the night. Eventually I was situated on the creaky but reasonably comfortable bed, curtains drawn against a light that flashed somewhere outside. I don’t know that I slept at all. Trucks rumbled importantly down Vine on a regular basis, and when they went by, the windows rattled.
The rattling windows naturally made me think of Ariel the force recon reservist, and the warning his rattling windows provided him that he was probably about to receive a “phone call from Guy.” Now, in southern California rattling windows are more likely than they are in most places to signify an earthquake, so there is definitely that thought to contend with. But in North America, they virtually never mean that man is applying explosives to his fellow man in a political battle.
How thankful we can be for that! And yet, how important it is to be willing to answer the call when our windows are rattling. How important it is that there be someone appointed to make the call. How important that we recognize and act on the utility of employing a concerted political will, even when it involves rattling windows. The human spirit longs for more than merely avoiding the distasteful and inconvenient. Lying there in room 201 in the Vagabond Inn on Vine, trucks roaring by, lights flashing, windows rattling, the cost of replacing one stupid battery going up by the minute, I realized with more force than I would have, if I had merely driven home that night without incident, that there are things worth the effort.
I knew that God had been with me every step of the way that night. It was very annoying, having to deal with the expired battery and the immobilized car – especially without a cell phone, on which I have obviously become totally dependent – but the mere fact that we hadn’t incinerated ourselves trying to jump-start the leaking battery in the dark looked like God taking care of us. I did find a hotel room, and the Vagabond turned out to be perfectly safe and apparently clean, however unlikely its location. The cab ride was about $40 each way, which could have been much worse. The drivers were pleasant and polite. The ATM at the hotel was working; a significant point, as I hadn’t fortified myself with a lot of cash for this expedition.
And in the morning, everything worked to get me on the road home. The Vagabond called me a cab, for which I was able to wait in the lobby while the folks sleeping under tarps out on the sidewalk went through their morning routine. The driver was originally from Ukraine; he had a radio station playing on which a Ukrainian stand-up comic entertained an appreciative crowd in their fractured-Russian-sounding language, which comes across to me as a kind of hillbilly Russian like some American dialects of English. The driver laughed along with the punch lines several times, and got me to the Luxe Hotel in good order.
Arriving there, I learned from the morning desk clerk that in his experience, Triple AAA would – for a fee – dispatch one of their contract roadside service companies even for non-members. He got me the 800 number and I resumed my landline-calling career on the hotel’s phone system. Triple AAA was sorry they no longer offered service to non-members, but if I joined over the phone they’d send someone right out. So – yes, reader – I joined Triple AAA. Then, very hungry and needing coffee at this point, I went to have breakfast in the hotel restaurant while I waited for the mobile auto mechanic to arrive.
Like everyone else, he had to fight Team Obama and the orange cones at the Sunset-405 junction, but he did get there, and the actual battery swap-out ended up being the shortest part of the whole episode. Like the cabbies, the valet attendants, and the front desk clerks, the mechanic was cheerful and polite, although he had the distinction of being the only one I encountered all night who had actually been born and raised in America. He was a Californian of about 30, and indeed, very obviously a (San Fernando) Valley Californian, with the Valley inflection so recognizable to Yanks from all walks of life. (We established this when he asked, with a deprecating chuckle, if I was from California originally. He thought he detected a little bit of an accent, but couldn’t place it.)
In spite of being concerned about what this was all going to cost me, I actually wanted to give a good tip to everyone who helped me that night, because they were all excellent, from the girl behind the valet-parking desk to the front desk clerks – all with Latino surnames and accents – to the mostly Filipino and Asian attendants, the cab drivers, and the desk clerk at the Vagabond, whom I judged to be South Asian, perhaps Pakistani. All told, getting the battery replaced ended up costing about $380, only $135 of which went to the mobile mechanic and the battery itself.
But I was finally launched north on the 405, to wend my way toward the 210 and home. It was Tuesday morning and I was wearing my clothes from the day before, along with daily-wear contacts that had been in my eyes for more than 24 hours at that point. What I was pondering, however, was the encouraging quality of the people I had encountered over the previous day, from Guy and Ariel to Guy’s extended family in the LA area (with whom we did puu-puus after the presentation), to the engaged, urgent people in the CJHS audience – knowledgeable, passionate people from so many walks of life – to the many different service people who make things go in Los Angeles every day, each of them a human being with a conscience and an attitude and a choice about how to approach his or her fellows.
I thought too about how strongly I had known God was with me throughout the night. It was convenient to have the advantages of middle age, from a life lived with comparative scrupulousness – credit cards that work, money in the bank at the other end of that ATM, even the ancient memory of what to do to find services when the blasted cell phone dies – but there were things that the credit and the bank account couldn’t have fixed if they had gone wrong. They didn’t. There was a port in the storm – and not where I would have looked for it; i.e., in the 1100 block of Vine in Hollywood – and in spite of attaching jumper cables to a bleeding battery and taking a cab to Hollywood after midnight, I was driving home in one piece the next morning.
Guy had spoken Monday night of Israel’s leaders having the wrong priorities in 2006: in his words, as a non-native-English speaker, “putting the values in the wrong order.” He meant that a complacent, tired – spiritually tired – elite had failed to prioritize the clearest and most obvious values: the survival of Israeli Jews and the Jewish state. But he saw a major shift in the moral underpinnings of the war decision in early 2009. In Cast Lead, the values were in the right order.
These words resonated with me when he said them, but they resonate even more after the Night of the $380 Battery. I don’t think America’s own complacent, spiritually tired elite ever comes in contact with the average Americans who helped me out on Monday night and Tuesday morning. Such people are depicted by Hollywood and the academy as either victims of a regrettable and repulsive American culture or as moral idiots-savants: noble savages in a world of crass, mean-spirited “capitalism.” In fact, they are simply our fellow human beings, living the best lives they can in America and, for the most part, happy to be here. The tired elite is not the real America: the service people with the non-Anglo names are, just as are the millions of other native-born Americans with (or without) Anglo names who increasingly distrust and even despise the sclerotic “elite.”
And that should encourage us. The spiritual exhaustion is not “America” in 2010, any more than it was “Israel” in 2006. Humanity, hope, courage, determination, compassion, heroism – all are in our midst, waiting for the “call from Guy.”
In a sense, America is lying sleepless in the Vagabond Inn on Vine, windows rattling as the noisy trucks pass by, worried about mounting costs, leery of the immediate circumstances, frustrated at the present inconvenience and the uncertain outcome before us. Perhaps each of us thinks of his own “bank account” – the sum total of his own temporal life so far – and, while being grateful for what’s in it today, can only see how inadequate it could be to the task ahead.
But when the call from Guy comes, the old people will answer – and the young people will too. The old people will put our values in order. The young people will rise up, Ariels and their brave wives, to face the rattling windows. And God will be with us. Weeping may endure for a night, Psalm 30:5 says. But joy cometh in the morning.
* Note: if any readers are interested in making contributions that will support the families of Unit 646, that can be done through the Israel Independence Fund, a US 501(c)3. Caroline Glick recommended the IIF in this endorsement in March 2010.