The first time it happened to me I was sitting on a bench outside of my Israel apartment in late March last year. It was night and I was studying my microbiology flashcards by streetlight. It was a better environment than my cramped bedroom.
Looking back, I think moments like that should have some special quality to them. Like, I could feel something was just … off. It’s quiet … too quiet. Look up and see something ominous, like a raven. But there was none of that. It was a completely normal evening. The occasional car drove by with techno music blasting too loud. The fruit and vegetable stand at one end of the street was busy, and at the other end of the street there was a bored line of people at the bakery.
And then there was a siren.
It took a split second to hear it rev up, and then it was just a solid wail in the night. Loud, like a tornado siren back home. And I immediately shot to my feet. Thinking back now I should have run for cover or something. It’s Israel. Israel plus loud siren equals something worth finding cover for is happening. But I just stood there wondering what was happening. Since I’d arrived we’d received emails telling us the military would be doing drills in this area or that area of the city. So, I guess I was thinking, “Maybe this is all just an exercise.”
I looked to either end of the street. Despite the siren filling up the night around them, the line at the bakery was just as bored as before. I could still see old ladies picking over onions at the vegetable stand. No one was acting as if anything was happening. So I thought nothing was happening. Probably some military thing that’s routine, I thought.
I sat back down and let the siren keep blaring. It wound down after going off for about two minutes. Everything was as quiet as before. One of my roommates appeared and asked what the siren was about. Neither of us had answers.
And then there was an explosion.
There was no echo, no secondary explosions … just a hollow sounding massive “boom.” And still no one was acting as if anything was wrong, except for me and my roommate. He looked at me with wide eyes. “That sounded legit,” he said.
There was still no way to know what was happening. Even if we had radios, we couldn’t understand anything coming over the wire. We’d been told by administrators at our school that there’d been unpleasantness in years past, but we were never told what to do if we heard sirens and explosions. And, Be’er Sheva is near an army base, so the sound of explosions is something that is part of the aural landscape of where we live.
I called one of my classmates who’d been living in Israel for a few years before medical school. All I remember him saying to me is that I should get to a bomb shelter if I heard the siren again. He confirmed our wondering: that was, indeed, legit.
Our local bomb shelter was locked and we had no idea how to find out who it was that had the keys. The stairwell was our alternate location.
We went inside and soon the emails started to fly. We found out the explosion we heard was a shot from Gaza. Palestinian terrorists fired more than 200 rockets at Israel. Many rockets struck major Israeli population centers, such as Ashdod (pop. 200,000), Beersheba (pop. 190,000), Ashkelon (pop. 110,000) and Netivot (pop. 27,000), according to the Israel Defense Forces. More than 1 million Israelis live under the threat of rocket attacks from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
The siren would go off for almost two minutes. When it stopped, we had something like 40 seconds until the rocket hit. All information that would have been useful to have been told before the moment I was standing out in the open wondering if it was all just some exercise I didn’t know about.
The initial feeling is, exhilaration. We’d just been fired upon. We’d just heard a rocket explode somewhere nearby. Someone shot a rocket at where I am and I’m still here. All the very intensely stupid feelings you might associate with a teenager’s estimation of war. There was a lot of adrenaline and even more chatter, the exact content of which was irrelevant but it’s subtext translated into: “Can you believe this is happening?”
And as the night wound down I wondered, “What exactly is happening?” Was something happening? Was there a war breaking out? Or was this just the condition of this place? All I could gather from the Internet was that the Israel Defense Force (IDF) killed some people suspected of terrorism in Gaza. That made Hamas angry, so they started shooting rockets.
No, war was not breaking out. Apparently this was just part of living in this place. That’s why no one outside seemed concerned. They’d heard it before, and, anyway, they needed to get some onions before it got too late.
I remember that being something I kept thinking about that night: why was everyone so clam. Surely they knew what was happening. Surely one does not make the decision lightly to keep standing in line for cinnamon rolls when one knows a rocket is heading for your city. Ok, I admit to all those munitions experts out there, you could have a lot worse than a Grad rocket shot at your city. But whether it’s a grenade or an ICBM, when you’re part of the target area the fact that one kills harder than the other doesn’t make much difference.
Dead is dead.
I couldn’t figure out what would keep you considering this head of lettuce over that one if you understood what was happening. At the time, I decided to recognize it as something I already knew about the locals: these are tough people in a tough place.
Before going to bed that night I emailed my father and told him what had happened. I closed with this: “I am not going to tell Kathryn my, then, fiancé, so, if you don’t want to tell mom either, that would be fine with me.”
No need to worry anyone needlessly, I thought.
As I laid in bed that night the neighborhood was quiet. I could hear distant thunder. Rolling. Rolling. I love the sound of thunder. Everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve never heard thunder like I’ve heard back home. And I’ve always missed its roar in the storms of other places. But this was the desert, and there was no rain. This was not thunder. It was the sound of IDF artillery showering Gaza. I prayed for all of us. And it rolled until I drifted off to sleep.
Stay tuned …
(Feature photo: . Rocket launched from Gaza into Israel — about 30 of them long-range projectiles aimed at large cities. Israeli Police at the scene of a rocket explosion in a city in southern Israel. Photo can be found here.)
John Powers was born and raised in Oklahoma. After graduating from high school, he made his way to Massachusetts to study philosophy at Merrimack College. After MA, he joined a volunteer organization and moved to the Bronx to work as a citizenship teacher at an immigration center, as a server at a soup kitchen, and as a liaison to the United Nations for a small NGO. When his term of volunteer service was up he stayed in the Bronx another year and taught sixth grade at a local middle school. Teaching was, by far, the hardest thing he has ever done. Because of that and an itch to write, he moved to the Washington, D.C. area and worked first as an intern, then as a full-fledged reporter at the Washington Times Insight On The News Magazine. After the Washington Times downsized Insight, he rambled up to Maine and worked with the mentally challenged before finally moving back to Oklahoma to work as an editor for two trade publications covering the energy industry. After getting his 401(k) started and gaining 20 pounds in his cubicle, he decided he needed something different. Today he resides in Israel as a second-year medical student in Be’er Sheva. He loves his wife, Jack London and U2.