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ANDREW ELIOT’S DIARY. I don’t think I’ll ever be the same after yesterday
November 23, 1963
I don’t think I’ll ever be the same after yesterday. The newspapers are calling what happened in Dallas a “Greek tragedy,” but to me it’s an American tragedy. In fact, it’s something I feel so closely that I would almost call it a death in the family.
I think everybody — rich and poor, black and white, but especially those of us who had so identified with him because he was young and a Harvard man — is stunned by Jack Kennedy’s assassination.
Here we were just getting set for the upcoming Harvard-Yale game, half-expecting the President himself to show up at the last minute in an army helicopter, and the next thing we know he’s dead.
I’m not alone in looking up to him as some kind of gallant knight. He had a kind of aura that changed the atmosphere of the whole country. He made us feel proud. Dynamic. Full of hope. It looked like the beginning of a new and glorious chapter in our history.
But what really shakes me is that he was killed for no apparent reason. Here was a guy whose ship had been torpedoed in the war and who not only survived but saved one of his crewmen as well. If he had died defending some principle, it might have at least made some sense.
I think from today my whole generation will change its outlook on life. I doubt if success can mean the same to any of them.
Look — Kennedy won every prize. The sweet fruition of an earthly crown. And yet they’ll bury him with fully half a life still left unlived.
Danny Rossi was in Tanglewood when he learned that Maria had given birth to a girl.
He was, of course, planning to be at her bedside and had merely flown off for twenty-four hours to conduct a single concert. But little Sylvie (they had discussed names in advance) decided to arrive early.
Mr. and Mrs. Pastore were already with Maria when Danny entered the hospital room bearing armfuls of flowers.
He exchanged hugs with them, kissed the glowing mother, whispered a few affectionate words in her ear, and hurried to the neonatal ward to peer through the large glass pane at his new daughter.
At first he could not find her. By an unconscious reflex his eyes kept glancing at the cots with blue blankets. At last a helpful nurse picked Sylvie up and brought her to the window. Now he could see traces of Maria — and of himself — in her features.
“Even better than creating a symphony, eh, Mr. Rossi?”
It was their obstetrician, who happened to be passing by on his rounds.
“Oh yes,” Danny quickly agreed as he shook the doctor’s hand. “Thanks for everything. Maria says you were great.”
“My pleasure. And don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.”
“Having a daughter. Most men secretly want boys — at least the first time. But I know Sylvie, will bring you a great deal of happiness.”
Danny thought about the doctor’s words and felt relieved. During the flight home he had been unable to suppress the tinges of disappointment that Maria had not produced a son. He had hoped for an heir to continue the musical tradition he was establishing. After all, there were so few world-class women pianists. And the only time a female got to lead musicians was when twirling a baton. He had not considered that a girl might become a prima ballerina.
Sylvie was christened three weeks later and the Rossis had two hundred guests to their home for a champagne brunch. The Philadelphia papers published large photographs of their orchestra’s popular associate director with his lovely wife and new child. Danny was exhilarated. Being a father seemed to elevate him to a new status.
Yet, something puzzled him. Maria didn’t want a nanny. The most she would agree to was a nurse for the first few weeks. After that, she wanted to raise Sylvie on her own.
“Danny, I’ve spent the last nine months reading books about child care. I don’t want some starched-apron biddy telling me I don’t know how to be a mother.”
“But you’ll be exhausted,”
“Not if you help a little.”
“Sure,” he smiled, “but I’ve got a helluva concert schedule.”
“You act as if you’re a slave to your own fate, I mean, you don’t have to make so many guest appearances all over the place, do you?”
How could he make her understand?
“Maria, darling, you know that old chestnut about music being an international language? Well, nowadays it’s an international business. I have to do a certain amount of traveling — just to keep up my contacts.”
Maria looked at him. Her face grew flushed.
“Danny, I thought marriage would change you. And then when it didn’t, I thought at least being a father would. Why the hell can’t you grow up?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Why do you keep buzzing around the world like a bee from flower to flower? Do you still need that much adulation? if I’m not enough, there are plenty of local women to worship you.”
Danny did not feel compelled to justify the lifestyle of an artist.
“Maria, I assume this whole outburst is just the product of postpartum depression.”
Then, realizing he had wounded her, Danny came over and knelt by her side.
“Hey, that was shitty of me to say. Please forgive me. I really love you, Maria. Don’t you believe that?”
She nodded. “I just wish it were only me.”
Scarcely five months later, Maria was pregnant again. And the following year gave birth to a second daughter.
This time, Danny was in New York when she went into labor and made it to the hospital before the child arrived.
By January 1964 Jason had completed his six months of language training in the Ulpan. Having exercised the utmost discipline, using English only to write weekly letters to his parents, he found himself reasonably fluent in Hebrew.
The elder Gilberts had exerted frequent epistolary pressure on him to come home for Christmas. Jason had demurred, arguing that his course did not break for anything but the Jewish holidays in September. Now he once again avoided the possibility of returning to the States, even for a short visit, by saying that he was about to undertake “a very important job.”
He discussed it with Eva and Yossi — in Hebrew —on his first visit to the kibbutz since the summer.
“I’m going to join the army,” he announced.
“Good,” the kibbutz secretary exclaimed. “They can use an experienced man like you.”
Eva said nothing.
Yossi noticed the stern expression on her face and asked, “What’s the matter, aren’t you pleased with his decision?”
“I’m glad he’s staying,” she replied. “But I’ve a feeling he’s doing it for the wrong reason.”
“And what may that be?” Jason inquired.
“As a personal vendetta — to revenge Fanny’s death.”
“I don’t care what his reasons are,” Yossi retorted defensively. “Besides, doesn’t the Bible allow us an eye for an eye?”
“That’s primitive and you know it,” Eva countered. “It’s a metaphor, not to be taken literally.”
“The Arabs take it literally,” Yossi interposed.
“Hey, let’s cut the polemics. Do I have your blessings to enlist or not?” Jason asked.
“Not mine,” Eva stated adamantly.
“Well, you have mine,” Yossi countered, “and that of your whole kibbutz.”
“But I’m not a member of the kibbutz,” Jason replied.
“You will be after this week’s meeting,” the secretary responded. “That is, if you want to.”
“Yes. I want very much to belong.”
Though it was winter, Jason spent the next weeks in punishing, self-imposed, pre-basic training: getting up early to run in the freezing rain, lifting weights in the primitive kibbutz exercise room, and then running again before dinner.
He spent a lot of time talking to Eva, trying to convince her that his dedication was sincere. And pleading with her to make him less ignorant about the country’s history. Sometimes, at night, their conversation tentatively approached the personal.
He asked about her childhood. How it had been during the war with Fanny’s family. How she had been able to recover from the trauma of the Holocaust and the discovery that her parents had been slaughtered.
She told him how shattered she had been by the news of her parents’ fate. Still, she now felt she had been luckier than most. During the war, she had been blessed with the loving protection of the van der Post family. And afterward the establishment of Israel meant that her children would never suffer as she had.
Her talk of children led Jason to ask hesitantly why she was not married. At first she told him that like so many others, she had emerged from the Holocaust with her emotions deadened. But Jason sensed she was hiding something. And one night Eva told him the truth.
When she was in the army she had known a young officer named Mordechai. They had become very close. He was killed during his last month of active duty. And not by enemy fire, but during a training exercise with live ammunition.
“I’m going to come back,” Jason assured her, assuaging a fear she had not even dared articulate.
“Oh, I know you will,” she said, unconvincingly. “Nobody gets killed working in a clothing depot.”
“What makes you think I’m joining the Quartermaster Corps?” he asked.
“I told you,” she replied. “I’ve been in the army. Most recruits go in at eighteen. A man like you is considered practically senile. You’ll be lucky if they don’t make you check handbags at the cinemas.”
“I was a U.S. Marine,” he said, smiling. “I finished training with the fifth highest grade in my battalion. Want to make a bet?”
“You’d lose,” she smiled, “because you’re about to encounter the best thing in Israel — its army. And the very worst — its bureaucracy.”
On a raw February day, Jason Gilbert stepped off the bus at the Kelet, the army induction center just outside Tel Aviv. The camp was large and sprawling, consisting of corrugated-roofed huts, occasional eucalyptus trees, and a series of tents.
Up north at the local army office, he had enlisted for the mid-winter induction and passed a series of preliminary mental and medical tests.
Now he stood on line with another member of the kibbutz, eighteen-year-old Tuvia Ben-Ami, who was manifestly nervous. Not about the army as much as being away from home for the first time.
“Keep calm, Tuvi,” said Jason, pointing at the long line of adolescents waiting to be processed. “You’re going to find a lot of new friends in this kindergarten.”
When the recruits were assigned to small groups, the young kibbutznik practically held on to Jason’s belt to ensure they would not be separated.
Then they all went to the “butcher’s shop” to have their hair mercilessly sheared. For some of the urban Casanovas, it was the trauma of their lives, Jason had to laugh as he watched them suppress tears as their Elvis-like plumage dropped to the floor.
He in turn simply sat down and let the army lawnmower relandscape his locks.
Then it was time for the dog tags. The dispensing officer suggested that Jason consider changing his name to something more biblical and more patriotic.
“In Hellenistic times, when the Jews all aspired to be sophisticated Greeks, every Jacob changed his name to Jason. Think about that, soldier.”
After donning their khakis, they were led by their supervising corporal to the tents where they would be staying for the next three days.
Tuvia whispered to Jason, “You can tell who are kibbutzniks, and who are soft boys from the cities, just by the way they look at the sleeping bags. I think some of them expected feather beds.”
After dinner they strolled through the camp to look at the recruiting huts where they would be interviewed for special units. Over one shack a sign boasted THE BRAVE TO THE PARATROOPS.
“That’s where I’ll be at dawn tomorrow,” said Jason.
“You and a thousand others,” replied Tuvia, “including me. Everybody wants to earn his red beret. And stupid as it sounds, I’ve got a better chance than you.”
“Oh yes? What was your grade at the medical exam last month?”
“Ninety-one,” Tuvia answered proudly.
“Well, I got ninety-seven,” Jason retorted confidently. “That’s the highest they give. And when I asked them about the other three points, they said that Superman isn’t Jewish.”
“Listen,” Tuvia smiled, “even if he were, he couldn’t get into the Israeli Paratroops. Because he’s too old.”
By seven the next morning there were already long lines outside the huts of the elite brigades.
Jason passed his time by doing stretching exercises. At last he was admitted to the tent of the paratroop recruiting officer, a wiry, dark-haired man in his middle thirties.
His first words were hardly encouraging: “Beat it, Yankee. I admire your initiative, but you’re over the hill.”
“I’m only twenty-seven and I’ve got two years’ military experience.”
“Twenty-seven means ten years of you that I’ve already lost. Send in the next candidate.”
Jason folded his arms. “With due respect, I’m not leaving until I get a physical test.”
The interviewer stood and leaned his hands on the desk. “Listen, you’d drop dead if you even looked at our training course. Now do I have to throw you out myself?”
“I’m afraid so, sir.”
“Fine,” he replied, quickly reaching over and grasping Jason’s collar with a cross-armed grip.
Instinctively the ex-marine broke the hold with an upward motion of his clasped hands and then proceeded to pin the officer down onto his desk.
“Please sir,” said Jason with extreme politeness. “I beg you to reconsider.”
“All right,” he gasped, “you’ll get a try.”
After Jason had left, the interviewer sat rubbing his bruises and wondering whether he should call the Military Police.
No, he thought, let the arrogant bastard collapse on the hills.
“Next!” he shouted hoarsely.
Jason was walking slowly toward the test course when he heard footsteps behind him. He turned and saw that it was Tuvia.
“Well,” Jason smiled, “I see you made it, too. Was he rough on you?”
“Not at all. He took one look at my papers, saw we were from the same kibbutz and signed me on. What was all that noise I heard in there?”
“Just two Jews settling a difference of opinion.” Jason grinned modestly.
It was only two kilometers but it was all uphill. The candidates had to run in groups of four — carrying telephone poles.
Tuvia contrived to be in the same quartet as Jason. But, as they were ascending the final incline, one of their number collapsed and fell to his knees. The other three men stopped dead in their tracks, barely able to hold the huge pole aloft.
“Come on,” Jason encouraged, “you can do it. Just four hundred meters to go.”
“I can’t,” gasped the recruit.
“You’ve got to,” Jason barked. “You’ll mess it up for the rest of us. On your goddamn feet!” His tone — more like that of a commanding officer — shocked the young boy into getting up again.
They completed the course and dropped their gigantic burden to the ground, where it sank a few inches into the mid-winter mud.
Jason and Tuvia, who had done most of the lifting for the other two, struggled for breath and massaged their arms.
One of the recruiting officers approached them. “Not bad, he said. And then he pointed to the boy who’d fallen. “You’d better go back to the infantry, son. The others can stay on for further testing.”
He looked at Jason. “Okay, grandpa,” he grinned, “are you ready to go again?”
“Right away?” Jason asked, quickly masking his incredulity. “Uh, sure, as soon as you like. The same course?”
“Yes, the same course. The same log. But this time with me on top.”
At the end of two hours they were, like Gideon’s army, a small but select group.
“All right,” the officer barked. “If you thought today was difficult, I suggest you try another brigade. This was child’s play compared to what’s coming. So think it over. You may save yourself a nervous breakdown. Dismissed.”
Jason and Tuvia staggered back to their tent and flopped down onto their mattresses.
“You were the gutsiest one out there,” Tuvia said. “I saw the officers watching you. They were smiling like hell. You were so great that I’m going to share my most precious possession with you.”
Jason felt something being forced into his hand. He looked. It was half a bar of Swiss chocolate.
Twenty-four hours later, candidates for the Paratroop Brigade were loaded into a bus to be taken to the base at Tel Noff. During the journey, a man moved down the aisle and stopped in front of Jason. It was the paratroop recruiting officer.
“Hello, grandpa,” he said. “I’m surprised to see you’re still with us. But I warn you, you won’t stop running for the next six months.”
“That’s okay, sir,” Jason replied.
“And another thing, don’t call me ‘sir.’ My name is Zvi.”
All Jason remembered of the next six months was that he even ran in his dreams.
On his first twenty-four-hour leave, he hitched a ride to Vered Ha-Gaul. He was happy to see Eva, who understood that what he needed most was sleep.
When he finally awoke she had some news for him.
“Your father’s been phoning. I told him where you were, and he sounded distraught. He made me promise to have you call the moment I saw you.”
Jason got up, went to the kibbutz phone, and called his father collect.
“Look, son,” the elder Gilbert remonstrated, “I’ve been pretty patient with you, but this army business is going a bit too far. I want you to get back where you belong. That’s an order.”
“Father, I only take orders from my commanding officer. As far as being where I belong, that’s a personal matter.”
“What about your career? What about everything you trained for at Harvard?”
“Father, if Harvard taught me one thing, it was to find my own set of values. I feel needed here. I feel useful. I feel good. What the hell else is there in life?”
“Jason, I want you to promise me to see a psychiatrist.”
“I’ll tell you what, Dad. I’ll visit a shrink if you’ll visit Israel. Then we’ll all sit down and decide which of us is crazy.”
“All right, Jason, I don’t want to argue anymore. Just promise you’ll call whenever you can.”
“Sure, Dad. I promise. Love to Mom.”
“We miss you, son. We really miss you.”
“Me too, Dad,” he answered softly.
Jason was among the fifty percent who survived the ordeal and received their wings and red berets.
He immediately entered the advanced course, mastering techniques of helicopter assaults and learning every inch of the country’s topography. Not from a map. During the next six months, he covered every inch of the Holy Land on foot. He began to enjoy sleeping in the open air.
After that he spent a week at the kibbutz, taking long walks with Eva, and writing a lengthy letter to his parents. Then he entered the Officers’ Candidate School near Petach Tikva. There, the only thing he learned that he did not already know was the Israeli principle of leadership, which could be summed up in two words: “Follow me.” Officers lead all missions from the front.
Eva and Yossi came to the graduation ceremony and saw Jason parade by the chief of staff and salute. Standing right next to the commander was Zvi, his original recruiting officer. As Jason passed, he was whispering something into the general’s ear.
“I guess the nickname’s going to stick,” Jason said when he joined them later. “Now everybody calls me saba — ‘grandpa.’ ”
As they were driving back to the kibbutz, Yossi asked Jason how he intended to spend his ten days of freedom before active duty.
“I want to go back and look at every inch of ground I marched over,” he replied. “Only this time I want to do it with a car … and a guide.”
“The Bible is the best thing for that,” Yossi offered.
“I know,” said Jason. And then added shyly, “but I was hoping Eva would be my tour leader.”
In the days that followed, they covered four thousand years of history. From King Solomon’s mines deep in the Negev, up through the stark desert to Beersheba, home of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
As they drove out of Sodom — where the infamous profligacies described in Genesis were now replaced by massive fertilizer works, Jason quipped, “Don’t look back, Eva. Remember Lot’s wife.”
“I never look back,” she answered with a tiny smile.
From there it was north to Em Gedi, the lowest point on earth, where they swam — or rather floated — in the buoyant salty Dead Sea.
And finally, Jerusalem, the city conquered by King David ten centuries before Christ, and still the spiritual capital of the world.
Its very stones exuded a kind of holiness that even Jason could somehow feel. They were not able to visit the remains of the holy Temple of Solomon as it was on the Jordanian side of the divided city.
“We’ll get to see it some day,” Eva said, “when there’s peace.”
“Will we live that long?” asked Jason.
“I intend to,” Eva replied. And then added, “And even if! don’t, my children will.”
During the entire journey, Jason and Eva had slept within a few feet of each other. First outdoors in the Negev, now in a cheap hostel. Yet, their only physical contact was when he helped her climb a rock or a monument.
Spending days and nights in such spiritual proximity had created a bond between them. And yet their friendship remained platonic.
Toward the end of their first day in Jerusalem, Jason told Eva he was going to the YMCA on King George Street to try to pick up a game of tennis. She said she would take a walk and meet him later for dinner.
It did not occur to her that he had not brought a racket along. She herself was too preoccupied with wanting to make a personal visit.
The afternoon shadows were lengthening as she entered the cemetery on Emek Refaim and walked slowly toward the area where her childhood friend was buried, A hundred yards from the grave she stopped short.
Jason was already there, standing motionless, his head bowed. Even from a distance she could see he was crying.
She turned and walked silently off, deferring her grief to his.
From the “Class Notes” section of the Harvard Alumni Bulletin of October 1965:
Born: to Theodore Lambros and Sara Harrison Lambros (Radcliffe ’58), a son, Theodore Junior, on September 6, 1965. Lambros has recently been promoted to Assistant Professor of Classics at Harvard.
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