Ktziney Yam – The Intense Experience That Shaped Me the Most

First Year: Shocking Experiences

August 28, 1968.  First night without Mom or Dad…  This frightening, yet invigorating, thought crossed my mind as I fared well my parents.  They were just leaving, having dropped me with my suitcase in the big yard of “Ktziney Yam” (Naval Officers).  This is going to be my home (the second? or maybe first?) for the next four years.

I just turned thirteen and had my Bar-Mitzvah, when I crossed the gates of “Right of Passage”, becoming an adult.  According to the Jewish tradition I am liable for my actions and can enjoy the privileges that come with that.  Am I really ready for this? the next days, weeks and months will tell, I guess. 

The school’s welcoming team was really nice.  They understand the magnitude of the transition, and try to make it easier for us to swallow.  They directed us to our dormitory and allocated into rooms, 14 in a room.  Two facts struck me:  I am a year younger and probably the smallest of all my peers.  The second was that we cannot refer ourselves as “kids” anymore; can’t even use this word to define ourselves.  We are “young men”, “youth”, or “Cadets”.

The first few days are dedicated to orientation.  Rules and regulations, dos and don’ts, dress code, schedules, hierarchy, you name it.  For the first time, I need to use a needle and a thread to sew something!  This is a trade I wasn’t ready for… nor to dusting, washing up the floors and cleaning the bathrooms… where is my mom when I really need her?  

Night, we all crash on our bunk beds.  Just to wake up the next day at 0600, to the deafening rings of the ship’s bell.  Another day of activities is ahead of us.  Well, luckily for us, each day ends with a night… at least that is the way G-D created the universe…   But not on this particular night.  Yet another god, Poseidon, begs to differ.

Right: Ringing the Ship’s Bell on the mast at the Rollcall Court

Midnight.  Yells.  Screams.  “Up on your feet!!”  “Out of bed!”  “30 seconds you are in front of the building!”  A bunch of white linen wrapped ghosts are running across the corridors and yelling at the top of their lungs.  We all are being herded through the school’s premises, running, being pushed, yelled at, to the beach.  Well, a Naval Academy must have its own beach, don’t you think so?  Up through the training ship wreck on the beach, we jump from its high bow onto a trampoline.  Finally, we get to sit on the waterline, facing the sea.  From the darkness ahead, a boat emerges, with Poseidon standing, holding in his right hand the famous three prong pitchfork.

We all swear allegiance to Poseidon.  An offering due to supplement the oath: our hair is the sacrificial lamb.  The first thing in the next morning we all line up in front of the barber shop on the school’s premises.  Our manes fall on the floor in two minutes each to leave our heads smooth and almost shaven.

The number of new things to absorb is overwhelming.  Studying, doing homework, roll calls, kitchen duties, guard duties are just the tip of the iceberg….  The learning curve is long and painful.  Each deviation and misconduct results with “court martial” of sorts, that ends with grounding, confinement to school during the weekend. 

I had my share of it in abundance: Every Friday, before noon, we all stood at attention next to our bunks as the Instructor went and carried out his rigorous Barracks Inspection.  And every week, he found out something to detain me for: the top part of my reading lamp head a few micrograms of dust on it… the windows that I was in charge of cleaning weren’t shining… the sink in the communal bathroom had a spot on its side… So here I was, staying in the school’s grounds, for three weeks in a raw.  At least my mom and aunt came every now and then to visit me.

Mom visiting during one of my Freshman year Groundings.

With Aunt Zsuzsi in white summer uniform, Freshman year.

The other side of the coin is the social life among the class mates.  I should rather call it “unsocial life”.  Being the smallest – both in age and physique, I became the punching bag of the other guys in class.  The means to drain frustrations.  Whom can I turn to for help? the staff?? no way, it would make things much worse.  Other cadets in class? They will join the party, or at least enjoy the show.

Turning Point

The turning point happened about half a year later.  I was on guard duty, and waited to be replaced by one of my class mates.  For whatever reason, the guy didn’t show up.  Half an hour, an hour passes by, and nobody comes to release me.  Abandoning the post is not an option.  My anger builds up.  It turns into rage, and then to fury.  Finally, two hours later, a senior cadet that was on duty comes by.  I told him what was going on.  He told me: “I’ll replace you for ten minutes.  You go up to the dorms; either you, or someone else should be here within these ten minutes, or else…”

I ran up to the dorms, steaming of fury.  Michael (Mickie) El’or, who was my successor on the guard duty, was in deep sleep.  I grabbed him, dragged him out of his bed, fisting and kicking him, drawing him down to the floor.  Sitting on top of him, I continued hitting him and banging his head onto the hard floor.  I do not know where from I got the power and force, but it was there.  Obviously, the guys in the room woke up and watched the fight with awe. 

I grabbed his cloths in one hand, and dragged him with the other hand to the guard post.  I still had the 10 minutes deadline to meet, or else…

We got there in time; I stayed a few more minutes until my peer got dressed.  Not a word was said.

At the end of Freshmen Year, many left the school, Mickey was one of them.  They probably did not find themselves comfortable with the requirements and life style the school imposed on the cadets.  Mickey continued studying on his own, succeeded in obtaining the Matriculation Certificate, and then joined the IDF Artillery Corps.  He fought during the Yom Kippur war in Sinai and was injured in a shelling on the 19th of October.  He did not recover, and died on the 31st of October, 1973.  I learned about his falling in battle much later, during one of the reunions of our cohort.  Since then, I regret that I cannot ask his forgiveness for me beating him up so badly that night.

Memorial Monument at Ktziney Yam with the names of the fallen on it.

Later Years

Now I could start focusing on studies and academic progress.  I loved being on the sea, with the boats.  We had these Whale Hunting, 33’ long, boats that functioned as row boats and as sail boats with two masts.  During the Sophomore year I joined the school’s rowing team.  It was hard work, but lots of fun that I enjoyed immensely.  It also helped building up my physique, strength and a life changing lesson. 

I learned how to be competitive while working together as a team, with the purpose to achieve the objective.  Failure was not something to feel ashamed or guilty of.  Rather, it was an opportunity to learn how to be better the next race.  Breaking an oar (about 2” in diameter of hard wood) would grant the breaker a weekend at home!  The days of being the punching bag of the class are gone, and were replaced with respect and comradeship. 

It seems that insisting on us stop using the definition “kids” had a purpose, and it was working.  We took responsibilities upon ourselves.  Not just at school, but also outside of its confines.  We helped kids in the city of Akko.  We mobilized to help farmers to harvest apples in the summer.  In retrospect, it was amazing how we were brought up to be competitive and striving to highest achievements, yet working together as a team and supporting each other.  We all, without exception, turned from kids, into men.

The second trimester of my Junior year started showing evidence of success in the academic arena as well.  For the first time, I received an Academic Excellence Award, having my average grades at the high 10 percentile.  Proudly I came home with the certificate and the emblem that went with it.  My father looked at my score card and asked: Are you the best in class? The second best in school?  The answer, obviously, was no.  “Well, then you have to do better than that” was his response.  Rather than being discouraged, his answer drove me to work harder on my studies without neglecting my other activities.

In addition to the academic studies that prepared us to the Matriculation exams, we learned many new, less common, skills.  Blacksmithing, welding, metalworking, turning and milling were among many.  During the Junior and then the Senior years, it was more about machinery, in addition to the other skills.  We learned how to overall diesel engines, pumps and valves, refrigeration, electric generation and control systems, to name a few.  The premise was that at sea, there is no “Home Depot” nearby to fetch what you need for the repair.  These skills helped so much later in life, further developing in us the “out-of-box” thinking and ability to improvise.

A pivotal element in our training was working on the School’s ship and sailing during regular school’s vacation abroad.  You are invited to read the story about My First Trip Abroad to Cyprus and Greece here.

A handmade wrench I made out of bare iron pieces, Sophomore year.

Senior year: second right, during a break from welding class.

Senior Year: Becoming a Man

The last semester of my Senior year, I was nominated to be in charge of all the cadets in school.  What a turnaround!!  This small kid at the mercy of his peers, turned into a well-built young man.  The whole body of 450 Cadets marches to my command.  From a frightened boy, unable to do anything independently to a skipper that taught Freshmen how to sail. 

Top: Overseeing the preparation of the boat to start sailing.

Left: Me, the Skipper, at the rudder.

May 1972, Israel’s Memorial Day for the Fallen, is a sacred day for all Israelis.  Much more so for the families who lost dear ones in Israel’s defense, my father included.  His eldest son Eliezer, my half-brother, fell in service in 1949.  He was among the founders of the Israeli Navy Commando Unit Shayetet 13.  I felt so proud when I commanded the Memorial Day roll call and parade, with my parents in the audience.  I knew that it meant a lot to my father, probably offering him some comfort with his loss.  For me it was a step forward in closing the circle, finding the purpose why I am doing all this..

Leading the Salute March to the Memorial Monument during Memorial Day Ceremony,  during last trimester of Senior year, 1972.

Later Involvement with the School

It was not much later that I got back to school, this time as an instructor and a teacher.  Shortly after matriculation I started my studies for Mechanical Engineering in the Technion.  That was a real sobering experience (read more here).  I prepared to start the second semester when the Yom Kippur War broke.  The country was mobilized, almost paralyzing the Homefront; due to my father’s two fallen sons, I was not.  Instead, I volunteered to work as a mechanic at the nearby major Ordinance Depot.  For twelve to fourteen hours a day I repaired and overhauled engines that were damaged during the war.  Cease fire took effect at the last day of Sukkot, just in time for schools to return from Sukkot vacation. 

I called up the School’s General Manager and offered my help.  The next day I was back there, putting on my uniforms that I used only a year ago.  I served as the Instructor of one of the Freshmen classes, taught Math, Drafting, and Mechanics in the workshop.  And of course, I continued instructing the Freshmen students how to handle a boat.  Towards the end of the school year, the war ended, and all the stuff came back home, and resumed work. 

I continued teaching the Junior and the Senior classes at the Mechanics Workshop, in parallel to my studies.  Sailing was not an insignificant part of my involvement.  My first visit to the United States was while leading a group of Cadets on board of a merchant ship. Some 30 years later, I came back, this time as a volunteer.  I helped several Junior and Senior students as they prepared towards their matriculation exams in Math and Physics.  For me, this was a real closure of the circle.  Giving back to these students a small portion of what I received during my days there was a great reward.

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