Our flight to Israel was as comfortable as a four-hour flight could be. Helen read every magazine and newspaper she could get her hands on — she even flipped through a couple newspapers written in Hebrew.
As for me, I relaxed with a couple Gold Star beers. The extra TLC that we received from the delightful El Al Security Agent during pre-boarding was worth the torment, I thought.
We were scheduled to land in Tel Aviv at 7:45PM/19:45 Israel Standard Time. As our flight approached Israel, we had a perfect view of its historic Mediterranean coastline through our teeny plane window.
“How beautiful!” Helen exclaimed.
Not a second later, our plane took an unexpected sharp right turn, then straightened its wings after ten seconds, followed by another, even more intense right. I grimaced; I could feel the Gold Stars trying to come up for air. The Israeli shoreline was now behind us.
The passengers, including Helen and me, were aghast in fear.
After about two minutes of eerie silence, our flight captain’s calm, steady voice filled the cabin’s airwaves.
“This is your captain speaking. We have received reports of hostile rockets landing near the airport. We plan to remain in the air until we receive clearance from air traffic control to land,” the captain said in perfect English.
We were just ten miles from landing at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, but the Israeli Air Traffic Control had instructed our pilots to perform the standard circle-around until airspace conditions were safe for landing.
I fixed my eyes on the in-flight video screen directly in front of me and watched the El Al flight tracker draw a perfect circle of our flight path over the Mediterranean Sea.
Ten minutes later, our plane completed another mid-air circle.
“Maybe coming to Israel wasn’t a good idea after all,” Helen joked, attempting to quell our nerves.
“Our plane is equipped with an anti-missile defense system, which is designed to jam an incoming missile’s heat seeking sensors,” I said, also in jest, but praying I was partially correct. Deep down, I felt we were all sitting ducks.
Thoughts of my girls crept into my mind. Would I ever see them again? Would they have to grow up without their Dad?
Ten more excruciatingly slow minutes ensued, and our plane completed a third circle.
Our captain finally announced what we desperately wanted to hear, “We have received clearance to land. Flight attendants, please prepare the cabin for landing.”
Helen and I were the only non-Hebrew speaking passengers — who else, besides Israelis, would be flying to Israel during wartime? We could not understand a single verbal conversation around us, but each passenger’s body language spoke the same terrified dialect.
After forty-five extra minutes in the air, our plane landed safely at the Ben Gurion Airport.
As Helen and I apprehensively traversed the airport toward the baggage claim area, we spotted white portable sign stands scattered throughout the airport with the word “SHELTER” painted in large green letters.
These sign stands offered visual cues to locate the nearest bomb shelter in the same way that the Disneyland’s “follow the arrow” signs help ride-goers navigate to the front of the ride line. But these signs were not directions to Fantasyland, they were lifelines offering hope of hugging and kissing your family again.
“How does one know when to hide?” I asked myself. In less than two hours, I would know the answer.
Lori’s company had arranged for a driver to pick us up at the airport. We waited curbside for thirty minutes until our ride showed up.
It was a warm, summer Israeli night, and our driver dressed the part in a very worn Miller Lite tank top, which seemingly doubled as a shammy towel for his car.
Our driver was incredibly hairy. His tank-top struggled to keep his chest hair — and back hair — under control. Thick black hairs harpooned their way through the tank top’s cotton fabric… and I thought us Mexicans were hairy.
“I’m Ishay,” the driver warmly introduced himself to us.
Ishay’s car was nothing fancy, not that it really mattered. The vehicle was not American or Japanese made, and reminded me of a dilapidated late 1970’s Toyota Corolla.
Regardless, I was thankful that Ishay met us at the airport.
According to Ishay, we had a forty-five-minute car ride to our hotel.
“Madam, if you sit in the rear seat behind me,” our driver suggested to Helen, “you will have a better view of the lovely downtown Tel Aviv buildings.”
I sat in the front passenger seat to the right of Ishay.
As we drove through downtown Tel Aviv, I noticed outdoor restaurants bursting at the seams with young people enjoying themselves. After all, it was Thursday night in Israel, where Thursday nights are the equivalent of North America’s Friday nights.
We had been driving for thirty minutes when loud sirens began to blast from all angles.
“What are those alarms?” Helen shouted with her hands over her ears.
“Red Alert sirens, madam, rockets have been launched from Gaza, but not to worry, we are safe in the city,” our driver said, but despite his calm voice, he started to drive noticeably faster.
The Israeli air raid sirens were loud, continuous, ascending and descending cries for all to seek shelter immediately.
Every car in front and behind us came to a screeching halt. Passengers jumped out of their vehicles and ran for cover. They ran toward any building or house they could find. People were running in all directions. The ones who could not run or walk fast enough laid down flat on their stomachs next to their vehicles, cradling their heads in in their arms.
Not us — Ishay kept driving.
“Shouldn’t we stop like everyone else?” I asked Ishay as he swerved to avoid the parked cars that cluttered the street.
“We are very close to your hotel. We don’t need to stop,” our driver-of-the-year foolishly responded.
Several minutes later, we exited the chaotic street and entered a quiet residential neighborhood. Helen remained with her hands clasped over her ears and her eyes staring at the back of driver’s headset directly in front of her.
In the middle of this peaceful neighborhood was a large, unlit grassy area. It could have been a downtown park or a football pitch, but it was too dark to tell.
Two rockets in unison launched from the pitch-black field, less than 200 yards from our moving car. I could not believe my eyes.
“Don’t worry about those rockets. They belong to our Iron Dome, and they destroy the incoming missiles from Gaza in the air,” Ishay stated casually while taking a sip from his water bottle.
In early 2011, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) deployed the Iron Dome anti-missile system to protect Israel against rockets launched from the Gaza Strip or from other adoring neighbors. The Iron Dome calculates the incoming projectiles’ flight trajectory and counters with defensive rockets that intercept them in mid-air. Rockets from Gaza are launched in calculated batches with the intention to overwhelm the Iron Dome.
“What if the Iron Dome rockets miss their intended targets?” I asked.
“The Iron Dome does not miss,” he championed.
“But what if they do miss?” I shot back.
“Then hopefully we are taking shelter somewhere…”
“Is driving in a car considered taking shelter?” I countered.
Ishay was visibly irritated and didn’t answer the question.
I lost sight of the Iron Dome rockets in the dark cloudy sky.
Moments later, we heard a thunderous explosion overhead.
“What was that?!” I exclaimed.
“The Iron Dome doing its job, nothing more,” he responded as he glanced at his watch.
“Meaning, the rockets intercepted the incoming missiles?”
“Yeah, that’s what the Iron Dome rockets do, they knock incoming missiles out of the sky and keep you and me safe,” he responded like I was a complete idiot.
Helen still had her hands cupped over her ears and did not hear or see any of the Iron Dome commotion. Thank God.
As we finally arrived at our hotel, the sirens suddenly stopped.
Ishay quickly removed our suitcases from his small trunk and placed them on the curb in front of our hotel. Helen and I thanked him for the ride, and he sped off.
To be continued….