Told in two echoing voices, The Lost Pilot’s Wife recounts the story of a pilot who is shot down and disappears in Lebanon, while his wife remains alone in Israel. Who is right: Those who believe he is dead, or those convinced he is still alive? Will the pilot’s wife find the answer to the question that haunts her? And how does a man gain freedom in the turbulent Middle East, as a complete stranger, a persecuted refugee, an exile seeking sanctuary only miles from the valley where he was born?
- The First Thing
The first thing I remember was the silence. After the airplane roar, the missile strike, the flames, and my shouts over the internal radio to Ami, behind me in the navigator’s seat, that we’d been hit and had to eject, there was one second of total silence. In a Phantom, the navigator ejects first, to avoid being burned by the pilot’s ejection seat rockets. As soon as I hit the button, the canopy flew up and I was struck by a massively loud, deafening gale. After the strike, I had just had time to notify the airbase control tower that we were going down and give them our location. I aimed the Phantom toward the sea. We weren’t flying very high, and unlike the French aircrafts it replaced, the Phantom is a massive hunk of metal completely unable to glide. When its huge engines stop working, it simply falls. A technological marvel and an aviary scarecrow.
The Phantom was ablaze when I ejected. It was a hypnotic sight. I could feel the heat slowly advancing toward the cockpit. I looked at the left wing and saw the flames crawling across, then I flipped the little dome off the stick and pressed the ejection button. The rockets lit up thunderously and flung me out. From the moment of impact until I disconnected from the ejection seat as it somersaulted to the ground, no more than forty seconds passed. And all that time, despite the yelling and the knowledge that we were going down in Lebanese territory, I worked just as I had been taught in flight school, doing exactly what I had learned in my years of squadron practice and my days in battle. Smoke, fire, the canopy flying in the deafening wind, the rocket explosion that delivered a massive kick to my rear-end, the beginning of the fall, the opening of the parachute that stopped me mid-air with a snap, and the disconnection from my seat, at which point the sky sucked me back up.
When the parachute opened, I paused in the sky and the silence ended instantly. I could hear gunfire below. All the hilltops of Lebanon were shooting at me. To my right, when I turned my head, I saw Ami’s parachute going down behind a silvery-green olive grove. As I neared the ground, the shouting and gunfire grew clearer. A huge noise and fiery flames rose up from the site where the Phantom had landed, and it disappeared almost immediately from my line of sight as I kept plunging toward the rocky terrain. Then I hit the ground, rolled over, and lay among the rocks and scrub.
As I fell and rolled, I could see buttercups. Springtime. I was struck by a fragmentary thought: the equinox. As if my mind was reminding me that there was a reason to lift my head up and think about the bigger picture, though it was growing smaller. I had fallen to the ground at neither day nor night, neither winter nor summer, but in the time that separates them, the season between Purim and Passover, a month before the birth of my first son. I had lived the first round of life up until that day. And then my second life began. Except that I didn’t know it yet. All I knew was that I had a half-hour window to hide and perhaps escape, then lie low waiting for the 669 medevac helicopter while the Cobras hovered overhead and gave cover.
I could hear bursts of fire, people’s voices, and the Cobras. I could also hear the dim thunder of my number two, who kept circling above me, directing the Cobras. All I had to do was hide and hang in there for half an hour. I knew the 669 would reach me soon. I couldn’t see Ami. He had ejected first and reached the ground before me.
I crawled behind a rock. My leg hurt but I wasn’t paying attention to that. I was deep in the excitement of the missile hit, the ejection and the fight for my life. I had to get away. Not be taken hostage. There were a few pine trees not far away, and an olive grove beneath the hill. It was afternoon. We had entered Lebanon from the direction of the setting sun, to blind the gunners and the anti-aircraft missile launchers. I debated for a moment whether to try and get to the hilltop so the medevac could get to me easily, or to the grove so I could hide. I put my head up and looked around. I heard voices from the grove and continuous machine-gun fire. The helicopters and the Phantom were doing flyovers overhead. Then, from the hill next to me, I saw the Cobra lift up and fly on toward the sea, which glistened in the setting sunlight. I dug through my pocket for the radio beacon to send out distress signals, but then the first bullets landed next to me. I put my head down and crouched behind the rock.
The pine trees became my only option. I decided to sprint over there as soon as I could. The gunfire stopped for a minute and I got up but immediately fell. Then shots started again. Someone had seen me and was firing long bursts, but that’s not why I fell. I looked at my left leg and saw a bloodstain spreading. Something must have broken when I parachuted down. My pants leg was ripped.
Then I did what I should have done at first. I examined myself. Everything was all right except the leg. There wasn’t going to be any running or any escaping. Shit. I could hear the voices from the olive grove getting closer. Now the setting sun was working in my favor.
I limped along quickly until the pain knocked me down, then dragged myself behind some tall green Spanish Broom. Even through the pain and the commotion and the gunshots, I could smell the big yellow flowers that caressed my face, and in a brief lull amid all the noise and fear and adrenaline, I spotted an insect inserting its proboscis deep into the flower while its belly danced on the lower petal, which looks like a long sleeve but is in fact a pedal that makes the stamen burst open and a cloud of dusk stick to the insect’s abdominal hairs. What are you looking at? I asked myself, and searched for my gun. It wasn’t there. It must have flown off when I crashed on the rocks. I tried to huddle behind the green bush, where the insects kept buzzing around as if the sun weren’t setting. The Spanish Broom was growing amid a cluster of poterium. Would the sun set before I was captured? I was too close to the parachute, which covered the low-growing plants. Maybe they wouldn’t see the green military fabric, designed to be camouflaged in the landscape. Just let night come. I had the radio beacon. I checked to make sure it was working and heard the helicopters getting closer and the Hellfires spraying the whole area, trying to prevent their pursuers from getting to me. It seemed as though every hilltop and valley in Lebanon was firing at the helicopters and the Phantoms, which went down for low flyovers to scare the enemy and scan the area. In the dying light, they were searching for me, trying to pick up signals so they could send in the medevac helicopter.
They got to me before the sun set. I could hear the Cobras flying low despite the constant fire, and the Phantoms searching for the beacon’s signals. I decided that when they got within earshot, I would turn off the radio and hide it, so it wouldn’t draw the 669 helicopter into an ambush. When I heard voices from beyond the bushes in the dusk, I turned the device off and slowly buried it in the Spiny Broom foliage covering the scrub. Then I put my head down and tried to vanish.
The voices came closer. I hunched down, but one of them saw me and pounced. He landed on my broken leg and the pain pinned me to the ground. I couldn’t move. And then they were standing over me, three men, firing long bursts of celebratory shots in the air. This is what my death will look like, I thought. But the pain was so intense that I couldn’t concentrate on anything but my leg. They motioned for me to stand, pulled me up, and I fell. They realized I was wounded.
I knew I was dead. The knowledge penetrated through the pain and I wondered if they would shoot me then and there or take me to the village first. As I awaited my death, I lived a moment that was neither life nor death, and therefore contained no fear. I looked at them: green webbing, Palladiums boots, Kalashnikovs. My life did not flash before my eyes. I had no time for such complex processes. I only thought, with relative clarity, about the fact that I was dead or would be soon, and I bade farewell to my life and to you and to my unborn child. There was so much I had not had time to do, but had managed to become a pilot, to fly among the stars, and to fall in love with you. I looked up at the sky and the line of hills, and above the horizon I saw Venus emerging. All of the planet’s names flew through my mind—Aphrodite, Morning Star, Evening Star, Bright Queen of the Sky. Beyond the commotion and the certain death and the end of life, I saw a promise in the glowing planet. And what was suddenly illuminated in my mind was Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, the shining star at the head of Canis Major. I recalled that the ancient Egyptians used to reckon their calendar according to the day when Sirius emerges a moment before sunrise, announcing the summer solstice and the start of flood season in the Nile.
Astronomical trivia came rushing in. In the squadron they call it attention distribution—the capacity to contend with more than one objective at the same time and to simultaneously analyze vastly different data. And these were the data I was facing: I was about to be shot in Lebanon with no ability to defend myself, with only the sky above me, containing a shining star that represented all the stars. For me, at that moment, the sky bore the significance it has for seafarers: a place to fly into, with hidden depths, on the border of darkness at the edge of the atmosphere, in a place where the heavens lose the pale-blue translucence of water vapors, on the outer edge of Earth’s gravity. The place where I would, if I had any push left in my engines, fly up to and depart from into space. What I did not know at that moment, the moment the Evening Star broke through the sky, was that my life in the skies was over and my life on Earth had begun.