Ghosts: Part 1


A short time ago Erin received a box of cassette recordings her grandmother made during Erin’s childhood. While listening through them she came across a recording in which she sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, her grandmother accompanying her on piano.

This recording dated to the early eighties and the sound quality had deteriorated. It was foggy around the edges, as if pieces of the recording had been sanded away, and the voices seemed to slow down as if a great weight had pushed against their transmission. The tone crackled with touches of static, and their words seemed to drift through a gauzy film which softened the syllables and dulled the piano notes. As I listened, goose bumps spread across my arms and I felt my eyes wet with emotion.

This sound, not only striking emotional chords in me, produced a feeling of wonder. In this day and age, where recorded media is so prolific, it seems trivial to encounter a recording. Maybe it was the number of years which had passed since it was recorded, or the way the sound was so soft and dreamlike, so much like a memory appears to me? Whatever it was, the impact felt profound and soon enough I was occupied with combing through my own memories, in search of those gauzy, ghost-like moments that still live within. These vignettes, or snapshots, or whatever you would call them, arrived with these excursions. I don’t know what they are other than explorations, writing practice, story-telling exercises, but perhaps they will amount to something down the road.

Its often felt like a dream. Yet I clearly remember the overly abundant aroma of sweaty feet, cigarettes, and cleaning products which permeated the barracks. I remember the overwhelming feeling of unhappiness too. It was a crushing sense of sadness and confusion and a feeling that the finish line was always too far away. Why’d I ever make such a stupid decision? The Marine Corps? No, it was all too real to be a dream.

I was 17 when I made the decision to join the Marine Corps. It was not well thought out. It was a spontaneous conclusion to what I should do once I graduated high school. While I had been thinking with growing trepidation about what I should do, I hadn’t come up with anything that felt within reach. I only knew I needed to get out of my parents house as 17 years of dysfunction and abuse was enough for anyone.

There was nothing going for me. My grades were abysmal. I would be fortunate if I graduated. I hadn’t taken the ACT’s or SATs, and I had no money – so college was out at that point. I had a crappy job that paid whatever minimum wage was in 1993, but the work wasn’t reliable nor anything I aspired to continue doing for any duration. It certainly wasn’t enough to cover rent and the basic expenses of living.

The prospect of remaining in the Chicago south suburbs was untenable. I pictured a future working in a factory or warehouse, coming home to the same world I always knew, home to the same faces, and the same depressing sense that something had been missed in the lives of those around me. I had seen enough of those sad, swollen faces and bodies, the marginalized lives of blue-collar men sustained on fast-food, whiskey and beer and stimulants, those neighborhood bodies that never left and were twisted and malformed into specters of their former selves, hopes and ambitions turned starved and lifeless notions. I didn’t want to find the faces of my childhood staring back at me from across the bar of some dingy tavern, petty childhood wrongs still festering in their flesh, the drama of a neighborhood that was too closely intertwined with itself, knotted within them. It felt like the worst possible defeat.

I was also grossly overweight at the time, a situation that had plagued me for years and caused debilitating damage to my self-esteem. During this chapter of my life I was spending inordinate amounts of effort drinking beer, smoking pot, and generally acting like an asshole. The greater part of these efforts to dull the sharp edges of a depression with numerous inputs and exacerbated by a dysfunctional home life. While my friends and I joked about being “losers” while in high school (this somehow a badge of honor), I was painfully aware that, all joking aside, I was on a fast track to truly becoming one. It was at this time a friend of mine joined the Marine Corps.

Out of all my friends back then, S__ was the one I sort of looked up to. Maybe not so much looked up to, but I respected his thinking on matters of responsibility more than any of my other friends. My head, at most times, was in the clouds, so he served as a kind of litmus test as to what I should be considering. When he shipped off to boot camp it drove home how time was quickly running out. I would graduate in a year and a decision needed to be made. The sooner the better. With this in mind I ignored my responsibilities for awhile longer.

While S__ contended with the challenges of Marine Corps boot camp I continued living my life much the same as it had been. Days drifted into days, the time wasted on the same routines and distractions, and by the time S__ arrived home from boot camp completely transformed, I had gained more weight and completely lost direction in my life.

It was hard not to be impressed with the change he had undertaken, and as we drank our cans of Old Style and swapped stories of what we had both experienced in the previous months, I had to admit to a bit of envy. The trials and tribulations of boot camp sounded excruciating, yet exciting at the same time. There was a challenge that was impressive in having been overcome. My own stories of the past few months seemed meager, and slightly sad. I began to wonder if I could go up against such a mental and physical endurance test and come out the other side. I cringe at this naïve, and likely, very male preoccupation, but it was what it was. As I said, I was grossly overweight at this point, putting great efforts into my debasement and self-destruction while neglecting everything else. I was readily aware of being ashamed of this and being ashamed of myself.

After a few days of being home S__ came to me with an idea: he had landed an extra week of leave after having been accepted as a recruiters assistant. Being granted this extra week required him to report to his local recruiting station and attempt to pull in potential candidates for the Marine Corps. His job was to entice these potential recruits and draw them into the office so the recruiter could sell them on joining. In reality he was fucking off the whole time. To make it look like he was actually trying to recruit people he wondered if I would come in as a potential prospect. All I would have to do is pretend that S__ found me at the mall, or some other public place, and convinced me to come in. Then I would listen to the recruiters spiel, take some M.C. literature, and tell them I’d let them know. It seemed a simple enough way to help out my friend and so I agreed.

The day came and I went in and I listened to the spiel. I knew it was a lot of exaggeration. Maybe even some stretching of the facts. Yet, when he finished I replied something along the lines of, “Okay, what’s next?”

Without much consideration I had made an on-the-spot decision. Let me clarify – I had considerations, but they were more about my immediate and short term situation than anything long-term. I didn’t consider in any serious manner if I was mentally and emotionally compatible with the military, let alone the Marine Corps. I didn’t consider that the political climate could change and this window of peace we were living in could be shattered, leaving me shipped off to a war zone. I didn’t think of the monotonous drag of days to be endured under the tutelage of insecure, mentally inferior dipshits who relished punishing those below them, their only power the stripe they wore on their uniform. I didn’t think of how many of these jock-type bros could be assembled in one place, a place they could nurse their wounded sense of masculinity, seeking to prop it up by punishing those below them in rank, or physically weaker then them, or of the opposite sex.

Nope, all I was thinking was: I need to do something to get out of my parents home, to set me on a path toward an independent life. I need to get out of the rut I’m in and challenge myself in a way I’ve never been challenged. And, along the way get a college education paid for.

Afterward, S__ shocked by what I had done, reiterating I had only to play along and then never come back, I could only answer, “What else am I going to do?” Of course there were a 100 other things I could have chosen had I put some real effort into this consideration, but I chose the Marine Corps. It was there in front of me at a time when I needed something to move me forward and away from home, to give me a glimmer of hope in a future. It would undoubtedly come to be the wrong decision, but at that moment a weight had come off my shoulders.

Continue with Ghosts: Part 2

Author: Jason Jacobs

Jason Jacobs is an artist, project manager, and frontend web designer living and working in Boise, Idaho. Beyond work he spends his time with family, as well as reading, writing articles for Uhmm, and working on his art. All words and opinions, etc., are his and do not reflect the positions or beliefs of anyone other than himself.