Ghosts: Part 4

M.O.S. School - Aberdeen Proving Ground

Ghosts:Part 3

It was during M.C.T. that I met K*** even though I didn’t get to know him well until M.O.S. (military occupational specialty) school. K*** was tall and lanky, with a quiet, perpetually stoned demeanor. He chain-smoked Camel cigarettes, and was particular to wearing do-rags and tie-dyes on the weekends. We chatted over cigarettes here and there throughout the month of MCT, but didn’t completely connect until we found ourselves roommates at the same training center on the east coast.

Our M.O.S. schooling took place at the U.S. Army Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. We landed in the dog days of winter, shocked by the bitter cold blowing in from the Chesapeake Bay, a stark juxtaposition to the relative warmth we had just left in Southern California. The Proving Ground was set in a softly undulating landscape, washed out and winter brown, capped by naked trees and sparsely dotted with nondescript brick and clapboard buildings. It was a truly disheartening place.

Being roommates, K*** and I bonded over music and beers, reminiscing about our past exploits while pouring over a copy of “The Anarchists Cookbook” in search of easily procured, mind-altering recipes. His preternatural calm balanced with my newfound, and seemingly constant, state of agitation, and soon enough we were hanging out most days. He was also mechanically gifted and seemed to understand the workings of electrical and mechanical systems with little more than a glance. New to engine and electrical repair and often finding myself missing some fundamental piece of understanding, he was a source of help as well as inspiration while going through our M.O.S. school.

After only a short-time on base we learned to abstain from drinking water from the tap. There was talk the proving ground had been home to decades of chemical and biological testing. Rumors bandied about the barracks of abandoned oil drums discovered in the woods, rusted out and leaching chemical and biological waste into the soil and water. It was said if you filled a water bottle from a sink, or a water fountain, and let it sit overnight, by morning the bottom of the bottle would be covered with a layer of brown sediment. Conducting this experiment ourselves, K*** and I stared in silence at the brown layer that had formed in a bottle we had filled the previous evening.

“That’s not good”, K*** said, breaking the silence with his deadpan delivery.

I held up the bottle, looking at the grainy sediment lining the bottom. It appeared briny and organic, a fleshy, light-brown color.

“It reminds me of what builds up in the bottom of a goldfish bowl”, I said.

I poured it down the bathroom sink. Years later I would have two surgeries to remove a cancerous growth from my neck. While I can never pinpoint what caused this cancer, my mind often ventures back to my time at Aberdeen and the subsequent time I spent being a L.A.V. mechanic. I know I ingested some of this water, showered in it, rinsed my mouth with it. There was also an untold number of days when working on these vehicles where I would have my hands and forearms immersed in hydraulic fluid, antifreeze, and oil. Many were the days I’d arrive back at the barracks with coveralls soaked in these chemicals. But at that moment, staring at the sediment in the bottle I hadn’t a clue what was ahead of me. I only knew that I’d do my best to avoid the water.

(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) While these are likely not the exact barracks I stayed in, they look very much like them.

C**** and I met during M.O.S. school as well. C**** spoke with a light West Virginian twang and had an infectious laugh that was never in short supply. Always the skeptic, he left me wondering if his inexhaustible well of good cheer was a front or a natural part of his disposition. Whether or not his good cheer was sincere, he was one of those people with the magical ability to lift your spirits with just a few words. As I would later find out, he was also a full-blown alcoholic.

The first month at the proving grounds spread out in a melange of frustration and boredom. We were unfortunate enough to have arrived on base in-between class cycles. With nothing to do but wait for the next class cycle to begin, our Sargent’s tasked us with mindless and incessant cleaning. Day in and day out, we cleaned inside and outside the barracks. We polished brass, swept, and mopped, and stripped and waxed floors. We picked up trash day after day, pretending after the first few days there was something, anything, that had blown in overnight. Again and again we performed these inane duties, for literal weeks on end. I was beyond sick of busy work at this point, the pointless expenditure of our time and energies, the literal waste of my life. Each morning we’d pile into the break room, a small television against the cinder block wall pumping MTV into our bored and half-asleep faces, our bodies slumped over in chairs, eyes glazed. We sat there bathed in the sound of Beck’s “Loser” while waiting for the chow hall to open and to receive our “assignments”. Morning after morning Beck’s anthem played, a constant refrain of “I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me…”, like some twisted joke meant to drive home how flat and mundane our lives had become.

I lived for the weekend, when I could read and write and draw. I could let the tension and agitation release a bit, not feeling like I had to constantly watch over my shoulder for some Sargent looking to fuck with a Private. I bought a cheap cassette player and would walk the proving grounds listening to Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland”, the bitter cold numbing my face and hands. It was on one of these first weekends that I ventured out and was accosted by the company C.O.

I struggled with the dress code, a battery of rules detailing the conservative requirements of dress we were to adhere to at all times, rules requiring all shirts to be tucked in, pants belted, hair length measurements, etc. I didn’t know how to dress myself prior to being in the military, and this hadn’t changed now that I was a Marine. I wore flannels, jeans, and t-shirts for the most part, and tucking in any shirt left me feeling uncomfortable and clown-like. Especially a flannel tucked into belt-looped jeans. This particular morning, after exiting the barracks, I pulled my flannel out and let it hang naturally, instantly feeling more at ease and comfortable. As I glided past the C.O.’s office I was met with an immediate command to stop and report front and center to his desk.

The C.O. was a middle aged man with the pasty and bloated face of a heavy drinker. His eyes were red-rimmed with a hangover, his mouth pulled in a scowl. He had a mustache trimmed to the creepy Marine Corps requirements of paper thin and capped at lips end. Without the camouflage uniform he’d be the perfect stand-in for any unhappy middle-aged male you passed in the supermarket with a basket of cheap beer and frozen pizzas. Standing at attention before his desk, I was berated for having my shirt untucked. This unspeakable crime resulted in the revoking of my weekend liberty. He replaced it with the requirement to report to his office where I would then spend my weekend cleaning. The smirk on his face dared me to argue.

Leaving his office I seethed with resentment, fantasizing the repeated driving of my fist into his self-satisfied face. He was another miserable human being trying to compensate for his unhappiness and insecurities through the negative powers of his rank. A warning would have sufficed for such a mediocre rule, but that wouldn’t have given him the satisfaction of having fucked with my life.

It was around this time I completely soured on the Marine Corps. I was becoming depressed. I didn’t want to be there. The feeling had been building for a time, but now became all-consuming. I missed my girlfriend. I missed my friends. I missed feeling a sense of autonomy. I was beyond tired of the mindless activity and having to stand at attention while listening to some jackass with a higher rank while he blathered on about what a bad ass he was, how much he loved the Corps, relishing our forced subservience, periodically punishing us for their amusement. A number of pep talks came and went with my father, myself trying to get him to understand how miserable I felt, him trying to get me to understand that it wasn’t going to last forever.

Finally, at the end of March, the weather starting to break with the first hints of Spring, our school cycle began. This was a welcome change of pace, and our days were now filled with learning the fundamentals of the D-53-T Detroit Diesel, the electrical and pneumatic systems of our Light Armored Vehicles, as well as their various makes and models. Each day began with a 4:00am session of PT in the freezing cold, followed by a full day in school. Returning in the evening we were left to ourselves except for Thursday’s, which we spent cleaning the barracks.

(Photo Credit: US Dept. of Defense) A picture of a LAV-25 - one of the models of LAV's I'd learn and work on over the ensuing years.

Visiting Morgantown

After completing the first month of schooling C*** came to me with an invitation to join him for a weekend at his parent’s place in Morgantown, W.V. All I had to do was get permission to venture out of state, and once granted his father would pick us up after liberty was called that Friday. C*** promised a weekend of beer, good meals, and hospitality. It sounded like a good time to me, and after being granted permission I waited for Friday liberty with a feeling of excitement.

The day came and C***’s father picked us up. We loaded our bags into the back of his Suburban and C*** hopped behind the wheel. His father stretched himself out on the back passenger seat and proceeded to pour himself a drink from a decanter of whiskey. For the next four hours we wound our way toward Morgantown, cutting through Baltimore and jettisoning our way through rolling and forested hills, the Suburban filled with our laughter and good spirits. In what felt no time at all we were pulling into the driveway of C***’s family home, what seemed a palatial estate to me at the time, a large two-story tucked into dense forest and secluded from the intrusions of any neighboring homes. A quick tour of his home revealed a raised back porch overlooking a sloping backyard that butted up against an endless expanse of trees and foliage, the rolling hills stretching off into the distance. I felt a touch of the surreal as my eyes traced the hill lines in the distance and spotted the peak of a nuclear reactor breaking through the tree tops.

Looks like it could be an old school can of motor oil.

After the tour we ventured into the basement, which felt more like a small sports bar, and featured a full bar and a pool table. Lining the walls near the ceiling was a shelf filled with single cans of beer, a collection that C***’s father had put together over a lifetime. Wherever he went, C***’s father would pick up a six-pack of beer, preferably something regional to the area, and he’d consume five, keeping the sixth. One can struck me as particularly funny.

“Q.T. – Quitting Time”, I said holding up the can and chuckling. It was a old, steel beer can, slightly rusting at the seams. “Time to quit drinking when its come to this? Or, I just got off of work and I’m ready to erase it all by any means necessary?”

“I seem to recall those were not very good going down”, C***’s father laughed.

Before long the room was filled with C***’s friends, us all taking turns at the pool table, getting drunker by the hour. His friends were genuinely welcoming, a far-cry from the immediate suspicion one was met with back home when venturing into new groups of people. It all became a warm and expansive blur, the continual rounds of beer, the conversations breaking into fits of laughter, sitting down to a dinner to sop up the beer that filled our bellies, a sudden realization that it was late and I was staggering drunk, falling into bed and sleeping like the dead.

The morning light hammered at my retinas, filtering into a pounding force at my temples that kept time with the rhythm of my heartbeat. I could hear C*** talking with his family downstairs so I rose, splashed some water on my face in the adjoining bathroom, and staggered downstairs to find C*** and his parents in the midst of breakfast. While I looked like nothing short of a bag of smashed assholes, C*** appeared bright-eyed and rested. His family implored me to sit down and then served me up a heaping breakfast of waffles and eggs and sausage and coffee. Afterward, my belly bloated, I sat on the back porch and smoked, feeling myself stabilize, the headache already becoming a distant memory. C*** joined me.

“How you feelin’? Pretty good?”, he said.

“Yeah, not too bad. Not after a breakfast like that. I haven’t had a breakfast like that in…forever” I said.

“Yeah, my parents do it up on the weekends. You get a shower and we’ll head downtown to this bar, Dr. Johns.”

“I’m not 21 man”, I said, feeling I ruined the plans for the afternoon.

He gave wave of his hand, “Don’t worry about it. They know me there. You’ll be fine. No one cards down there anyway. They’d all be out of business”.

It wasn’t even noon yet, but I shrugged in assent. After freshening up with a shower and change of clothes, C*** and I hopped into his mothers car and made our way into downtown Morgantown.

Once again we wove through the forested streets of his neighborhood, snaking our way through the hillsides. We emerged from this thick canopy of greenery and crossed the Monongahela River into downtown Morgantown. We wound our way into the Sunnyside section of the University of West Virginia campus, coasting down the slope of University Avenue until pulling into the front of Dr. Johns. It was an unimposing bar, easily passed by if I remember correctly. Thirty years of passed time has shot holes through these remembrances, though there was possibly a brick facade, maybe a window to let a little light in, a discrete sign announcing its location. I have a notion it was a sunken bar, accessed through a door and a few downward steps, but this may not be true.

I dug up this picture of Dr. John's online - that's pretty much how I remember it. This looks early 90-ish, so possibly around the same time I visited.

Barely the noon hour we entered to find a handful of patrons nursing beers at the bar. The room was cave-like and redolent with the aroma of twenty years of exhaled cigarettes, a carbon copy of dive bars since time immemorial, its walls plastered with the tchotchkes, pictures, and inside jokes the bar and its patrons had slowly amassed over many days and nights drinking there. Frank Sinatra played on the jukebox, setting a relaxed, whimsical mood to the room. The bartender’s face broke into a smile upon recognizing C***. Welcoming him back he set us up with a round of beers and quickly caught C*** up on the goings on around the bar.

While C*** and the bartender bandied back and forth, I smoked and drank my beer, attempting to appear aloof, yet secretly nervous that any moment an officer would walk through the door and card me. By the third beer this feeling had evaporated and I settled into the warm afternoon glow of my beer buzz, finding myself developing an unknown appreciation for the crooning of Sinatra, a goofy smile spread over my face. C*** plied himself with shots of Firewater, a hot and spicy cinnamon liquor, and chased them with beer. Never having much of a tolerance for hard alcohol, I abstained after the first shot.

Before long I was drunk, and C*** staggeringly so. A couple whom had sat at the bar with us for a time arose and began to dance to the jukebox. At one point the gentleman lightly twirled the woman whereupon she spun out from his embrace, lost her balance, and spilled into a table. We all broke out in drunken laughter while the woman brushed herself off and chided us good-naturedly. That is, everyone except C***. It was then I noticed C***’s face disappearing into itself, his eyes going to slits, his head starting to bob drunkenly at his neck, a bit too much moisture at his lips.

“Hey man, you okay? Are you going to be able to drive?” I said. I didn’t have a license at the time, having put it off during high school as a means to avoid my father, and I was in no condition to drive even if I had.

He focused on me for a moment, his eyes dancing in his head. “Shit”, he slurred. “Don’t worry man”, he said putting a hand to my shoulder. “I’ll call my mom. She’ll come get us”. C*** rose unsteadily and staggered over to a payphone in the corner of the bar while I finished up my beer.

A short time later I helped C*** into the backseat of the suburban where he immediately fell over and passed out. I handed her the keys to her car which we left parked at the curb in front of Dr. Johns. She was obviously perturbed by his behavior, though seemed overly concerned about my well-being, of which I did my best to reassure her was perfectly fine.

After depositing C*** in bed his mother set me up with a nice lunch spread which I ate in the spot next to C***. I stretched out and spent the afternoon sobering up while watching movies on their cable, C*** snoring deeply on his side of the bed, a beached whale wrapped in a down comforter.

At some point in the late afternoon I went out back to smoke and enjoy the view. When I came back in C***’s mother was pulling off the bed sheet.

“We had a little accident”, she said with a resigned sigh. She balled the sheet up, the dark stain hidden from view.

C**** emerged from the bathroom, freshly showered and in a change of clothes. He swooped up the blankets from the floor. “Sorry mom”, he said on his way out of the room. I ventured out to the deck again, sparing his mother, and myself, any embarrassment.

C**** joined me a few minutes later and we reminisced about the previous night, and our afternoon adventure.

“I never knew how good Sinatra is. He’s great on an early afternoon with a beer buzz”, I said.

“Too much Firewater for me”, he said shaking his head with a laugh. “We need to head back down there to get my mom’s car before she gets more pissed off at me”.

After a quick dinner his mother dropped us off and we retrieved her car. Another trip back to his house to deposit the car and meet-up with friends, only to turn right back around and head to campus town. We bounced from bar to bar, the night blurring in a cacophony of noise, music, cigarette smoke, and seemingly endless drinks.

At some point I lost track of C**** and roamed the bars with a young woman from his group. Having blathered on about how much I’d enjoyed our afternoon jaunt to Dr. John’s she brought me there, the bar now transformed by the nighttime crowds. It was a shoulder to shoulder situation, the bar dimly lit, everyone yelling over the crowd and the jukebox, everyone smoking and drinking. Somehow we manged to squeeze through the crowd to the bar for drinks, where we had to yell directly into each others ear to be heard.

Hours later she brought me back to the house where we sat in her car and I nervously and aimlessly prattled, wondering if her expectant and open features meant she wanted me to kiss her, wanting to kiss her, but not wanting to be unfaithful to my girlfriend back home. Eventually, seeing that I wasn’t going to make a move, or shut the fuck up, she sent my drunk ass on its way and I stumbled inside to collapse fully clothed on the freshly changed bed. My head spun and skipped as I surrendered to sleep.

Beside awaking with a hangover, there was the punishing knowledge we had to make our way back to the proving grounds. It felt impossible, to awake in the soft, downy comfort of these blankets and sheets, to sleepily make my way out to the back porch to take in such a wonderful view, to have such an enjoyable time with such welcoming people, to feel a sense of freedom and excitement again, and then to know that I had to leave it all behind and go back to the stale, antiseptic life I had been living.

A small coterie of C***’s friends arrived in the early afternoon, and the women made lunch for everyone. After some goodbyes we piled our gear into the suburban and made the trek back to the proving grounds. As the sentry waved us through the gate to Aberdeen a feeling of despondency came over me. I left C*** and his father at the Suburban with a hearty handshake and many thanks, then made my way to the barracks. Back in my room I found K*** stretched out on his rack reading a paperback. In short order I recounted my weekend adventures, already filling with a longing to get back to that freedom.

Even after almost 30 years I can look back to this time, and feel those moments, with nothing but fondness. The persons in the movie frames of my memory appear so crisp and real, frozen in small three-second vignettes. The warmth and the happiness I felt, it resides in there, this small pocket of emotion that I can revisit.

The adventure to Morgantown came at a time when I desperately needed a break from my military existence. As I let myself go that weekend, letting the moment take me where it would, along whatever path it opened to, I forgot myself for a bit. I left my anxiousness and sadness behind while moving through those two days of pleasurable excess. It was there I saw, for the first time, a world where people opened themselves to you without hesitation, taking you at face value and without judgment, a way of being so foreign and unexpected to me. It was there I first saw the depths of C***’s alcoholism and the mishap that would reveal itself to be a fairly common experience for him.

Shortly after our Morgantown trip, C*** presented me with a commemorative gift of our adventure. It was a blue t-shirt decorated with a frothy mug of beer and the quip, “Dr. John’s Brew Crew”. I wore that silly shirt for years until I gifted it in early 2001, threadbare and worn, to a girlfriend who wanted it as a memento.

Burghers of Calais - Hirshhron Museum & Sculpture Garden - Washington D.C. - How I often felt back then...

I returned to the routine of military life, the day-in-day-out grind of school, exercise, and incessant cleaning. To break up this monotony there was a visit to Washington D.C. where my wallet went empty due to the expense of hotel accommodations, six dollar hot dogs, and beer. I wandered around the capitol with my friends, taking in the memorials and the sights that we’re freely accessible before we headed back, myself feeling dissatisfied with the whole venture. A weekend trip home to visit my girlfriend transpired at one point, both of us miserable, holding onto feelings that no longer made any sense, trying to force ourselves to stay together when we were better off parting ways.

Free-time on base was spent meandering around in a quest to stave off crushing boredom, with visits to the on-base bowling alley (where they didn’t card and we could get pitchers of beer), the base library (a small and sad affair sequestered away in a completely indistinct clapboard building that smelled of moth-balls and paper rot), and base rec-hall where we played Bingo of all things. Suffice to say, we actually had a blast playing Bingo. I don’t know if it was the novelty of it, the desperation to combat boredom, or maybe Bingo is simply a satisfying game to play. Whatever it was, we went on more than one occasion.

We graduated M.O.S. school at the end of May and received our assignments: I was going to Las Flores at Camp Pendleton. I was going to be part of Maintenance Platoon in 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance. K***, C***, and a few others would be joining me. One of my instructors shook his head wearily and warned me it was a tough unit to be a part of. My twisted sense at this time was there were forces at work against me, and this was only further cemented with this news. Also, I was coming full circle in a way, as I’d learn that my battalion was stationed within site of 2nd Phase Boot Camp Rifle training. A building I had often noticed during that time rising up from the desert hills and foliage, would now become a familiar part of my daily life in Las Flores. Visions of being stationed somewhere closer to home, or somewhere exotic like Okinawa, were replaced by the bland reality that I was coming within striking distance of a place I had only recently left.

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.