Ghosts: Part 5

Absent Without Leave

Ghosts:Part 4

I awoke to the red pleather backside of the front seat of K***'s truck, and the sound of water trickling over rocks. Lightning bolts of pain radiated from the base of my skull as I pulled myself up to a sitting position. I winced as this pain metastasized to a dull throbbing at my temples. K*** and C*** slept soundly in the front seat, looking as if their bodies had been tossed haphazardly against the opposing doors where they had settled in a softly snoring pile of limbs. I was wracked with thirst and the need to urinate.

The last thing I remembered was driving through the pitch black of the nighttime desert on our way to Twenty Nine Palms. At some point we arrived here, a roadside pull-off alongside a river. The air was pleasantly scented with Pine, and the jagged spikes of mountains rose around us. I stared about in bewilderment for a few moments, then climbed out of the truck, skirted the slight incline to the rivers edge, and released my bladder.

Prior to finding myself in these serene surroundings, K***, C***, and I had spent four aimless days at our new battalion. Though we had checked in with our superiors and been assigned to Maintenance Platoon, it seemed we had otherwise been forgotten. We were simply there, without assignment, without direction. This situation quickly became anxiety-inducing after having spent the previous seven months being micromanaged. Worried we’d be singled out for standing around, and knowing being apprehended for that crime could end in hours of mindless activity, we instead made nervous circles of the battalion. Eventually a sergeant gathered us up and told us to report for an off-site health assessment the following morning. This was on a Thursday afternoon.

Later that evening, we decided to check out the Del-Mar E-Club, one of the many on-base sports bars for enlisted Marines. The club was basically a darkened room, divided into halves: one-half a dance floor, the other half filled with tables. There was also a DJ that played top 20 rock radio at crushing volumes. We had been told civilian women often came to the club for drinks and the possible hook up with a young Marine. Perhaps this was true on weekend nights, but this Thursday evening found us sitting in this darkened room with 100 other male Marines, all of whom rubbernecked every person that walked through the door in the hope it was someone of the fairer sex.

“Fuck this place”, C*** muttered.

“Cheers to that”, I said, raising my mug. We clinked our glasses together and downed large gulps of beer.

“I honestly thought it would have been different”, K*** said., lighting up a cigarette. “I mean, after all we went through to get seems so mediocre”.

“Wait, are you talking about the bar, or the Corps?”, I asked, pouring out the rest of the pitcher. “C***, you’re up”.

“The Corps”, K*** said. “And the bar”.

“What we should do is go back to the battalion, pack our shit, and head north to link up with the Dead Tour”, I suggested, not expecting a serious response. I drained my glass and eased back in my seat, scanning the groups of Marines spread about the tables. It was when I turned back to K*** and C*** that I noticed their contemplative silence.

“What?”, I asked. “It was an idea. I’m not being serious. Well, not 100% serious”.

“Fuck yeah dude! Let’s do it!” C*** shouted, breaking out in a wild laugh.

Without a moments hesitation my thinking went from casual idea, to serious contemplation of making this move. I believe K*** must have sensed this shift and began to balk.

“I don’t know man”, he said, shaking his head. “That’s a...I don’t know what the fuck that is. That’s some serious, risky shit”.

If K*** wasn’t on board then this idea was dead before it began, as he was the only one of us with a vehicle. I applied strategic pressure, rallying C*** for support, invoking all of the misery we had been through.

“We come all this way, through all of this bullshit, and we show up and no one even knows we exist”, I said. “I wonder if they’d notice we were gone?”

I painted a vivid picture of us on the open road, moving from city to city with the Dead tour, and juxtaposed it with the static and seemingly unchanging misery we were presently experiencing. I informed them that if we went AWOL, we’d have 30 days before we’d be considered deserters. They couldn’t kick us out, and if we changed our minds and turned ourselves in prior to the 30 day deadline, we’d avoid more serious punishment. I don’t know if this is what ultimately persuaded K***, but whatever it was that sold him, we finished our beers and headed back to the battalion to pack.

After arriving at our barracks, we agreed to quickly pack and meet back at K***’s truck. I slipped into the dark of my room and quietly filled a small overnight bag with my civilian clothes. My roommate, a Marine I did not know, was sleeping in his rack across from mine. As I closed my dresser drawer he rolled over, mumbling something in his sleep. I froze. The last thing I wanted was a conversation or to arouse suspicion. I patted my pockets quietly, ensuring I had my wallet, keys, all necessary effects. Confident I had everything I needed, I slipped back out the door.

Our plan was simple: head north to Seattle and connect with the Grateful Dead tour. We had two days to make it. We also decided to make a stop at Twenty Nine Palms, a Marine base in the Nevada desert, to pick up a classmate from our LAV schooling. The more, the merrier, we drunkenly concluded, never once considering that our friend might decline making such a rash decision.

K***, puffing away at a cigarette, was already behind the wheel of his truck when I arrived.

“Where’s C***?” I asked, climbing into the back seat.

K*** shrugged. “You really think this is a good idea?”

“A good idea? I don’t know about that. It’s not a bad idea”, I said.

K*** gave a light laugh. “Sure, maybe not bad, though, maybe terrible?”

“You having second thoughts?”

“I don’t know. Maybe? But fuck it, I’m in. It’s crazy, and I’ll probably regret it, but fuck it”, he said.

Just then C*** came running up, a fully stuffed sea bag in one hand, a fully stuffed military backpack in the other. He had packed his full military issue – from his cammies down to the full set of his field gear. He tossed the bags into the bed of the truck.

“May come in handy”, he said. He slammed shut the passenger door.

K*** paused before turning the ignition. “Alright gents, last chance to change your mind. Anyone?”

After a brief silence he turned the ignition. A few minutes later were were speeding north on Interstate 5. We stopped at a gas station to fortify ourselves with 40oz’s of beer and fresh packs of cigarettes. Outside the truck window the Los Angeles valley receded, the city lights twinkling like starlight as we spiraled our way up a mountain side, the darkness a deep and concentrated pitch that left me feeling as if my body had floated outside of itself, ascending above the landscape.

After a time our energy began to taper, the beer settling heavily in our bellies, each of us falling into contemplative silence. At some point, navigating our way through the Nevada desert, the red glow of K***’s and C***’s cigarette embers blurring into soft blotches of rose-like color, I passed out.

In the truck, somewhere in California

Now we were somewhere in the mountains. I peered about our location, taking in the scenery, trying to piece together the previous evening. Our friend from Twenty Nine Palms was not with us. I wondered if we had made it, or if we were still on our way? All in knew, or more so, felt, at that moment was a sense of release. I was surprised I didn’t feel any anxiety about what we had, very much drunkenly, decided.

There was movement in the truck, and I turned to greet K*** and C*** as they stepped out. We stood in silence, taking in our surroundings, puffing at cigarettes.

“What happened last night? Did we make it to Twenty Nine Palms?” I said.

K*** slipped down the embankment to relieve himself. C*** shook his head. “We got lost. Lost and too fucking tired”.

“Any idea where we’re at?” I asked.

C*** shrugged, looking out over the river to the mountainous scene beyond. “Beats the shit out of me”.

A few moments later K*** scrambled back up the embankment.

“Any idea where we’re at?” I said.

“I think we’re in California. I drove for as long as I could and gave up when I began seeing double”, K*** said.

“I’m dying of thirst. We need to get some water”, I said.

“We need to go back. We’re going to be in deep shit”, C*** said.

I couldn’t imagine turning around then. We had just broken free. “We should stick to the plan”, I said. “We’re in trouble whether we go back now, or we go back later. May as well make the most of it, right?”

After a moment, C*** nodded in ascent.

“That’s my thought anyway. We’re already out here. We keep going. There is still time to change your mind later”, I coaxed.

“What do you say K***?” C*** said.

K*** gazed about the surrounding scenery. “It’s real nice out here, “ he said with a sigh.

It was only a short time prior to this little adventure of ours that I read Kerouac’s “On the Road”. Let me be honest: I didn’t like the book very much. Yet I did enjoy its spirit. Like many young people, I was attracted to the real-life alter-egos of the story’s protagonist’s, attracted to the desire for adventure, music, poetry, and the road before you ever evolving into new vistas. I just didn’t understand the infatuation with Neal Cassidy’s character. He annoyed me, and when I considered him in real life, I just knew I’d think he was an asshole. But that book, along with Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” had planted seeds in my teenage mind that had given rise to the desire to hit the open road.

Staring out the truck window as the California landscape rolled by, I recalled how as a child I’d envision a person running alongside our vehicle, jumping the fences and ravines as they whizzed by, tumbling and rolling, leaping and soaring through the fields and farmland. And there they were again, this faceless, acrobatic entity, momentarily resurrected from the relaxed recesses of my mind, moving in tandem with us. The hours passed and the mountains rolled, undulated, and flattened, to once again rise up on my left. To my right the wheat brown of the valley spread out, at times pancake flat for as far as the eye could see, at other times the flatness suddenly broke into the heartbeat of a city skyline. And so California unraveled in a hung-over daydream, sun washed, summer baked and blasted, and she trickled out under midnight sky's, the fields and mountains awash in milky, moon coated shades of blue.

We drove non-stop for two days, pulling over at truck stops and camp grounds to sleep a handful of hours, slipping out before the sun came up and the camp hosts discovered us. Then, an Oregon morning met my waking eyes with plush mountains of green, and a cool, dewy mist that rose up from the valleys we sped through, creating a gauzy haze along the slopes of the surrounding hills and mountains.

C*** sleeping in the back of the truck

I had little idea what my companions truly thought of all of this though they seemed content at the time. There were hours of contemplative quiet, and while I chased my thoughts about, marveling over the landscape, I had to assume they were doing the same. Later, when I would look back at this time, I would wonder how it ever happened. How had C*** and K*** let themselves be convinced again and again to keep going when time and again they professed to wanting to go back?


After arriving in Seattle, we called K***’s friends from a payphone. It was then we discovered The Dead left Seattle the previous day for San Francisco. We had essentially passed them by. None of us wanted to head back the way we came, considering California off-limits, as if the military had put out a statewide search for us. Instead we decided to hang with K***’s friends for a few days.

My memories of our respite in Seattle are fuzzy, rough-shorn vignettes scattershot over a series of days, fragmented further by hours spent pulling bong hits and drinking beer. These vignettes are buttressed by a handful of photographs we took during this time. I documented our journey across the U.S., taking snapshots of us in the truck, sleeping by the side of the road, partying in nondescript places. I look at the images now and they’re mostly divorced from my memory. They stand alone, flat and disconnected from the momentary, moving pictures that play across my minds eye. They’ve become a curiosity, a piece of a memory puzzle that time has mostly rendered meaningless.

So what do I remember? I remember we stayed in Seattle or a nearby suburb for a few days, partying with K***’s friends, smoking weed and drinking. We slept wherever we happened to pass out. I tried my best to feel comfortable with K***’s friends but faked it most of the time. This isn’t to say they weren’t friendly, and hospitable. They were. They took us in and showed us a good time. I just didn’t feel much of a connection to them. At some point, K*** spoke with his sister and learned that our families had been notified of our AWOL status. K***’s sister pressed him to return to Camp Pendleton. I pressed for us to continue, doing my best to keep K***’s and C***’s motivation directed toward what I wanted.

K and C, Seattle

One evening, drunk and stoned, we ventured out into Seattle, eventually finding ourselves at the Fremont Bridge troll. The troll was a massive pile of gray cement, roughly shaped into the hairy bust of large-nosed troll. It had two gigantic arms that reached out toward the street, one firmly grasping a cement encased Volkswagen Bug. At this time, the bridge troll was only a few years old, and when we arrived, there were late-night revelers crawling about the massive concrete sculpture. We joined the revelry for a time before venturing off to other sights. The troll became etched in my memory as little more than a dreamy excursion, leaving me to often question whether I had actually seen it. Two decades later, I was visiting friends in Seattle and mentioned the troll. Shortly afterward, I found myself standing before it again, my host bored and itching to move on while I was filled with a feeling of homecoming and an urge to stay and soak it in.

We couldn’t continue crashing at the apartment. It was decided we could stay at friends family’s cottage on one of the islands outside of Seattle. We stocked up on essential supplies (beer, cigarettes, Hamburger Helper) before boarding a ferry that deposited us on the island. We drove down winding roads, past properties snuggled into patches of lush forest, one property simply a dirt driveway that ended at a Volkswagen bus. We stayed on the island for a few days, yet after the novelty of the first day, the sense of adventure quickly fizzled out. On our last evening, C*** and K*** braved the nighttime waters in a canoe to pick up K***’s friends on the mainland. I remained behind, for well over an hour watching the black and oily looking waters while chain-smoking cigarettes, filled with visions of them spilling the canoe and drowning in the darkness. To this day I cannot recall which island we stayed on. I’ve scoured Google maps, searching for an island that ferry’s passengers but is also within striking distance if crossed by canoe. I’ve found a couple that could be contenders, but I’ll never be certain.


Knowing that K*** and C*** were entertaining thoughts of returning to Camp Pendleton, I convinced them to continue on to Chicago, regaling them with visions of a welcoming band of my friends, festive partying, and all around good times.

We left Seattle in the early morning, K*** at one point driving fifteen hours before we pulled over to rest. Along the way we stopped at Mount Rushmore, a side-trip I have little recollection of, though this excursion is evidenced by snapshots we took, Rushmore looming up behind us.

After almost a week and a half on the road, the mood began to change. We began to bicker, and at one point C*** and I almost coming to blows. The albums we had to listen to had been played to exhaustion. The truck was often silent, the hum of the wheels and wind the only sound.

Stopping at Mt. Rushmore

We made it to Chicago in two days. Once arrived, we rendezvoused with my girlfriend before venturing to meet up with my larger circle of friends. Sadly, the homecoming I hoped for did not happen. It was readily apparent some of my friends did not find our visit the joyous occasion I expected it to be. C***, visibly peeved, proceeded to drink a fifth of peppermint schnapps and passed out in the back of K***’s truck. We drank, and smoked weed, and there was laughter, but underneath it all was an undeniable tension. K*** was quiet, trying to make the most of it, but after the first night, I began to feel uncomfortable with the situation.

In Chicagoland
C*** Drinking Rumple Minze Peppermint Schnapps
The look on my face speaks volumes about the less than warm welcome

I had hoped my friends would welcome us, but instead, I found rejection. I privately assumed they didn’t like that I brought outsiders, but I had to admit to feeling they didn’t like my being there as well. While I didn’t show it, this was painful for me. There was a sense of shame, and bewilderment, a gulf having been drawn between us. We floated around, partying with the different groups I was friends with, but after a few days C*** and K*** soured on the whole thing. They decided to turn themselves in.

We had a short conversation which amounted to me professing I was never returning, and then to ease my conscious, I gave them 150 dollars for gas and food to make it back. We said our goodbyes, and when K*** turned the key in the ignition it would not start. I stood by while he tried to get the truck to turn over, my anxiety growing, my selfish attempt at ridding myself of them, of making my homecoming less fraught, dwindling with each passing attempt. K*** assured me and C*** it wasn’t an issue.

“It just needs an oil change”, K*** said.

“What the fuck does the oil have to do with the truck starting?” C*** asked.

“I’m telling you, it just needs an oil change”, K*** insisted.

After retrieving oil from a gas station not too far away, K*** proceeded to drain the truck directly onto the pavement. As I nervously watched quarts worth of black oil trailing down the parking lot we were in, K*** emptied the new quarts into the engine. Once finished he tried the ignition again, and it failed to turn over.

K*** pressed that it would be fine, that I should go. Instead of doing what was right and staying with them to see this through, I walked away. I left them in my town, a place where they essentially knew no one, had little knowledge or understanding of, and with a truck that wouldn’t start. I cringe when considering the selfishness of my actions, that feeling reaching across all of the intervening years, gripping me with shame. I’d like to think I was a better person, that I am a better person, but this is what I did. I walked away.

Over the course of the coming week I would move about town, drinking with friends, hanging out with my girlfriend, trying to pretend that somehow I could come out of this free from my obligation to the government, somehow able to re-insert myself back into the ebb and flow of my former Midwestern life. I had no plan. Saying I was never going back was an empty pronouncement as outside of continuing to move aimlessly about, exhausting the good graces of my friends when it came to shelter and sustenance, I had no idea what I was going to do. It was obvious there was only one answer. Maybe I’d be able to get out relatively unscathed, I told myself. A late night conversation with my mother, the first I had with her since leaving Camp Pendleton, drove this home even more. I was only delaying the inevitable.

A few days later I heard K*** was still in town, never having been able to get the truck started. K*** and C*** had spent a day toying with ideas on how to get the truck to turn over, periodically hanging out in a local diner until the purveyors needling stares drove them away. Dejected, they had retreated to the truck, where they ran into Kate. Kate was a friend I introduced them to one evening before our split. She happened to be ambling about town when she came across them. Being the friend I had failed to be, she took them in. They partied with her for a few days, and a relationship between her and K*** developed. C***, quickly feeling like a third wheel, decided to head back to West Virginia via Greyhound bus.

By this time the full weight of my predicament had metastasized into a desire to return to Camp Pendleton and face the consequences. I decided I would turn myself in with the hope of getting out of the Marine Corps. On a whim I went to see if K***’s truck was where I had last spoke with him. It was not. Dispirited, I walked about the storefronts of the small downtown center near where I had last seen him. Then, rounding a corner I found him sitting on the tailgate of his truck, smoking a cigarette.

“I thought you were gone”, I said.

“I had to move the truck. C*** and I pushed it over here so it wouldn’t get towed”, he said glancing about. They had dumped the truck in a parking lot that butted up to a row of small apartment buildings.

We caught up on what had transpired since we went our separate ways. K*** had figured out the truck needed a new fuel injector motor and used the money I had given him and C*** to purchase one.

“Now, I just need to figure out how to drop the gas tank enough to get the old one out and this one in”, he said.

“That shouldn’t be too hard, should it?”, I asked.

K*** rose from the tailgate and flicked the butt of his cigarette away. “We filled the tank right before we were going to leave. Remember?”

I understood. It was going to be heavy. “I can help you fix this. The two of us should be able to manage it. I’d like to head back with you too, if that’s cool? I’ll front the money for gas and some provisions. What do you say?” I said.

“Yeah, cool with me. I told C*** I’d ring him up. Come get him if he wanted to head back”, he said.

We had just over a week before we’d be designated deserters. If we drove to West Virginia we’d have to make some long miles back to make it in time. We figured we could make it work, though it’d be close.

A local garage took pity on us, lending us a jack and a few tools, and we managed to get the gas tank lowered enough to replace the motor. Within a half hour the truck was running again. We made plans to meet the next day and make our way back to Camp Pendleton to turn ourselves in.

That evening, I said goodbye to my girlfriend and friends, a quiet send-off over a couple of beers. I felt some relief, once again finding a direction, even if that direction led me back to the Marine Corps. I had no idea what lay ahead, but I held onto the hope I could somehow figure a way out of my enlistment.

The following morning, I met K*** at his truck. We drove to a grocery store and stocked up on enough canned goods, crackers, and other junk food to get us through the week. Loading our spoils into a cooler in the bed of the truck K*** informed me he had been unable to reach C*** in West Virginia. We decided to head back without him.

A short time later, we sat at a park bench across from Kate’s house, making the last of our goodbyes, K*** and Kate smoking a bowl and kissing each other every other moment. After a few moments of this I suggested we hit the road. K*** and Kate parted reluctantly while I waited in the truck.

Returning via the Southwest

We spent the next week making our way back to Camp Pendleton. At first, we headed south through Illinois, taking the 55 to St. Louis, where we connected with the 44. From there we made our way south-west through Missouri and Oklahoma. Once reaching Oklahoma City we sped westward on the 40, breezing through the southwest. The days were long, filled with the white static of the truck making highway miles, the same tired CD’s played in continual rotation, each of us lost in our thoughts.

I recall the panhandle of Texas stretching out before us, an endless waste of bone dry earth and pancake flat vistas that gave one the sense you were moving in place. There was a palpable, shared relief once we made it to Albuquerque, where we pawned a knife for a handful of dollars. With the proceeds we treated ourselves to a hot meal at a diner, relishing eating something beside the cold spaghetti and ravioli’s we had been subsisting off of. Moving through New Mexico I watched as the light wound down the horizon, the sun setting the desert landscape ablaze with rusty reds, blues, and magenta’s, a beautiful transformation I was unprepared for. After sweating throughout the day the evening’s coolness was a welcome respite.

In Arizona, we made a side-trip to Meteor Crater, after I demanded to see this enormous meteor impact. Upon arriving, we discovered visitors were required to pay an entry fee to view the crater. I was disappointed as we did not have the cash to expend on this, leaving me feeling deprived of viewing what was essentially a hole in the ground. I had wanted to take in the breadth of this impact, to give my mind something to chew on, and to fulfill a curiosity that had been sparked as a child when seeing the movie “Starman”. I cursed and bitched all the way back to the truck.

We rested for a time in Flagstaff, where we decided to take another side-trip, this time to Las Vegas. We were slightly ahead of schedule, timing our arrival to deliver us on the 29th day of our AWOL status. We calculated we had enough money for gas to make it back, with seven dollars to spare. We figured we could pull seven dollars worth of slots, and if we got lucky we’d have ourselves a nice meal. Nearing Las Vegas we stopped at Hoover Dam to stretch our legs and take in the enormity of its construction. A short time later we arrived in Las Vegas where it took us about three minutes to lose our money. Instead of gorging on a buffet we ate a meager meal of cold canned potatoes and summer sausage.

Hoover Dam
Heading out of Vegas after losing our 7 dollars on the slots

We arrived in California on a Friday afternoon. We were mostly quiet that day, dawdling at a rest stop a short distance from Camp Pendleton, our minds wracked with worry. Somehow K*** met someone who gave him a marijuana bud which he stashed for later consumption.

“Well, what do you say?”, K*** said.

I nodded, knowing we were only delaying the inevitable. “Yeah, no better time than now”.

We pulled into our company parking lot at 4 o’clock that Friday afternoon, 8 hours before we would have been designated deserters. We finished the cigarettes we were smoking and then forced ourselves from the truck. The walk from the truck to the company office was a march of dread, each step filling me with anxiety, my legs rubbery, my breath coming in shallow, nervous drags.

Entering the company office, we found C***, dressed in his camouflage fatigues, sitting in a chair against the wall. Despite the shock of finding him there, the sour, defeated expression on his face remained unchanged.

The staff behind the company counter were busy with paperwork and other duties, oblivious to our entrance. Finally, a Sargent looked up from his paperwork and acknowledged us.

“What can I do for you Marines?” he said.

K*** stepped forward and stood at attention. “Lance Corporal **** and Private First Class Jacobs reporting from unauthorized absence”, he said.

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.