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Episode 2: American Pirates

Kurt Kalbfleisch & Gill Sotu

2: "American Pirates" with Kurt Kalblfeish and Gill Sotu
Two real veterans share their honest stories. One man struggles to maintain his relationship while wrestling with the power he wields in war, another finds himself in a new role as a pirate. (The pirate also happens to be the man-crush of Incoming host, Justin Hudnall.) Warning: This episode contains language that might not be suitable for everyone.

Justin Hudnall: From KPBS and So Say We All in San Diego, welcome to Incoming: the show featuring stories from the lives of American veterans, told in their own words, directly from their own mouths. I’m Justin Hudnall. Kurt Kalbfleisch knew he was going to join the Navy ever since one formative experience he had when he was a young boy. Kurt Kalbfleisch: My dad was a freelance commercial photographer, and he got a gig to go aboard navy frigates and there was one photo with one of the pilots flipping my dad the bird as they took off, and I said, “That’s what I want to do. Justin Hudnall: When the first Gulf War broke out he was assigned to the USS Calpins, which at the time was still being built. Kurt: The crew was altogether, and we all got to watch it on CNN, and the joke got to be that we were in the Gulf, we were in the Gulf of Maine. Justin Hudnall: Not long afterwards though he did see action as a surface warfare officer when UN weapons inspectors were denied access in Iraq near the end of Bush Senior’s presidency. Kurt Kalbfleisch: You spend a lot of time training, and I never felt like anything would be lost if I didn’t shoot, it just kind of felt like we just need to be ready for it. Justin Hudnall: But the struggle Kurt chose to write about has to do with a particular truth concerning military service, especially if you have multiple deployments under your belt. That is, no matter where you go, you’re always leaving somebody behind, whether it’s your family, your comrades… Kurt Kalbfleisch: I never had the textbook warm, happy homecoming. It was just very much like, “I love these guys, and in a week, or two weeks, I’m probably never going to see them again. We just don’t know. Justin Hudnall: After a while, somewhere along the way, the idea of home can get lost. But I’ll let Kurt tell you the rest. And somewhere along the way the idea of home can get lost. Kurt Kalbfleisch: Hi my name is Kurt Kalbfleisch, and my piece is called, “Half-Asleep In The Blue Light Lounge.” It is always late-evening dark in here, but I’ve got friends sitting to the left and right of me, and there’s music. “Friends” might be the wrong word. They’re people I trust. Really trust, like I know they would walk through fire for me. I know because we’ve practiced it. Walking through fire for each other. With actual fire. If a guy will put on six layers of clothes and go stand in a 500 degree room for you, you can trust him. I call these men “brother” even though they’re not my family, except they are my family, just not the kind of family where I know their wives’ names or how old their kids are. The music we listen to isn’t what I’d set up a channel on Pandora for. It’s really just information being passed on the radio with an occasional crypto screech, like something from a Philip Glass concerto, which I definitely don’t want to create a Pandora channel for. Still, it’s music: satellite data jazz, man. Chief LaPlume called it “The Blue Light Lounge,” and we all slump in front of our consoles, gazing into orange screens, getting wasted on radar scope dope, waiting. Recruiters won’t tell you about the waiting. We wait for everything. I mostly wait for my relief. I trust my relief with my life, but I don’t trust him to wake up on time, so I keep an eye on the clock, every damn day. When there’s a gap in the music, the conversation flows. OS2 Greenup likes orchestrating lists of things like all the slang terms we can think of for vagina. Our list of terms for penis took days to finish and ended up being a hundred and fifty items long. Because my brothers are, like, twelve. So it’s not unusual when the watch officer suddenly screams, “Jesus Christ, Heine, put your clothes on!” Greenup had suggested that OS2 Heine didn’t have the balls to stand the rest of his watch naked.  One does not decline a challenge in the Blue Light Lounge. Sometimes, there’s mail. Actual mail, which I’d call snail mail if snails could swim. When it gets quiet, which is rare, you’ll find one or two of the guys reading a letter. On this particular night, I have mail from home. The date on the postmark is from three weeks ago. E-mail is not a thing yet. It’s thick, though, and that’s exciting: lots of news from home. Not really. There is a two page letter, front and back of one page, so really a page and a half. And there is a bundle of pages from Consumer Reports. A small part of me knows that she didn’t mean to annoy me, but the rest of me? The rest of me is annoyed. Her letter begins with a complaint that I have not been holding up my end of the conversation, as if one can have a conversation with six weeks between responses. She hasn’t been receiving enough letters from me, though she doesn’t tell me how many letters she wants. I feel defensive and guilty. I haven’t written as often as I would like, but my silence has been justified. For most of January, no mail was permitted on or off the ship. Operational security, we’re told. It makes sense. We had just launched ten Tomahawk missiles into Iraq, destroying Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program. I wrote eleven pages about it, determined to make up for what I knew had been an uncomfortable silence. I wrote in detail about how it felt to do the job we’d trained for. I wrote about the adrenaline rush, the dead-serious moments, the quiet, the roar of missile boosters, the scramble to launch an extra missile when a Tomahawk from another ship exploded over their heads, the raucous celebration by shipmates who had merely stood by and watched, the football game on television with nachos and near-beer on the mess decks, the half-time interruption when the White House Press Secretary announced what we’d done. I wrote about getting the horrifying news that a missile had fallen into a hotel lobby. About not knowing if it was our missile. About not knowing if it was my missile. Eleven pages. I tick the weeks off on my fingers. Our letters must have passed each other in the mail. I feel better, though later, months later, I will not. Most of the rest of her letter is a treatise on why I should abandon my plan to buy a new car when I get home. It is a plan we had agreed to when I let her talk me into selling my truck before deployment. I decide not to mention it when I write back, because it’ll be six weeks before I can read her response, and by then, we’ll be almost home. The pages from Consumer Reports are, to her, the final word on the subject. There is no use in arguing. The last paragraph of her letter stops my heart. She tells me she spent a wonderful weekend in Mexico, riding horses on the beach. With a friend. She means a male friend. Suspicion ripples my thoughts, making it feel as though I’m viewing the world from under water, except that I can breathe. I don’t respond to the letter from home. I can’t think of anything to say. We pass through the Strait of Hormuz and head for home. The ship lurches through heavy seas and except for the poor bastard who has never managed to get his sea legs, we’re happy. The Blue Light Lounge smells like strong coffee and weak vomit, so maybe not entirely happy. Relieved. Relieved is a much better word. We’re home and we are six weeks from home. In Hong Kong, I search for a payphone. The very idea of the coming conversation makes me uneasy. Against all hope, the call goes through. I ask about Mexico. She tells me it’s nothing. I ask her directly: Are you sleeping with him? She laughs and puts our daughter on the phone. Heidi is four, and the sound of her voice makes me giddy. And then she talks mostly about the new man in her life. The new man in her mother’s life. I feel dizzy and nauseous. Three weeks from home. There isn’t much for me to do on watch in the Blue Light Lounge, so I mostly sit with my hands in my coat pockets, collar turned up against the chill of the air conditioning, and think about my new car. If my brothers notice me brooding, they don’t say anything. I want to hate them, at least a little. They are my home and I have to leave them soon, and it will hurt too much if I love them when I go. I convince myself that they are the reason my marriage is ending. The reason my marriage has ended. The home I’m returning to doesn’t exist anymore. I need a new home. A 1993 Ford Probe GT. Steel blue. My wife and I will stop at the Mile of Cars on our way home the day I arrive. I know to the dollar what I will spend. I know because of Consumer Reports. Two weeks from home. We stop in Pearl Harbor, to pick up fathers and sons, brothers and nephews, guests who will ride the ship home with us. My father is among them. He knows something’s wrong, but I don’t tell him, can’t tell him, have no idea what words to use to tell him that his son is a failure and cannot love. Nine days from home. At sea, there are air shows and flybys and great thumping walls of water. There are guests who want tours, sea stories, gunnery demonstrations, steel beach picnics and burgers and water balloons. And nine last days and nights at home in the Blue Light Lounge. In the Blue Light Lounge, my father sits next to me and we talk about everything but that my marriage is failing, has already failed weeks ago, and I am still twenty-four hours from beginning the two years it will take for me to learn I could have done nothing to stop it. The music in the Blue Light Lounge is buoyant. My brothers are laughing with their sons and their fathers, a warm cacophony. I sit beside my father with my hands in my coat pockets, still not talking about that first view of her in the crowd on the pier, not talking about that first embrace. Talking about my new car. We talk about philosophy, about duty and honor and time away from home. I am at home and eight hours from home. I transfer in a week, and though I don’t want to leave, I have to and so I just want to get it over with. I have to leave home to go home. The crowd is on the pier, of course, and they are joyfully noisy. She is not among them, not at first. Later, she will admit that she could not bring herself to leave her lover’s bed; but right now, I can only wonder, even though I know. I know. I have known for weeks. The crowds are still there, at least, when she arrives, gloriously, colorfully late. She greets me with a smile and a hug and later, I’ll see that it looked pretty convincing on camera. We go home, my wife, our daughter, my father, and me. We do not stop at the Mile of Cars. My father arranges for my wife and me to have a few hours alone. She pours shots of tequila. It is not a celebration. Afterwards, I feel like a chore. I know that I will fail to be what she wants, just as I always have. She insists that I buy a used Honda Civic, instead of the new Probe she agreed to seven months ago. So I did. Two weeks later, in her brother’s kitchen, her family asked about the Tomahawk strike they saw on CNN in January. “Was it you?” “Yes,” I reply. “Didn’t Kim tell you?” All eyes turn to her. “I don’t know what you do,” she says. “What about my letter?” She shrugs, dismisses it and me with a wave of her hand. Less than a week later, on my way home from work, I say, “Fuck it,” out loud, and stop at the Mile of Cars to buy that goddamned Ford Probe GT. It is steel blue and it reminds me of my home in the Blue Light Lounge. I traded in the Civic, deliberately accepting less for it than she wanted. I pissed her off, but I wanted to. She demanded to know why I bought the car and I told her that I wanted it because of Consumer Reports.   On the day she drove away with our children, I opened a filing cabinet and found a letter. It is unopened, but I know it is eleven pages long. Justin Hudnall: Speaking of the team, one of my favorite parts of your story is the line you have when you’re talking about preparing to leave these guys who you’ve spent so much time with, and the process you go through of the process to say goodbye before you actually have to say goodbye. Do you mind kind of unwrapping that a little bit more for us? Kurt Kalbfleisch: Oh yeah. You get close to your shipmates. When it’s time to transfer, you’ve been so close to all of these people, you’ve shared some really intimate moments. I mean the times when you’re sea sick, and that’s a vulnerable kind of a moment, right? And you get guys either needling you or being supportive or just ignoring you to be sick in peace. But that kind of thing can happen all the time, and that intimacy of living two feet away from five other guys, and then suddenly to know that, “you know what? I’m never going to see these guys again.” This is my three years is up and I’m not going to see these guys again and I’m going to have to move on. And maybe we’ll stay in touch, but maybe we won’t. And the odds are pretty good that we won’t. And maybe we’ll have some good sea stories to tell about so-and-so, threatening to shoot down an airliner accidentally, maybe not, maybe you never see that guy again. I don’t know if that unpacks it entirely but that’s kind of how it felt. Justin Hudnall: You don’t know what’s going to come next once you’re out, whether you’re ever going to see them again. Kurt Kalbfleisch: Yeah, I mean, at the time, when all of this was going on, Facebook didn’t exist. So it was a lot harder to stay in touch with people and took a lot more time, because you couldn’t just throw what was happening up on some board somewhere and everybody knows what’s going on and you’re all keeping track of each other that way, it was more like, who do I really want to stay in touch with, who do I want an address for? And knowing that that guy is probably going to move and you’ll lose touch with him, so you know, do you want to go all the way of getting their parents’ address, and that kind of stuff. It was just very much like, “I love these guys, and in a week, or two weeks, I’m probably never going to see them again, or maybe by luck I’ll get stationed with somebody again, and that’ll be cool, but we just don’t know. Justin Hudnall: When you’re at that stage do you feel like there’s a wall that comes down? Kurt Kalbfleisch: There was for me. I very much really sort of pulled away early to kind of ease that transition. Some people do and some people don’t, but I think that’s a pretty common thing. Justin Hudnall: Of the four deployments and returns you went through what was the most consistently recurring challenge you faced melting back into civilian, stateside life. Kurt Kalbfleisch: I was say that deployment, the deployment I talk about in this one, was really reintegrating myself into my family. Trying to find a way to get back in to the routine. I think the thing that happens on deployment is that when you leave people behind, you have that snapshot of those final couple of days or those final couple of weeks, you have that snapshot of what life was like at home. And then you go away for six months, eight months, a year, and then you come back and things have changed because life is dynamic, but the picture in your head. So you have to reconcile, ok, I have to let go of this mental picture because things have moved on. And it can be a real struggle and a source of conflict particularly in a relationship. Justin Hudnall: Did that conflict carry over into your relationship with your kids, or were they old enough to know what was going on? Kurt Kalbfleisch: No, it really didn’t because my first deployment, my older daughter was four, my younger daughter hadn’t been—this deployment—my older daughter was four, my younger daughter hadn’t been born yet. The next deployment I did was in 98’ so they were still too young. And by that time I was divorced from their mom, so I only had them part of the time anyhow. So it was sort of we were used to doing that once a month, kind of, ok, now I have to abandon the snapshot because they’ve had a month and they’re a little bit more grown than the last time I saw them. So, you know, it really wasn’t that much of a factor with my kids. One question I’ve been asking everybody in this process is, if you were in a position to give advice to someone who’s about to get out of the military in the next six weeks or so, what would your advice be? Kurt Kalbfleisch: Chill. Don’t worry. Because everybody goes through that panic phase for the last month or two of their time in the service going, “what am I going to do next? What am I going to do next?” It’s going to appear. You rely on the people you know to help you find a good place to start, and you know, it’s starting again but just don’t panic. It is nothing but an understatement when I say that Gill Sotu is a big player in the San Diego art scene. He ran one of the most welcoming and successful open mic nights in town for years called Train of Thought, which has since evolved into a radio show on KNSJ and as a podcast and which you should definitely check out. He’s one of the most powerful performance poets and musicians I’ve ever had the privilege of working with, but even more than that, he’s a leader. The man always rolls with an entourage of aspiring poets, musicians, and comedians, many for whom he is responsible for giving their first taste of glory on a stage. Even after he made a big proclamation to me that he was going to take some time off to focus on his own career as an artist, he just can’t help being a community leader. He’s compulsively supportive. If all this effusive language on my part makes me sound like I have a bit of a man crush on Gill, well, Guess what. I do. I aspire to be nothing less than the ivory to his ebony. But the reason I’m saying all this is because I believe it’s connected to a much lesser known fact about Gill, which is that he’s a navy vet. So, here on episode 3 of Incoming, we asked Mr. Gill Sotu to perform a piece for us that speaks to his experience in the service. And so without further adieu, I’ll just let Gill tell you the rest. Gill: American Pirate December 31st 1999, For 17 years Prince warned that this was going to happen The party has begun and I not only missed the boat I got on the wrong one No flights of fancy, no fanfare, no fun No sexy women wishing to dance and drink away their daddy issues Just sailors Just us sailors Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses Your criminals, your high school underachievers, Your, I’ll do anything to get out of this town... …and we will build you the best Navy this nation can band-aid together. Dress pirates to look like gentlemen Tell us this is for God and country No need to trick us capt’n, we’re American Pirates we are We’ll do it for women and money December 31st 1999 In the middle of nowhere doing nothing but keeping my tray from sliding off the table The black ocean ebbs and flows rhythmically Trying to start the party Keeps things rockin But lacks any real direction You know how dem black oceans do I’m trying to keep my chicken fried steak in my stomach Three years as a sailor and I still keep a plastic bag in my back pocket in case of sickness I’m an accident waiting to happen, Like Y2K Someone reset the clock so the planes don’t fall out of the sky Someone turn the back time so I don’t get on this boat I’m supposed to be with Prince, Apollonia, Vanity, and Sheila E And the rest of the Revolution It was the apocalypse we’ve all been waiting for Instead Clemmons gets caught beating off in his space off the aft deck They playing spades in the berthing and taking no prisoners Clark got the Madden going on the PlayStation in the laundry room Usually I’d be engaged in one, maybe all three of them activities at the same time But it’s December 31st, 1999 And there will never be another one No land to be seen No kiss to be stolen Military service is a marriage She always comes first And can care less if you reach your climax Your goals, your dreams Just do what she says And you might make it out weak but alive And if you’re lucky With a few good stories AMERICAN PIRATE Progress not perfection I am coming home... I learned what I could Saluted who I had to, and ate what they fed me If I never see another chicken fried steak on a plastic pink tray I'd die a happy man. I'm ready for the sun to know me by my first name again Tired of adapting, I have never been good at playing ocean This tree has roots that long to be planted Progress not perfection I'm coming home... I remember leaving, I remember the party they threw in honor of me sailing off to protect this country Not much fanfare in succeeding safely. Coming home is not as fancy Much like a divorce, people just want to know what's next And saying "I don't know" is like checking "other" when asked to list your ethnicity America doesn't do vague If we can't label it, it doesn't exist 4 years and no real combat, I always get the question, "Are you really a veteran?"...YES! My time served wasn't idyllic I may have missed a few musters I may have wrote a few poems when I should have been watching out for the enemy... One or two may have slipped by in the middle of a stanza... But I put on my patriotism one leg at a time just like the decorated, the wounded, the forgotten... None of us, perfect soldiers, sailors, marines None of us, perfect fathers, wives, husbands, nieces, or sons but all of us... have to come home, or find a new one. Do not expect us to return better Just be open Do not expect us to return stronger Just be open Do not expect us to return understanding what happened to the world in our absence... Just be open... And we will always love you for it. Progress not perfection We are coming home That was Mr. Gill Sotu and that is our show. Incoming is produced by myself, Justin Hudnall. Original music by Chris Warren, Ariana Warren and Kristopher Apple. In the studio, Kurt Kohnen provides technical assistance, Leah Singer is our Web Editor, Jim Tinsky does Web Development and John Decker is Grand Poobah Program Director. If you have a story or you know someone who does, go to Thanks so much for listening. We’ll talk again soon.

Our second episode of "Incoming" focuses on stories from two very different voices of the U.S. Navy. First up, Kurt Kalbfleisch shares his journey home from a deployment in the Gulf War while a Master Chief and Surface Warfare Officer aboard the USS Cowpens. It was during the U.N. arms inspection crisis with Iraq, during which he helped launch one of many Tomahawk missiles under the auspices of helping motivate Hussein’s regime to comply. Kalbfleisch’s attention was split between his duties abroad and a crisis he was undergoing privately — knowing the collapse of his marriage was taking place in his absence while he was powerless to stop it. The impending separation from his shipmates, his brothers, forced him to put up a wall to cope with the undeniable truth that there was no home for him to sail back to.

Then, Gill Sotu, performance poet extraordinaire, relives the experience of seeing the new millennium dawn. He was stationed at about the farthest place his younger self could've ever imagined he’d spend this turn in time — at sea on a U.S. Navy warship, out of sight and ear shot from Prince and all the other celebrities he’d dreamt of celebrating amongst.

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