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Half Asleep In The Blue Light Lounge

A portrait Navy Officer Kurt Kalbfleisch
Leah Singer
A portrait Navy Officer Kurt Kalbfleisch

Navy Chief Petty Officer Kurt Kalbfleisch talks about returning home from the Gulf War

Warning: Some material in this story might not be suitable for everyone.

Half Asleep In The Blue Light Lounge
Half Asleep In The Blue Light Lounge

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: 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 as a young boy. KURT: My dad was a freelance commercial photographer, and he got a gig to go abroad navy frigate 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, HOST: When the first Gulf War broke out, he was assigned to the USS Cowpens, which at the time was still being built. KURT: The crew was all together 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, HOST: 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: 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 needed to be ready for it. JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: 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. And that is, that no matter where you go, you’re always leaving somebody behind. Whether it’s your family or your comrades-- KURT: I never really had that textbook warm, happy homecoming. It was very much like, you know, I love these guys and then in a week or in two weeks, I’m probably never going to see them again. We just don’t know. JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: And after a while, somewhere along the way, the idea of home can get lost. But I’ll let Kurt tell you the rest. KURT: Hi, my name is Kurt Kalbfleisch and my piece is called Half Asleep in the Blue Light Lounge. (prior recording) 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 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, “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, “F--k it,” out loud, and stop at the Mile of Cars to buy that 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 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, HOST: That was Kurt Kalbfleisch and that is our show. Incoming is produced by myself, Justin Hudnall. Original music by Chris Warren, Ariana Warren, Kris Apple and Charlie Arbelaez. Our outro music is by Tim Koch, aka 10:32, thanks to Ghostly International. In the studio, Kurt Kohnen provides technical assistance, Leah Singer is our Web Editor, Jim Tinsky does Web Development and Program Director John Decker has a very nicely trimmed beard. Thanks so much for listening. We’ll talk again soon.

Incoming

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JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

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 as a young boy.

KURT: My dad was a freelance commercial photographer, and he got a gig to go abroad navy frigate 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, HOST:

When the first Gulf War broke out, he was assigned to the USS Cowpens, which at the time was still being built.

KURT: The crew was all together 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, HOST:

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: 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 needed to be ready for it.

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

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. And that is, that no matter where you go, you’re always leaving somebody behind. Whether it’s your family or your comrades--

KURT: I never really had that textbook warm, happy homecoming. It was very much like, you know, I love these guys and then in a week or in two weeks, I’m probably never going to see them again. We just don’t know.

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

And after a while, somewhere along the way, the idea of home can get lost. But I’ll let Kurt tell you the rest.

KURT: Hi, my name is Kurt Kalbfleisch and my piece is called Half Asleep in the Blue Light Lounge.

(prior recording) 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 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, “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, “F--k it,” out loud, and stop at the Mile of Cars to buy that 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 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, HOST:

That was Kurt Kalbfleisch and that is our show. Incoming is produced by myself, Justin Hudnall. Original music by Chris Warren, Ariana Warren, Kris Apple and Charlie Arbelaez. Our outro music is by Tim Koch, aka 10:32, thanks to Ghostly International. In the studio, Kurt Kohnen provides technical assistance, Leah Singer is our Web Editor, Jim Tinsky does Web Development and Program Director John Decker has a very nicely trimmed beard. Thanks so much for listening. We’ll talk again soon.