Enduring E-mail

When Stefan Kirtz sailed half a world away to fight terrorism, his family and fiancee had little trouble keeping him in their thoughts: They've been virtually chatting with him every day.

January 05, 2002|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Hi babydoll. I love you and miss you. How are you doing? How is everything at home? How is mom, brother, and jim doing? Are you there cause I here. Where art thou???

Five decks below the waterline of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, Stefan Kirtz sits at his computer and, when his duties permit, sends and receives news from home.

At this humble desk in a sweaty storage room, he has spent much of the war in Afghanistan. While others in this massive ship were launching bomb-laden F/A-18 Hornets into the night skies above the Arabian Sea, he has toiled at the less glamorous role of storeroom custodian, issuing parts like gaskets and seals, huge wire spools and tow bars that are used to lift and transport weapons.

Home for this tall and lanky, brown-haired, brown-eyed 20-year-old is his mother's rowhouse on South Mount Street in Southwest Baltimore's Mount Clare neighborhood, and he thinks about it often. It will be a few months before he sees it again.

Yet even as the Vinson steams toward Pearl Harbor today for a brief stop before heading back to its home port in Bremerton, Wash., he keeps in daily, sometimes hourly touch with his family. It is almost like they are around the corner. Angie, his fiancee, his mother, his brothers and friends. But mostly his e-mail exchanges are with Angie. Although thousands of miles apart, they are planning their April 20 wedding and sharing private thoughts.

But on this particular December day, Angie hasn't gotten any e-mails and playfully writes to him, "You must not love me today." It is one of 30 or so e-mails he has received, but it's the first he chooses to send a reply.

I always love you no matter what day it is, he types into his computer. You would have had e-mail (sooner) but I worked early and haven't gotten on till right now.

He presses the "send" button and the words disappear, dispatched by a shipboard computer server linked to a civilian satellite network. In a matter of an hour or so, it will pop up in Angela Nalley's America Online account.

And eight hours later, when it's morning in Glen Burnie, she'll sign on to her mother's 3-year-old Compaq laptop computer in the downstairs office, read Stefan's message and smile.

Everything is set for the wedding except a photographer and your (groom's) men. Do you want me to send you headache med(ication)?

Like everyone else, Angie Nalley was horrified by the events of Sept. 11. But she also realized -- practically from the moment she saw the burning World Trade Center towers on TV -- it meant Stefan would be headed into harm's way.

"My heart just dropped," says Angie, a soft-spoken and petite 20-year-old receptionist in a podiatrist's office."I knew Stefan would be there. He was in the Navy and this was war."

For a week, e-mail privileges on board the Vinson were suspended, and neither Angie nor anyone else in the family could get in touch and their fears mounted. But then the blackout was lifted. The e-mails poured forth and Stefan's reassurances that he was fine and was ready to go to war eased their concerns.

After all, Angie knew Stefan might have to face a combat zone. That came with the job. But until September it seemed an almost academic point.

He had signed up for a 4-year hitch in the Navy only a year ago, practically on a lark. He had dropped out of Lansdowne High School in 1999. He was working as a machinist at the nearby Bronze & Plastic Specialties plant on Inverness Avenue. Mostly, he hung out with friends and got high.

"He went through rough times," says Lynn Barkas, 43, his aunt.

But the Navy proved to be a good experience. He earned his GED during boot camp in Great Lakes, Ill. He learned to take his responsibilities seriously. Within a matter of weeks, his family saw a change -- and it showed up in his e-mail home.

"He's grown up a whole lot," says Sheila Harding, 57, a friend whose daughter, Tracey, will be a bridesmaid in his wedding. "He was always a nice boy, but he was missing direction in his life. The service has really changed that."

His mother, Maria Kirtz, keeps a framed 8-by-10 photo of her son in his dress blues displayed in the living room. His brush cut makes his ears stick out a bit, but he's smiling. He's obviously proud of his uniform. His mother is proud of what he's accomplished.

English is not Maria's native language. She was born and raised in Germany. She is also deaf and can be difficult for strangers to understand when she speaks.

But her boyfriend helps her type out the messages to Stefan. When she receives e-mail from her son, she can't hold back her tears.

"Thank God for e-mail," she says.

High school kids

I remember being able to just look at you and think to myself I really love him. Until you would say, `stop staring at me.' Or in the middle of the night feel you reach over and pull me towards you or feel you hug me. Or even just give me a kiss and a hug for no reason. The little thoughts and things you do are what makes me happy.

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