March 4, 2014 — Certain pieces in Dad’s collection inspired multiple scenes, although not all made it to the final cut. The scene that follows was one of those out takes. The key piece from the collection is a post card set from Fort Myers Gunnery School. I wondered why Dad had kept the set of postcards all the way through the war when he hadn’t even gone to gunnery school in Florida. Then I found “The Gunner’s Vow” poem on the last postcard and knew—or at least I thought I did until I had a conversation with Harriet Corret who had been on the testing staff at Miami Beach. The scene that emerged from that conversation made the final draft of THE TAIL GUNNER but changed the poem’s context drastically.
V. July 1943: Taking the Gunner’s Vow
Keith stood in a line of inductees. The air inside the Miami Beach recruitment center was thick with July humidity. Sweat trickled down his back, and he fiddled nervously with the change in his pocket. A letter from Warner rested in the breast pocket of his light suit, and its opening words ran like a ticker tape through his mind. “I bet you’re having a swell time.”
“Next!” A uniformed recruitment officer locked eyes with him.
Keith stepped forward and thrust out his hand. “How ya doin’? Keith Bishop here.”
“Dandy,” said the expressionless officer. “Have a seat, young man. Let’s have a go at these forms.”
One by one, the officer rattled off questions. One by one, Keith saw his years of hard work and independence reduced to short answers.
Name: Bishop, Keith L.
Race and Citizenship: White, U.S. citizen
Year of Birth: 1923
Residence/State: South Dakota
“What were you doing all the way out in Seattle?” asked the officer.
“Going to school, working.”
“Says here you have 4 years of high school.”
“That’s right, and a year of college.”
“Can you prove it, private?”
Keith produced a transcript from Pacific Lutheran College. The grades weren’t perfect, but they weren’t bad for a working guy either.
“Doesn’t look like you completed a full year’s worth of credits.”
“Well, sir, I was working, too. Tuition doesn’t grow on trees.”
The officer sat back and studied him. “And what type of work were you doing?”
“Insurance sales, Northwestern Mutual Life. By the way, do you have a life insurance policy, sir?” Keith couldn’t stop his inner salesman. “What would your family do if something were to happen to you?”
“Private, you’re working for the U.S. government now.” The officer frowned. “Can the cute stuff. Besides, this job IS my life insurance policy. If you make it through training, I’ll be sending YOU into combat instead of me—and I don’t even have to pay for it.” The officer scanned his paperwork. “Now, where were we?”
Education: 4 years of high school
Civilian Occupation: Salesman
“Still single?” asked the officer.
“Yes sir. But I have a Barracuda—I mean a sweetheart—back home.”
Keith laughed. “When you grow up in a family of fifteen and have to fight your way out from under the heap, you take precautions, Sir. If you know what I mean.”
“That I do. So, no dependents?”
“Not a one—unless you count my younger brother. But I left him in charge of the ski shop to make his room and board.”
The officer lifted his eyebrows. “You’re a scrapper, I’ll give you that.”
Marital Status: Single, without dependents
Date of Enlistment: 19/7/43
Branch/Code: Air Corps
“Alright, Private Bishop, welcome to the United States Army Air Corps,” said the officer. “Your enlistment is for the duration of the War or other emergency, plus six months, subject to the discretion of the President of the United States.” The officer handed Keith his orders. “Best write your folks back home. You leave for Basic Training tomorrow and won’t be seeing them for a good long time.”
“Yes, sir,” said Keith, glancing toward the recruitment center door.
“Private?” The officer cleared his throat. “Be back here at 0-800 hours tomorrow. Don’t be late.”
“No sir, I won’t,” said Keith. “It’s—it’s just so quick, after all this time of waiting.” Keith glanced at the door again. It WAS Carol’s car idling outside.
The officer noticed Keith’s distraction. “What is it, Private?”
“Oh sorry, sir. I think I see my sister outside. She’s supposed to be in Fort Myers for the week. Strange.”
The officer smiled for the first time. It was as if this newbie were suddenly speaking his language. “Women are a mystery. A mighty intriguing one, too. Best get going. It’s bad luck to make a gal wait.”
Carol waved as Keith exited the building. She wore a tight-waisted cotton print dress and her dark blonde hair was pulled back neatly at the temples. “Get in, get in. I have some big news.” She pulled the glove off of her left hand and modeled a shiny diamond ring. “Paul and I got engaged when we were in Fort Myers! Isn’t it grand?”
“Yeah, gee Carol, that’s swell.”
“You don’t sound very excited.”
“Oh, it’s swell. It really is. When’s the big event?”
“A little less than year from now, May.”
It felt quick. They’d only known each other a few weeks.
“That’s kinda soon, don’t you think?” Keith may have been her younger brother, but he still felt he had to look out for her.
“Oh no, it’s perfect. Paul will be done with his tour by then, and I can keep working at the bank until he comes home.” Carol beamed. She was the oldest of the Bishop kids and determined to make it in the professional world. Keith’s had been the last diapers she’d changed back on that South Dakota farm. “Oh here, we brought you this.” She handed him a brightly colored set of postcards. Emblazoned across the front, amidst a Florida sunset speckled with bomber silhouettes, were the words “Greetings from Flexible Gunnery School, Ft. Myers, Florida.”
“Thanks, gal. This is great,” said Keith, flipping through the pictures. There were scenes of Thomas Edison’s house, the beach, and gunner after gunner aiming, shooting, and training. He slowly began to refold the postcard set, but stopped at the scene of an airman reading a silly little poem.
A Gunner’s Vow
I wished to be a pilot,
And you along with me.
But if we were all pilots
Where would the Air Force be?
It takes GUTS to be a Gunner
To sit out in the tail
When the Messerschmitts are coming
And the slugs begin to wail.
The pilot’s just a chauffeur,
It’s his job to fly the plane;
But it’s we who do the fighting,
Though we may not get the fame.
If we all must be Gunners
Then let us make this bet:
We’ll be the best damn Gunners
That have left this station yet.
Despite the breeze blowing through the car window, sweat trickled down Keith’s temples. He slapped the postcard set shut to hide his shaking hands. If he was going to do this thing, he was going to do it right. Aim high. Pilot, navigator, bombadier. He was officer material. Gunners, were, well, just gunners.