March 5, 2014 — In the fire scene at the opening of THE TAIL GUNNER, Sylvie finds a picture of her Grandmother kissing an unknown guy. On the back is written “Our Engagement in Denver, Love you, Bish.”
The real photos that inspired that scene appear here, although with the wonders of fiction and draft revision, the tables were switched. In real life, I found a picture of my Dad kissing someone who definitely wasn’t my mom. When I asked Mom about it, she said, “Oh that was Betty, a girl your father was engaged to during the war.”
I couldn’t find any information about said “Betty.” There were no letters to or from her in Dad’s stash, but there were plenty of “mail from Betty” or “no mail from Betty p–poor” notes in Dad’s diary. There was even a Betty Jensen in his high school yearbook who had graduated his same year with a matching major in business and Latin. But there was no way to know for sure if the woman in the picture was his fellow student or not. Later, when reading Dad’s diary for the 100th time, I found that I could trace their break-up through the pages of 1945.
“She wanted him to be an officer,” Mom had said. But with Dad being stuck in Italy at the end of the war when all the war heroes were returning home, she’d apparently written to him saying that she wanted some time to be on her own. He suspected that she had met some “4-F” so he cut her loose and went to Capri.
The nuts and bolts of story construction often require “flipping” the scene to see where it takes you. In this case, flipping the engagement photo scene at Draft 6 created an entirely new book, and a much better one despite the pain of revision.
Although the scenes from Denver and Fort Lowry gunnery training school got cut, they still served as an emotional guideline for the rest of the story. As you saw in our last post, Bish didn’t want to be a gunner. And according to Harriet Corrett who had been on the testing staff in Miami Beach, the saying was “Go up a gunner, come down a goner.” That phrase alone helped me build an entire scene and no doubt shaped Dad’s wartime experience. “It didn’t matter if a fellow had passed all the tests for bombardier or navigator,” explained Corrett. “If they said ‘we need gunners’ we sent them gunners.” Especially small wiry boys like Dad who could fit in the back end of a plane.
So Dad was sent to gunnery school at Fort Lowry near Denver as evidenced by the envelope with the “private” picture enclosed. It was there that the “Betty pictures” were taken. Based on a note written on the back of another Betty photo, they got engaged, but not married, in Kansas City, shortly before he was due to ship out. As I found out later, boys who wanted to fly had to be single, and that tidbit became a key element of the story.
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