The story behind THE TAIL GUNNER novel, based on the WWII experiences and collection of Keith B. Lile
March 17, 2014 — Before coming to Rome, I had wondered why dad and his buddies would have checked in at one place, only to bail and go stay “downtown.” After finding that Rome’s public bus only goes so far and hoofing it for miles along the winding Tiber River, we figured it out. In fact, since I hadn’t been able to find the place on Google maps, I’d pretty much figured the old Army Air Forces Tiber Terrace Club that had offered a plethora of activities to wartime soldiers had been torn down. After all, it was hardly “classic” Roman architecture–more along the lines of 1930s Deco does Showboat. But we were girls on a mission. So we went hunting anyway.
Our ingredients for discovery included photocopies of a couple old photos, a 1945 handout from said Tiber Terrace, and a map of modern-day Rome. The handout listed all the activities that had once been offered, and yes, the address. We were golden. All we had to do was find #89 Lungo Tevere Flaminio. No problemo, or so we thought.
Now don’t get me wrong. We found Via Flaminio, no problemo. But number 89 was a bit more elusive. We saw some bus drivers hanging out and ran to ask them if they knew where it was. They waved their arms down the street telling us in English as broken as our Italian that it was waaaaaaaaay down thata way. We kept walking, and soon spotted a couple of construction workers taking lunch break on a bench overlooking the river. We showed them the old pictures. “Had they seen this place?” we asked. They looked then shook their heads without a word. So we kept walking. At long last we came to a section of river that had a number of buildings in that signature 1930s-40s style. It felt like we were getting close.
We found #79. Another block and we’d be there, surely. It had to be right here. But where? There was no sign of such a building in sight. Instead, all we found was a hedge, and behind the hedge an open lot. I’d been right. It obviously had to have been torn down. Disappointed but used to such discoveries in my History Geek day job, I wandered along the hedge, peering into the hidden zone, speculating about what had been. There was a bridge nearby, so that was where I headed to go get a “Now” picture of the late great Tiber Terrace.
I soon discovered the bridge–a monument in it’s own right–turned out to be the gateway to the 1960 Olympic Stadium. We’d had no idea. Just as I had no idea that once out on the bridge, the ancient gods and goddesses of curiosity would turn my head the other way–to look away from the vacant lot, beyond the bridge, across a tennis court, and through the tree cover to a rounded outcropping of a building that was so familiar I knew at once that I’d been mistaken.
It was the portholes that gave it away. The old Tiber Terrace was there, sans the old signage, in full glowing color. That’s the one thing you miss in old photos, the color. But here in the afternoon light, the terracotta paint job gleamed. I’m pretty sure the clouds parted and the winged statues on the bridge began to sing.
We ran from bridge to front door of what was now #16 Via Flaminio (what happened to #89 we’ll never know) prepared to beg our way in. But we didn’t have to. Thanks to a big birthday party, we just charged right in like were invited (which we were, only the guys were long since gone). It was a hot day, and the basketball court-turned pool called to us. The roller skating rink and ping pong tables seemed to have long since disappeared, but the spirit and function of a recreation center certainly remained.
One guy, who looked like he ran the place, kept eyeing us as if wondering whether we were spies. Was it the camera and the fact I kept taking snap shots? Was it the determined way Han followed him into the “staff only” area? Was it that we perched under a tree near the birthday party happenings but carried no birthday gifts? Who knows? All I really cared about was that we’d found the prize, lived it, and photographed it in the “now.”
I suspected this Tiber Terrace was the place where Dad had picked up a pamphlet titled “A Soldier’s Guide to Rome,” where the pictures of him roller skating were taken, and where he’d done a little dancing with the local girls despite having left a fiancee back in the States. But like him, we picked up our gear, grabbed a bottle of water, and headed back into town.
We were set to meet a tour group the next day, and Dad had a plane to catch back to the island of Corsica, back to battle.
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