Mission 31: Time Traveling in Pompeii

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Back stories from THE TAIL GUNNER, a soon-to-be released novel from Bering Street Books.

Pamphlet and tickets, Italy

The little green ticket to Pompeii was my starting clue.     KBL Family Collection

March 20, 2014 — In my dad’s box of WWII stuff, I found a little greenish ticket. “Tour C.I.T. Agency, Special Tours, Organized for the A.E.F. POMPEII, All fees included-Do not pay more.” It said. The ticket was No. 5853, torn from a book, probably at the rest leave office, and issued to curious soldiers. Knowing that dad had been a Latin major in high school (very surprising for a guy who spent his life as salesman), I wasn’t surprised to see that this, along with a ticket to the Vatican museum, was something that he’d saved.

The Forum at Pompeii

The Forum at Pompeii, painted in 1841 by
the Danish artist Christen Schjellerup Købke. Courtesy of J. Paul Getty Museum.

So I went there to find him, to see what he saw. I’d been working at the J. Paul Getty Villa with its plethora of ancient treasures from Greece and Italy, and I knew well a painting of ruins and a wall fresco that the Getty conservators had pieced back together from crumbled bits. Pompeii, buried under the angry ash of Vesuvius in AD 79, was the mystical place I’d heard so much about. Now its mystique grew as I searched for the place my father had visited and photographed some 60 years before.

Before my best friend and I left for Italy, I put together a little book of photos copied from Dad’s collection. In it were the places he’d visited and photographed that we were aiming to find.

Pompeii, 2009

The Forum at Pompeii in 2009. Stephanie Lile photo.

Once at Pompeii, shortly after we met our English-speaking guide, I showed him my little book of photographs and asked if he knew where in Pompeii the picture had been taken. I knew it hadn’t been taken on the market street, where giant pots had once held “fast food” olives, meat, fruit, and cheeses. It wasn’t in the villa section where visitors can peer through iron gates and spot the remains of conpluvium pools and inner peristyle gardens. It wasn’t near the brothel with recently restored wall paintings. The picture I had featured a small statue of Apollo and some pillars rising from the ruins.

Our guide studied the picture and smiled. “Oh yes,” he said. “This is the oldest part of Pompeii, the part built when Pompeii was a Greek colony,” explained our guide. And so he took us there.

I recognized the spot as soon as I saw it, and by this time, the people in our tour group were getting excited about my quest, too. The little statue of Apollo even took on added meaning; it was both ancient god and a symbol of perseverance to a young airman and his daughter who had followed his footsteps through time.

I should have been happy, there in that spot where Dad had snapped pictures at the end of the war. But in a way, it made me miss him more.

—Stephanie Lile

Join THE TAIL GUNNER crew! There’s a few days left to help fund production of the novel and save the WWII collection that inspired it.

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