Mission 31: News From Home

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Just 6 days left to join The Tail Gunner crew! Order your copy today.

March 27, 2014 — In digging through Dad’s stash of WWII images and ephemera, I came across this little newspaper clipping, no doubt sent to him in one of his letters from home. While there is no date on the clipping, based on the info it reports, it has to date to around March 1945. The clipping states that Dad (Keith) was on Corsica, and by April, Dad and his squadron had pulled up stakes and moved from Corsica to the base at Ancona, Italy.

1945 News clipping

A news clipping from home gives a sense of all the ways men served the war effort, both on the front and at home.                        c. March 1945.          KBL Family Collection

On this day in 1945, Dad writes in his diary:

March 27: Standown on mission again today. Lowry & I are flying with Doe. Missions were Plan A and Plan B – we were on both of them.

I got sick tonight – plenty sick – brother – and how. I think I will lay off taking these adaprin tablets. I heard from Mrs. Houbler – Betty – Morgan and the little book from the church. Too sick to answer anything.

Air Corps Camp, Solenzara

This image is believed to be the 445th Squadron camp at Solenzara, Corsica, where the real tail gunner lived for many months. c. March 1945. The actual print is about a third the size of this image. KBL Family Collection

Although I’ve never found any of the letters Dad wrote to others during the war, I did realize why his diary entries were so sparse; he wrote all of his big news in his letters home. In THE TAIL GUNNER novel, I was able to use some of the letters he received in part, but the letters from him to others had to be pieced together from the clues he left behind. What has appeared in this blog series is but a smattering of the complete collection.

—Stephanie Lile

Join THE TAIL GUNNER crew! Just 5 days left to help fund production of the novel and save the WWII collection that inspired it.

 

 

Mission 31: Flying Through Time in a B-25

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Barbie III

Research takes us to many amazing places. This was one of them. The Barbie III based in Mesa, Arizona.                    Stephanie Lile photo.

March 26, 2014 — Research for any story comes in many forms. For The Tail Gunner, I knew I’d have to fly in a B-25. How could I write credible scenes otherwise?  I needed to transport myself back to the 1940s, into the midst of World War II, and into the heart and mind of a bombing crew. So, I decided to transport myself physically through time and space by going for a ride in a B-25.

Crew Chief, B-25

The Barbie III’s crew chief Bill. If you look just beyond him, you can see down into the tail to the stool where the tail gunner sat.       Stephanie Lile photo.

After searching online and emailing back forth with a few folks around the country, I finally landed on the web page of the good folks at Warbirds Unlimited in Mesa, Arizona. Their motto is “live history,” and let me tell you, in all my nearly 20 years in the museum field, I haven’t discovered anything quite like it. Historians use their imaginations a lot, but this is as close as you’ll get to traveling to another time. Consider the factors:

The environment (it’s a “working” but authentic restoration of the original right down to the seat belts), the noise (it’s a total mind-buzz requiring the use of serious ear muffs), the altitude (about 3,000-5,000 feet—although the real bomber boys flew as high as 10,000-12,000 feet), the motion (enough skittering side-to-side and up-and-down to lose your breakfast), the smell (a little diesel, a little metal, a lot of human sweat, a little puke), and finally the vastness of the view (about 300 degrees in the tail gunner position).

Waist gun of B-25

Inside the back of the Barbie III, Dylan contemplates the waist gun. At about 19, he was the same age as Dad was when he started flying. Stephanie Lile photo.

These planes are pretty amazing, and the men who fly them even more so. Only a couple steps up from a tuna can, the plane’s metal skin and long cables that run from front to back to work the tail made me wonder how anyone survived at all. At one point in my research I found a declassified document that stated that the production rate of B25s in about 1943 was based on an average estimated plane life of 11 missions. No wonder there was a whole lotta hoopla when a plane made 100 missions.

In flight, we took turns crawling out to the tail gunner position.  My niece Haley and nephews Krister and Dylan had come along on the adventure so that they could get a piece of their grandpa’s adventure. When I took my turn in the tail gunner spot as we roared over the hills of Arizona, I breathed deeply and tried to tap into what my dad would have thought being out there in the tail for 59 missions over the mountains and valleys of Italy. Despite the great view, the tail blister was a hugely vulnerable position. I realized then that if every great story is built of character emotion, then this story would be a whirlpool of pride, determination, resignation, and being scared shitless a huge percentage of the time.

The Crew

My motley crew, 2009: Left to Right, Dylan Hall, Haley Lile, Krister Lile. Stephanie Lile photo.

Our flight was “only” 30 minutes, but all of us agreed that it was truly the longest 30 minutes of our lives. By the end, both Dylan and I were carrying bags of barf (no more scrambled eggs for me or a while), and all of us were exhausted. Just that little taste gave us a feel for what those bomber crews must have felt like (times about 1000) as they set out on every mission not knowing if they would live or die.

No matter what my writer friends say, I wouldn’t pass up this experience as a means to tap into the emotions of my characters for anything. In fact, when I think of a B-25, I’m still a little queasy. But in truth, I’d totally go again.

B-25 tail guns.

The tail guns. Nothing much besides a skin of metal, some canvas, and a pair of guns between you and an enemy attack. Stephanie Lile photo.

I want to extend a special thanks to the great guys at Warbirds Unlimited—Ray, Leon, Bill, and pilot Jack Fedor for making this experience both smooth sailing and extremely enlightening (all four of us nominate Crew Chief Bill for Sainthood). And to my brave niece and nephews, many thanks for helping me “tap the gramps.” The book is all the richer for it.

—Stephanie Lile

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

 

 

Mission 31: The Writing Process Blog Tour

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Click here to join the crew.

Click here to join the crew.

March 25, 2014 —Today we’re shifting gears a touch to join the “Author Writing Process” blog tour. I’m honored to have been asked to jump into this pool of talented writers by Claire Gebben, author of the recently released historical fiction novel Last of the Blacksmiths. A fellow graduate of the NW Institute of Literary Arts, Claire settled in Seattle by way of Grand Rapids, Buffalo, and Cleveland, the city where much of her novel is set. Drawing from a set of letters discovered by a German relative, Claire researched and wrote the compelling story of a young 19th century blacksmith who immigrated to America. She even learned the blacksmith’s trade to bring authenticity to the words on the page. Claire’s writing has appeared in Shark Reef, The Speculative Edge, Soundings Review, The Fine Line, and Northwest Prime Time. The Last of the Blacksmiths is her first novel.

You can read Claire’s responses to the Writing Process questions here.

My responses to the Writing Process Blog Tour follow:

1. What am I working on?

I am currently in the last five days of a 31-day blog blast and crowd-funding project for a novel near and dear to me called The Tail Gunner. It’s the story of a young girl who is cleaning out the hayloft of her grandparents’ horse barn and comes across a box of dusty, curled, mouse-chewed letters and pictures that were slated for the burn pile. When her grandmother tosses a picture of a young bomber boy into the fire and walks away, clearly upset, the bomber boy’s ghost steps out of the fire demanding that Sylvie help him complete his final mission.

The story was born of the question, “What if spirits could transfer their memories to us? What would that look like?” It was also the product of my Dad’s WWII stash that my sister and I found while cleaning out the hayloft of our horse barn. It’s a remarkable collection that led me all the way from Washington State to a tiny beach on the island of Capri.

I do have a sequel in the percolator, but that’s yet to be revealed.

My other big project debuting this spring is an exhibit based on my short story “Ernest Oglby Punkweiler and the Fabulous-Miraculous Time Intrusionator.” The story first appeared in Soundings Review and has been adapted for use as the guiding storyline of a fun new exhibit of the same name. The project has given me the great delight of working with some of Washington State’s star children’s book illustrators (Mike Cressy, Richard Jesse Watson, Craig Orback, Jo Gerschman, Julie Paschkis, Karen Lee Schmidt, and Paul Owen Lewis) to create large-as-life scenes of key and quirky moments in the state’s history. An audio version of the story is also being recorded by the talented folks at Jack Straw Productions. The exhibit opens at the Washington State History Museum on May 17, 2014. Everyone is invited.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Collections—things. Everything I write is inspired by a thing or a collection of things. I like the challenge of finding the story in even the most “mundane” of things. Like Ernest Oglby Punkweiler, I’m an objectologist of the rarest sort. Perhaps it’s come from working in the museum field for nearly 20 years. Objects speak to me through the clues they carry and lead me on all sorts of adventures that come out in my writing. The Tail Gunner novel is based on the WWII collection my dad left behind. “Ernest” adventures are drawn from the collections of the Washington State Historical Society. A picture book manuscript I wrote was inspired by a collection of old railroad brochures. While what I write is both historical and fiction, because of its air of magical realism, it’s not hardline “historical fiction.” To me, that’s okay, because I know that the historical elements that are included in my stories are deeply researched and are pivotal to the story.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Because I have to. While I write both fiction and nonfiction, underlying both is the deeper belief that objects have the ability to connect us to our past. Consequently, my stories tend to find me; there are sources of inspiration all over the place. In the early stages of a story’s development, I make a point to “find” the story not craft it. I let the objects, images, and ephemera lead me on a journey. Then I take those stories to the next level to create a framework and story arc, and then revise, revise, revise, through many drafts. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it, and it often yields both nonfiction and fiction elements that can be shared in a multitude of ways.

I need a lot of variation in my work, so I write both short stories and long, fiction and nonfiction. Some people say a writer needs to focus on a particular genre, and indeed all of us writers usually find “our thing,” but trying a range of forms is like getting a well-rounded workout.  There’s always that one thing that you most enjoy, for which you hold a natural aptitude, but you still have to stretch to get it all right.

4. How does my writing process work?

I have no idea. Well, that’s not entirely true. My stories usually begin with a line that starts sliding through my mind like those banner messages pulled behind small planes to advertise beer or launch a proposal. And that part comes after having done what I call a “feeding frenzy” of delving into as much research material as I can find and devour. But that part comes after mental images of scenes in a story have appeared in my mind.

After I deal with that swirling cosmos of words and images, I put it all into a mental sack, depending on whether it’s a novel, a short story, a nonfiction article, or even an object label at the museum. Then, based on the type of word-product I’m after, I simply reach into the sack and pull out whatever I need.

Longer works are harder for me because while I’m great at grabbing ideas and getting a story started, I often wind up in the woods with no idea where I’m headed. That’s when I go back and find the frame of the story. I identify key plot points and begin to outline the scenes that seem essential to the story. This makes it easier because then I can just write one scene at a time instead of getting overwhelmed by the enormity of the story.  Of course, then I revise. The Tail Gunner novel took no less than 15 drafts, and a couple of those drafts were complete remodels. I’ve posted a few out-takes here in Mission 31 that were great color for the early drafts, but they got tossed out in later versions because they didn’t genuinely move the story forward. It’s tough to chuck a scene you love, but the truth is, it still informs the story even if it doesn’t get center stage.

Writing is a puzzle for the mind; it’s fun, challenging, and can make you crazy. But then us writers would be crazy if we didn’t write, so we tackle the puzzles everyday and if we’re lucky, we manage to create works of great wonder and beauty.

* * * * * *

Next week, just in time for April Fools Day (but these folks are no fools) I’m delighted to pass the torch to two incredibly versatile and delightful story-makers.

Gwen (Perkins) Whiting is the author of The Universal Mirror, a fantasy novel set in a land “where men have killed their gods.” Although she is a fantasy and science fiction writer by night, she’s an historian by day with her writing appearing in a range of publications from encyclopedias to Columbia Magazine, where her work recently earned her the John McClelland Award. A native of the Pacific Northwest, she blogs at Amazing Stories Magazine.

Mike Cressy is outta this world. While toodling through the Internet looking at artist portfolios, I came across his work and discovered an image of the very character I had been writing about—Ernest Oglby Ounkweiler. Mike’s art quickly became central to the exhibit (come see it) and the rest, as they say, is his story (literally).  Mike’s a guy with an eye for the unusual, one of his favorite books is the Power of Myth, and not only can the guy draw like nobody’s business, he can write in ways most people have never even imagined. You’ll find his blog at JetPack Studio.

Mission 31: News from the Front

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March 24, 2014 — Today I’m going to let Bombardier Russ Grigsby tell the tale. In the March 14, 1945 issue of the Stars and Stripes, Russ recounts the day’s harrowing mission over Brenner Pass. It was accounts like these that provided many of the details I needed to write scenes in THE TAIL GUNNER. It also gave me a better understanding of Dad’s cryptic diary notes such as “six chutes seen.”

Buckle up for news from the day. It’s going to be a wild ride.

Stars and Stripes newspaper, 3-14-45

It was accounts like this one from the Stars and Stripes that helped me write critical scenes in The Tail Gunner novel. KBL Family Collection

—Stephanie Lile

Join THE TAIL GUNNER crew! There are only 8 days left to help fund production of the novel and save the WWII collection that inspired it.

Mission 31: Art in the Sky

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Nose art from the KBL WWII Collection

B25 bomber

Heaven Can Wait, a
WWII B-25 bomber. Note the bombs painted on her nose—each one represents a mission. KBL Family Collection

March 23, 2014 — Among the planes of the 321st, many were identified by their distinctive nose art. Bombers and fighters both, Dad snapped pictures of many—as if he were a guy in a gallery of famous paintings. To the men who flew them, these planes did have their own kind of fame and the personalities to match.

Dad always said “his” plane was Miss Fancy Pants, but in his collection were pictures of many others and their nose art. Heaven Can Wait, Modern Design, Reddie Teddie, and Shit House Mouse were a few.

Reddie Teddie

Reddie Teddie, a B25 bomber, flew with the 447th squadron of the 321st  bomb wing. KBL Family Collection

 

Shit House Mouse

WWII B25 bomber Shit House Mouse just after its 100th mission. Corsica 1945. KBL Family Collection

Fighter planes, too, were painted for personality. There were the P47 Black Scorpions, Fighting Cocks, and the Terminators. These identifiers no doubt also served as both protective and adrenaline-boosting symbols.

WII P47 and pilot

An unidentified pilot and a plane believed to be a P47 painted with distinctive shark teeth. KBL Family Collection

All of these images provided background for the creation of THE TAIL GUNNER novel. They were the real-life references for when Dad wrote about going down to see how the “painting on the ship” was coming. Entire books have been written on the topic of nose art. What I’ve shown here is but a smidgeon of the wide ranging nose art that skirted the skies above Mount Vesuvius.

—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.

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.

Mission 31: There are Ghosts at the Marina Piccolo

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Marina Piccolo, 1945

Keith Lile and the mystery woman “Mary Louise” at Marina Piccolo, on Capri, 1945. KBL Family Collection

Marina Piccolo

The Marina Piccolo on Capri in bright, shining color, 2009. Stephanie Lile photo.

March 21, 2014 — A number of Dad’s photographs showed him on a rocky beach with a girl, near some striped huts. His diary noted that they,

“Went to Capri [May 19, 1945] Shutters pilot—We stopped at Rome to drop a guy off. Stout went too. Beasley & I stayed together at the Morgano Hotel, Rm 131. The food isn’t bad, and things are pretty peaceful & quiet. I met a few girls on the boat going over to Capri. They have a funny little trolley going up to the square.”

Sixty-four years later, I rode that same “funny little trolley” —the funicular—up the steep hillside from Marina Grande to the town of Capri. The La Palma Hotel, were Dad mentions having gone for dinner and dancing, was still there with its golden bull on the front stoop.  Our hotel was down that narrow road a bit, closer to the Garden of Augustus. From that garden, you can look out over the blue waters of the Mediterranean, down the ancient stone path to the Marina Piccolo.

Marina Piccolo, Capri 1945

The beach at Marina Piccolo on Capri, 1945. Note the wooden kayaks on the shore. Those were still there at the marina 64 years later. KBL Family Collection

Another of Dad’s diary entries reads, “Went down to the beach went out in a kiak. It wasn’t bad at all. Met Mary Louise and took some pictures.” That clue helped me figure out the mystery girl in the pictures, no doubt a distraction for a broken engagement. Betty had written earlier to say that, “The men at the office were calling her Cinderella and she thought she would rather stay single and work for a couple of years yet.” He’d agreed with her.

So Dad partied, celebrating the end of the war, testing his freedom, and floating through those last terms of his inductment, “six months after the end of the war.” His pathway home would be as zig-zagged as the stone-paved path we followed into his world.

Marina Piccolo 2009

The proprietors of Marina Piccolo Capri with the author in 2009.

There, at the Marina Piccolo, the last fingers of pathway take you left to the pay beach, and right to the public beach. We knew from the photos in the book that the place we wanted was the pay beach–it was the little bathing huts that gave it away. They were still there, and much improved, brilliant in their green, blue, and yellow stripes.  We showed our pictures to the English-speaking lifeguard at the entry, who showed them to an older and taller Richard Gere look-alike.  The older fellow clearly ran the place, and he smiled and delighted in the old photos, nodding that this was, indeed the place. He gave us “a deal” on sun lounges and pointed to the fellows in red t-shirts down at the beach.

I showed them the photos as well, and the older of the two got stoked about the boats in one picture, the very boats Dad had mentioned in his diary. The younger lifeguard explained that the boats were “were still there but longer seaworthy.” They motioned me back into the boat shed and sure enough, the kayaks were resting on racks, looking pretty much the same as they had 60+ years before.

Marina Piccolo, Capri

The swimmer’s view of Marina Piccolo (public beach) on the shore of Capri, 2009. Stephanie Lile photo

After doing my usual thing–trying to replicate in present-day photos that had originally been taken many years before–my friend and I went for a swim in the deep blue waters off the pebble-strewn shore. It was the first time I really felt the significance of the adventure I was on–out there floating in the swells of the Adriatic Sea–and the presence of my dad. Perhaps swimming there just brought back memories of his swimming with us kids, maybe the intense sun had finally fried my brain, but it felt like he was there, proud that we had traveled half-way around the world to discover his little secret place.

The experience left me quiet for the rest of the day, but a line of words kept running through my brain, begging to be written down and made into a poetic scene. “There are ghosts at the Marina Piccolo…” Real or imagined, there is no doubt in my heart that I was led here for a reason.

The resulting poem appears in THE TAIL GUNNER, the product of the teen-age protagonist Sylvie Stevens. She, too, snuck her way to Italy to discover the ghosts of Capri.

—Stephanie Lile

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