The story behind THE TAIL GUNNER novel, based on the WWII experiences and collection of Keith B. Lile
March 16, 2014 — I feel pretty darn certain that Dad purchased his little red diary while on rest leave in Rome. He and a couple of buddies hitched a flight to the Eternal City and stayed there for about three days. He was about 30 missions in and was no doubt more than due for a little break. Lucky for me he left enough notes and pictures for me to follow his trail.
Armed with Dad’s diary from 1945, a few photos, and selected addresses from tickets and papers in Dad’s collection, I went to find a pair of 60-year-old footprints amongst the millions in Rome. It was June 2009, and I had three destinations in mind. Thanks to my best friend and many-time Roma Traveler, we found them, but not without a few hiccups.
We began with the search for Dad’s “room in town at Via Belisario 8, Apt 18 – 5th floor. $1.50 p/night.” I’d Googled the address before flying halfway around the world so had discovered that there was actually a B&B there now as well. We found the place easily enough, even a directory near the door showing an Apt 18. But the building had transformed from “apartment-hotel” of the 1940s to individual residences with the B&B Pars located there in one downstairs unit.
We pushed the call button for Apartment 18, but there was no answer. The owner of the B&B, a delightful woman who spends time both in Italy and Canada, was kind enough to greet us instead. She had been there two years and claimed that the building had never been a hotel. But the abandoned Porter’s office and curved-glass clerk’s booth in the building lobby gave away its past. Even the old key and message boxes were still intact. I imagined my pop grabbing the key, tossing it into the air, and catching it again as his buddies ran up the five flights of stairs to Apartment 18. Rome was waiting. All those hours he’d spent studying ancient history in high school Latin club were about to pay off.
The trip was paying off for me, too. After my first travel writing job that required me to write about places I’d never been to, I vowed to ever after go to the places I was writing about. Call me a “method” writer, but there is no better way for the sounds, smells, and human interactions of a place to become ingrained in the story than to go there.
From the apartment in Rome, we followed Dad’s footsteps to the statue of St. Paul we found in his photo. The statue stands outside St. Peter’s Basilica and presides over St. Peter’s Square adjacent to the Vatican. We were able to identify the statue in Dad’s photograph by the scroll he held. The square’s namesake, St. Peter, holds “the keys to heaven.” This photo was key to finding the very location where Dad had taken his picture.
From that spot, we were not far from the Vatican Museum, the ticket to which Dad had saved for nearly half a century along with his “Soldier’s Guide to Rome.” For those of you who enjoyed the recent film “Monuments Men” you’ll be happy to hear that Major DeWald, Director of the Monuments and Fine Arts Sub-Commission was its author. In fact, there were many monuments men and women who worked together to save art all over North Africa and Europe. You can still join that hunt through the Monuments Men Foundation.
In the forward of the soldier’s guide, General HR Alexander says, “Let us remember that Rome is the first capital city to be entered by us in our task of liberating Europe. Rome is the heritage of all the world and not only of Italy — Rome is the fountain of civilization. The eyes of all the world are upon our actions in the “Eternal City” and we will show the world by our example the high standard of conduct and bearing of our victorious Allied Armies.
With my ticket to the Vatican Museum, I followed Dad and hundreds of ghostly soldiers through the hall of maps and into the Sistine Chapel. For all of my years of studying art history, I couldn’t help but be astounded at how “small” the chapel was. Even DeWald states that, “Michelangelo felt cramped by the enclosing space of the vault, so he painted out the vault and painted in an extra story of architecture to make the ceiling seem higher, and in between and on top of this architecture he painted figures which look like the sculpture.”
No doubt Dad was as fascinated with Rome as I was. Along with its ancient treasures, it was also a city of modern style. Dodging between ruins and majestic sculptures to get back to our bus stop, we decided that the next day would be devoted to finding Dad’s “Tiber Terrace,” a rest leave club for enlisted men.
Next Post: In Search of the Tiber Terrace (March 17)