Keith B. Lile at Lile’s Sport Spot, Puyallup, WA in 1941. From the KBL Family Collection.
Sometimes you write a pretty decent scene but it ends up being dumped in later drafts. Why? Usually because it doesn’t move the story forward. One thing I learned from my faculty readers at NW Institute of Literary Arts was that each piece of a story has to move it forward, has to count. So, while I’d done a ton of research on the wartime transformation of Miami Beach, it wound up being more of a backdrop to an entirely different scene that did make the final cut. The following scene, however, is worth posting here along with some postcards Dad collected and kept with him through the war. It’s an add-on to yesterday’s post and the discovery of the mysterious “Betty.”
Here, too, is the beginning of an idea found in the character named Smitty.
The Orange Blossom Express that traveled from New York to Miami. 1941-From the KBL Family Collection.
Out take from Draft 1 of THE TAIL GUNNER ~
Miami Beach, Florida: August 1943
Dear Miss Flora (or is it Mrs. Rasmussen by now?),
I’ve finally begun Basic after all those weeks of traveling and waiting. Seems the Air Corps has taken over Maimi Beach, and how. Our barracks is a swank old hotel, the Edgewater, complete with all the fixings, pool, bar, and rooms with their own toilets. Me and three other guys share a room and so far spend our days getting drilled in all aspects of Army rights and wrongs, with most guys setting their sights on the pilot spots. After they test us a million ways come Sunday, they say they’ll know what we’re made of. Who will be a pilot, a bombardier, a navigator, gunners, ground crew, etc. I made my first flight ever from Washington, D.C. to the Miami Airport. Swell! After that, I don’t care what position I fly in, I just want to get up in the air! They say we have to volunteer to serve on the flight crews—they can’t make us do it—but with the added pay and action, who wouldn’t jump at the chance?
Time for PT now. Nothing quite like the feel of sand in your boots, and how! Two hours everyday and we’re up at 5:15am. Worse than the old farm.
Bish (Keith B.)
P.S. Smitty says that from now on they’re calling me “Bish the Fish” and it’s not just because I love swimming in the ocean!
Coconut Grove at Miami, Florida. During wartime, the beach became a training ground. 1941-KBL Family Collection
“Bish, stop with the love notes and skedaddle!” Smitty called to him from the doorway.
“Hey, hush up. It’s no love note. Flora’s practically my other mother.”
“She gonna keep Officer Millhouse from making us drop and give him twenty for being late?”
Bish stomped into his boots, jammed on his cap, and ran. They’d been through the long lines of uniform and bedding allotments. Khakis for casual, training greens, shorts and tee shirt uniforms for PT, even Army-issue underwear. They only gave you the gear if you made it through the first battery of tests.
“You know you’re really in when they give you the suit coat,” Smitty had explained.
“That’d be just dandy.” Bish had lit up at the thought of it. He still had the suit jacket he’d saved for and bought at Halverson’s Department Store for his debate competitions in high school. “I look good in suit coats.”
“It ain’t about lookin’ good, it’s about kicking some Nazi arse—or so says the RAF.” Smitty chewed on a cigarette butt. “And to do it, we gotta look the same, leastways till you start to spot the nuances.”
Bish shrugged. He’d already begun to get the stripes and stars down, the marks of status in the military. Faces were the next trick, but ever since his shoe-shine days, he’d known he had a knack for that. Here it was just a game. And it would start all over as soon as his nine weeks was up and he shipped out to Who Knows Where.
Bish and Smitty fell into formation, adding themselves to a line of about 50 boys. At 80 degrees and about 90% humidity, they were swallowed in a sea of sweat by the time they reached the beach.
“Private!” Colonel Milhouse’s voice seemed to blast a hole through Bish’s head, cannoning from one ear to the other. “Set that cap on straight or you’ll eat it.”
Bish fixed his cap, setting the bill perfectly straight to shield himself from Milhouse’s glare. His head flushed, and beads of sweat trickled down his temples.
Bish eyeballed the ranks for Smitty who, being part chameleon, always managed to blend in with the other men whenever a commander was near. Bish found him four guys down, looking as if he’d borrowed the expression of the fear-faced boy standing next to him. Smitty was a master of disguise, and how. But Bish didn’t much go for that. He meant to stand out—but only just enough. How else was a little guy to get ahead?
“Private Bishop!” Milhouse yelled. “What’s the goal of Basic Training?”
Bish took a deep breath. To beat the crap out of us and erase any sense of who we were before we came here. Bish hid his real thoughts and blurted out his second option. “To turn us into fighting machines, sir.” But as soon as he’d said it, he knew he’d gone wrong.
“Drop and give me ten then try again.” Milhouse towered over Bish as the private pressed through ten push-ups. Little drops of sweat made dark spots in the hot, bright sand.
Bish finished and stood up, stick straight. He remembered now.
“What’s the goal of Basic Training?” Milhouse thundered at him again.
“To prepare us for anything and everything. To test our will, find our strengths, and eliminate the weak.”
“That’s more like it private.” Milhouse moved down the line. “How about a round of ‘Wild Blue yonder’ for private Bishop? Sing and run, everyone, sing and run!” Milhouse jogged down the line till he reached the front and disappeared from view.
Bish pummeled through the sand, dropped to his knees with the rest of the command, and ran again. His mind drifted back to his days on slopes of Mount Rainer. Knee-deep powder, ski wax on his fingers, and a sense of freedom he’d never known before. Sand and snow are not so different he thought. Accept one doesn’t melt.
It was only at the end of training, back in his room for clean up and chow, that Bish began to realize how lonely one could be even when surrounded by people. He’d made a habit out of making friends, but here the air was filled uncertainty. The only thing most guys knew was that they were going somewhere else in nine weeks—divied out to technical school, and later an operational group. What was the point in getting tight?
“It ain’t about makin’ friends, Bish. It’s about making connections.” Smitty took a long drag on a cigarette. He was from St. Louis, which was by his definition, the center of the universe. If they knew anything there in the trading captial of the West, they knew people. “The more connections you have, the better you make out in the end. It’s always good if people owe ya.”
Miami Beach “Peaches.” 1941 From the KBL Family Collection.
That night, as the ocean breezes kicked in and the temperature dropped a few degrees, Bish walked the long stretch of Ocean Drive. Hotels and restaurants lined the street that ran along the beach. At any other time this place would have been the playland of the rich and famous, but now it was the teaser before the storm. Bish parked at a bench that looked out over the dune to the Atlantic. Somewhere beyond the miles of blue ocean war raged in Europe, Hitler marched his troops through the houses and farms of millions of innocent people, leaving them cowering, cold, and dead. The day’s news reel announced that Allied forces had managed to wrest northern Africa from Axis forces, but still that was but one step in a long and bloody march.
Bish flicked open his breast pocket. He’d gotten a letter from Betty today. She’d teemed with delight at his description of Miami Beach and all its splendors. The hotel barracks, the theater classrooms, restaurant-casinos turned mess halls.
“You’ll be a Colonel one day, I just know it!” she had written. The thought of it made Bish go dry in the mouth. Career military had never been his dream. He would do his job, his patriotic duty, and get out—if he managed to stay alive. He was just rolling with the punches now, waiting to see where the Air Corps would place him in their elaborate game of GI Joe.
Betty had sent news from Puyallup. Most of the boys he’d gone to school with were now gone, like him, into duty. Some of her girlfriends had taken jobs at Boeing and Bremerton—welding, riveting, and doing other “dirty” labor. Betty had taken a job as a typing clerk. Verla and Bill had gotten engaged when Bill was on leave. “Hint, hint.” She was so nervous and excited for him she could hardly breathe.
Typical Betty, thought Bish. Always hinting. Bish pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped his face A deep breath. A body shake to cast-off the weight the letter had brought with it. The whole world may be holding its breath, but he’d never let on that he was holding his.
While this scene got cut, it was the spark of an idea for the chameleon character Smitty. Instead of disappearing into the story, Smitty took on a much more significant role in the final version of THE TAIL GUNNER. What role would you give a chameleon?