On Nov. 26, 1944, three days after Thanksgiving, Bert Stiles took off from Fowlmere, England, one of 24 fighter pilots whose job it was to escort a group of Allied bombers bound for Germany.
Stiles engaged a German fighter in the skies over Hanover and managed to shoot it down. But Stiles apparently lost track of the altitude and his Mustang ploughed into the ground not far from the plane he shot down. He was 24.
This young American not only was a pilot (and, previously, a B17 co-pilot), he also was a promising writer. By the time he was 21, he'd published a dozen stories in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines.
Stiles' own book about his wartime experiences, "Serenade to the Big Bird" (the title refers to the B17 bomber), was published posthumously, first in England, then in the United States. The first American edition of "Big Bird" sold enough copies to create a small cult following but Stiles never became well known because, obviously, he could never follow-up on his initial success.
Many years later, a friend pressed a copy of the book on Bob Cooper of Davis. That marked the beginning of a remarkable friendship between Stiles and Cooper.
"I read the book and became really interested, mesmerized, even though I never knew him personally," said Cooper. "His book was a succinct and graphic indictment of war and the futility of it."
The two men had enough in common to guarantee a connection: Both men were about the same age (Cooper is 75, Stiles would be 78) and both grew up in the Western United States. Cooper also was a B17 co-pilot during World War II and he also was stationed in England, but not until a year after Stiles' death.
So it's not too surprising to find Cooper, in 1988, writing a book about Stiles called "Serenade to the Blue Lady." This book was published in 1993.
But what is surprising is the fact that Stiles has become something of an obsession for Cooper, who has been aided and abetted recently by Roland Dickison of Sacramento. Dickison, also a WWII vet, was Stiles' best friend at Colorado College in Colorado Springs just before the start of the war. Dickison is a retired professor of English.
Together, Cooper and Dickison collected Stiles' unpublished short stories and essays that became "Midnight Serenade," which has already sold out its first small print run. A companion book, "Serenade to World from 30,000," is in the works and due out this summer.
I asked Cooper what he would say if he could meet the friend he never met. "I would say: 'Bert, you could have been a hell of a writer,' " said Cooper.
But don't think that it's just Stiles' friends and fans who consider him a good writer. William Saroyan reviewed Stiles' book ("Serenade to the Big Bird" ) in the early 1950s and wrote in part: "An earnest, wonderful and heartbreaking work , a young man's grim and loving tribute to his pals, his generation...it is deeply moving."
Cooper admits that his life has changed since meeting Bert Stiles on the printed page. "Writing his story (in "Blue Lady") helped me to come to terms with my own experiences as a bomber pilot. I didn't talk about it for years, all the while my children were growing up," he said. "Now I write about it and I'm at peace with my part in a killing war."
Cooper says that publishing Stiles' work has been no problem. The publishing venture was really not a risk, he said, because even after 50-odd years, Stiles still has a following. Subscriptions to the books were sold at $25 each (many to former classmates at Colorado College) before the type was set. The funds collected in advance completely covered the costs.
Cooper says they still have lots of unpublished works by Stiles and it's likely yet another book is in the offing. But there will be a difference with book No. 4. It will not include the word "Serenade" in the title.
"Readers get confused with all the books out with 'Serenade' in the title," said Cooper. "Even I get mixed up on them."
If you want to become an advance subscriber to any of the forthcoming books, or if you want to buy any of the books mentioned, phone (530) 756-4088.
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