He knew most of all that he wanted to go home — that there was something at home he had to get, and he didn’t even know what it was. During the long, hard training, there had not been time to think of himself nor to want anything.
The ceremony at the end was unreal. He stood with sixteen others — all of them rigid as cypress logs, and the silver wings were pinned to his blouse over his heart. There was a speech by the Colonel, and half of his mind heard it… the other half was going home.
He walked to his Model-A Ford, got in, and slammed the door.
From the corners of his eyes, he could see the gold bars on his shoulders. The silver wings were heavy over his heart.
He started the clattering open roadster, listened for a moment to the slapping pistons, and drove away in the sunny golden afternoon. The front wheels waggled loosely, and he let the steering wheel slip back and forth in his hands.
A training plane flew over and banked. He glanced up and knew that the pilot was not going home. Now he was frightened of his success. He tilted his cap a little and sat very straight behind the wheels.
And then he turned off the highway and into the rutted lane. The meadow lark flew ahead from fence post to fence post, singing his coming like a herald. The young cotton was strong and dark and clean in the fields.
The porches of the cottage were crowded as he drove by… Children washed and dressed in their best and starchiest clothes… hair bursting with ribbons… and the older people standing behind on the porches.
At each house, they watched him pass, and then the families walked solemnly down the steps into the lane and followed him like people going to church… Men and women and children in their best clothes. He could see them in the sun-cracked rear view mirror, moving into the lane behind him.
His own folks were standing on the porch waiting for him… his father in white shirt and black string tie and dark church clothes, his lean chin held high; his mother in her blue-and-white print dress, each hand in front of her, holding the other to keep it from escaping; his grown sister pretty and breathless, her lips a little open; his young brother with eyes so wide that his forehead wrinkled up.
Second Lieutenant William Thatcher stopped his car, and got out slowly, and moved slowly toward the porch, and the gathering neighbours came up behind him.
He had planned how it would be. He would treat the whole thing casually as though it was nothing at all. He had planned to say, ‘Hello Pa’; to kiss his mother and sister; to pick up his little brother and tousle his kinky hair.
But it wasn’t like that at all. It wasn’t nothing — it was something.
He walked slowly toward the porch and stood looking up at his father. He could hear the rustle as the neighbours moved silently near and formed a half circle behind him. It was as though his own people were sitting in judgment on him.
The sun was warm on the porch and on the roses against the porch and the sun was hot on his golden shoulder bars. He could see them shine from the corners of his eyes. He had thought to come home in triumph and it wasn’t that at all. He took off his cap with the gold eagle on it and held it in his hand. He saw his tall father lick his lips. And then his father said softly,
‘Son — every black man in the world is going to fly with your wings.’
And then he knew. His breath caught sharply against his throat. He climbed the steps and went blindly past them and into the house and into the bedroom where he had grown up.
Lieutenant William Thatcher lay down on the white bed. His heart was pounding. He could hear a little quiet murmur of voices in front of the house. He knew they were going to sing in a moment. And he knew now what he was to them.
John Steinbeck’s ‘With Your Wings’ was first heard in July 1944, when Orson Welles read it aloud at the end of one of his radio broadcasts, but was not then printed. This is its first UK publication.
© 2014, Waverly Kaffaga as Executrix of the Estate of Elaine A. Steinbeck. Permission granted courtesy of McIntosh and Otis Inc. and Curtis Brown Ltd. First published by The Strand Magazine.