Once Upon a Time: I Have a Dream
Perchance to Dream
James Ivan Kinchloe sat on his bunk and looked out at the brilliant orange sunset. Can’t see that in Detroit, he thought ironically. He had left home several months ago to pursue a longtime dream of flying. But there was more to it than that, and he wasn’t stupid enough to think anyone believed him when he said there wasn’t.
Detroit was a rough place to live at the moment. Race riots had broken out last year, and there were bound to be more of them as the whites protested the movement of Negroes into their neighborhoods. Well, where are we supposed to go: Canada? Kinchloe thought with some bitterness. The Civil War had ended nearly eighty years ago. When would people learn to look past the color of a man’s skin to determine his worth?
Someone knocked on the window in front of Kinchloe and hitched a thumb sideways. Kinchloe nodded; it was his friend, William Carver, trying to rouse him to the cafeteria for dinner. Carver disappeared and Kinchloe sighed, not ready to let go of memories quite yet, though they were not the most pleasant thoughts.
His mind was still drifting, this time back to the argument he had had with his parents about going down to Alabama to join the Civilian Pilots Training Program at the Tuskegee Institute. He knew money was tight, and his pay from the telephone company, though modest, helped keep food on the table. But sometimes a man had to act, and he told them as much one night while his sister listened from the next room, and his little brother watched, fascinated, even though their parents had told him in no uncertain terms to get out. “They are letting blacks train to fly, Dad. To take part in the war!”
“A war against racism,” spat his mother. “And what has this country ever done for you? They fight racism in Europe, and do nothing about it right under their own noses. Why help them?”
“Mom,” Kinchloe had answered, doing his best to remain calm, “this is a first step. Can’t you see? Even the First Lady is behind it. If the president’s wife is pushing for equal status, do we have the right to ignore it? To do nothing about something that could help blacks in the next generation? People like Joseph?” he asked, making a vague gesture toward the teenager sitting at the kitchen table beside them.
“James.” Kinchloe’s dad stepped in, ever the peacemaker. The voice of quiet reason. “Do you want to do this because of the racial issue? Or do you want to do this because you want to help the war effort? Or because you want to fly?”
Kinchloe paused and thought before answering. “All three, Dad.” His father nodded. “It’s true.” He turned to his mother. “Mom, you know I want to fly. They’re offering training at Tuskegee for black men—when else would I get the chance? If we can help get rid of race problems in Europe, maybe we can start getting rid of them here. You know it’s what I want to do.” His mother looked unconvinced. “Please,” he finished, taking her hands.
Almost reluctantly, she turned her face back toward her son. She looked in his deep brown eyes and saw the fire and the passion in them, and sighed. “Then you have to go,” she said simply. She put a hand on his cheek. “Life will be better for you,” she said firmly. “And you’ll help make it even more fulfilling for the little ones.”
Kinchloe smiled. “Thanks, Mom. I promise I’ll do everything I can.”
Now, sitting on his bunk on an airbase in England, Kinchloe smiled again, remembering his mother’s touch and her resignation to his dreams. Then another tap on the window startled him back to the present, and he jumped up this time to join his friends for a meal.
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Kinchloe looked wistfully at the planes on the airfield and wondered how long it would be before he had a chance to get in one over the skies of Europe. He was ready now to do his part, fully trained in the art of flying, but he had been stifled as he and the other trainees waited for the higher-ups of the US Army Air Corps to decide how best to use the men they had almost reluctantly agreed to let join in the fight against the Axis powers. It was only through some major wrangling—Kinchloe didn’t want to know whose—that he and a handful of other Negroes had been given the nod to head to England to observe planes departing from and returning to the Allies. Kinchloe had been chosen because of his overall aptitude, particularly in navigation and instruments. He had been eager to go and put some of what he had learned into practice, but he was told in no uncertain terms that he would not be flying, and though he was disappointed by the news, he figured at least he would be closer to the action than if he stayed in Alabama, and so he agreed.
“You gonna spend your whole life just watching, boy?”
Kinchloe bristled at the term, but relaxed when he realized it was just their supervisor, Captain Pritchard. Pritchard was in charge of the men from Tuskegee, and he called everyone—black or white—either by their rank, “boy,” or some perverted version of their name. It wasn’t meant as an insult; it was just that the man had no sense of pronunciation. Pritchard had introduced himself to the recruits in a straightforward way that commanded respect but not fear, loudly denouncing his own parents’ choice of names for him.
“I, gentleman, am Captain Richard Ignatius Pritchard. That’s right, boys, Richard Pritchard. God knows what was goin’ through my mama’s head when I was born. I have been called many things in my time… Ricky, Iggy, RIP, Rick the—well, you get the idea.” A ripple of boylike giggles swept the room. “But to you boys, I am Captain Pritchard, at least to my face. You can call me anything you like when I’m not around, it won’t make one damn bit of difference to me. But I will expect your respect when we are in this room, on the field, or in a plane.”
The room fell silent. One man dared to speak. “Captain Pritchard, sir. In a plane?”
“That’s right. Who are you again, boy?”
“Michael Wyler, sir.”
“You have a rank, Willer?”
“Then use it, Sergeant! Why do you think we gave you one, just so yer mail could have a pretty little name on it? Now what’s your name, boy?”
“Sergeant Michael Wyler, sir.”
“Sergeant Whyter,” Pritchard answered, pleased, “you should not be questioning the idea of getting in an airplane. If you’re here, then that’s what you were born and bred for. I’m not expecting the US Army Air Corps to feed your sorry butts and make you any fatter than you already are. You are gonna work for your meals, boys, and that means getting up in the air where you were trained to be.”
The men from Tuskegee could only look at each other and wonder.
Now, as the day began and Kinchloe was dreaming, Pritchard came to stand beside the young man and pointed out at the airfield. “I asked if you were gonna spend your whole life just watching.”
Kinchloe shook his head slowly. “No, sir. I sure hope not.”
“I’ve watched you watchin’, boy. What’s your name? Keemo?”
“Right. Kilmo, you got some brains. You got some drive. You got some energy. We’re gonna start usin’ ’em. You all right with that, boy?”
“I’d be grateful, Captain.”
Pritchard nodded and said nothing for a moment. Then he asked quietly, “You black fellas makin’ out all right on base?”
Kinchloe shrugged. “We do all right.”
“Nobody botherin’ you? Making life difficult for you?”
Kinchloe thought back to his first few days on the base. He felt like eyes bored into him wherever he went, and once, when walking on his own back to his barracks, he felt distinctly uncomfortable when he spied a group of white soldiers who seemed to be trailing him from a distance. His mind immediately went back to those walks back to his family home when he had to vary his route or risk having his pay stolen from him by one thug while two others pinned him down. So brave, he thought bitterly. Need all three of you to hold down one honest black man. But the men trailing him that day on the base had done nothing, just watched, and he never saw them again. “No, sir,” is all Kinchloe said now. “Nobody’s saying a thing.”
“They don’t have to, though, do they?” Pritchard said knowingly.
Kinchloe shook his head. “No, sir. They don’t.”
“You ever see a Bristol Beaufighter, Sergeant?”
“We got one comin’ for a visit in the next few days. Might be worth you lookin’ ’em up.”
Pritchard turned and quietly walked away.
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Even as he sat studying the information he had been able to gather, Kinchloe felt like a fool. Why was he bothering to learn about the British fighter? It would be interesting, sure, but what kind of spin was he putting on Pritchard’s words? Did he really expect to be allowed to fly one?
Twin engines, four cannons… maximum speed 323 miles per hour… climb rate 1850 feet per minute…Funny-looking plane, look at the nose…. Still, I’d take a chance flying any plane at this rate, even one that looks like this. Who am I kidding? Pritchard was just making conversation, wants me to learn more. That’s fine but it won’t get me in the air.
“Come on, Kinchloe, it’s time for morning training, man.”
Kinchloe looked up, bleary-eyed. He hadn’t realized it, but he had been up most of the night. He’d have to work hard to look sharp this morning.
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“You have a good look at that Beaufighter, Kilmo?”
“Kinchloe,” the young man corrected, though he knew it would make no difference. “Yes, sir, I did.”
“What do you think of it?”
“It’s got a funny looking nose.”
Pritchard shook his head. “Of all people, Sergeant, I thought you’d know better than to judge somethin’ by how it looks.”
Kinchloe considered thoughtfully as Pritchard walked away.
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“Our friends the Poms—I mean the members of the Royal Air Force—have been kind enough to loan us this Bristol Beaufighter. Now I know it’s not the same as the planes you boys have trained on yourselves, but let’s face it: the chance of you flyin’ anything in this war is slim to none, so you might as well familiarize yourself with everything you can. Who knows, maybe some of you boys’ll end up defecting to the Brits—and they’ll let anything fly, just look at some of their pilots.”
Kinchloe shook his head. Pritchard could hate everybody equally. But somehow he suspected there was no hatred in the man at all, just a general cynicism that kept him going.
“I’ll be heading up in this baby later on today; I expect you’ll be able to tell me everything on her control panel by tomorrow. Now, back to the huts and get yourselves ready for your ten mile hike!”
A collective groan went through the ranks. “Or should I make that fifteen!”
Quiet suddenly broke out and the men dispersed without another word.
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Pritchard didn’t stop suiting up for his flight even when he say Kinchloe approaching.
“Just having another look, sir. You’re just about ready to go, are you?”
“Sure am.” Pritchard adjusted his flight suit and got ready to board. “Are you coming, Kinchstow?”
“You aren’t going to learn anything sitting here on your ass watching planes go up and down, son. Are you coming with me or not?”
“But, sir, I haven’t been trained to fly a Beaufighter.”
“Neither have I. Hell of a way to learn, don’t you think, Kinslow?”
“I… I’m only supposed to be here observing, sir.”
“Don’t be a pansy, Sergeant. Did you join the US Army Air Corps to fight, or to run?”
Kinchloe swallowed. “To fight, sir.”
“Then let’s go.” Pritchard blew a last big blast of smoke from his cigar.
“Sir, are you sure I won’t get in any trouble?” He swallowed his pride, then said, “You’re under order not to let Negroes fly, aren’t you?”
Pritchard chewed the end of his cigar clean off. “Damn it, boy, we’re out here fighting the Krauts, the Nips, the Wogs….got Brits all over and Yanks surroundin’ ’em. Black fellas is the last thing I got to worry about. Now git your gear and get movin’.” Kinchloe nodded and pulled on the flight suit Pritchard magically shoved at him from nowhere. “Hey, Kinchmow.”
Kinchloe stopped dressing, worried that Pritchard had suddenly changed his mind. “Captain?”
“When you gonna get a name that I can pronounce?”
Kinchloe smiled, relieved. “After today, Captain, you can call me anything you want.”
Pritchard grinned back. “How ’bout I just call you Kinch. You a’right with that?”
“Yes, sir,” Kinchloe answered. “That sounds fine to me.”
Dreams Do Come True
Kinch stepped down onto the runway, still breathless from his time in the air. He turned to Pritchard as the Captain disembarked from the Bristol Beaufighter. “It’s a good thing you were kidding about your lack of training on this thing, sir.”
“Kidding?” Pritchard echoed. “I wasn’t kidding, Kinch, I just read the manual and had a good look at the controls.” He leaned in closer. “Bet you could do the same thing, too.”
“I’d like to have a go one day, Captain.” Kinch tried not to sound hopeful. One time up in this plane was as much as he could hope for.
“Keep reading that manual, Sergeant. You never know what you’re in for.”
“Time to head back for mess and sack time. You’ve got another hike tomorrow, and another flight as well.”
“Captain? Another flight?”
“You don’t think one go up in that plane is enough, do you, Sergeant?”
“No, sir!” Kinch answered enthusiastically. Then he calmed down and added, “Sir, can I ask you a question?”
Pritchard stopped lighting his cigar and looked at Kinch. “What is it, boy?”
“Why are you letting me do this, sir?”
“Son, I may work for the US Government. I may do everything they tell me to do without blinking an eye. I may even agree with some of it. I may.” Kinch stood quietly, listening. “But the way I figure it, God gave us brains, son. And He intended us to use them. Now, you boys were sent out here to look. Look at what? We have eyes, you have eyes. We have hands, you have hands. We have blood running through our veins. So do you. I can’t see anything so all-fire different, and I don’t have time for people who do. And I don’t have time to waste babysitting a bunch of grown men who aren’t going to be doing anything constructive. I didn’t join the US Army Air Corps to look after kids. If I thought that’s why I was sent here, I’d go AWOL right now. If you’re here, you’re in the war. There’s no point in letting you go to waste.”
“You could get yourself in a lot of hot water, sir.”
Pritchard laughed softly. “What are they going to do—fire me?” He paused at the stricken look on Kinch’s face. “Don’t look so desperate, Kinch. They won’t touch me. They’ll say I’m eccentric… and then they’ll indulge me.”
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The letter home Kinch started writing the next day was full of hope and happiness, but gave no details of his outing. It might have been superstition, but he wanted to do nothing that would jinx his chances of getting back in that British plane. And if Pritchard was being watched, anything Kinch said might be caught by the censors and the Captain would be forbidden from allowing it to happen again.
He went through the paces of his hike without really noticing the strain, and when he was dismissed from the day’s training he went straight back to the airfield where the Beaufighter sat, unattended. Taking a quick glance around him, he climbed up to peer in through the plexiglass at the panel of controls and tried to recite each one as though it were his own plane. Got that one… that one… What’s that? Damn. Better go back and read again…. Okay, “Kinch,” show Pritchard what you’re made of….
And it was back to the books again.
Next morning after assembly, Pritchard once again pulled Kinch aside. “I’m heading back up today, Sergeant, and I’ve been asked to bring the plane into formation with the US planes. You up for it?”
Kinch’s eyes widened. “Sir? Yes, sir!”
“You going to stay awake this time, Kinch? I’m planning on letting you take the controls.” Kinch gave a start. Pritchard chuckled. “Couldn’t help but notice you yawning your way through assembly this morning. I’m not that boring, am I? Or is it that you’ve been spending so much time trying to figure out that damned bird on the airstrip?” Before Kinch could answer, Pritchard continued. “Don’t answer that; I prefer to think that it’s the plane, not me.”
Kinch grinned. “I’ll listen to anything you have to say, sir. And I won’t let you down, sir. I think I know this aircraft now like the back of my hand.”
“You’d damned well better.”
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“Formation is now at ten thousand feet,” Pritchard announced.
“Ten thousand feet. Yes, sir,” Kinch repeated, slowly banking the plane up toward the other aircraft starting to fill the sky. “Where are these planes headed, sir?”
Pritchard paused before answering. “France.”
Kinch blinked unbelievingly. “France?” he echoed.
“That’s right. The bomber boys are busy and they need our help. I was given permission to let this little bird fly along with the others. Is that all right with you, boy?” Pritchard asked.
Kinch was sure Pritchard wasn’t looking for an answer, but he gave one anyway. “Um… yeah.” He tightened his grip on the throttle, now feeling totally out of his league. He wet his lips with his tongue as he felt a thin sheen of perspiration forming on his brow. “Captain Pritchard, are we going into battle?”
“That is a distinct possibility,” Pritchard replied. The Beaufighter pulled up alongside the P-38’s already starting to litter the sky. Pritchard looked out beyond them as his voice lost all its humor. “It’s time you joined the fray, Sergeant. Do you feel up to the challenge?”
Kinch nodded, almost unable to speak. “Yes, sir.” What choice do I have?
“Good. Then let’s get out there, and then let’s get home.”
As Kinch made sure his plane kept up with the others, his mind waged a war of its own. He was of two minds about all of this. This was what he had gone to the Tuskegee Institute for so many months ago: to fly for the US Army Air Corps. To help fight the Germans. To be a real part of the war, and prove that colored men—that he—was as good and worthy of being in uniform as any white American male. But he had also expected to be prepared, forewarned, when the day actually arrived. I haven’t even written a “farewell” letter home. My family doesn’t even know I’m in the air! How in God’s name are they going to understand if they get a letter from the US Army saying, “We regret to inform you that your son has been killed in action,” when they don’t even know I was in action?
Shut up and fly, Kinchloe. This is what you wanted all along. I think.
Pritchard seemed to sense Kinch’s disquiet, but he waited until the planes were well underway to their destination before he spoke again. “I know this is a bit of a shock to you, Kinch,” he said. “But if I had said to you, ‘Let’s get this baby moving today so you can get shot at,’ you might not have been so anxious to join me.”
Kinch shrugged. “Maybe you underestimate me, Captain.”
“Never seen a sane man yet who wants to face the enemy. And you aren’t even supposed to be here.”
Kinch nodded but kept his eyes straight ahead. “So why am I?”
“You got a lot of questions, boy,” Pritchard said, shifting into the detached mode that Kinch was starting to realize the Captain used when he was trying to justify things to himself. “You doubt you can handle it?”
“No,” Kinch answered, almost too quickly and too strongly, he thought. “It’s just that… well, I didn’t think the military liked coloreds.”
Pritchard chuckled. “Oh, they like ’em, all right. They’re just perfect for being ground crew and working in the mess hall and even making an occasional foot soldier. Hell, take a look at what they managed in the Civil War. But they’re damned slow at recognizing anything else the colored man can do. Like use his own brain. Work unsupervised. Make life and death decisions, like those that you need to make when you’re in a fighter plane heading to France.” He lapsed into silence.
Kinch considered Pritchard’s answer. “But… why me?”
“You mean why not some other colored boy waiting to get up in the wild blue yonder?” Kinch nodded just slightly. Pritchard took just a second to compose his thoughts. “A fair question. And the answer is because you wanted it.” Kinch didn’t know how to reply. “Look, Sergeant, I’ve been around for a long time. Seen a lot of things, made a lot of friends, made my share of enemies, too. Now make no mistake about it: I follow orders, and I do exactly what I’m told. You don’t survive in the military by thinking for yourself. That got me where I am today, be that good or be it bad. But it got me here, and it got me the ear of a few people in the right places, even when I decide to be a bit rebellious. Like now. So when I told them I wasn’t going to be stuck behind a desk, babysitting a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears colored fellas so they could just sit out the war from a distance… well, at least one person listened. And you seemed so eager from Day One, so willing to absorb anything and everything…I thought you might just be the one black fella who was going to show them all what you could do.”
Pritchard paused. Kinch said nothing. Finally, Pritchard said, “Was I right?”
Kinch felt his resolve steeling during Pritchard’s explanation. In the last few years there had been fewer and fewer reasons for him to believe that the whites could ever really want to treat colored people equally. In Detroit, even though there was such a high ratio of black families, relations between the races were terribly strained, and riots had broken out more than once—riots that Kinch had witnessed and empathized with, though he had never been involved in them himself. He had grown tired of taking the back route home, tired of living in a crowded apartment because there was little proper housing for black families, tired of being treated like a second class citizen—if anyone bothered to treat him like a citizen at all. He knew that there were some good people around, people who bucked the system and went with their gut feelings. But most of them had been absorbed into the majority—those who thought colored people deserved nothing more than their contempt, almost eighty years after slavery was abolished. Now, here was one man standing out from the majority, daring to take a chance on a black man, willing to let him—almost forcing him—to stand up for himself and his race. What more could he have hoped for? Kinch couldn’t waste this chance by being halfhearted. He couldn’t.
“Yes, sir, Captain. You were right. Let’s get these German devils.”
“Fine. Now do me a favor, Sergeant, and pull up before we crash into the English Channel.”
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From then on, Kinch didn’t give a second thought to what he was doing up in the sky. While it was, admittedly, strange to be flying in a British plane with a bunch of Americans, he didn’t question it; Pritchard certainly had ways of getting around regulations, and this was just more evidence of it. After all, the rules dictated that colored men didn’t fly US planes into battle. Kinch finally decided that this was just another unique part of what was already a unique experience: being a colored man flying for the United States Army Air Corps… even when they weren’t supposed to be. If he had to come at it backwards, so be it.
He flew several more sorties with Pritchard beside him, each time feeling more and more in control of the fighter. Most of the time in the beginning, Pritchard took over when they got close to the enemy; Kinch would do back-up, and be the eyes and ears of the operation.
Tonight, Pritchard told Kinch that they were flying out again, this time right to the east side of the Netherlands, where the Germans had a munitions plant that the Allies wanted to get rid of. Kinch had managed in the last few days to organize himself enough to write a cheerful letter home, which he sent, and a more serious letter home, which he didn’t. He left instructions to send it if he ever didn’t come back to base, and when he found out that bunkmate Denver Jones had also been flying with another instructor on another aircraft, he promised to do the same for him.
Kinch boarded the Bristol Beaufighter with a little more than his usual trepidation, something that didn’t go unnoticed by Pritchard. “You all right, Kinch?” he asked, settling into his seat and starting his safety checks.
“Yes, sir, I’m fine,” Kinch said shortly.
“You don’t sound fine, son,” Pritchard said.
“Just a bit off tonight, I guess,” Kinch shrugged. He sat down and began his routine before take off as well.
“There’s no room for doubts up in the sky, son. If you’re not ready to do this, you can get off this plane right now, no hard feelings. I brought you here; you’re not actually required to be here. Nobody would think less of you, including me.”
Kinch considered the offer. He knew Pritchard wasn’t having a go at him, that he was being sincere. And the Captain was right: Kinch really didn’t have to be in the air. He didn’t have to be flying into enemy territory. After all, the US Government hadn’t even given its blanket approval to have colored men flying for the military. But could Kinch back off now?
“No, sir. I’m ready to go. You don’t have to worry about me.”
Two hours later, he’d wish he had turned and run for home.
The Nightmare Begins
Kinchloe struggled out of his parachute harness and dropped quickly to the scrub below the tree he had been dangling from. He had two priorities at the moment: get himself hidden, now, and see if he could find Captain Pritchard.
The bailout had been both quick and terrifying. When it became clear that they were outnumbered and had no chance of getting out of Europe intact, Pritchard had ordered Kinch to jump. Without taking the time to think, but amazed at how clear his mind was, Kinch had grabbed his parachute, strapped it on, and jumped. The sensation was overwhelming. At first frightened of the fall, he soon felt more of a buoyant, floating sensation as he rushed toward the earth, with the wind and the noise whipping past his ears. When he pulled the rip cord on his parachute, he felt the anticipated “pulling up” sensation, and the noise softened and he began to breathe again. He tried to look around him to see if he could find Pritchard, but he soon realized that he needed to control where he ended up and concentrated on maneuvering his parachute in such a way to avoid hitting anything particularly dangerous on the way down.
Now, Kinchloe tried to pull his parachute out of the tree and bundle it up so he could hide it, or use it for warmth, if necessary. He mentally checked himself for injuries and blessedly found none. He wanted to call out for Pritchard but realized it would only expose himself to possible danger, since he had no idea if the Captain was anywhere nearby. In the end, he decided that the best option would be to keep himself hidden until he felt relatively safe, then see if he could wander around a bit when daylight appeared and try to find the man who had practically pushed him out of the plane.
What remained of the night was long, and Kinchloe found himself jumping at every little sound, be it leaf falling from a tree, or a jack rabbit running across his path. He was hungry, and he was cold, and he was more than a little scared. But he felt okay otherwise and decided to just keep his eyes open and think of his family and pray.
His body had other ideas, though, and after settling himself into a small, covered area of scrub away from the main path, he fell asleep, and when he woke up later, it was light. He tried to figure out where he was, but in the end, he knew that was no use because they had veered well off course when they started getting cornered and anyway, how did you know if you fell straight down when you fell out of an airplane?
Kinchloe stood up and tried to stretch his now-cramped muscles, making sure he still had his small pistol intact, the one Pritchard had insisted he take with him when they flew. He carried a small knife as well, and his emergency rations, which included dark chocolate and biscuits, which he broke into now as a sudden, overwhelming hunger started to gnaw at him. He checked his small water bottle and gave himself permission to have two small sips, until he knew he could make more water from the sparse snow spread on the ground.
Kinchloe took a good look around to make sure no one was in the immediate vicinity and then slowly emerged from his hiding spot. He noted the position of the sun, and realized that if he was going to find shelter and protection, he was better off heading west. Where that would eventually bring him, he wasn’t sure, but west was definitely headed away from Germany, and that couldn’t be all bad.
Time to find Pritchard. The thought pierced his brain for not the first time, and he scanned the area briefly, hoping for a sign of the Captain. Kinch was half hoping not to find anything, since any visible hint of Pritchard’s presence would also give his position away to the Germans. On the other hand, if Kinch could find him first, they might somehow be able to elude the enemy and miraculously find a way home.
Some time later, Kinchloe practically stumbled over Pritchard in the tall grass. The Captain had gotten out of his harness—his parachute was nowhere to be seen—but he was badly injured, lying on his side, clearly suffering, and clearly precariously close to death. Kinch knelt beside him and turned Pritchard onto his back.
“Damned black fella,” Pritchard gasped at him.
Kinch wanted to smile, but he couldn’t. “I’ll look after you, Captain.”
“Don’t be an idiot, boy—get outta here. The Jerries’ll be comin’ around soon. Get moving.”
Kinch had not stopped trying to use some material from his own flight suit to clumsily dress the gaping wound in Pritchard’s chest. Letting out a loud groan of pain, the Captain tried ineffectively to push the Sergeant’s hands away. “Y’ear me, boy? I said get moving.”
“Not without you, sir.” Kinch kept working, trying hard not to look in Pritchard’s face.
In a voice Kinch found surprisingly strong, Pritchard tried again. “’s’an order, Sergeant. And don’t you dare disobey it, understand?”
Kinch paused briefly. Pritchard seemed to shrink against the earth, his breathing becoming more irregular and labored. “I’m sorry, Captain,” Kinch said.
“Sorry?” Pritchard managed. He coughed agonizingly as he tried to spit out a laugh. “You gi’ me the best chance in years to show the brass that they’re a pain in the ass, and you’re sorry?” He paused to catch his breath, then drew a shaking hand up to the young man’s arm. “Look what we did, boy—a black man, flying a Pommie plane, against the Krauts.” He tried to laugh again. Kinch fought back the stinging behind his eyes as he watched pain flood across Pritchard’s face. “You save yourself, boy. You get yourself back home and tell ’em ol’ Pritchard was right all along: the black boys have got just as much guts as we have. You tell ’em that, Kinchloe. You tell ’em I said so.”
Kinch nodded, numb, as Pritchard closed his eyes against his agony. “Captain,” Kinch said, trying to keep the officer conscious, “Captain, do you realize you got my name right?”
Pritchard forced his eyes open and squeezed Kinch’s arm. “Had to get it right once before I go, right, Kinstow?” he replied. Pritchard bit his lip and drew in a sharp breath. Kinch felt himself trembling. “You tell ’em, Sergeant. Only Pritchard could have pulled it off, right? Only ol’ Pritchard.”
Kinch nodded again. “Yes, sir. Only you.”
Pritchard’s grip slackened and his hand fell away from Kinch’s arm. When Kinch found the nerve to look at the Captain’s face, he knew the battle was over. Closing the rebel’s lifeless eyes, he let his hand rest on the side of the man’s face as he said a silent prayer. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he realized what Pritchard had risked for him, and what kind of man had been lost today. The he reached under Pritchard’s clothes, took one of his dog tags, and slowly walked away.
----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
Kinch carried his loss like a physical burden, and when German soldiers finally came across him, he was almost grateful for the release. At first almost too frightened to move and follow the orders they issued in halting English, the young man found himself surprised at the soldiers’ lack of aggressiveness. He still had no idea where he was, but thought it was best not to ask at this stage, and he simply relinquished his weapon and walked.
It took almost two hours in the cold before they reached what could pass for civilization. Kinch was tiring quickly, both physically and emotionally, and he gratefully climbed into the back of a truck waiting at the edge of a small village. He tried to look for signs on the one or two small shops, and noticed the words “Bakkerij” and “Kleermaker,” he guessed that he was still somewhere in the Netherlands.
Aside from the few words that the Germans aimed at Kinch to get him to do as they wished, the trip passed in relative silence, and the American lost track of time as the countryside passed around him. He watched carefully as the truck passed checkpoints and the soldiers spoke briefly, handing over papers and pointing to him and the three other men in the truck. Kinch wanted badly to talk to the others, but it was quite clear that talking amongst themselves was not going to be tolerated, regardless of how lax the guards seemed.
When the truck finally rolled up to what was clearly a German city, Kinch put himself fully on alert. He noted that the soldiers who had been so casual in their duties as captors suddenly got stricter and harsher when they got off the truck and had to work in the presence of their superiors. He was prodded roughly toward a building on which hung a large Nazi flag, and he responded with a grunt and a look that clearly indicated his disgust. As he stepped up to the front door, he noticed several sets of eyes on him, even more than on the other men being brought in with him, and at least one person spoke behind his hand at a companion, as he pointed at Kinch and shook his head.
Kinch lost track of the others who had been brought to this place with him and found himself in a room on his own. Not handcuffed and with no one in the room to watch him, he still felt compelled to stay seated where he had been pushed. It didn’t take long before someone came in to join him, an officer in a black uniform that seemed unnaturally tidy and smart for someone in such a terrible job, Kinch thought randomly.
The officer was smoking a pipe that reminded Kinch of his grandfather, an image that disturbed him considering where he was and who he was facing. He shifted uncomfortably when the officer stared at him in silence for what seemed like an eternity, waiting.
“You are an American,” the officer said.
Kinch didn’t answer. He didn’t think it was necessary.
“You are an American… and you are black.”
Kinch raised an eyebrow but said nothing. What was this man aiming at?
“Your dog tags say you are Sergeant James Ivan Kinchloe. I was not of the understanding that black men were flying for the United States. So how did you get into Europe on your own?”
Kinch concentrated on staying calm. So far this German officer was speaking quite rationally and civilly, but Kinch was preparing for the worst. His failure to answer could make the man angry, and Kinch knew that while he was indeed a unique find for the Germans, he was still, in the end, just an enemy who could be abused at any time.
The officer shook his head, smiling. “You are a good soldier, Sergeant Kinchloe. You know you are allowed to speak. Even name, rank, and serial number would let me hear your voice.”
Kinch took a chance, softly. “Kinchloe, James I. Sergeant.” He paused. “US Army Air Corps. Serial number 4973609.”
The officer smiled. “I am Major Otto Boehringer, Sergeant Kinchloe. I find your presence here quite fascinating, I must admit. I would like very much for you to explain how you got shot down over Europe. And how you came to have another man’s dog tag in your pocket.” Kinch swallowed and thought of the man he had left behind. “Who is Captain Pritchard?”
Kinch felt a wave of sadness wash over him at the mention of Pritchard’s name. Still, he couldn’t tell Boehringer the details, so he simply answered, “I wanted to make sure his family got his tag.”
“Where is the other one?”
“Still on his body. So his remains could get home identified.” Kinch fell silent, already unsure if he had said too much.
“Was this Captain Pritchard your superior officer?” Boehringer waited patiently for an answer. “Were you flying with him?” Kinch said nothing. “Did you find him after you were shot down? Or were you with him to begin with?”
Kinch did not answer, unsure at this point whether he was simply unwilling, or whether he was unable. In either case, Boehringer did not seem concerned about the rebuff, and said, “If he is in the wilderness somewhere and he is found, I am sure he will be treated with respect.”
I doubt that, Kinch thought.
Boehringer stood up. “I think you have many reasons to fear being here, Sergeant Kinchloe. You have obviously seen death. You are in the presence of the enemy. You are a Negro.” Boehringer nodded. “You are apparently in good health, and that makes you a supreme specimen for study.” Kinch stiffened. “But for now you will be taken to your cell. I will talk with you again, tomorrow.”
Kinch felt his heart plunge into his stomach as a guard entered the room and ushered him out to an uncertain future.
A restless night on a hard bunk in a cold cell was followed by a day full of tension and anxiety. Kinch was brought back before Boehringer, but the Major asked only the questions he had asked the night before, and Kinch repeated the answers he had already given. Boehringer then brought in another man, whom the American knew only as “Karl,” since no one introduced him, and after a conference between the two in hushed tones—unnecessary, Kinch realized, since he did not understand German—Boehringer announced that Kinch was going to be handed over to analysts for further study.
Kinch went cold at the thought, but he swallowed hard and tried not to show his fear. He was escorted down some stairs to a large laboratory-type room underground, and then left rather unceremoniously with two other men in lab coats and yet another guard.
One of the men in white motioned for Kinch to sit down on a table that reminded Kinch of a doctor’s examination table, and without speaking to him started to remove his shirt. At first Kinch protested, but a severe look from the other man and a less-than-polite shove when he resisted soon convinced him to go along with it. There was nothing he could do to stop it, he reasoned—several armed men outside the door might have something to say about it if he made trouble.
Kinch watched with trepidation as a small table was wheeled over to where he was sitting, and on it were several stainless steel instruments and a couple of syringes. “Hey, I really hate needles,” Kinch stammered, as one of the Germans picked up one of them. No one responded to him, and when push came to shove, he could only tense up as the needle was inserted into a vein in his arm and he watched the deep red substance fill the syringe. At least they’re not putting anything in, he thought. Then they took another vial of blood, removed the needle, and wiped the area on his arm with a cotton ball.
Kinch kept watch, concerned but fairly unscathed, as he underwent what he would have considered a routine physical examination, if this had been being done anywhere but where he was. Blood pressure, temperature, pulse rate—“Turn my head and cough?” he had had the courage to ask, when he was prodded from behind as a cold stethoscope was pressed up against his bare back. He was distressed when the Germans scraped a fairly large chunk of his skin off his side, and from what he saw them doing with it, he could only surmise that they wanted to study it. He was measured, poked, prodded, and shuffled from one table to another, and a more thorough exam that he found most humiliating was performed without a word from either man in the room with him, even when he shouted his surprise and discomfort, and an armed soldier showed up seemingly from nowhere to monitor the rest of his assessment.
The long day tired Kinch out, even though he had not been asked to perform any physical tasks, and when he was released for the day he slept heavily. The next day, after a meager breakfast, he underwent more rigorous study, and this time he had to be involved. He was given tasks that seemed aimed at studying his physical endurance, stretching his muscles and pushing his organs to their limits. He was made to run for a full two hours, with no stops regardless of how it exhausted him. He was forced to lift weights, with more and more poundage being added to the load until he was sweating with the effort just to get it off the floor, much less above his head. He was forced to lay flat on his back while a light was shined into his eyes, and he was not allowed to turn his head or close his eyes, until he felt like the searing brightness had been burned into his line of sight. He was left in a freezing cold room, followed by an almost unendurable hot one. All the time there were people, people checking his vital signs, taking notes, nodding silently at their companions. But no one talking to him, helping him to understand what they were trying to find out, making him feel less helpless, and more like a human being.
For one test, someone handed him a glass of water and said, “Drink.” Though desperately thirsty after the workout he had had earlier that day, he initially resisted the idea. But eventually he obeyed, spying equipment in a corner of the room that would have made his agreement to the request unnecessary. To his relief, the glass did indeed contain only water. But then they told him to drink more, and more, until he was sure he would burst, and when it became clear that he could hold no more liquid, he was handed yet one more glass. Kinch tried to push it away, but it was thrust in his face more insistently, so he tried to drink. His stomach hurt terribly, and he stopped. “Please,” he said, trying to meet the eyes of one of the men. He thought hard for a few seconds. “Bitte.” And he shook his head and put a hand to his stomach. The eyes that looked back at him had no answer. They’re trying to make me…or do they just want to know how much I can hold? I’m just a guinea pig to them.
Finally, though he tried his hardest to resist it, Nature won out, and Kinch closed his eyes tightly, trying not to cry as he felt his humiliation skyrocketing. When he finally opened his eyes, he saw only men taking notes, their expressions clearly not interested in what was happening to him emotionally. Someone handed Kinch a towel and pointed to the floor, and after using the cloth to wipe himself off a bit, he got down on his knees and tried to mop up. He felt himself burning inside, anger and disgrace mixing together in a dangerous dance. But he knew to stay alive and physically unharmed it would be wise to accept the treatment and somehow rise above it.
When he was finished, he was moved to another room where his clothes were stripped off and he was left standing alone. There were no chairs and no furniture. He considered sitting down but thought better of it, and when the same two men who had been his almost constant companions came back in, he knew he was not done yet. “Walk,” one of them said.
Kinch’s eyes showed a flicker of confusion, then he obeyed. No one seemed to be asking anything else of him at the moment, and although he felt exposed and vulnerable, at least he could use this time to sort things out in his mind. I must be at the Dulag Luft, he surmised. I haven’t seen any barbed wire, and I haven’t seen other prisoners. They’re not very talkative here, but at least they aren’t beating me. Kinch snorted out loud. The men watching from the corner suddenly became alert, but when Kinch merely kept walking, they relaxed and resumed their surveillance. Just the same as everyone else—check out the black man. See how different he is. Well I’ll tell you something you might not know. We’ve already been humiliated so much that whatever you do to us isn’t going to make a lick of difference. Not to this black man, anyway. So keep it up all you like. You’re not going to break me.
Thinking clearly made the time pass quickly, and it wasn’t until hunger started to penetrate his thoughts that Kinch realized he had been walking for a very long time without rest and without food. He couldn’t guess how long he had been tracing a path around the room, varying his direction, sometimes crossing diagonally, sometimes walking the perimeter, sometimes going back and forth. The mind-numbing dullness of the task was tiring, and Kinch longed for a break. More time passed, and he continued walking, and when he finally felt like he couldn’t take another step, he simply stopped and sat down on the floor, barely registering the cold, and fell asleep.
----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
Kinch walked slowly down the hall to the office he had been to when he first arrived, after what he could only guess was a long sleep. Not knowing the time of day disoriented him, and he was starting to wear an almost permanent expression of confusion and concern. He could vaguely remember being prodded off the floor of that cold, empty room and back toward his cell, but after registering the feel of the scratchy blanket around his body, he could recall nothing until his door was opened and clothes were thrust at him, the order to put them on clear in the way they were presented.
Now, he waited without expectation as the guard with him opened the door to Boehringer’s office and prodded him in. Boehringer was already there, seated at his desk, again smoking a pipe, and looking over some paperwork. “Ah, Sergeant,” he said, looking up. Smoke snaked its way up into the air around him. “Good morning.” Kinch took note of the time reference. Okay, at least I know it’s daytime. “Would you care for a drink of water?”
Kinch felt a tremor of shame pass through him. He shook his head.
“I would offer you coffee, but I’m sure you can understand it is in short supply, and there have been no Red Cross packages supplied recently for the prisoners.”
None that you’re planning on giving to them, Kinch thought. He shrugged.
“You intrigue me, Sergeant Kinchloe. I admit that,” Boehringer said, standing and coming around the desk. “You have a story behind you that has not been told. I know that. I can tell. But you are unwilling to share it.”
Kinch shrugged his shoulders again. “There’s nothing to tell.”
Boehringer waved a finger near Kinch’s face, thinking. “Ah, but there is, there is. I am no stranger to the enemy, Kinchloe. They claim one of the reasons they are fighting the Germans is her racism, and yet they wear their own racism like a badge of honor.”
“It should be a badge of shame,” Kinch dared reply.
Boehringer stopped in his thoughts and smiled benignly at the American. He nodded acknowledgement. “Perhaps,” he said. “But at the moment it is not. And you, my young friend, should not have been in the air. Am I right?” Kinch said nothing. Boehringer laughed lightly. “You are a most fascinating specimen, according to the gentlemen who worked with you for the last three days. You could do your country proud, regardless of the color of your skin. But you are not the first black man I have met, Kinchloe, though I admit you are the first black American flyer. And that means that we have had an opportunity to study the black man before, and so we are through with you for now. You are to be taken to the transition camp at Wetzlar, where you will remain until you are assigned a permanent home in one of our Luft Stalags. There are officially no black flyers. But since you seem to have dropped out of the sky, it is only fitting that you are in a camp with other men who have also.”
Boehringer turned and went back to his desk. “You will leave in ten minutes. The guards will return the things that you came with—except for your weapons, of course—and that includes the dog tag of the man you found, your Captain Pritchard. When you write home, you can forward that on to whoever wants it.”
During Boehringer’s talk, Kinch felt himself melting with relief. They were finished with him. He was free. And though he scoffed at the idea that he could be free by being sent to a prison camp, he knew that he could survive somehow if he was allowed to simply exist, wherever he was. If all went to plan, his stay at Wetzlar would last only a week or two at most, and then he would have a permanent placement in a camp where he could wait out his time till the end of the war. Maybe he could even learn to dream again.
For a moment he considered his relief to be cowardice. But the mention of Pritchard changed his mind. Kinch was no coward. He had put himself forward for training and had agreed to fly with Pritchard even when the odds were stacked against them and the Powers That Be were resisting the idea of a black man ever being able to serve his country from the air. He had lived his dream, and he had withstood everything the Germans had thrown at him in the last few days. He had revealed nothing, and despite everything, he still held his dignity intact.
And that had to count for something.
----- ----- ----- ----- ----- ----- -----
Holding a small envelope with all he owned in the world right now, Kinch stood before the Captain of the Wetzlar camp after a week of treatment by the Germans that ranged anywhere from being spat on to being ignored. “Black American flying Sergeant Kinchloe,” the Captain greeted him mockingly. “Your assignment has come through. Though it pains me to subject even the enemy to a black man—” Kinch felt the blood rush past his temples. He clenched his fist around the envelope, nearly crushing the items inside. “—I am ordered to send you to a Stalag Luft where you will wait out the remainder of the war. I have been informed of your unique background, black man. Perhaps being imprisoned with other misfits like yourself will make you realize just how high above your station you have tried to go. And just how much you don’t belong there.”
Kinch held his breath and waited for the Captain to continue. “Corporal!” the German barked. The door opened and a guard came in. The Captain turned back to Kinch. “You will leave immediately. Your new home is Stalag 13.”
Text and original characters copyright 2004 by Linda Groundwater
This copyright covers only original material and characters, and in no way intends to infringe upon the privileges of the holders of the copyrights, trademarks, or other legal rights, for the Hogan's Heroes universe.