THE California sky was ablaze with the quicksilver brilliance of a billion distant suns. So bright was that starlight, the sparse maritime clouds drifting in on the westerly breeze cast stark shadows upon the endless acres of flat farmland far, far below.
Nearly two miles overhead, where the orderly quadrants of cultivated field looked like a monochrome patchwork spread out beneath him, Nicholas Sullivan, barely twelve years old, had slipped the bonds of gravity to be borne aloft like a bird. Nick’s blond hair streamed in the wind, and his father’s much too large aviator goggles were cinched haphazardly around his head. His mouth split into a wide delighted smile, and he laughed. His hands were clasped tightly to the controls of a Boeing PT-17 Kaydet Trainer, his dad’s treasured Stearman, and he whooped in unrestrained bliss. His cry of joy was lost in the howl of the thin, cold air and the trademark throaty growl of the Continental R-670-5 engine that had carried him into the heavens.
Nick sat in the cavernous pilot’s seat, near the back of the aircraft, wrestling with a stick that was meant for much larger hands. Blocks of wood were strapped to his feet so that he could reach the pedals that worked the tail rudder.
Thomas, Nick’s father, had purchased the cherished plane for $250 in a surplus auction after the war and modified it into a crop duster, ostensibly to make a living. Instead of seeking his fortune in the booming postwar economy that saw increasing prosperity across a triumphant nation, the once decorated naval aviator had opted to eke out a living flying dangerous, low to the ground sorties of an entirely different character than those he’d flown in the war. Rather than dogfighting Nazis, Nick’s dad now waged chemical warfare against a legion of voracious insects, protecting innocent crops from certain devastation. Claire, Nick’s mother, would often bemoan this fact, and though her husband would vigorously defend his choices as “a fair and honest way to make a living,” Nick knew that wasn’t the whole truth of it. The simple fact was, like him, his father loved to fly.
The elder Sullivan had earned his wings in an airplane just like the one his son now commanded high over the California fields, and when the war was over, he’d turned to crop dusting to quench his insatiable thirst for flying.
“Once a man dares to touch the stars, never the earth shall he suffer then,” Claire Sullivan would mutter in her French-inflected lilt with a mixture of pride, love, and sheer terror as she stood hand in hand with Nick, watching the yellow biplane taxi down their dirt airstrip. “Though wings to heaven may carry thee, safely my love… return again,” she would finish with all of the fervor of a supplicant’s entreaty. The poem was from a letter she had written to Thomas during the war, shortly after they’d met. Over the years, it had become something like a prayer.
Each day, as the plane took gracefully to the sky, Nick would stand with her, the two of them shielding their eyes against the morning sun. Once aloft, Thomas would dip the starboard wings in a gesture of farewell, and they would both wave back as he dwindled to a speck in the distance. Once the plane was out of sight, Claire would ruffle Nick’s hair affectionately, and then, as if resigned to whatever fate awaited, turn and busy herself with the day’s work keeping house.
Thomas had taught Nick to work the controls of the airplane almost as soon as he could walk. At twelve, Nick was familiar with every rivet, every wire, that made up the aircraft. He could hear a tick in the engine from fifty paces and know exactly which bolt needed tightening to tease it out.
For a little more than a year, every Friday night, when Nick’s father drove the Ford into town to throw one back with the boys, Nick had been sneaking out of his room and down the dirt airstrip to the waiting plane. Grunting in exertion, he’d toil to remove the oiled tarpaulin that covered it and carefully check it over by the feeble glow of a lantern. Once satisfied with its flightworthiness, Nick would clamber into the cavernous flight seat, strap himself in, tie blocks to his shoes, and then, with practiced ease, guide the plane into the sky.
If his father ever caught him, there would be hell to pay, but Nick was too consumed with his own need to be held back by the threat of a tanned hide.
Nick looked down at the ground and checked the altimeter. As he suspected, he was approaching the safe operating ceiling of the aircraft. He had never dared to breach this invisible barrier. His father had warned him against it many times. Tonight, with the siren’s song of the stars crying out to be touched, he steeled himself to do it anyway.
The altimeter read 10,100 feet. Not high enough. Not high enough by far. Pulling hard on the stick, Nick nosed the plane upward and began to climb. The indicator needle passed through 11,000, 11,100… 11,200, 11,300.
The impeccably maintained Continental engine began to gasp in the thinning air, but Nick kept it vertical, the trusty plane pointing straight toward those stars he so longed to reach. He was going to touch them this time, by God.
Higher and higher Nick climbed. He passed through 11,500 feet and soared higher still. At 12,200 feet, the engine choked its last gasp and died. Nick floated upward in his seat, his body straining against the straps that held him in place as gravity took hold and began to drag the heavy plane back toward the ground like a truant child. His whooping resolved into a scream of primal ecstasy as the weightless euphoria of free fall overtook him.
The altimeter spun backward as Nick plummeted. Wind tore at the airframe, flexing and stretching the fragile fabric and wood structure of the wings, threatening to rip them apart. The plane teetered from vertical and rolled, swaying back and forth as it gracelessly tumbled end over end. Sensing the time was right, Nick muscled the stick and wrenched himself more deeply into the flight deck to work the pedals. He focused on the give and play of air over the control surfaces, sensing, with his whole being, the small adjustments that were needed to bring the floundering airplane back under his control.
When he managed to pull out of the tumble, Nick pointed the nose downward, ignoring the airspeed indicator and relying, instead, upon the howling of the wind and the rapidly approaching ground to tell him when the time was correct. Seconds before his nose-down attitude would have plowed him into the earth, Nick jabbed his finger into the electric starter and grinned in triumph when the prop spun back to life. Thick blue smoke belched out of the engine compartment. Yanking the stick hard toward his chest, Nick pulled out of the dive, and at high speed, coaxed the plane low and level over the cornfields.
Hollering at the top of his lungs, Nick skimmed over the ground, barely ten feet from the deck. As the fields whipped by, a long swath agitated in the chest-height corn, his heart swelled with a freedom and joy he was certain he would never know in any other time or place. There was a dangerous and forbidden pleasure in this triumph over gravity and death, in the freewheeling flight of a bird.
His heart racing, his screams of joy rising momentarily over the growl of the engine and the banshee cry of the wind over the wings, Nick pulled back on the stick and climbed. Reluctantly, he brought the plane around and headed back toward the waiting airstrip. Judging by the height of the slivered moon in the east, he had just enough time before his father got home to return it to its proper place.
As the wheels touched down and Nick braked to a stop, his heart dropped into his stomach. Leaning against the weathered wooden shed, his face frozen into a mask of anger, his father stood waiting for him. One glance in the man’s hard eyes was enough to tell Nick that his hide was in dire jeopardy. He could already feel the sting of the leather strap on his back, and he quailed in fear.
Squaring his chin and making sure the brake was set, Nick slowly climbed out of the plane. Head hung, he walked up to his father and waited patiently to receive his due.
“How long have you been at this?” Thomas Sullivan asked with a menacing growl. Barely restrained rage was evident in his clipped tone.
“’Bout a year, sir,” Nick replied. Better to tell the truth now than to face the consequences of a lie on top of what was already coming.
“Your mother know about this?”
“N-no sir. I… leastways, I don’t think so.” Nick toed the ground anxiously. He couldn’t remember ever seeing his father so mad before.
Thomas was silent for a long while, allowing the anxiety and tension to build. “You set the brake?”
“Get the tarp back on ’er and go on up to bed.”
Nick was stunned. That’s it?
Hesitantly, Nick sneaked a glance up at his father’s face. The craggy, lined countenance was still pinched with anger, but there was a glimmer in the older man’s eyes too. Something that looked suspiciously like pride and… understanding.
“I’m not in trouble?” Nick asked.
“You’re clear up shit creek without no paddle to get you home, son. Hell yes, you’re in trouble.” Nick flinched. Thomas paused, pursed his lips, and then ruffled his son’s hair. “But that was some damn fine flying. Ain’t seen nothing like it since… well….” Thomas’s eyes roamed the sky, maybe in remembrance of glorious days now long in the past. After a pause, he said, “Get to work now. Put ’er away. Tomorrow, you’re going to strip her down to the gears and clean every nook and cranny, till she’s like fresh off the assembly line. I don’t care if it takes you a month of Sundays.”
Nick grinned from ear to ear. He knew his father would be watchful from now on and that his days of stolen flight time were over, but the pride in his voice, the look in his eyes… it felt almost as good as flying. Almost.
Nick’s father gave him a sharp nod and walked away.
Nick looked up at the stars in wonder and anticipation. He was going to touch those stars one day.
TWO thousand miles away, nine-year-old Tait Williams lay on a blanket with his parents, Hugh and Jane, under the August Iowa sky. He was intent on the story he was reading when his father shouted, “There! Off to the west.”
Torn away from the exploits of Holden Caulfield, the rebellious protagonist of Catcher in the Rye, Tait glanced up in exasperation and murmured, “Seven for you. Still sixteen for me.”
Tait’s mother traced a finger over his cheek and smiled softly. “You’re enjoying the book?” she asked.
“Uh-huh,” Tait responded, his eyes flicking back to the page. The story was complicated, and there were mature situations that often perplexed him, but one thing he understood well was his admiration for the character Mr. Antolini, an English teacher like his mother. He found the teacher wise and admirable, even though he was sloppy, used some funny words, and did an awful lot of drinking.
“J.D. Salinger,” Hugh said, reading the book’s cover. “What’s it about?”
“Teenage rebellion,” Jane replied. “It’s a coming-of-age story.”
“Sounds a little mature for a nine-year-old, Jane.”
“He wanted to read it. I saw no harm in it. We had a talk about the language.” She stroked Tait’s hair fondly as he looked up at her with solemn brown eyes. “I wish even one of my high school students had such a passion for literature,” she said.
Tait’s father moved in and pulled them both into an embrace. He tweaked Tait’s nose. “You get your smarts from your mom.” Hugh beamed at his radiant wife. “And your good looks.”
Jane grinned back. Though she spoke to Tait, her eyes remained on her husband. “Your heart, though… you get that from your father. That’s maybe the most beautiful part of all.”
Tait leaned into their embrace, feeling loved and safe. As another shooting star streaked across the heavens, he closed the book and set it aside. Catcher in the Rye could wait. Even at nine, some deep part of him knew these warm summer nights were precious and fleeting. “Seventeen for me,” he said to his father, whose eyes remained fixed upon his wife.
“He’s winning, Hugh,” Jane teased. “Even with his nose in a book, he’s beating you.”
Hugh grunted. “Just a bunch of shooting stars,” he said, imitating Tait’s earlier indifference. “The Perseids will be back around next year.”
“Or maybe you just have enough stars in your eyes that you don’t need the ones in the sky,” Tait advised sagely.
They all laughed. Tait’s mother reached out and tilted his chin upward. Looking deeply into her son’s eyes, she said, “How’d you ever get to be such an old soul, my little Tait?”
Tait shrugged, not really sure he understood the question. “Just lucky, I guess.”
His mother was thoughtful for a moment, and then finally said, “You know what I think? Someday you’re going to be someone special. Someday….” She reached out and brushed a shock of black, curly hair away from his forehead. “You’re going to change the world.”
CEDAR RAPIDS was cold in December, a deep chill that gnawed through clothing and skin and dug into the marrow like a tick. On the ground, a thick carpet of snow had been laid down during the night. As the clouds scudded eastward after dropping their load of moisture, the world was bared to the frigid depths of space, and the temperature plummeted. A crisp crust developed on the newly fallen snow, which hardened in response to the deep freeze.
Tait Williams was rudely awakened at 4:00 a.m. on December 25—Christmas for the rest of the world, but just another day for him. Groaning, Tait slapped his hand on the obnoxiously buzzing alarm clock at his bedside and reluctantly pushed the covers away from his chin. The tiny apartment did little to keep the cold at bay. It had a small oil radiator that might have provided sufficient heat to warm the space once upon a time, but now just contented itself to make funny noises. The feeble warmth it was able to muster wouldn’t have been worth the hike in his electricity bill during winter months, except Dr. King’s life depended on it. The plodding little goldfish hadn’t chosen to be born in captivity, after all. If that meant Tait had to subsist on peanut butter and white bread for months, at least his conscience would be clear.
Tait blinked bleary eyes and forced himself to sit upright. The nest of thick blankets was too inviting, tempting him to remain huddled beneath for just another few moments of blissful slumber. If he didn’t face the cold, though, he knew he’d oversleep and miss the morning beat meeting. Having endured Jack Smithson’s threat of consignment to obit purgatory for the rest of his career once before was more than enough incentive never to be tardy again. Tait hadn’t broken his back through four grueling years of college at Indiana State, one of the most prestigious journalism schools in the country, to spend the rest of his life writing dull remembrances of Aunt Faye or Uncle Charlie. No, sir. He had his eyes on a Pulitzer one day or maybe a spot on the editorial staff at the Associated Press news desk, maybe Time or National Geographic.
Yawning, stretching, Tait greeted Dr. King with a sleepy, “Morning, you,” and then he shoved the covers away from his body. He dropped his legs over the side of the bed and winced as his bare feet hit the frozen hardwood. “Any speeches today?” Tait asked the fish as he peered into the bowl. Dr. King just hung there, suspended in the water, staring back at him with vacant, unblinking eyes. “Didn’t think so.”
Tait dipped his finger into the bowl and frowned. “A little chilly, eh? No wonder you’re so talkative this morning.”
Tait gathered up the fishbowl and carried it into the kitchenette. After tapping some food into it, he set it on the stovetop, flipped open the ancient oven, and turned it on as high as it would go. “Don’t worry, Dr. King,” Tait promised as he set about brewing a pot of coffee. “Oven’ll warm you up in no time.”
Tait knew it was nuts to converse with a goldfish, but it was probably no more heretical than having named it for the charismatic black pastor who stood at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Tait really didn’t see the harm in it. Dr. King was a daily reminder that, more than his teachers, more than the literary giants who had inspired him to write in the first place, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s eloquent speeches had shown Tait the power the pen wielded when one purposed it to a cause.
Tait had been too young to understand the implications of the bus boycott in the fifties and the subsequent desegregation actions of the Supreme Court, but he’d been a senior in college when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law, and he fully understood how monumental that moment in history was. Though there was a long road to travel before true equality would be realized, society was on a steady march, and Tait, pen in hand, planned to be on the frontlines.
In the meantime, he’d suffer through peanut butter winters and conversations with goldfish, biding his time until his moment came.
Chuckling to himself as the coffee began to percolate, Tait walked over to the frosted window and peered out at the moonlit landscape, noting that another several inches of snow had fallen in the night. “Guess I’m walking to work,” he groused. His ancient Chevy would be impossible to start.
Tait closed the curtains and snagged the Gazette off the front porch. He made a point of reading the competition to see what their angle was on the stories of the day. This practice kept him competitive and occasionally gave him a lead.
Sipping his coffee and holding the paper in front of himself, Tait remarked, “WNB-TV is selling to Orion of Louisville.” He leaned his elbows on the stovetop and flashed the front-page article in the direction of the goldfish, who was busy pecking crumbs off the surface of the water. “Wonder if there’s a human angle?” Tait mused. When media conglomerated, people often lost their jobs. “I’ll give Randy a call and see what the rumor mill is churning out these days.”
Randy Whitford, a high school pal, worked the security desk at WNB. If anyone would have heard who was coming and who was going, as the gatekeeper, Randy would.
Noting the time, Tait returned Dr. King to the top of the radiator and dressed hastily. Toothbrush dangling from his lips, he ran fingers through his mop of curly black hair and grimaced. He was long overdue for a haircut. Somehow, he’d have to scrape together five dollars from his meager funds to get it done. Tait tilted his chin upward, checking the night’s growth on his neck. He decided he could go another day without shaving. After spitting, rinsing, and then splashing some water on his face, Tait patted his hands dry and dressed hastily.
Tait’s closet was as threadbare as his minimally furnished apartment and sparsely provisioned cupboards. He owned five pairs of wool slacks—all gray—and as many white shirts. He was a newspaper reporter, not a fashion model, and he didn’t really have time for the triviality of coordinating outfits.
After dressing, Tait pulled a tweed coat out of the closet and brought it to his nose, breathing deeply the fragrance of aged wool and faded cologne. These were remnants of his father that lingered deep in the fibers. He smiled sadly, pulled the jacket on over the shirt, and with a perfunctory farewell to the goldfish—his only companion in the world—Tait headed out to start his day.
Tait wandered into the office at five minutes before five. He had just enough time to drop his messenger bag at his desk and grab a mug of coffee before the start of the morning’s meeting. Assignments would be handed out, and the reporters would then scamper to get on the beat, gather their news, and churn out copy before the three o’clock deadline to get everything ready for printing. From five o’clock until five thirty in the morning, the office would be relatively sedate, but once the meeting was over, pandemonium would ensue.
Tait crept into the meeting room, took his customary place against the back wall, and waited as the rest of the editorial staff arrived.
The clock signaled 5:00 a.m., and right on schedule, Jack Smithson marched through the door and went straight to the head of the table. This was the pulpit from which the chief ministered, and woe be to the reporter who did not hang on his every word.
Tait reached for his notepad and began writing down the assignments Smithson rattled off, just in case he should be called in at the last minute to fill in. He’d needed to scramble in the past, so he liked to fill idle minutes with additional research. Getting up to speed on a story he hadn’t been assigned left less time to polish his prose.
“Williams,” Smithson barked. Tait looked up from his notepad expectantly. “Copy edit.”
He frowned. Smithson apparently didn’t miss his disappointment, because he said, “Unless you can think of something else.”
Squaring his shoulders, Tait said, “Actually, sir, I was thinking there might be a human angle to the WNB sale. They covered it on the front page of the Gazette, but it was largely technical. With your permission, I’d like to go do a couple of interviews, see if there’s a story there.”
Smithson thought about it while gnawing on his bottom lip, and Tait braced himself for a pitch. He was going to fight this time. “I’m down a copy editor,” he said. “Can’t afford to waste time on goose chases.”
All eyes turned on Tait. He drew in his breath to go to bat for his story. Impatient looks from his colleagues bored into him. Tait folded. “I… understand, sir,” he said. His shoulders slumped and his cheeks burned. Why did he always chicken out?
Smithson looked vaguely disappointed and gave Tait a sharp nod before turning his attention to other matters. Just before the end of the meeting, Smithson said, “Any other business?”
“Sir,” Tait said timidly. Hold it together, Williams. “It’ll only take an hour. I’ll double-time it when I get back. If there’s a story, I’ll work after hours to get a jump on the copy for tomorrow.”
Smithson sighed deeply. “It’s Christmas, son. Don’t you want to get home?”
Once again, all eyes turned on Tait, and he felt heat rising to his cheeks. “No, sir,” he said quietly. “I don’t have any reason to hurry home.” Tait kept his eyes focused intently on his notebook, supremely aware that every man in the room was staring at him.
The chief cleared his throat, perhaps sensing that he’d stepped over a line. Hurriedly, to change the subject, the gruff editor dismissed his team to begin their day.
“Stop by my office before you head out, Williams,” Smithson said as he passed Tait on his way out of the room. Tait cowered, but nodded as the chief passed.
Tait took only enough time to call the security desk at WNB. He was in luck. Randy Whitford was working on Christmas too. He agreed to get Tait through the doors, but he couldn’t guarantee anyone would be willing to talk to him.
Tait grabbed his notepad, slung his messenger bag over his shoulder, and then headed toward the exit. He paused at the door, remembering at the last second that Smithson had requested an audience.
Great. This should be fun.
Tait turned back and looked at the closed door to the chief’s office. He frowned.
I could just say I forgot. Tait shook his head. That wouldn’t be advised, particularly if he wanted to have his story on WNB make it to print. Dreading every step, Tait shuffled to the closed office door and rapped on it lightly.
In response to a muffled, “Enter,” Tait cracked the door and peered inside.
“You wanted to see me?” Tait asked, hoping that lurking beyond the threshold would keep the lecture brief.
Smithson’s eyes remained on whatever he was reading. He didn’t look up at Tait, but beckoned him inside. “Sit,” the man said, pointing vaguely in the direction of the chair in front of his desk.
Sighing, Tait came fully into the office and did as commanded, placing his messenger bag at the side of the chair. So much for lurking.
“Why are you in this business?” Smithson asked firmly before Tait’s butt was completely settled into the seat. Tait eyed his boss warily and hovered just above the chair.
Smithson looked up at him. He seemed angry. His dark eyes were narrowed, the wrinkles at their corners more pronounced. He pointed at the chair. All the way, the gesture seemed to say. Tait settled fully into the seat.
“Why am I…?”
“Why do you want to be a journalist?” Smithson emphasized every word.
“I… to make a difference,” Tait said, confused. That was what all journalists wanted to do, right?
“Wrong, Williams. We don’t make a difference, we report the news.”
Tait bristled. He had been afraid this was going to be another one of those talks. “But people read the news to be informed, to get perspective on what’s happening in the world. We provide that service,” he argued. His voice was quiet and tremulous.
Smithson glared, and Tait clamped his mouth shut. “You want to provide a service, go be a social worker,” Smithson said. “On my dime, you report the news. Clear?” The chief’s hard stare bored into him with an almost physical force. It took everything Tait had not to look away. “This bleeding heart stuff you’re always chasing is dangerous. It’s editorializing.”
“News isn’t always black and white, Mr. Smithson,” Tait argued. He was starting to get angry.
“Speaking of… this reminds me of that squabble back in April when those colored folks were denied housing.”
Oh no, not this again.
Tait straightened in his seat. “Those people were humiliated. Landow Realty deserved to be called to account.” Tait knew he was walking the line again, but he’d fought this battle before. He had been proud of that story.
Unfortunately, Smithson hadn’t. He had a low tolerance for fluff, and civil rights, in his book, most assuredly qualified as fluff. It had taken every ounce of persuasion Tait could muster to get the story into print. It seemed like he was still having to defend it. Surprising himself, Tait continued to hold the chief’s hard stare.
“Journalists don’t make moral judgments,” Smithson scolded.
“I just reported the facts,” Tait challenged, crossing his arms and lifting his chin. He was digging in this time, not like last time. “If the facts are ugly, how can I help that?”
“Editorializing.” Smithson spoke the word like a curse. His gaze bored into Tait.
Tait deflated slightly. “Fine,” he conceded. “But it sold papers.”
Smithson leaned back in his chair and curled his lip distastefully. “That article landed me in a heap of hurt with our conservative readership,” he reminded Tait. “You didn’t have to mop up the mess.” The surly man glowered for a moment longer, and then shook his head. “Bah,” he intoned, waving his hand dismissively. His voice was more conciliatory when he spoke again. “You ever wonder why I toss you piddly assignments and keep you on copyedit, Tait?”
Tait considered and then shrugged. Meekly, he guessed, “I have to do my time, earn my place at the table?”
“It’s because of your goddamn obsession with human interest bullshit. Wouldn’t be a problem if you had the chutzpah to back it up. You want to write about fluffy shit, fine—but that’s not what the newspaper business is about.” Smithson picked up his coffee and took a sip. He tapped a Lucky Strike out of a pack from his drawer and lit it. He gestured toward Tait with the cigarette. “Your folks were good people. You did them proud graduating top of your class. Damn shame they weren’t around to see it.” Smithson leaned back in his chair and contemplated Tait thoughtfully. “You know what I think, Williams? Crooked bankers took your daddy’s farm, so you want to stick it back. Be some kind of hero. Stamp out injustice.”
The contempt in Smithson’s voice stung. Tait felt heat rise into his cheeks. Not for the first time, Smithson’s scorn made him feel small and ridiculous.
“Let me tell you a little something about injustice, kid,” Smithson said. He took a drag on his cigarette and peered through the smoke as he exhaled. “You’ve got nobody to spend Christmas with. That’s injustice.”
“Injustice,” Smithson said firmly. He leaned forward and fixed his eyes on Tait’s. Though his tone was hard, his expression had softened. “Little piece of advice? You want to stick up for the little guy? You want to be a voice for someone who really needs it? Take a good long look in the mirror and start there.”
Tait was suddenly reminded of all the times he’d backed down from a fight because someone challenged his ideas, all the times he’d kept quiet when he disagreed with another reporter’s angle on an important story. Smithson was right. What did he think he was doing playing news reporter? Maybe he was only cut out for copyedit duty.
Perhaps sensing Tait’s shame, Smithson said softly. “Hell, I know this is tough to hear. You’re a good kid. Your old man was a good friend. I owe it to him to tell you the truth.” Smithson sighed and stared deeply into Tait’s eyes. “I had your back on that article about the colored folks, but you can’t go picking fights and expect to hide under my skirts forever. How do you expect to fend off pitchforks and torches when you piss off the villagers if you can’t even stand up for yo